In Norse heathenry, Thor (/θɔːr/; from Old Norse Þórr) is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing and fertility. The cognate deity in wider Germanic mythology and paganism was known in Old English as Þunor and in Old High German as Donar (runic þonar ᚦᛟᚾᚨᚱ), stemming from a Common Germanic *Þunraz (meaning “thunder”).
Ultimately stemming from Proto-Indo-European religion, Thor is a prominently mentioned god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic peoples, from the Roman occupation of regions of Germania, to the tribal expansions of the Migration Period, to his high popularity during the Viking Age, when, in the face of the process of the Christianization of Scandinavia, emblems of his hammer, Mjölnir, were worn in defiance and Norse pagan personal names containing the name of the god bear witness to his popularity. Similarly, Tharapita was the main god for the tribes of Estonia before christianization.
Into the modern period, Thor continued to be acknowledged in rural folklore throughout Germanic regions. Thor is frequently referred to in place names, the day of the week Thursday (“Thor’s day” from Old English Thunresdæg, ‘Thunor’s day’) bears his name, and names stemming from the pagan period containing his own continue to be used today.
In Norse mythology, largely recorded in Iceland from traditional material stemming from Scandinavia, numerous tales and information about Thor are provided. In these sources, Thor bears at least fourteen names, is the husband of the golden-haired goddess Sif, is the lover of the jötunn Járnsaxa, and is generally described as fierce-eyed, red-haired and red-bearded. With Sif, Thor fathered the goddess (and possible valkyrie) Þrúðr; with Járnsaxa, he fathered Magni; with a mother whose name is not recorded, he fathered Móði, and he is the stepfather of the god Ullr. The same sources list Thor as the son of the god Odin and the personified earth, Jörð, and by way of Odin, Thor has numerous brothers. Thor has two servants, Þjálfi and Röskva, rides in a cart or chariot pulled by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr (that he eats and resurrects), and is ascribed three dwellings (Bilskirnir, Þrúðheimr, and Þrúðvangr). Thor wields the mountain-crushing hammer, Mjölnir, wears the belt Megingjörð and the iron gloves Járngreipr, and owns the staff Gríðarvölr. Thor’s exploits, including his relentless slaughter of his foes and fierce battles with the monstrous serpent Jörmungandr—and their foretold mutual deaths during the events of Ragnarök—are recorded throughout sources for Norse mythology.
Thor has inspired numerous works of art and references to Thor appear in modern popular culture. Like other Germanic deities, veneration of Thor is revived in the modern period in Heathenry.
Old Norse Þórr, Old English ðunor, Old High German Donar, Old Saxon thunar, and Old Frisian thuner are cognates within the Germanic language branch, descending from the Proto-Germanic masculine noun *þunraz ‘thunder’.
The name of the god is the origin of the weekday name Thursday. By employing a practice known as interpretatio germanica during the Roman Empire period, the Germanic peoples adopted the Roman weekly calendar, and replaced the names of Roman gods with their own. Latin dies Iovis (‘day of Jupiter’) was converted into Proto-Germanic *Þonares dagaz (“Thor’s day”), from which stems modern English “Thursday” and all other Germanic weekday cognates.
Beginning in the Viking Age, personal names containing the theonym Thórr are recorded with great frequency. Prior to the Viking Age, no examples are recorded. Thórr-based names may have flourished during the Viking Age as a defiant response to attempts at Christianization, similar to the wide scale Viking Age practice of wearing Thor’s hammer pendants.
