Thor’s Hammer

A drawing of a Viking Age hammer pendant discovered in Öland, Sweden
A drawing of a Viking Age hammer pendant discovered in Öland, Sweden

Of all of the symbols in Norse mythology, Thor’s Hammer (Old Norse Mjöllnir, pronounced roughly “MIOL-neer”) is one of the most historically important, and is probably the best known today.

Thor was the indefatigable god who guarded Asgard, the celestial stronghold of the Aesir, the main tribe of gods and goddesses in Norse mythology. The giants, the forces of chaos, were often trying to destroy Asgard and kill the Aesir, and it was Thor’s task to prevent them from doing so.

The hammer was his primary weapon. Thor (whose name goes back to a Proto-Germanic root that means “Thunder”[1]) was the animating spirit of the storm, and thunder was experienced as being the sound of his hammer crashing down on his foes. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Old Norse name for his hammer, Mjöllnir, probably meant “Lightning.”

While the etymology of Mjöllnir is uncertain, most scholars trace the name back to an Indo-European root that is attested in the Old Slavic word mlunuji, Russian molnija, and Welsh mellt, all of which mean “lightning.” It may also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, “new snow,” and mjalli, “white,” the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity.[2][3] The significance of that symbolism will become clear shortly.

Thor’s Hammer as an Instrument of Blessing, Consecration, and Protection

Thor’s hammer was certainly a weapon – the best weapon the Aesir had, in fact – but it was more than just a weapon. It also occupied a central role in rituals of consecration and hallowing.

The hammer was used in formal ceremonies to bless marriages, births, and probably funerals as well.[4] In one episode from medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Thor once killed and ate his goats, then brought them back to life by hallowing their bones with his hammer[5] (talk about having your cake and eating it, too). The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus records that huge hammers were kept in one of Thor’s temples in Sweden, and that periodically the people would hold a ritual there that involved beating the hammers against some kind of drum that would resound like thunder.[6] This could have been a ceremony to bless and protect the community and ward off hostile spirits.

Historian Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson provides an excellent summary of the uses of the hammer:

It would seem indeed as though the power of the thunder god, symbolized by his hammer, extended over all that had to do with the well-being of the community. It covered birth, marriage, and death, burial, and cremation ceremonies, weapons and feasting, travelling, land-taking, and the making of oaths between men. The famous weapon of Thor was not only the symbol of the destructive power of the storm, and of fire from heaven, but also a protection against the forces of evil and violence. Without it Asgard could no longer be guarded against the giants, and men relied on it also to give security and to support the rule of law.[7]

Of all of these consecration ceremonies, the use of the hammer to bless a marriage is especially well-established. The existence of this rite is assumed in the tale of Thor as a Transvestite, where the giants stole Thor’s hammer and he went to retrieve it by dressing as a bride to be married to one of the giants, knowing that the hammer would be presented during the ceremony. When it was presented, he seized it and promptly smashed the skulls of all of the giants in attendance. A Bronze Age rock carving from Scandinavia apparently depicts a couple being blessed by a larger figure holding a hammer, which indicates the considerable antiquity of this notion.[8] Historian E.O.G. Turville-Petre suggests that part of this blessing consisted of imparting fertility to the couple, which would make sense in light of Thor’s connections with agriculture and the fertilization of the fields.[9]

These roles of the hammer were inseparable from its use as a weapon to defend Asgard from the giants. As the famed historian of religion Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane, one of the universal patterns in human consciousness is the concept of the cosmos, a realm defined by sacred time and space, and chaos, a realm defined by profane time and space. The cosmos is typically envisioned as a circle, an island in a sea of chaos.[10]

In Norse mythology, cosmos and chaos were called, respectively, innangard and utangard. Asgard, the homeworld of the gods, and Midgard, the homeworld of humanity, both have the element -gard in the modern English versions of their names. This suffix (garðr in Old Norse) denoted a fortress or an enclosure, something which was circumscribed by a wall, a fence, or some other kind of boundary to separate it from the areas outside of it. It was a cosmos that was protected against the utangard chaos that surrounded it. The world of the giants was called either Jotunheim or Utgard. Jotunheim simply means “the home of the giants,” while Utgard means “outside of the gard,” just like the more general term utangard. The Aesir, humanity, and their worlds were seen as being innangard, a cosmos, while the giants and their world were seen as being utangard, chaos.

When something or someone was consecrated with Thor’s hammer, it (or he or she) was taken from the realm of chaos and absorbed into the cosmos. It was protected from the ill effects of chaos and its denizens, and sanctified and sanctioned by the social order and its divine models. The profane was banished and the sacred was established.

This pattern is borne out both in the use of the hammer as a weapon and in its use as an instrument of blessing, consecration, protection, and healing. When Thor smote giants with the hammer, he was defending the cosmos and banishing the forces of chaos. When he blessed a marriage, a birth, a field, or a dead person with it, his act had the same religious/psychological significance.

How Thor’s Hammer was Made

The story of how Mjöllnir came into existence is told in the tale of The Creation of Thor’s Hammer. To briefly summarize:

One day, the trickster Loki was feeling especially “tricksy,” and cut off the long, golden hair of Thor’s wife, Sif. Enraged, Thor was about to kill Loki when the latter swore to go down to Svartalfheim, the land of the dwarves, who were renowned as the greatest smiths in all of the Nine Worlds. There he would obtain a head of hair for Sif that was even more marvelous than the one he had lopped off. Thor consented to this plea bargain.

While in the cavernous smithies of the dwarves, Loki was able to acquire his prize, and, by cunningly challenging several dwarves to prove who was the best smith, he acquired several more treasures for the gods as well. Among these was Thor’s hammer, which was short in the handle because Loki, in the form of a fly, bit the eyelid of the dwarf who was forging it.

When Thor saw the hammer, the finest weapon in the universe despite its flaw, he agreed to let Loki live.

Thor’s Hammer in the Viking Age

A Viking Age mold discovered in Denmark that could forge both cross and hammer pendants
A Viking Age mold discovered in Denmark that could forge both cross and hammer pendants

In the Viking Age, Thor’s hammer took on a further layer of significance.

Christian missionaries were arriving in the northern lands who attempted to convert the Norse to their own monotheistic religion and worldview. This meant giving up the Norse peoples’ ancestral traditions as well as Viking raids, which had become a favorite pastime, a mark of honor, and an important pillar of the northern economy. Whenever possible, this conversion was accomplished by persuasion, but when persuasion failed, the sword was used instead.

The Christians often wore necklaces with cross-shaped amulets, and they raised crosses over their dead when they buried them.

In retaliation against the encroachments of the Christians, the symbol of the hammer became, in Thomas A. DuBois’s excellent phrasing, a kind of “anti-cross.”[11] Those who still proudly practiced the ancient northern religion took to wearing hammer pendants around their necks and carving the shape of the hammer into gravestones. So close was the relationship between the cross and the hammer that some enterprising blacksmiths took to forging both types of pendants at the same time to cater to both religious sensibilities.[12]

The Christians were thereby identified with the giants, forces of chaos who came to northern Europe to destroy Norse culture. And the Norse peoples, like their patron god, weren’t going to let the cosmos fall without a fight.

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.

The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy

References:

[1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 429.

[2] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. p. 219-220.

[3] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 81.

[4] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 80.

[5] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 44.

[6] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 81-82.

[7] Ibid. p. 83-84.

[8] Ibid. p. 80.

[9] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 81.

[10] Eliade, Mircea. 1957. The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask.

[11] Dubois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. p. 159.

[12] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. p. 219.

The Ultimate Online Resource for Norse Mythology and Religion