Thor | The Friend of Man | Norse Gods


Þórr, Thonar, Thunor, Donar, *Thonaraz

Of all the Gods, none are quite so widely beloved as Thor.

Known as “friend of mankind,” Thor sustains and protects us from woe and with his mighty Hammer he crushes obstacles in his wake. But Thor doesn't only destroy, with his Hammer he blesses, he hallows and he restores. Thor was never a God only for the elite, or for any one kind of person. Thor is a God for everyone: a faithful intercessor and friend to all.

Thor in Medieval Germanic Heroic Literature

Grímnismál 29-30 says that he must walk, and wade rivers, where the other gods and goddesses ride horses— like Gǫngu-Hrólfr and several other heroes of legendary sagas, he is so large that no horse can carry him. When he must ride between worlds, he travels in a wagon drawn by two goats, Tanngnjóstr (“teeth-grinder”) and Tanngrísnir (“teeth-gnasher”).

His belt, called a megingjǫrð (“girdle of main-strength”), increases his strength by half again, and his iron gauntlets (járngreipr) allow him to grip his hammer Mjǫlnir, which never misses its target when thrown and always returns to his hand. His hall is called Bilskirnir, probably meaning “Bright Moment,” either referring to lightning or more generally to a shining hall (Taggart, How Thor Lost His Thunder, pp. 198-199).

Thor: a God for everyone

Thor has often been described as the “common man’s patron,” which many of the folk who follow him have found to be accurate. He has sometimes been characterized as a rather simple god, enormously fond of eating and drinking, and relying more on his muscles than his wits.

In the words of Audthryth:

The image of Thor as a fighter is reinforced by scholars, such as Dumézil, who try to categorize all of the god/desses into the narrow tripartite system, invariably classifying Thor as just a warrior, and not a very bright one at that. But Thor is more than just a strong brute who wars against chaos. He delivers the summer rains that make the crops grow; he hallows important occasions and ceremonies, and he gives strength and support to those who follow the old path.

The Thor we see in old Norse Literature doesn't quite fit with this characterization of being simple or without cunning. In Alvíssmál, the dwarf Alvíss (“All-Wise”) comes to carry off Thor’s daughter. Thor doesn’t bash the dwarf with his Hammer, possibly because the action is taking place in a frithgarth, an enclosed area where violence is not allowed. Instead, his solution is to keep asking the dwarf to show off his immense knowledge, which the dwarf is happy to do. Unlike Odin, Thor doesn’t need to learn the dwarf ’s lore—he just lets the dwarf talk until the sun rises and Alvíss is turned to stone, trapped by his own vice.

In a verse preserved in the Icelandic Third Grammatical Treatise, Thor is called djúphugaðr, “Deep- Souled” or “Deep-Thinker” (Finnur Jónsson, Skjaldedigtning, vol. B1, p. 171).

Winifred Hodge Rose also sees Thor as an eminently practical god:

I can’t agree at all with the portrayal of Thor as a thick-headed oaf... His strength supports us in dealing practically with the unexpected, with challenges and even disasters of all kinds, with scarcity as well as abundance.

Thor the Protector

Despite Thor’s characterization in the literature as a fighter, he is never portrayed as a god who involves himself in human warfare. Unlike Odin, we do not see him take sides in human battles; he defends against otherworldly hostile powers—the poet Thorbjorn Dísarskald says:

Þórr hefr Yggs með ǫrum / Ásgarð af þrek varðan,

“Thor has defended Asgard by his strength, alongside Ygg’s [Odin’] messengers” (Finnur Jónsson, Skjaldedigting, vol. B1, p. 135).

Heathens today call upon him for protection.

Hawkmoon mentions that:

I frequently invoke him when leaving the house for any serious period of time (more than one day). Also, my Hammer (pendant) is of great comfort to me on a daily basis. Thorr, to me, is the defender of the family and the clan, and invoking him for such defense can be very powerful indeed.

Some Heathens characterize Thor as a loving parent who loves, supports and protects all of humanity as if they were his own children. Audthryth adds that:

"[O]ne of Thor’s most important roles to me is the giving of strength and support. I know that in heathen times he was sometimes referred to as “Father Thor,” and I have always assumed that it was because of the support and “fathering” he gives.."

While it's popular to show Thor as physically strong, this may actually be a symbol for his spiritual power.

The words “might and main” (ON máttr ok meginn, OE miht ond mægen) both mean “strength,” but with different shades of meaning. “Might” often referred to raw physical strength, while “main” was mental and spiritual strength. It may be significant that the belt that Thor wears that doubles his strength is called megingjǫrð, “girdle of main,” and it increases his ásmeginn, “Æsir-main” (Gylfaginning 21, 45)—it may not increase his raw power so much as his focus and determination.

It almost feels like a children's story, evolving over time, where one child challenges another with a situation that Thor could not solve, and the other responds with a new twist in the myth where Thor can solve it. "What about that big boulder over there?" "Oh, well Thor has a belt now that magnifies his strength a thousandfold, so he can lift it."

