|Thor as ruler with Frigg (left) & Odin (right) in an illustration from|
History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus (1555)
In the mythological sources, he’s often in conflict with Odin – a conflict that is sometimes interpreted as reflecting a rivalry between the followers of each god. Odin is characterized as wise and wily, often using deceit and magic to get what he wants. Thor is blunt and honest, facing foes head-on and distrusting magic as dishonorable.
In Iceland, the courtly poets make Odin the superior god – understandable, given that he’s the god of both nobles and poets. Thor, the god of the free farmers and peasants, seems to have had a superior role in pre-conversion Sweden. In some regions in the North, Frey was more important. Thor was particularly associated with farmers and peasants, which shows that a conception of him as only a battling war-god is missing out on his fertility aspects as the god who brings rain to the fields. According to the Icelandic version, his mother is the Earth itself, and the variations on his wife in different sources also seem related to earthly fertility.
Thor’s popularity is connected to his characterization as an idealized self-image of the independent farmer – he’s rough, hard-working, honest and takes children on adventures. He fights off giants (symbols of terrifying natural forces) as farmers would struggle against rough conditions to protect their farms and families. In the conversion era, Thor (with his bluntness and love of common folk) was seen as the direct opposition to Christ as missionaries sought to convert the northern peoples.
|Thor's hammer pendant from Sweden c1000 CE|
Although we’re most familiar with the Icelandic image of Thor’s weapon as a metal hammer, other sources describe it as a rock or wooden club. The image of the thunderweapon evolved as human technology evolved, eventually giving us something described very much like the hammer of a smith, but one given the very convenient properties of always returning to the thrower’s hand and being able to shrink down small enough to fit inside Thor’s shirt. This last quality may be connected to the small hammer pendants worn by heathens during conversion times, in opposition to the crucifixes worn by Christian converts.
In the Icelandic myths, Thor’s hammer is the primary weapon of the gods against the enemy giants. Thor is constantly smashing giants at home and abroad with his hammer, and is very upset when it gets misplaced. Unfortunately for those of us who grew up with Marvel Comics, it’s never given a physical description other than mentions that it’s a bit short in the handle.
In Norse mythology, the giants are natural forces that are given a poetic or metaphorical form. The popular image of giants as huge, humanlike creatures really comes from later folklore. In Norse myths, they’re not necessarily big – and Thor himself sometimes swells up to gigantic size. Male giants are sometimes wise old rulers, sometimes frightening trolls. Female giants are sometimes beautiful maidens that mate with the gods, sometimes hideous troll-women.
Some conflicts between giants and gods seem like disagreements between rival families, and the two sides are actually closely related through marriage and parentage. In other cases, the conflict seems to be a symbolic one, between the gods representing order and creation and the giants representing chaos and destruction.
|Frey (Froh) as depicted in a costume design|
by Carl Emil Döpler for the premiere of
Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen
Frey had a ship called Skíðblaðnir, which means “assembled from pieces of thin wood.” Icelandic sources tell us that it was so cleverly constructed that it could be folded up like a cloth and put in your pocket, which connects it to model boats that were used for fertility rituals and then folded up and put away when not needed. Like so much of the mythological material, it seems that Christian writers in the 13th century and popular writers in the 20th century have misunderstood poetic imagery – which is sometimes based on forgotten religious ritual – and taken it as literal description of mystic objects.
Loki is not a god, but merely counted among the gods. He’s a giant who – for reasons never explained – becomes the sworn blood-brother of Odin. He’s the one character in Norse myth who seems to evolve over the course of mythic time, which is part of the evidence that he was a late literary creation and not part of actual pre-Christian religion.
He starts out as a mischievous character who gets the gods into trouble and then gets them out of it, usually through clever trickery and deceit. Early in the mythic timeline, he’s the travelling-companion of both Odin and Thor, but he goes on to kill the god Balder and will personally lead the army of giants and non-heroic dead against the gods in the final battle at the end of time. He has been interpreted as a sort of shadow-Odin, because many of his characteristics seem like parodies of those of Odin himself – more evidence that he’s really just a literary creation.
THE SONS OF IVALDI
|Loki, the golden hair & the dwarf|
in an illustration from Maria Klugh's
Tales from the Far North (1909)
TREASURES OF THE GODS
The dwarves were tricked into making a set of treasures for the gods, all of which are symbols for values held by the noble classes of ancient Germanic culture. Among other objects, they fashion Odin’s spear, which represents religion throughout Norse myth and saga. They create Thor’s hammer, which represents the power to protect one’s family and followers. They make Frey’s boar, which is a Nordic symbol of fertility. They forge Odin’s ring that itself creates other rings, a clear symbol of wealth. They also make golden hair that attaches itself to the head of Thor’s wife and grows; her name basically means “wife,” which underscores that this golden, ever-growing hair is a poetic symbol of the bounty of fertility.
TRAVELS OF THE NORSE
Norsemen traveled west to Canada, east as Iran, north to Greenland, and south to Africa. Despite the popular image of the Norse as violent Vikings, they were also great traders and adventurers.
THE NORSE IN AMERICA
|Stone altar to the goddess Nehalennia|
from Domburg in the Netherlands
GODS AND SEA VOYAGES
Thor, in his role as thunder god, seems to have been invoked for protection against stormy seas, as was a goddess named Nehalennia – there’s some evidence that she was a deadly sea-goddess who was asked by merchants to be merciful, but she may also be have been a benign goddess of fertility and plenty. There was also another sea-goddess named Rán, whose name is related to “robbery,” and who symbolizes the dark and terrifying ocean that drags down men and ships.