Myths of Thor
By Hilda Ellis Davidson
From the book “The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe” (via Ron McVan)

Whereas myths about Wotan are concerned largely with the acquisition of wisdom and the fates of rulers and kingdoms, ending with the fall of his own realm of Asgard, those associated with Thor are of a different kind. They emphasize his power over the natural world, and his many contests with supernatural adversaries in his position as protector of the gods and of mankind. In some of the earliest skaldic verse, going back to the ninth century, he is described as advancing with fire and thunderous clamor, rending rocks and destroying his opponents. He is associated with storms and wind, but above all with thunder and lightning. There seems no doubt that his great axe-hammer, one of the treasures of the gods and greatly coveted by the giants, represents the power of lightning to fell trees and shatter rocks. The poem Thrymskvioa deals with the attempts of the giants to acquire it; we are not told how the theft came about, but it might have been due to the treachery of Loki, when forced in some desperate situation to agree to the giant’s demands, as happens in other tales. Once the hammer was lost, there was no possibility of Asgard surviving for long, and if Freyja were taken from the gods, the loss would be a fatal one.

Thor in various myths is said to be absent from Asgard, busy killing giants, and he evidently made many journeys into Jotunheim, some of which feature in the surviving tales. His journey to the realm of Gerrod was remembered from an early period, as there is a long poem, Thorsdrapa, about it by Eilif Godrunarson which goes back to about the year 1000 (Skaldskaparmal 18). In Snorri’s account, Loki was captured by the giant when he was flying in his hawk-shape, and Geirrod starved him until he agreed to bring Thor to his realm without his hammer or his belt of strength. However, the god was warned of his danger by a friendly giantess, who lent him another belt, her own iron gloves, and a magic staff. With Loki clinging to his belt, Thor crossed a mighty river, and they were nearly swept away. Then he saw that the flooding was caused by one of the giant daughters of Geirrod, standing astride the river and urinating into it. He struck her down with a boulder, and then caught hold of a rowan tree (henceforward called by poets “Salvation of Thor” and climbed out into the giant’s kingdom. He was given a goat-shed for lodging, with one seat, and when he sat on this it began to move upwards towards the roof, until he forced it down with his magic staff. Thus he broke the backs of the two remaining daughters of Gerrod, who had intended to kill him. Then Thor entered the giant’s hall to take part in games of skill. Geirrod hurled a red-hot iron-bolt at him, but he caught it in his iron gloves and flung it back, piercing the pillar behind which the giant tried to shelter and running him through.

This myth has a number of interesting features. The giantess causing the river to swell is also found in Iris tradition, for the Morrigan, a sinister battle goddess, increases the flow of a river in this way, and there are other relevant examples (Bower 1975). It certainly emphasizes the link between the huge giantess and the natural world, and is an example of the monstrous, barbaric element found in a number of myths. In this case, however, it is not clear where Snorri found his story. He certainly knew Thorsdrapa, but also gives a quotation from another poem in direct narrative style, referring to the increase of Thor’s divine strength, which suggests a lost source. Perhaps from this also comes Thor’s robust comment as he flings a rock at the giantess: ‘A spring must be dammed at the source!’ Unfortunately the language of Thorsdrapa is obscure, with complex multiple kennings, so that it is hard to be sure exactly what is implied. It is clear that Loki deceived Thor into making the journey, while much emphasis is laid on the crossing of the tumultuous river, and on the increase in Thor’s divine might. The flood is connected with the giantess, but in what way is not made clear. There is a reference to water as ‘the blood of the sun’s dwelling’ (that is, rain falling from clouds) and the river is called ‘the water of the woman of the giant’. In the poem Thor has his servant Thjalfi with him as well as Loki, and there is apparently a fight with giants before the god reaches the hall. This is a good illustration of the problems confronting anyone who attempts to continue the search for a particular myth beyond Snorri.

