By Reva Sherrard
Thor was wearing a dress, and he didn’t like it. Loki, in female guise and a skirt, looked a hell of a lot more comfortable as he played the role of handmaiden to a bride, pealing with girlish laughter while his eyes flashed wickedly. But Thor hadn’t come to the realm of giants for anyone’s amusement: He was here to get his hammer back.
Thor was the child of Odin and the Earth — in other words, of pure spiritual and natural power, and as such immensely strong and as terrible in striking as the lightning. With his weapon, the magic hammer Mjölnir, in his hand he was nearly invincible. No matter how far he flung Mjölnir it always returned, boomerang-style, and its force was capable of crushing mountains. Thor needed only the hammer and two other pieces of magical equipment, a strength-enhancing belt and a pair of iron gloves, to defeat his foes the giants again and again.
This time the giants had resorted to a ploy. Their king, named Þrymr, stole mighty Mjölnir and let it be known he wanted the beautiful, fertility-giving goddess Freyja as ransom, to be his wife — a ransom that Freyja declared no one would pay, stamping her foot in rage and making the hall of the gods shake. So it was Thor who had to don a bridal gown and headdress and ride to Jötunheim, home of the giants, to reclaim his weapon. Quick-witted Loki took on woman’s form and came along to make sure the ruse worked.
When they arrived King Þrymr rushed to embrace “Freyja” and was shocked by the red glare of Thor’s eyes above the veil. Hastily Loki explained that the bride hadn’t slept in eight nights, so consumed was she with yearning for her husband-to-be. Likewise he smoothed over “Freyja’s” ravenous assault on the feasting-table: She hadn’t eaten or drunk for eight days either, poor thing. At last the giants produced Mjölnir and laid it in the bride’s lap to bless her as part of the marriage rite. Then Thor seized the hammer, and throwing off his woman’s attire slew every last giant in the hall.
But what is this mighty hammer, and what can it tell us about Thor? Even in comparison to other elements of mythology Mjölnir is an extremely ancient symbol. A symbolic association between stone tools for striking and grinding, and lightning and thunder, seems to date from the Paleolithic period when toolcraft, language, and religious thought were developing side by side. The name Mjölnir comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root (*mele-, meaning to grind or crush) that resulted in “mallet,” “mill,” “molar,” and both senses of “maul,” in addition to numerous words for striking tools and flour (a ground product) in other Indo-European languages — and mellt, a Welsh word for lightning. The word “hammer” itself, cognate to Old Norse hamarr, used to describe Mjölnir, descends from a proto-word for stone which among many other similar words evolved into Sanskrit aśman — “stone, hammer, thunderbolt” — and, fascinatingly, Persian âsemân: “sky.”
Stone Age tribes would have been intimately familiar with the growling noises produced by the working and polishing of stone into tools, and the sparks shot from flint when struck against pyrite to light fires. In a world of harsh weather and megafaunic predators, where everyday life consisted of the struggle to survive the elements and hunt dangerous prey, the tools that produced fire, fashioned weapons, and transformed hides into protective clothing were holy. This is not a metaphor or error of the early human mind: They gave life and fundamentally defined our species. What is godhood if not that?
The Prose Edda describes Mjölnir as being so small that Thor could keep it inside his tunic. Imagine a palm-sized rock that when used with skill struck deadly blades and crucial tools from stone and created the means for making fire. Thor’s essential characteristic is his eternal battle against the giants, massive, devouring, magical beings of almost unlimited might who would dominate all creation if they could. His weapon was relatively small, but sufficient to keep these terrible forces from swallowing humanity whole.
From the time humans mastered metalcraft until the mid-nineteenth century, cultures throughout the world regarded the stone artifacts of forgotten prehistory as supernatural objects with strong luck-giving and apotropaic powers. In Europe they were called “thunderstones.” A prevailing explanation for the name, and for folk beliefs equating the ancient flint or chert tools with actual thunderbolts flung from the sky, are that the heavy rains that could expose ax- and arrowheads in fields were sometimes accompanied by thunder. I believe the connection goes deeper, that folk memory preserved a reverence for these worked stones long after their functions were forgotten, from the time when they were tools of the gods.
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.