Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Mighty Thor, Part Three

Thor, as he wields the mighty Hammer of the Gods, fights the enemies of the Æsir (the Norse name for the gods), both external and internal. He smites the endless parade of giants who seek to carry off the goddesses; Freya and Idunn are the usual targets. For those who tend to see all myth as nature allegory, the giants are either darkness or winter, and the goddesses are either light or summer. Thor, in this view, is clearly on the side of the fertility gods (more on this later), yet Scandinavian sources usually situate him as a war god.

On a human, ceremonial level, Thor was invoked to keep sacred and legal order. Men of the North blessed with the sign of the hammer before they were taught to do so with that of the cross. Small human representations of his hammer were used for many rites of blessing, including infant name-giving ceremonies and to consecrate the thresholds of new houses. A hammer was thrown to ratify the acquisition of property, and it was used to drive in boundary stakes that marked the edges of land ownership; the removal of these hammer-driven stakes was considered sacrilegious. Thor was the spiritual patron of the Althing, the ancient general assembly of the North, and the use of the judge's gavel to formalize a legal ruling can be traced back to this remote period.

Thor in (shredded) bridal gown by Willy Pogany (1920)

A ceremonial Thor's hammer was also used to consecrate a bride at her marriage. This is seen mythically in the Eddic poem Thrymskviða, in which (as mentioned previously) Thor's hammer is stolen by the giant Thrym, who, as giants are wont to do, demands the hand of Freya as ransom for the mystic weapon. Loki, the Trickster God, convinces Thor to do himself up in drag and go to the giant's home disguised as the goddess. Cross-dressing hilarity ensues. Finally, the giant places the hammer in the disguised Thunder God's lap to sanctify and consecrate his supposed bride. Predictably, Thor grabs the hammer and proceeds to smite everyone in his righteous wrath. For scholars attempting to reconstruct everyday life in pre-Christian times, this is often seen as a mythic version of true wedding ritual, and of the hammer's consecrating power – as reflected in the runic name Wigiþonar ("blessing-Thor") from the 6th century Nordendorf Fibula.

The story can also be seen as evidence that Thor, despite his fierceness, had strong fertility-god aspects. We have already seen that his thunder brings rain to the fields of the farmer, but here the hammer can be seen as a symbol of love and fertility. It may have also functioned as a primitive phallic symbol. The design of English pendants designed to represent the hammer of Thunor (the Anglo-Saxon version of the god) seem to lean toward this interpretation. The metaphorical image of lightning as the sky god thrusting his hammer into the fertile earth is fairly obvious. It also shows that the Eddic linkage of Odin and Jörd giving birth to Thor must be a later version of the relationship, as the pairing of Thor (sky) and Jörd (earth) actually makes more sense in the science of religion. In this context, the tale of Thor's stolen hammer has an undertone of lost or threatened manhood, as well.

Sif by Thormod Kidde (1963)

The Eddas retain Thor's connection to agrarian fertility in a different manner by pairing him with the goddess Sif. As a prank, Loki cuts off her beautiful blonde hair while she sleeps, leaving her with a shameful head of stubble. Her husband Thor, greatly enraged, forces Loki to restore her hair. The Trickster convinces a pair of very talented dwarves to forge her a new set of locks made from the finest gold. This mystically-wrought hair magically attaches to her head and grows anew. It is not very difficult to see Sif as a harvest goddess and to see her hair as the golden stalks of grain that are shorn to stubble on the fields at harvest-time, only to grow once more at the intervention of the Thunder God, who brings the springtime rains. She is, in this light, a fitting mate for the patron god of the farmers.

The etymology of the goddess's name brings out a more complex character. Sif can be traced back to the Old High German Sibba, which appears in modern German as Sippe ("family" or "kin," as in the English "sibling"). In light of this, and in connection with the harvest myth just discussed, it seems that she was originally a more all-encompassing Female Spirit that presided over both agricultural and human fertility.

Thor gives way to Odin as chief god in societies that are based on a relationship of lord and warrior. Odin is the great general and leader, and he is therefore more attractive to these courtly groups. This role for the Allfather is itself a sort of diminution; the god once conceived of as rage and passion personified devolves into the patron of military leaders engaged in merely human struggles. Over changes in time and place, Thor shed his associations with fertility and came to be thought of more and more as a war god, diverging and merging aspects with Odin as time went on.

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