Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Mighty Thor, Part One

In the Eddic version of the mythology, Thor is the son of Odin by Jörd, the Scandinavian version of the Germanic Erde, the Earth herself. The relationship of son to father was not always so. Medieval German chronicler Adam of Bremen's description of the pagan temple of Uppsala (in what is now Sweden) places Thor in the central role; a statue of the mighty Thunderer sits at the center, and Odin and Frey sit at his sides. Thor is clearly the main god of the group, with the other two serving as members of his pantheon.

Thunor by John Michael Rysbraeck (circa 1730)

Different Germanic tribal societies placed different gods in the center of their religious world. Agrarian societies venerated Thor above all others, as the Thunder God brought the rain that kept the crops growing. He was portrayed as an idealized self-image of the hardworking freeman. Rough and ready, honest and hardworking, he embodied the qualities that the Salt of the Earth types saw in themselves.

The old German name for Thor is Donar ("thunder"), related to the Norse Thor and the Anglo-Saxon Thunor. Our modern English "Thursday" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "Thunor's Day," and the modern German noun Donner is, obviously, derived from the original Donar, but refers to the natural phenomenon, not the mythical figure (except in the works of Richard Wagner, in which the Thunder God appears as "Donner").

Thor with crown of stars (19th century)

The surviving records of the continental form of the Thunderer are quite different from the later Scandinavian version. He wears a golden crown that is alive with sparking electricity – a clear sign that he was once the primary tribal sky god with, perhaps, a crown of stars to signify his dominion over the heavens. The Eddas describe Thor as driving a mystic chariot drawn by two supernatural mountain goats, but they lack a characteristically German detail that explains the sound of the thunder-crash. According to Helene Adeline Guerber, "in Southern Germany the people, fancying a brazen chariot alone inadequate to furnish all the noise they heard, declared it was loaded with copper kettles, which rattled and clashed, and therefore often called him, with disrespectful familiarity, the kettle-vendor." This familiarity may have not been disrespectful, but a sign of the fondness with which the common folk held the Thunder God. What makes the sound of thunder? A chariot full of kettles. Why would Thor fill his chariot with a bunch of kettles? To make the sound of thunder. This is a clearly a closed circle of perfect logic.

Thor and goats by Haukur Halldórsson (Straumur, Iceland)

Notably absent from the German version of the god is his mystic hammer, Mjölnir ("mauler" or "crusher") which, in the Nordic tales, represents the lightning as he throws it and it returns magically to his hand, just as the natural lightning appears to strike the earth and then fly back to the skies. In modern terminology, these two parts of the lightning flash are the leader (sky to ground) and return stroke (ground to sky); the myth anticipates the science.

Instead of the hammer, the German Donar throws stones from the sky. These flinty wedges crash to earth, accompanied by the flash of lightning, and bury themselves in the ground "as deep as the highest church-tower is high" or "as far as a hare can run in a hundred years" (obviously there is some variation in these measurements). This burying of the god's weapon can be seen reflected in Thrymskvida ("Thrym's Poem"), when the eponymous giant steals the mystic hammer and declares,
I have hidden Thor's hammer
eight leagues under the earth;
no man will ever take it back again,
unless I am brought Freya as my wife.
The hammer is buried through the agency of an enemy and held for ransom, but the concept of the weapon buried deep in the ground is the same.

Thunder-stone found in Viking grave (600-1000 CE)

According to the folk-tradition research of Jacob Grimm, "every time it thunders again, [the thunder-stone] begins to rise nearer to the surface, and after seven years you may find it above ground. Any house in which it is preserved, is proof against damage by lightning; when a thunder-storm is coming on, it begins to sweat." These Donnersteine ("thunder-stones") that magically rise from the ground over a long period may, in fact, be stones left behind by the retreating glaciers of previous ice ages. The stones are gradually exposed as the soil covering them erodes, and they appear to rise to the surface. They are also a great nuisance to farmers in northern climates, who must clear them from any field they hope to till. The fact that thunder-stones "sweat" when a storm approaches can be attributed to the rise in humidity that precedes the rainstorm; this same phenomenon is at work in the so-called "Thor's Weather Stick," which reacts to humidity to predict the coming of stormy weather.

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