Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Mighty Thor, Part Two

Two points of etymology connect the German tradition to the English and the Scandinavian. First, the weapon of the English Thunor is fundamentally the same as that of the German Donar; the thunder-stone was known in English as the "thunder-bolt"; the image again is that of a physical object thrown from the skies by the god. This close relationship between the English and the German versions is understandable when one remembers that the early English were (largely and generally) Saxons who emigrated from the mainland. Second, the mystic hammer of the Norse god is intimately connected to the thunder-stone of the German one; the word Hamar or Hamarr had two meanings – (1) a stone or rock and (2) the tool made from it. The thrown rocks of the older, more primitive Donar evolve into the dwarf-fashioned magic hammer of the later, (relatively) more sophisticated Thor as the natural rock, once used as a simple blunt instrument, evolves into the carefully-crafted hammer.

Hercules by Jan van Nost (early 18C)

All this being said, it is interesting to note that the Roman Tacitus, in his Germania of 98 AD, reported that the continental Germans made animal sacrifices to Hercules. It is generally accepted that he is referring to Donar, and that the reason he makes the connection with the Roman demigod is because Donar's weapon reminds him of Hercules' club. Saxo Grammaticus, the 13th century chronicler of the Danes, described the tool as a club without a handle - an instrument midway between a thunder-stone and a magic hammer. What exactly did German representations of the 1st century show?

Thor was seen as a force for good, a fighter for Order and Trust. On the mystic, metaphorical level, he fights giants, trolls, and monsters as he protects humanity from otherworldly forces that are beyond their comprehension. These monsters are actually more super-worldly than other-worldly. Giants are always paired with large-scale natural phenomena like impassable mountains, huge boulders, or winter's frost. Thor's archenemy, the World Serpent, is a great undersea creature that hides beneath the surface of the vast, terrifying, and unknowable oceans. Taken together, Thor's adversaries represent the terrifying natural forces that humanity faced in those long-ago times. Thor is a bulwark against these forces of Chaos, and he is posited as the protector of not just the gods, but of humanity, as well.

In one of Thor's Eddic adventures, he struggles to cross a river than threatens to engulf him and Loki (or, in some versions, Thor's human companion Thjalfi), who hangs on to Thor's belt. He declares, "Rise not thou now, Vimur [the river], since I desire to wade thee into the giants' courts. Know thou that if thou risest then will rise the As-strength [god-strength] in me up as high as heaven." Snorri continues, "Then Thor saw up in a certain cleft that Geirrod's daughter Gialp [a giantess] was standing astride the river and she was causing it to rise. Then Thor took up out of the river a great stone and threw it at her and said: 'At its outlet must a river be stemmed.'" Note the remnant of Germanic tradition: Thor throws a stone, in the manner of Donar, rather than his Nordic hammer.

Hilda Ellis Davidson interprets the scene as the giantess "standing astride the river and urinating into it," a powerful enough image, and argues that it emphasizes the link between the giant women and the natural world. Thórsdrápa ("Thor's Hymn"), Snorri's source, calls the river "the water of the women of the giant" – further evidence that the giants (male and female) personify the dangerous forces of nature. Thor's initial bragging challenge is to the river itself, which (naturally) gives no reply. It is only when the river is given a corporeal form that the god is able to act, defending himself and his companion (who may represent the ordinary people under Thor's protection) against a monstrous creature that gives coherent form to inherently incomprehensible natural forces.

Thor and the Serpent by H.L.M. (1901)

As he fights the World Serpent, Thor is the original dragon-slayer, and his character merges into that of both Siegfried and Beowulf, who can be seen as human versions of the Thunder God, his attributes lowered from the godly plane to the mortal one. In the surviving mythological corpus, Thor has several run-ins with the Ur-Dragon, the Über-Dragon, the undersea World Serpent so large that it encircles the entire world, lying on the ocean floor, biting its own tail. Its thrashing causes huge waves on the water's surface. No mention of the creature survives in the lore of the forest-dwelling continental Germans, but the monster that represents the terrifying aspects of the oceans is a recurring character in the poems, tales, and art of the sea-faring Scandinavians. At Ragnarök, the final battle between the gods and the giants (and assorted monsters), Thor will face his nemesis one final time and slay it with his hammer. As he turns to walk away, the snake will spew forth its venom as it dies, engulfing the Thunder God and sealing his doom.

Serpent and Thor at Ragnarök by Emil Doepler (1900)

This mutually-assured destruction is clearly replicated in the death of Beowulf in the Old English epic poem. The aged warrior, knowing that he has come to the end of his days (as the gods know that they have come to their twilight), faces the dragon in its lair. He manages to slay it, but is mortally wounded in the process. Siegfried also embodies the Germanic dragon-slayer, but manages to not only survive, but to benefit from the encounter – for a time, at least. He does not die immediately, but the killing of the dragon sets in motion the events that lead to his demise, reflecting the gloomy Norse outlook seen in tales of Odin and inescapable doom. In the transferring of aspect from god to hero, we see the descent from religious myth to heroic tale.

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