The episode where Thor overcomes the giant in the hall is included in the poem, and this could be developed in different ways by later writers, as Simpson shows in her study of the fourteenth-century Thorsteins Saga (1966: 13 ff.) The theme was also treated by Saxo Grammaticus, at about the beginning of the thirteenth century, in his account of Thorkill the Far-Travelled in book VIII, who discovers the battered bodies of Geirrod and his daughters among the rocks. He refers to Thor driving a flaming ingot through the giant which smashed the mountain to pieces, while his thunderbolts destroyed the giantess. There seems no indication apart from Snorri that Thor travelled without his hammer on this occasion, but he was evidently lured into a trap of some kind. It seems that there was a tradition that Geirrod was an underworld smith, since on one occasion in a poem he is called the giant ‘of the big bellows’ (Flateyjarbok III: 417).

Another tale told by Snorri but not found in the skaldic poets, is Thor’s journey to the kingdom of Utgard-Loki. Part of this as told in Gylfaginning 43 ff. may be Snorri’s own invention, since the account of the contest in the giant’s hall is witty and sophisticated, with use of allegory and personification not normally found in Norse myths, but this does not mean that the framework of the tale was not based on an early source. Thor was accompanied here by Loki and Thjalfi, the latter said to be the son of a farmer at whose house he stayed on the way. That night Thor sacrificed his goats fdor dinner and cooked them in his cauldron; after the meal he collected the bones on the skins, and restored them to life by raising his hammer over them. Unfortunately the farmer, disregarding Thor’s warnings, had cracked a leg-bone, so that one goat was lame. He was terrified by Thor’s rage at his disobedience, but in the end the god relented, only taking Thjalfi and his sister (who plays no further part in the tale) with him as his servents. They travelled through a huge forest, where they met an enormous giant called Skrymir (‘Big Fellow’), whose glove was so huge that Thor and his party took for a hall. The giant journeyed with them and humiliated Thor by leaving him with a bag of provisions which he was unable to open, and keeping them awake at night by his snoring. Even when Thor struck him with his hammer, he remained apparently unaffected. Utgard-Loki’s stronghold was so huge that Thor was able to crawl in under the gate, and more humiliation awaited him inside. Thjalfi, a swift runner, was utterly outstripped by his opponent, while Loki was defeated in an eating contest. Thor himself failed to drain a huge horn in three draughts, to overcome an old woman in a wrestling match, or even to lift the giant’s grey cat from the floor. Not until they were outside the gate next morning was it revealed how deceiving magic had been practised against them. The blow from ‘Thor’s hammer had fallen on a mountain and left a huge cavity in it; the bag he could not undo was fastened with bands of iron; Thjalfi had raced against Thought, swifter than any runner; while Loki’s opponent was Fire, which devoured dish and meat together. Thor himself had been given a horn with its tip in the sea, and his great efforts to empty it had brought down the level of the ocean, while he had wrestled with Old Age, against which the strongest fights in vain. The cat was in reality the World Serpent, and all were terrified when he got one of its feet off the ground, lest he should pull the monster out of the depths.

We have no idea what original myth may lie behind this brilliantly told tale. N.K. Chadwick (1964) has shown that there are parallels to the adventures in the forest in Russian medieval poetry about the giant hero Svyatogor, who plays a part resembling that of Skrymir, while the hero Ilya finds himself in a position resembling that of Thor. The term ‘Utgard’ can be used for ‘regions beyond’, and might in this case refer to the mountains of the Caucasus, where there were early traditions of a bound giant, still remembered locally in the nineteenth century; like Loki, this giant was to break free from his bonds at the end of the world. Tales about him might have been brought into Scandinavia by Vikings visiting the Caucasus region in the tenth century. The problems involved in this single well-known tale indicate the limitation of our knowledge.