The earliest records of the Germanic peoples were recorded by the Romans, and in these works Thor is frequently referred to—via a process known as interpretatio romana (where characteristics perceived to be similar by Romans result in identification of a non-Roman god as a Roman deity)—as either the Roman god Jupiter (also known as Jove) or the Greco-Roman god Hercules. The first clear example of this occurs in the Roman historian Tacitus’s late first-century work Germania, where, writing about the religion of the Suebi (a confederation of Germanic peoples), he comments that “among the gods Mercury is the one they principally worship. They regard it as a religious duty to offer to him, on fixed days, human as well as other sacrificial victims. Hercules and Mars they appease by animal offerings of the permitted kind” and adds that a portion of the Suebi also venerate “Isis”. In this instance, Tacitus refers to the god Odin as “Mercury”, Thor as “Hercules”, and the god Týr as “Mars”, and the identity of the Isis of the Suebi has been debated. In Thor’s case, the identification with the god Hercules is likely at least in part due to similarities between Thor’s hammer and Hercules’ club. In his Annals, Tacitus again refers to the veneration of “Hercules” by the Germanic peoples; he records a wood beyond the river Weser (in what is now northwestern Germany) as dedicated to him.
In Germanic areas occupied by the Roman Empire, coins and votive objects dating from the 2nd and 3rd century AD have been found with Latin inscriptions referring to “Hercules”, and so in reality, with varying levels of likelihood, refer to Thor by way of interpretatio romana.
The first recorded instance of the name of the god appears in the Migration Period, where a piece of jewelry (a fibula), the Nordendorf fibula, dating from the 7th century AD and found in Bavaria, bears an Elder Futhark inscription that contains the name “Þonar”, i.e. “Donar”, the southern Germanic form of the god’s name.
Around the second half of the 8th century, Old English mentions of a figure named Thunor (Þunor) are recorded, a figure who likely refers to an Old English version of the god. In relation, Thunor is sometimes used in Old English texts to gloss Jupiter, the god may be referenced in the poem Solomon and Saturn, where the thunder strikes the devil with a “fiery axe”, and the Old English expression þunnorad (“thunder ride”) may refer to the god’s thunderous, goat-led chariot.
A 9th-century AD codex from Mainz, Germany, known as the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow records the name of three Old Saxon gods, UUôden (Old Saxon “Wodan“), Saxnôte, and Thunaer.
In the 12th century, more than a century after Norway was “officially” Christianized, Thor was still being invoked by the population, as evidenced by a stick bearing a runic message found among the Bryggen inscriptions in Bergen, Norway. On the stick, both Thor and Odin are called upon for help; Thor is asked to “receive” the reader, and Odin to “own” them. Also around the 12th century, iconography of the Christianizing 11th-century king Olaf II of Norway (Saint Olaf) absorbed elements of the native Thor; Olaf II had become a familiarly red-bearded, hammer-wielding figure.
The foretold death of Thor as depicted by Lorenz Frølich (1895)In the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from traditional source material reaching into the pagan period, Thor appears (or is mentioned) in the poems Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð.
In the poem Völuspá, a dead völva recounts the history of the universe and foretells the future to the disguised god Odin, including the death of Thor. Thor, she foretells, will do battle with the great serpent during the immense mythical war waged at Ragnarök, and there he will slay the monstrous snake, yet after he will only be able to take nine steps before succumbing to the venom of the beast:
|Benjamin Thorpe translation:||Henry Adams Bellows translation:
Afterwards, says the völva, the sky will turn black before fire engulfs the world, the stars will disappear, flames will dance before the sky, steam will rise, the world will be covered in water and then it will be raised again, green and fertile.
In the poem Grímnismál, the god Odin, in disguise as Grímnir, and tortured, starved and thirsty, imparts in the young Agnar cosmological lore, including that Thor resides in Þrúðheimr, and that, every day, Thor wades through the rivers Körmt and Örmt, and the two Kerlaugar. There, Grímnir says, Thor sits as judge at the immense cosmological world tree, Yggdrasil.
In Skírnismál, the god Freyr‘s messenger, Skírnir, threatens the fair Gerðr, who Freyr is smitten with, with numerous threats and curses, including that Thor, Freyr, and Odin will be angry with her, and that she risks their “potent wrath”.
