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Definition: Thor from Philip's Encyclopedia

In Teutonic mythology, god of thunder and lightning, corresponding to Jupiter. The eldest and strongest of Odin's sons, he was represented as a handsome, red-bearded warrior, benevolent towards humans but a mighty foe of evil.

Summary Article: THOR
from World Mythology: Handbook of Norse Mythology

God who specializes in killing giants.

Thor is the son of Odin and Jörd (Earth), the wife of Sif, and the father of sons Módi and Magni and a daughter Thrúd. Virtually all of Thor’s myths have to do with giantslaying. He slays the strongest giant, Hrungnir, in a duel. He kills Geirröd, and more famously Geirröd’s daughters, on a visit to that giant. He kills Thrym, and all the giants in his family, when he goes off to Thrym in the guise of Freyja, supposedly to be given to Thrym in exchange for Thor’s stolen hammer. He kills Hymir and a host of giants when he goes off to Hymir’s home in Giantland to acquire from him a huge kettle in which the gods will brew beer. He kills the giant who built the wall around Ásgard. His greatest struggle was with the Midgard serpent, the most powerful giant of all, whom he fished up out of the deep sea. Earlier skaldic sources suggest that Thor killed the monster, but Snorri Sturluson contradicts this in the Gylfaginning section of his Edda. Snorri and Völuspá have him meet the serpent again at Ragnarök. They kill each other, but Thor staggers back nine steps before succumbing to the serpent’s poison, and this suggests a kind of small victory snatched from the greater defeats the gods are suffering.

A hanging amulet of Thor’s hammer.

(Ted Spiegle/Corbis)

Thor also kills dwarfs, although less deliberately. In Alvíssmál he keeps the dwarf who is trying to woo his daughter up until sunrise answering questions about poetic vocabulary (not otherwise a known interest of Thor’s), and the sun’s first ray kills the dwarf. At Baldr’s funeral he redirects his anger at the giantess Hyrrokkin to the dwarf Lit, whom he kicks into the fire.

Thor could be outdone through the use of magic, an area into which he never ventures. Thus, when traveling with the giant Skrýmir, Thor is unable to kill him because, as he learns later, the giant magically redirected the blows of Thor’s hammer. After Skrýmir and Thor part ways, Thor and his traveling companions are defeated in various contests at the hall of Útgarda-Loki partly through magic, as when Thor thinks he is lifting a cat but is in fact lifting the Midgard serpent, and partly through linguistic dullness, as when Thor fails to realize that the old lady he wrestles named “Old Age” is in fact old age. A similar lack of linguistic awareness, or perhaps a lack of awareness of poetic forms, makes Thor come out the loser when he engages in a contest of words with a ferryman, Odin in disguise, in Hárbardsljód. But Thor is the only god capable of shutting Loki up when he is reviling all the gods in Lokasenna, and Thor is also the one who contributes most to the capture of Loki that leads to his binding.

Two of the most elaborate of Thor’s hammers, made of silver. The figure on the chain was found in Erikstorp, Sweden, along with a hoard of treasure. The hammer on the left is from Kabbara, Sweden, also found with a hoard of treasure.

(Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm)

Thor very frequently travels in the company of an assistant, most often Thjálfi but also on occasion Loki or Týr. Thjálfi is a human, and his accompanying Thor indicates the close relationship between Thor and humans, a relationship also attested by the metal artifacts known as Thor’s hammers. These objects, miniature hammers that were worn about the neck, are the only indication from the archaeological record of talismans associated with specific accouterments of the gods. Thor was probably the most important god of late paganism, as is suggested by the presentation in medieval Scandinavian sources of the conversion as a struggle between Thor and Christ.

During the last years of paganism in Iceland, poets left us with two fragments of poems addressed directly to Thor, in the second person. These are mostly lists of giants he killed. Some of the giants are known, but some are not, and it is clear that we no longer have all the relevant mythology about Thor. It would be nice to know, for example, about his killing of Thrívaldi (Thrice-powerful), who may be associated with a nine-headed giant mentioned by the skald Bragi. One of the interesting aspects of these lists of Thor’s victims is the relative frequency of female names. Thor was not just a giantslayer but also a giantess-slayer. The forces of chaos had a strong female side.

A small bronze, 6-7 cm high, from Eyrarland, Iceland, identified by some observers as Thor.

(Werner Forman/Art Resource)

Thor is persistently presented as crossing rivers. The most spectacular of these rivers is Vimur, but there is another set he crosses, according to Grímnismál, stanza 29:

Körmt and Örmt and two Kerlaugar,
Those Thor shall cross,
Each day, when he goes to judge
At the ash of Yggdrasil.

Thor’s crossing of rivers may have to do with the fact that he does his business mostly in the realm of the giants, who live on the other sides of boundaries, but it is also worth recalling the symbolic association between giants and water, as can be seen in the abode of the Midgard serpent out in the deep sea.

See also Ásgard; Baldr; Bergbúa tháttr; Geirröd; Hárbardsljód; Hrungnir; Hymiskvida; Midgard Serpent; Thrymskvida; Útgarda-Loki

References and further reading:
  • The most recent book on Thor was published quite some time ago, and in Swedish: Helge Ljungberg. Tor: Undersökningar i indoeuropeisk och nordisk religionshistoria, vol. 1: Den nordiska åskguden och besläktade indoeuropeiska gudar: Den nordiska åskguden i bild och myt, Uppsala universitets årsskrift, 1947:9 (Uppsala: Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1947; summary in French). But there are many recent articles in English. These include Margaret Clunies Ross, “An Interpretation of the Myth of ∏órr’s Encounter with Geirrøðr and His Daughters,” in Speculum Norroenum: Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre, ed. Ursula Dronke, Guðrún P. Helgadóttir, Gerd Wolfgang Weber, and Hans-Bekker Nielsen ([Odense:] Odense University Press, 1981), 370-391, “Two of ∏órr’s Great Fights according to Hymiskviða,” in Studies in Honour of H. L. Rogers, ed. Geraldine Barnes and D. A. Lawton, Leeds Studies in English, 20 (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1989), 7-27, and “∏órr’s Honour,” in Studien zum Altgermanischen: Festschrift für Heinrich Beck, ed. Heiko Uecker (Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter, 1994), 48-76; Margaret Clunies Ross and B. K. Martin, “Narrative Structures and Intertextuality in Snorra Edda: The Example of ∏or’s Encounter with Geirrøðr,” in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature, ed. John Lindow, Lars Lönnroth, and Gerd Wolfgang Weber, Viking Collection, 3 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986), 56-72; John Lindow, “Thor’s hamarr,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 93 (1994): 485-503, “Thor’s Duel with Hrungnir,” Alvíssmál: Forschungen zur mittelalterlichen Kultur Scandinaviens 6 (1996): 3-18, “∏rymskviða, Myth, and Mythology” in Germanic Studies in Honor of Anatoly Liberman, ed. Martha Berryman, Kurt Gustav Goblirsch, and Marvin Taylor, NOWELE, 31/32 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1997), 203-212, “Thor’s Visit to Útgardaloki,” Oral Tradition 15 (2000): 170-186.
  • Copyright © 2001 by John Lindow

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