Another tale of Thor matched against a giant is that of his duel with Hrungnir, again found in a tenth-century poem, Haustlong, and retold by Snorri. In the account in Skaldskaparmal (17), Thor was away from Asgard when Wotan was challenged by the great Hrungnir to race his horse Sleipnir against that of the giant. Wotan won easily, but Hrungnir galloped into Asgard, where he was invited to drink with the gods, and became boastful and abusive, threatening to sink their stronghold into the sea and carry off the goddess. When Thor arrived with his hammer, Hrungnir claimed immunity as a guest and challenged Thor to a duel. For no very clear reason, the giants made a huge man out of clay with a mare’s heart, called Mistcalf, to stand beside Hrungnir with his heart of stone, stone shield, and whetstone for a weapon. Thjalfi told him to stand on his shield in case Thor came from below, but the god appeared with thunder and lightning and hurled his hammer. Hrungnir threw his whetstone, and the weapons met in mid-air so that the whetstone was shattered, one piece lodging in Thor’s head, while the hammer smashed Hrungnir’s skull, and Thjalfi broake up the clay giant. The seeress Groa failed the stone from Thor’s head and there it remained.

Much of the skaldic poem is taken up by description of the god’s preparations for battle and his approach in the terror of the storm. Hrungnir is said to fall before the hammer, with no reference to a clay giant; such an irrelevant figure might conceivably be based on some kind of ritual performed to illustrate the myth. The whetstone is mentioned, and there might be a link between the piece lodged in Thor’s head and the so-called gods’ nails (reginnaglar) set in the high seat pillars of hall or shrine, which were apparently associated with Thor. The duel with Hrungnir seems to have been one of Thor’s most celebrated exploits. In Lokasenna his hammer is called ‘Bane of Hrungnir’, and other kennings that refer to this battle indicate that it was part of a widespread myth, although as retold by Snorri it gives the impression that he does not understand what is recorded about it by the poets.

The most popular of the myths about Thor in the Viking Age, however, appears to have been the tale of his fishing for the World Serpent. The surviving carvings of this in various parts of the Viking world, together with accounts from early skaldic poems, show a continuous tradition for at least four centuries. This myth may originally have been one concerning the events at the beginning, when the gods secured various monsters who threatened their security. In some of the surviving accounts, however, it seems to indicate a moment of crisis, when Thor almost raised the serpent from the deep but it sank down again, leaving the world safe for awhile; the account of the struggle to lift the grey cat in the hall of Utgard-Loki sounds like a humorous echo of this.

There must have been other supernatural adversaries of Thor afterwards forgotten. A verse in his praise by Thorbjorn Disarskald lists two giants and six giantesses as his victims, while another poet Vetrlidi refers to the killing of two other giants and a giantess as well as crushing Gjalp, one of Geirrod’s daughters. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the giant world is all too limited. Thor’s enemies are usually called frost-giants, living in the mountains, and frost-giants were said to be among the first beings created, many of which perished in the blood of Ymir, the first being from whose body the world was created. There were also giants of the underworld, ancient beings full of wisdom and knowledge of the past which went beyond that of the gods. The tales preserve remnants only of what must have been a great body of giant lore. Sometimes the Vanir, the deities of fertility, are represented as fair giants of earth and water, and giants are often fathers of the goddesses.

The god in Irish tradition who has most in common with Thor is Dagda, the ‘Good God’. Like Thor he is enormously strong, and renowned for his huge appetite. This is shown in the tale of the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, when his enemies the Fomorians prepared a meal of porridge for him containing 80 gallons of milk and equal amounts of meal and fat, together with carcases of goats, sheep and swine. This they poured into a hole in the ground, and challenged him to eat it all. He devoured it with the help of an enormous ladle, and even managed to mate with the daughter of the Fomorian leader afterwards. Like Thor, who in Hymiskvida is seeking cauldrons for the gods’ feast, he was associated with such vessels, possessing a famous cauldron that held enough to satisfy every guest, and he had a huge club as his weapon with which he could both slay and recall the dead to life, as Thor did with his hammer. Both these weapons seem to have been associated with the marking of boundaries. Thor and the Dagda were down-to-earth, undignified figures, walking rather than riding, although Thor had a wagon drawn by goats. Yet just as Thor was associated with law and was patron of the Assembly, so Dagda is called ‘Lord of Perfect Knowledge’. Again there is little indication of borrowing here, yet the two gods have much in common in their tremendous power and virility and closeness to the land, and their somewhat primitive weapons, while they are convincingly represented as possessors of divine energy.


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