Thor is the main character of Hárbarðsljóð, where, after traveling “from the east”, he comes to an inlet where he encounters a ferryman who gives his name as Hárbarðr (Odin, again in disguise), and attempts to hail a ride from him. The ferryman, shouting from the inlet, is immediately rude and obnoxious to Thor and refuses to ferry him. At first, Thor holds his tongue, but Hárbarðr only becomes more aggressive, and the poem soon becomes a flyting match between Thor and Hárbarðr, all the while revealing lore about the two, including Thor’s killing of several jötnar in “the east” and berzerk women on Hlesey (now the Danish island of Læsø). In the end, Thor ends up walking instead.
Thor is again the main character in the poem Hymiskviða, where, after the gods have been hunting and have eaten their prey, they have an urge to drink. They “sh[ake] the twigs” and interpret what they say. The gods decide that they would find suitable cauldrons at Ægir‘s home. Thor arrives at Ægir’s home and finds him to be cheerful, looks into his eyes, and tells him that he must prepare feasts for the gods. Annoyed, Ægir tells Thor that the gods must first bring to him a suitable cauldron to brew ale in. The gods search but find no such cauldron anywhere. However, Týr tells Thor that he may have a solution; east of Élivágar lives Hymir, and he owns such a deep kettle.
So, after Thor secures his goats at Egil‘s home, Thor and Týr go to Hymir’s hall in search of a cauldron large enough to brew ale for them all. They arrive, and Týr sees his nine-hundred-headed grandmother and his gold-clad mother, the latter of which welcomes them with a horn. After Hymir—who is not happy to see Thor—comes in from the cold outdoors, Týr’s mother helps them find a properly strong cauldron. Thor eats a big meal of two oxen (all the rest eat but one), and then goes to sleep. In the morning, he awakes and informs Hymir that he wants to go fishing the following evening, and that he will catch plenty of food, but that he needs bait. Hymir tells him to go get some bait from his pasture, which he expects should not be a problem for Thor. Thor goes out, finds Hymir’s best ox, and rips its head off.
After a lacuna in the manuscript of the poem, Hymiskviða abruptly picks up again with Thor and Hymir in a boat, out at sea. Hymir catches a few whales at once, and Thor baits his line with the head of the ox. Thor casts his line and the monstrous serpent Jörmungandr bites. Thor pulls the serpent on board, and violently slams him in the head with his hammer. Jörmungandr shrieks, and a noisy commotion is heard from underwater before another lacuna appears in the manuscript.
After the second lacuna, Hymir is sitting in the boat, unhappy and totally silent, as they row back to shore. On shore, Hymir suggests that Thor should help him carry a whale back to his farm. Thor picks both the boat and the whales up, and carries it all back to Hymir’s farm. After Thor successfully smashes a crystal goblet by throwing it at Hymir’s head on Týr’s mother’s suggestion, Thor and Týr are given the cauldron. Týr cannot lift it, but Thor manages to roll it, and so with it they leave. Some distance from Hymir’s home, an army of many-headed beings led by Hymir attacks the two, but are killed by the hammer of Thor. Although one of his goats is lame in the leg, the two manage to bring the cauldron back, have plenty of ale, and so, from then on, return to Ægir’s for more every winter.
In the poem Lokasenna, the half-god Loki angrily flyts with the gods in the sea entity Ægir‘s hall. Thor does not attend the event, however, as he is away in the east for unspecified purposes. Towards the end of the poem, the flyting turns to Sif, Thor’s wife, whom Loki then claims to have slept with. The god Freyr‘s servant Beyla interjects, and says that, since all of the mountains are shaking, she thinks that Thor is on his way home. Beyla adds that Thor will bring peace to the quarrel, to which Loki responds with insults.
