Myth & Mind: Thor, Strength & sudden light

Feb 27, 17 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

By Reva Sherrard

Thor had a mind to go fishing. Striking the head off a bull to use as bait, he demanded the giant Hymir take him out in his boat. Far they rowed out to sea. Hymir caught two whales on his line. “We’ll turn back now,” he said. “It’s not good to go into deeper waters than this.”

But Thor rowed on, and where there was no bottom to the sea and the sky closed grimly over the tops of black swells rearing higher than mountains, he cast his bait down on a long, long line and waited. Soon a bite nearly wrenched the line from his grasp. The giant’s boat juddered on the dark water, its planks creaking, as Thor braced himself and pulled with all his might. With a roar as if the very ocean rose against him, the terrible head of the Midgard Serpent breached the deep and yawned over the boat, Thor’s iron hook wedged fast in its jaw.

They say that none have seen fearful things who did not see this: the massy weed-hung head of the world-encircling snake disorganizing the swells, deadly venom dribbling from its jaws, and Thor staring back in awful fury while thunder growled in the clouds overhead and lightning stabbed red from his eyes. As the thunder god reached for his hammer, Hymir, in terror, cut the fishing-line, and the serpent’s head sank back under the waves.

They also say that when all the gods meet their nemeses at Ragnarok, Thor will battle the Midgard Serpent and strike it dead. But its venom will have doomed him, and he will go only nine paces before death overtakes him, too.

A scene from Ragnarök, the final battle between Thor and Jörmungandr. From “Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen,” ca. 1905, public domain.

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March is a good time to think about Thor: defender of gods and humans, wielder of lightning and thunder, and implacable enemy of the forces of mindless destruction. Almost as famous as himself, his hammer Mjölnir was invoked by the Norse to hallow (fill with holiness, and thus protect) places, newborns, marriages, and funerals. He is a protector as old as the Indo-Europeans. His Indian cousin is Indra, commander of storms, whose name is related to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning the flow or fall of water (*dheu, source of “dew”), and whose weapon is the Vajra, literally “thunderbolt” in Sanskrit.

If the year is a directional wheel with Midwinter in the north and Midsummer in the south, then the year dawns in the east with the Spring Equinox (March 20th this year). As a deity of sudden light, Thor’s home is in the east with Jotunheim, region of the giants only he is strong enough to defeat by force. Likewise, Indra is often depicted as a guardian on the eastern walls of Hindu temples. Both fought titanic serpents: Indra battled Vritra, “the enveloper,” and by so doing freed the rains and rivers to flow, while Thor meets his match in the snake who holds the oceans together with its encircling body — and who will release them at the onset of Ragnarok.

Thor and the Midgard Serpent from the Altuna runestone at Altuna church, Enköpings municipality, Uppland, Sweden. Photo by Gunnar Creutz, Creative Commons 1.0.

Thor’s essential qualities are strength, quickness to strike, and his constant defensive war against giants called jötnar (singular jötunn) and þurs, who seek to breach the boundaries and take the treasures of Asgard. These are ill-defined beings; they can be beneficent and attractive, like jötnar Loki and Skađi, or monstrous enemies. The þurs (þ = th) are associated with the þ-rune, of the same name, which in turn is associated with defensive magic and striking against enemies. The Norwegian Rune Poem offers this terse description: þurs vældr kvinna kvillu; kátr værdr fár af illu — meaning, þurs is women’s torment; few have cheer from ill. It’s interesting that harm to women is the attribute by which the poem represents þurs, which are known from myth to harm all sorts of things without regard for sex. He who harms women, however, is an enemy of society and all the crafts and learning a culture can develop only when a basic set of laws is respected — and Thor is his enemy. His elemental might and unsleeping vigilance are a necessary defense for Ođinn’s shamanic wisdom, Freyja’s healing and seer-craft, and all the creative forces of nature and society exemplified in the gods.

Thor is not the quickest wit in the Norse pantheon. His actions are much quicker, and sometimes rash. His power — as a concept, archetypal or natural force, or mythic reality — is pure courage and might in the service of life. He is the thunderbolt of the sun in the moment of its greatest power at dawn. Justice, wisdom, tolerance, skill, beauty: the best of the gods, and the best of humanity, are the things most vulnerable to the depredations of ignorance, greed, and inertia. Thor’s brute strength is equal to that of the most dire monsters the mind can conceive. What makes him a god is that he uses it to protect.

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While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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