Who's Who in the Lore: Thor


2005 Ingeborg S. Nordn


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Modern Norwegian reproduction (in wood) of a Norse statue of Thor



Before I continue, consider yourself warned: the Marvel Comics version of Thor has very little in common with the actual Norse god. As far as I can tell, these are the only details on which Stan Lee's adaptation agrees with the lore--


        His name (rr/Thrr would be the proper Old Norse spelling, but I can live with an Anglicized version).


        The name (Mjollnir) and origins (forged by dwarves) of his hammer. However, no ancient text mentions any magical material called "uru-metal"; the hammer was apparently plain iron, although I know of some Heathens who claim that the metal came from a meteorite. (That is strictly a personal interpretation with no direct support in lore. Still, the meteorite theory makes sense considering that many ancient cultures did think of thunderbolts as stones from the sky.) Its only magical powers are returning to Thor's hand after a throw and inflicting massive damage when it hit. (In one story from the Prose Edda, Thor uses the hammer to resurrect the goats that draw his wagon after he'd killed the animals and fed them to a family. Since no other resurrection stories involving Mjollnir appear in the lore, I would conclude that this was a property of the goats themselves.)


        His relationship to Odin (yes, Thor is his son--by the earth-goddess Jord or Fjorgyn, to be exact).


        His marriage to Sif (whose hair is blonde, not black, in the Eddas--even after the dwarves forged new hair to replace what Loki cut off). Thor has never had a mortal lover in the lore, by the way: although he did have one son (Magni) by a giantess, we do not know whether they were married at the time. Otherwise, the evidence favors Thor's being strictly a "family god", very loyal to his wife and children. (Besides Magni, Thor has a second son named Modi and a daughter named Thrud; the lore never reveals their mother's name, in any case.)


        His residence in Asgard. (The Eddas never describe him crossing the rainbow to get there, though. Thor is supposedly so big and heavy that the bridge would break; instead, he must cross four rivers to get home.)


        His role as a storm god and a heroic monster-killer. (Thor's enemies in the lore are almost always giants or trolls; he may have threatened Loki and a few humans with the hammer, but never actually used it on them.)


These comic-book details about Thor are just plain wrong, on the other hand:


        He has no secret identity; the only Norse gods ever described as traveling in disguise are Loki and Odin, if the lore is our only reliable source.


        He is emphatically not a clean-shaven blond; one of Thor's worshipers actually nicknames him "Redbeard" in the sagas.


        He does not always treat Loki as a bitter enemy; some stories in the Prose and Poetic Eddas actually depict the two as traveling companions.


        He never speaks in pseudo-Shakespearean purple prose. Thor is the god of "Olaf the Average", if you will...the typical Norse commoner who prayed to him for good weather and protection from enemies. (When Christian missionaries started using convert-or-die tactics on followers of the sir, the Church got added to the enemies list: it's easy to see why the hammer became a general symbol of Heathenry, with a history like that behind it!)

Here are a few more details about Thor that Stan Lee apparently overlooked altogether:


        His voracious appetite: in one story he eats half the dishes at a wedding feast, washing it down with a few barrels of mead. (With a real compulsive overeater in the Eddas, who needs Volstagg? J)


        His goat-drawn wagon, which was the Norse explanation for the sound of thunder. (Old Norse and Old English both used the same words for "thunderclap" as for "wagon", incidentally.)


        His monstrous arch-enemy, Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent. (Thor almost killed the monster once on a fishing trip, if a giant hadn't cut the line and stopped him. Jormungandr and Thor will finally kill each other at Ragnarok though.)


        His contest of wits with a dwarf (Alvis) who wanted to marry Thor's daughter: the god challenged Alvis to a riddle-game, which ended abruptly when the rising sun turned the dwarf to stone. (Heathens who perceive Thor as a dimwit who always bashes first and asks questions later, ought to read this story for themselves: the Lay of Alvis is part of the Poetic Edda.)


Lastly, one aspect of Thor would never be mentioned in a comic book sold to American children. Judging by some folk customs, religious artifacts, and snippets of lore, Thor sometimes brings agricultural and human fertility.


        The poem in which Thor has to dress as a bride to retrieve his hammer hints at its phallic symbolism; some lines describe a custom of laying the hammer in the bride's lap, to "consecrate" her (ON vigja; a descendant of that verb is used in Swedish for "performing a marriage ceremony", by the way). We can only assume that the hammer was placed with the handle facing the woman... J


        A Norse statuette was found in Sweden, depicting a bearded figure sitting and holding a hammer-like object. The figure also had a conspicuous erection, much like a similar statue believed to depict Freyr. (See the picture at the beginning of this article for a wooden replica of the Thor statuette.)


        In some parts of Scandinavia, the late summer thunderstorms were considered necessary for grain to ripen properly. (Some people have wanted to call Sif an agricultural goddess because of this belief and the story of her lost hair. Without more evidence, however, that interpretation is debatable at best.)


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