Thor arrives and tells Loki to be silent, and threatens to rip Loki’s head from his body with his hammer. Loki asks Thor why he is so angry, and comments that Thor will not be so daring to fight “the wolf” (Fenrir) when it eats Odin (a reference to the foretold events of Ragnarök). Thor again tells him to be silent, and threatens to throw him into the sky, where he will never be seen again. Loki says that Thor should not brag of his time in the east, as he once crouched in fear in the thumb of a glove (a story involving deception by the magic of Útgarða-Loki, recounted in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning)—which, he comments, “was hardly like Thor”. Thor again tells him to be silent, threatening to break every bone in Loki’s body. Loki responds that he intends to live a while yet, and again insults Thor with references to his encounter with Útgarða-Loki. Thor responds with a fourth call to be silent, and threatens to send Loki to Hel. At Thor’s final threat, Loki gives in, commenting that only for Thor will he leave the hall, for “I know alone that you do strike”, and the poem continues.
In the comedic poem Þrymskviða, Thor again plays a central role. In the poem, Thor wakes and finds that his powerful hammer, Mjöllnir, is missing. Thor turns to Loki, and tells him that nobody knows that the hammer has been stolen. The two go to the dwelling of the goddess Freyja, and so that he may attempt to find Mjöllnir, Thor asks her if he may borrow her feather cloak. Freyja agrees, and says she would lend it to Thor even if it were made of silver or gold, and Loki flies off, the feather cloak whistling.
In Jötunheimr, the jötunn Þrymr sits on a barrow, plaiting golden collars for his female dogs, and trimming the manes of his horses. Þrymr sees Loki, and asks what could be amiss among the Æsir and the elves; why is Loki alone in Jötunheimr? Loki responds that he has bad news for both the elves and the Æsir—that Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, is gone. Þrymr says that he has hidden Mjöllnir eight leagues beneath the earth, from which it will be retrieved, but only if Freyja is brought to him as his wife. Loki flies off, the feather cloak whistling, away from Jötunheimr and back to the court of the gods.
Thor asks Loki if his efforts were successful, and that Loki should tell him while he is still in the air as “tales often escape a sitting man, and the man lying down often barks out lies.” Loki states that it was indeed an effort, and also a success, for he has discovered that Þrymr has the hammer, but that it cannot be retrieved unless Freyja is brought to Þrymr as his wife. The two return to Freyja and tell her to put on a bridal head dress, as they will drive her to Jötunheimr. Freyja, indignant and angry, goes into a rage, causing all of the halls of the Æsir to tremble in her anger, and her necklace, the famed Brísingamen, falls from her. Freyja pointedly refuses.
As a result, the gods and goddesses meet and hold a thing to discuss and debate the matter. At the thing, the god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that, in place of Freyja, Thor should be dressed as the bride, complete with jewels, women’s clothing down to his knees, a bridal head-dress, and the necklace Brísingamen. Thor rejects the idea, yet Loki interjects that this will be the only way to get back Mjöllnir. Loki points out that, without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade and settle in Asgard. The gods dress Thor as a bride, and Loki states that he will go with Thor as his maid, and that the two shall drive to Jötunheimr together.
After riding together in Thor’s goat-driven chariot, the two, disguised, arrive in Jötunheimr. Þrymr commands the jötnar in his hall to spread straw on the benches, for Freyja has arrived to be his wife. Þrymr recounts his treasured animals and objects, stating that Freyja was all that he was missing in his wealth.
Early in the evening, the disguised Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and the assembled jötnar. Thor eats and drinks ferociously, consuming entire animals and three casks of mead. Þrymr finds the behaviour at odds with his impression of Freyja, and Loki, sitting before Þrymr and appearing as a “very shrewd maid”, makes the excuse that “Freyja’s” behaviour is due to her having not consumed anything for eight entire days before arriving due to her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr then lifts “Freyja’s” veil and wants to kiss “her”. Terrifying eyes stare back at him, seemingly burning with fire. Loki says that this is because “Freyja” has not slept for eight nights in her eagerness.
The “wretched sister” of the jötnar appears, asks for a bridal gift from “Freyja”, and the jötnar bring out Mjöllnir to “sanctify the bride”, to lay it on her lap, and marry the two by “the hand” of the goddess Vár. Thor laughs internally when he sees the hammer, takes hold of it, strikes Þrymr, beats all of the jötnar, kills their “older sister”, and so gets his hammer back.