The idea is that regardless of our challenge, Thor can accomplish anything. His power, like his love for mankind, is limitless.

Thor the Hallower

But looking past the mythology and into the archeology, Thor's most important role seems to not be as a "warrior" at all.

His more important function appears to be given by the Old Norse word vígja, often translated as “to hallow.” The basic meaning of vígja seems to be “to change the basic nature of something through spiritual means.” In Christian texts, when it was applied to a human, it meant a change in that human’s inherent nature, such as the coronation of a king or the ordination of a priest.

Applied to non-human things, it was used to mean the consecration of a church, the creation of holy water for baptism, or the transubstantiation of the Communion bread and wine, which are also changes in an object’s inherent spiritual nature. Thor’s hallowing of something is not simply a blessing on it: it changes the status and the essence of whomever or whatever is hallowed.

In Þrymskviða 30, the Hammer is laid in the bride’s lap, brúði at vígja, “to hallow the bride,” and Thrym says vígið okkr saman, “let us be hallowed together!”

Snorri tells how Thor swings his Hammer to bring his goats back to life from their bones and hides, and how he uses it to bless Balder’s pyre; both accounts specifically use vígja for Thor’s action (Taggart, How Thor Lost His Thunder, pp. 163-167).

Thor also has the heiti (poetic name) “Véurr,” which de Vries interprets as “warder of the vé” (sanctuary; sacred place).

Thor may have been known as Hallower on the continent as well: the Nordendorf fibula from Germany (6th century CE) calls on wigiþonar, which has been interpreted as “Hallow-Thonar” (although arguments have been made for reading it as “Battle-Thonar;” see Mees, “Þrymskviða, Vígja, and the Canterbury Charm,” pp. 138-140).

The only god who is named on rune-stones is Thor.

Thor is invoked with þur uiki (þasi) runaR (“Thor hallow these runes”) on the stones from Glavendrup (ca. 900-925) and Sönderkirkeby (late 10th century).

The late 10th century Virring stone reads þur uiki þisi kuml, “Thor hallow this memorial”), and the Velanda stone of about the same age reads þur uiki, “Thor hallow.” The coded runes on the Korpbron stone read siþi þur, “Thor, perform seiðr”—which in this context may mean much the same as vígja.

At least seven other runestones include Thor’s Hammers as characters or motifs, even if the runes don’t mention Thor by name (Mees, “Þrymskviða, Vígja, and the Canterbury Charm,” pp. 137-138). Given the use of vígja to describe a ritual change of something’s nature and status (ordination, coronation, marriage), it is possible that the hallowing was meant to apply to the deceased man who was commemorated by the runes.

Thor the Healer

Besides the Canterbury charm, there is an amulet from Södra Kvinneby, Sweden, a small square copper plate that bears a long runic inscription that may confirm Thor’s role as a fighter against disease. 

The runes are difficult to interpret, in part because there are no breaks between words, and in part because the first line uses complex letter-forms, either bindrunes or decorative forms. It does, however, clearly invoke Thor to use his Hammer to protect someone named Bofi (MacLeod and Mees, Runic Amulets, pp. 27-28).

Several competing translations have been proposed; the amulet may read in part “I, Bofi, carry a festering sore in my skin. . . May Thor guard him with the hammer with which he strikes Amr [the wight causing the disease]. May you have the affliction, Amr! Flee, evil being!” (Taggart, How Thor Lost His Thunder, p. 15)

Another amulet against sickness, from Sigtuna, begins with the runes þur+sarriþu+þursatrutin. This is often read þurs sárriðu, þursa dróttinn, “Thurse of wound-fever, lord of thurses!” but the first word could alternatively be Thor’s name (MacLeod and Mees, p. 118); a possible reading could be Þórr, særðu þursa dróttin, “Thor, cause wounds to the lord of thurses!” Even if Thor is not named here, the amulet’s naming of the disease-causing “lord of thurses” suggests that thurses were seen as causing disease. It would be natural to invoke Thor to fight them, as in the Canterbury charm.

One more charm suggests that Thor may be invoked against illnesses that are not infections. One version of an Old High German spell, Contra caducum morbum (“Against the Falling Sickness”—probably epilepsy), begins Doner dutiger. . . . diet mahtiger, which seems to mean “Donner of the people, mighty one of the people.” Another version has Donerdutigo dietewigo, possibly “Donner of the people, eternal one of the people” (Edwards, The Beginnings of German Literature, pp. 103-104).

Thus Thor’s power of hallowing was invoked in the past against sickness, and in conjunction with modern medicine, it may be invoked today.

Symbols of Thor

The Hammer, Mjollnir

Obviously, the symbol of Thor is his Hammer, which is depicted on runestones and other artworks, and represented by amulets ranging from plain iron to exquisite filigree silver, from Scandinavia and also from Britain. Today, the Hammer is the closest thing to a universal Heathen symbol, and many Heathens wear Hammers even if they are not especially dedicated to Thor.

