Some thoughts on the possible origin and meaning of the Norse god Thor

Thor has always been an interesting god to me.  His wielding the hammer mjollner and throwing it at frost-giants have always interested me.  His great hatred of frost-giants is one of his dominant traits, which makes me wonder:  what, exactly, does all this mean? 

With the simplistic interpretation of mythology that is commonly found nowadays, I’ve heard many people speak of Thor as the ‘thunder god’.  Personally, I see no real basis in this.  Sure, there are accounts that lightning and thunder is a result of when Thor’s hammer hits the skulls of the frost-giants, but that doesn’t make necessarily make him a ‘thunder god’.  I see little reference to rain and its result – crops – in any of his legends.  Not only that, there are many other qualities that has been ascribed to Thor, such as causing the tides, but that doesn’t make him a ‘tide god’.  These seem like too simplistic points of view to me.

I have always been under the impression that Thor represents humanities ability to fight against that part of nature that is always threatening it.  He represents mankinds ability to keep the bad, dangerous, and deadly side of nature at bay.  In effect, that’s what Thor does in his tales.  The frost-giants, really, represent this bad aspect of nature.  His continual battle against them is mankinds continual battle against nature.  As a result of this, Thor represents a protecting ‘angel’, so to speak, that protects humanity. 

I should point out that nowhere do I see any reference to Thor controlling or dominating nature.  This idea is a more modern idea that has no place, that I can see, in his image or stories.  Many stories of Thor describe a very powerful person, reflecting mankinds need to feel he has a power against nature, but nowhere does he dominate nature.

His hammer no doubt originates from the smith who pounds away at his smithy creating objects for humanity to use.  The smith has often had a mystical quality in many old societies.  The taking of ore from the ground, immersing it in fire, and pulling out a ‘new’ element – metal – and then fashioning it into a useful shape has a quality of magic to it.  It’s as if mankind is creating something on its own.  It does not surprise me that the smith is often held in great regard in older society.  No doubt, this same magical mystical quality was the impetus for Thor’s hammer.  The hammer represents mankinds ‘hidden power’ to create and make useful things.  It represents mankinds ability to transgress his mundane human position and be something more.  In some respects, Thor and his hammer is an honoring of the ingenuity of mankind and how it seemingly makes us go beyond our humanity.  As a result, Thor and his hammer entail qualities about being, in a way, superhuman.

It appears that Thor is most prevalent in Norway, in the high fjords and mountainous regions.  Elsewhere, in Sweden, Denmark, and England he has only minimal influence it seems.  There, Odin seemed most prominent, though Thor is recognized. 

Many of the stories of Thor originate from Norway and often describe terrain and an environment similar to Norway, with high mountain ranges.  There is even a mountain range in Norway called Jutunheim which is the name for the land of the frost-giants.  I’ve often wondered if the high mountains gave this sense of ‘something there’ – giants – to the early Norwegians.  The incredibly high mountains makes a person feel ‘small’ in comparison.   Having them all around you makes you feel helpless and insignificant.  Could this sense, perhaps, helped to create the need for Thor?  His emphasis helped to protect the early Norwegians from this helplessness.  In the flatter terrain of Sweden, Denmark, and England, this sense is not there.  One does not feel ‘swallowed up’ by ones surroundings.  As a result, this need for Thor in this capacity is not felt as strongly.  Hence, he takes on a more milder tone.

Its been said that thousands of stories of Thor were told.  Unfortunately, only a few have survived.  All these originate from Norwegian or Icelandic (who came from Norway) sources as near as I can tell.  How many of the Thor stories went beyond Norway in the Viking era is difficult to say.  As far as we know, they may of been a predominately Norwegian trait.  But, Norway was a rugged territory and people were scattered all over.  No doubt there were regions where Thor story telling must of been popular.  Accordingly, there were probably regions where few stories were known at all.  I’ve always felt that the ‘Thor story belt’ was probably between Oslo and Trondheim, though that’s difficult to say.  The coming of Chrisitanity made most stories of Thor to be lost.  Most of what we know comes from the Norwegians in Iceland, namely one man in particular – Snorri Sturlusson.   Luckily, he has preserved a number of stories of him for us to look at today.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Historical stuff, Religion and religious stuff, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s