In the poem Alvíssmál, Thor tricks a dwarf, Alvíss, to his doom upon finding that he seeks to wed his daughter (unnamed, possibly Þrúðr). As the poem starts, Thor meets a dwarf who talks about getting married. Thor finds the dwarf repulsive and, apparently, realizes that the bride is his daughter. Thor comments that the wedding agreement was made among the gods while Thor was gone, and that the dwarf must seek his consent. To do so, Thor says, Alvíss must tell him what he wants to know about all of the worlds that the dwarf has visited. In a long question and answer session, Alvíss does exactly that; he describes natural features as they are known in the languages of various races of beings in the world, and gives an amount of cosmological lore.
However, the question and answer session turns out to be a ploy by Thor, as, although Thor comments that he has truly never seen anyone with more wisdom in their breast, Thor has managed to delay the dwarf enough for the Sun to turn him to stone; “day dawns on you now, dwarf, now sun shines on the hall”.
Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and sagas
In the prologue to his Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson euhemerises Thor as a prince of Troy, and the son of king Memnon by Troana, a daughter of Priam. Thor, also known as Tror, is said to have married the prophetess Sibyl (identified with Sif). Thor is further said here to have been raised in Thrace by a chieftain named Lorikus, whom he later slew to assume the title of “King of Thrace”, to have had hair “fairer than gold”, and to have been strong enough to lift ten bearskins.
The name of the aesir is explained as “men from Asia,” Asgard being the “Asian city” (i.e., Troy). Alternatively, Troy is in Tyrkland (Turkey, i.e., Asia Minor), and Asialand is Scythia, where Thor founded a new city named Asgard. Odin is a remote descendant of Thor, removed by twelve generations, who led an expedition across Germany, Denmark and Sweden to Norway.
In Heimskringla, composed in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Thor or statues of Thor are mentioned in Ynglinga saga, Hákonar saga góða, Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, and Óláfs saga helga. In Ynglinga saga chapter 5, a heavily euhemerized account of the gods is provided, where Thor is described as having been a gothi—a pagan priest—who was given by Odin (who himself is explained away as having been an exceedingly powerful magic-wielding chieftain from the east) a dwelling in the mythical location of Þrúðvangr, in what is now Sweden. The saga narrative adds that numerous names—at the time of the narrative, popularly in use—were derived from Thor.
Hammer pendants and Eyrarland Statue
Pendants in a distinctive shape representing the hammer of Thor (known in Norse sources as Mjöllnir) have frequently been unearthed in Viking Age Scandinavian burials. The hammers were worn as a symbol of Norse pagan faith and as a symbol of opposition to Christianization; a response to crosses worn by Christians. Casting moulds have been found for the production of both Thor’s hammers and Christian crucifixes, and at least one example of a combined crucifix and hammer has been discovered. The Eyrarland Statue, a copper alloy figure found near Akureyri, Iceland dating from around the 11th century, may depict Thor seated and gripping his hammer.
- The protective sign of the hammer was worn by women, as we know from the fact that it has been found in women’s graves. It seems to have been used by the warrior also, in the form of the swastika. […] Primarily it appears to have had connections with light and fire, and to have been linked with the sun-wheel. It may have been on account of Thor’s association with lightning that this sign was used as an alternative to the hammer, for it is found on memorial stones in Scandinavia besides inscriptions to Thor. When we find it on the pommel of a warrior’s sword and on his sword-belt, the assumption is that the warrior was placing himself under the Thunder God’s protection.
Swastikas appear on various Germanic objects stretching from the Migration Period to the Viking Age, such as the 3rd century Værløse Fibula (DR EM85;123) from Zealand, Denmark; the Gothic spearhead from Brest-Litovsk, Belarus; numerous Migration Period bracteates; cremation urns from early Anglo-Saxon England; the 8th century Sæbø sword from Sogn, Norway; and the 9th century Snoldelev Stone (DR 248) from Ramsø, Denmark.