Hákonar saga góða 17 mentions the hamarsmark, the “Hammer-sign” made over a horn of drink by those who trusted in their own might and drank to Thor: when Hákon makes the Christian Sign of the Cross over a horn, it is taken to be the hamarsmark.

Heathens today often make this sign, tracing a Hammer with one hand, to hallow food and drink or anything else. A passage in Saxo’s History of the Danes suggests that full size hammers were also used in the worship of Thor. These may have been beaten on stones, anvils, or drums to create thunderous sounds.

Around the year 1130, before Sweden had completely accepted Christianity, King Magnus Nilsson of Sweden raided an island in Swedish waters: . . . among other remarkable trophies, he managed to send back to his country some unusually massive hammers, which were called Jupiter’s and worshiped on certain islands by men of the old religion. For the ancients, seeking to explain the cause of thunder by analogy, had wrought the hammers out of a mass of bronze, and believed that they made the heavens boom, as if so great a volume of sound could best be represented by the working of a smithy. But Magnus was anti- pagan, and from his zeal for Christian doctrine determined to rob the temple of its furniture and Jove’s sanctuary of its emblems. And to this day the Swedes consider him sacrilegious, as if he had taken spoil from heaven. (XII.v, transl. Christensen, p. 120)

Thor and Bears

Thor may also be linked with bears; “Bjǫrn” is given as one of his by-names in Skáldskarpamál (verse 428; ed. Faulkes, p. 113). As exceptionally strong animals, bears certainly seem to fit him well. No surviving text describes the eagle as Thor’s bird, but probably the finest Thor’s Hammer ever found, the silver filigree Hammer from Skåne, is topped by an eagle’s head with two staring eyes (note that Þrymskviða says that Thor’s eyes blaze, and heroes in general were said to have blazing, glaring eyes).

Thor and Oak Trees

According to H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Thor was often worshipped in sacred groves. Oak groves are said to have been popular. Massive old oaks tell us a few things about Thor’s character. Oaks are long lived, and appear to get stronger with age and weathering. They are massive, solid, and are made of tough stuff; a hardwood much prized for its strength and durability. As a long-lived, strong tree, oaks must have towered above many surrounding trees, which would in turn attract the occasional lightning strike, further strengthening the association with Thor.

Place names like Torseke, “Thor’s Oak Grove,” in Skåne confirm this picture, as does the tale of St. Boniface chopping down the “Oak of Jupiter” near Geismar in Hesse, Germany (Davidson, Gods and Myths, pp. 86-88). That said, the oak is not exclusively his; place names like Fröseke, “Freyr’s Oak Grove,” and Onsicke, “Odin’s Oak Grove,” suggest that oaks could be consecrated to other deities as well (Taggart, How Thor Lost His Thunder, pp. 50-51).

A plant known in Germany as Donnerbart, “Thor’s beard,” was once planted on the tops of houses to prevent lightning strikes (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, p. 183); this is the plant known in English as the houseleek or hen-and-chicks (Sempervivum tectorum).

Thor Today

In addition to all his other roles, Thor has consistently been invoked in our Blot rituals. Whether it is through the so-called "Hammer Rite" or other means, Thor seems to find his way there. Why is that? 

Thor as the hallower of the Blot?

Modern Heathens invoke Thor today usually through performance of the Hammer Rite, which is a "Norsified" version of the Wiccan ritual of "Calling the Corners" but it speaks to something very important about Thor's potential role in the Blot: that of hallowing and transforming the offering from an ordinary object into a sacrifice for the Gods.

While many Heathens use the Hammer Rite to hallow and bless the space in which the ritual happens, the blessing of Thor would more likely apply to the offering itself. 

In this case, while Thor might not be worshiped directly at every Blot, he is the intercessor whose power transforms all offerings from mundane objects into sacred items fit for the Gods. This role as the hallower of the Blot also gives us an interesting perspective on "Red-Thor." Norse epithets for Gods were rarely so simple as a physical description. Were they just calling him red Thor because he was a redhead?

The epithets for Gods were often "kennings" or multi-layered references that almost work like verbal puzzles. Odin being called "one-eye" is a kenning that references a story or a belief about Odin. In the case of "one-eye" it's a reference to a story where he loses his eye in exchange for wisdom, which then makes the "one-eye" a symbol of Odin as the wise wanderer. It's not necessarily a physical description as much as it is a multi-layered reference to Odin's characterization and aspects.

Then what is Red-Thor? Is it because he is a redhead? Is it because he's covered in the blood of his enemies all the time? This is where the ritual of Blot comes in. As we know, Blot in pre-Christian times would involve the sacrifice of an animal and specifically its blood. The blood of the animal was considered to be holy, and was sprinkled on the worshippers as a blessing. Symbolically, then, "Red Thor" isn't a sign of a violent nature at all, or merely a physical descriptor of his appearance; rather, it's a sign of Thor's holiness as the hallower of the Blot.

Which would speak to his near universal worship across the Germanic world and his characterization specifically as an intercessor and friend to mankind.

Thor hallows our sacrifices, bears them to the Gods and returns their blessings to us.

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