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Norse Symbols - Thor's Hammer

Updated on February 1, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

Norse God Thor, wields his hammer Mjölnir in a stormy sky
Norse God Thor, wields his hammer Mjölnir in a stormy sky | Source

What is a Heathen?

There is a broad spectrum of people that are grouped by the term "Heathen". What most would consider in modern times as Heathen faiths are those spiritual paths followed with Norse and Germanic themes. I will refrain from going into all of this in great detail, as it cannot be covered in one article alone.

There are lots of ideas about where the word Heathen comes from, but it seems to first appear in Old English as hæðen or Old Norse as heiðinn. We see this in use by the Anglo-Saxons in early translations of The Bible and other documents of the time. Such examples include:

  • "Gif ungefullod cild fǽrlíce biþ gebroht tó ðam mæssepreóste hé hit mót fullian sóna ðæt hit ne swelte hǽðen", meaning "if an unbaptised child be brought to the mass-priest suddenly, he must baptise it at once, that it die not heathen"
  • "Hér sæt hǽðen here on Tenet" meaning "in this year a heathen army sat in Thanet" (this account refers to Danish invaders)
  • "Twá folc ðæt is Iudéisc and hǽðen", meaning "two peoples, that is Jew and gentile" [1]

It is proposed by some that this word is derived from the Greek word ἔθνος (ethnos) or Armenian hethanos. [2]. ἔθνος was used to describe a "gentile" which would include anyone from a tribe or clan who was not a Jew or Christian.

Gentile is derived from the Latin, gentilis. One theory is that this term was used by Romans to describe tribes and peoples who were not citizens of the Roman Empire. After the arrival of Christianity throughout the Empire, its use shifted and was used to describe non-Christians. The word "Heathen" also has possible etymological roots from the Gothic haiþi which loosely means "dwelling on the heath". The jury is still out on the origins of the word, but it is most probable that it relates to European tribes-folk that do not follow the Abrahamic religions.

There are many different modern Heathen paths which include amongst other things, Ásatrú, Forn Siðr, Odinism, and Vanatrú. Generally, the people following these faiths believe in a pantheon of deities, and have a strong tradition of honouring their ancestors. Living by good virtues such as truth, keeping your word, looking after your family, responsibility and personal accountability, and justice, are also important.

What Heathens are not, are white supremacists. Whilst racists can be found from all cultures, it is wrong to blanket an entire group of people based on misguided ideas on their beliefs and symbols. I hope with this article, to brush away some of this nonsense and help describe the origins and meaning of one of the Heathen symbols; the hammer.

This runestone from Södermanland, Sweden, includes a depiction of Mjölnir
This runestone from Södermanland, Sweden, includes a depiction of Mjölnir | Source

Thor's Hammer, Mjölnir

Thor (from Old Norse Þórr) is one of the gods of the Norse pantheon. His father is Odin, known as the All-Father, and his mother is Fjörgyn, the personification of the Earth [3]. Thor featured heavily in many of the Norse myths, and was a popular character to many. But he was more than a hero of a story. Thor is seen as a protector of mankind. Quick to anger, he is forever embarking on adventures to defeat wicked giants or any that might endanger Midgard (Middle-Earth, our realm of existence).

Thor is described as having red hair and a red beard. He wears the magical belt Megingjörð (Old Norse, meaning "Power-belt") which doubles his strength, and the gloves Járngreipr (meaning "iron-grippers") which allow him to wield his famed hammer, Mjölnir.

In the Skáldskaparmál, from Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, a tale describes how Mjölnir was made by two Dwarves; Sindri and Brokkr. The complicated trickster god, Loki, placed a bet with these two that they could not make gifts for the gods that were more beautiful than those that they already possessed. The Sons of Ivaldi had previously made Odin's spear, Gugnir, and an incredible folding boat for Freyr. The wager for the challenge was Loki's head.

The Dwarves gladly accept the challenge, and whilst they were busy working on their articles, Loki mischievously transformed himself into a fly. He harassed the Dwarves and bit them as they worked, and as a result the hammer Mjölnir ended up with a short handle that resulted in it only being able to be wielded one-handed. Nevertheless, Mjölnir is one of the most fearsome weapons ever created. It was said to be capable of levelling mountains and to have the power to hit any target before returning to Thor's right hand all by itself. It can also send out lightning bolts to smite any enemies.

“Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short" [3]

Loki lost his bet, but cunningly he kept his head. He explained to the Dwarves that he did not mention his neck, and as it was not possible to have his head cut off without touching his neck, it was to remain attached to his body.

The full tale is charming and full of wit. I would recommend that you read it for yourself, as not only does it explain how Thor came by his hammer, but it also describes some of the conflicts between the Norse deities and helps the reader understand their characters more fully.

An amber Mjölnir, dating from the 8th Century, found in Wolin, Poland
An amber Mjölnir, dating from the 8th Century, found in Wolin, Poland

Thor's Lightning

Thunder and lightning flashing through the sky would mean that Thor was fighting the Frost Giants again, protecting humans from harm. There were reminders everywhere of the gods, and their influences on Midgard. To be able to capture the lightning would be to harness a small part of this power, and that was power indeed to the men and women of this world, centuries ago.

There have been some interesting finds from Poland and Sweden; hammers made from amber. Not only was this semi-precious stone sacred to the Norse, it also possesses an extraordinary characteristic which would have amazed the Norsemen.

In around 600 BC ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus discovered how charge could be accumulated by rubbing fur on amber. The Greeks noted that the charged amber buttons could attract light objects such as hair. They also noted that if they rubbed the amber for long enough, they could even get an electric spark to jump. Jet also has these properties, and is still known in some regions as black amber.

English scientist William Gilbert returned to the subject in 1660, and coined the New Latin word electricus from ηλεκτρον (elektron), the Greek word for amber, which soon gave rise to the words electric and electricity.

This phenomenon would have amazed the Norse. Imagine sitting in a longhouse in the evening, centuries ago, as a thunderstorm rages overhead. An elder pulls out an amber hammer and tells you about Thor's mighty Mjölnir. As he speaks, he idly rubs the hammer on the fur that covers his seat, and as the story reaches its climax, he demonstrates the magic of Thor as the amber talisman sparks. It must have been very magical to the people of old.

Sketch of a Hammer found in the 19th Century in Denmark. Thought to date from the early 11th Century.
Sketch of a Hammer found in the 19th Century in Denmark. Thought to date from the early 11th Century. | Source

Thor's Hammer as a Pendant

There have been numerous archaeological finds throughout Scandinavia, Britain, and the Baltic areas which are believed to date from between the 9th and 11th Centuries. Interestingly, these appear in the areas where Christianity had a strong influence [4]. It has been observed that high numbers of square crosses bearing Christ have been found in these same areas, which suggests that the hammer pendants were worn not only in defiance of the new faith, but to help each other identify those that still worshipped the gods of their fathers [5].

Christianity swept across Europe and the beliefs of the Norse gradually faded into the background as kings and nations took up the cross. Those that followed the older beliefs could be persecuted or even killed for their faith, and so Heathenism became hidden. It was only in the 20th Century, where tolerance became a stronger trait within Western society, that Heathenism and Paganism were allowed to be practised. Yet there is still some ignorance and prejudice towards those that choose to express their spirituality in this way. Only in recent times is Heathenism being considered a "proper religion", and in a bid to be taken seriously and as an emblem for others to recognise, the hammer pendant is appearing once again.

Times are changing, and a major landmark for the religion was achieved in May 2013, when the "Hammer of Thor" became an approved marker of belief, allowing American Heathens who served with the military to be buried with Mjölnir on their gravestone. Thor's hammer has been protecting the troops since 2006, with the founding of The Mjolnir Project. White Hart Forge offered small pendants to any active duty personnel stationed at home or abroad, who needs one, free of charge.

This pendant was made for a modern day soldier, to protect them in battle when they serve their country.
This pendant was made for a modern day soldier, to protect them in battle when they serve their country. | Source

Sources

[1] Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary - ASIN - B009SHYW4Q

[2] Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary

[3] Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda - ISBN - 978-0140447552

[4] Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia - ISBN - 978-0837174204

[5] H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe - ISBN - 978-0140136272

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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