Lightning darted in jagged steps across the sky. Thunder began to roll in the distance and the waves dashed in wild fury upon the cliffs of the fjord. A yeoman hurried into his slate-roofed house shouting orders to his family inside, bidding them to act smart and put things in order before Thor arrived to awaken Mother Jörgyn. He told his wife to put the jar of mead on the table so that the god would have something to drink, and his two sons were admonished to rub the plowshares until they shone, for Hlorridi (the Heat-Bringer) was coming early and it would be a fruitful year. Bustling about at these tasks and absorbed in thinking of Thor, they were yet unprepared for the abrupt violence of his arrival. Wingthor drove from the west in all his fury. He struck the ridge of the roof with his hammer Mjöllnir, which splintered its supporting pillar and penetrated a hundred miles below the clay floor. A cloud of sulphurous vapour seeped up into what was left of the room, and was met by the stupefied gaze of the family. But the yeoman shook off his paralysis and rose from his stone bench, saying, "Wingthor has been gracious to us, and now has gone on to fight against the Frost and Rock Giants. Do ye not hear the blows of his hammer, the howls of the monsters in their caverns, and the crashing of their stone heads as though they were nothing but oatmeal dumplings? But to us he has given rain, which even now is falling heavily, rain that will melt away the snow and prepare the soil to receive the seed we shall later sow. The tiny sprouts will grow rapidly, and grass and herbs and the green leek will reward us for our industry. Preserve the golden ears of corn for us, O Thor, until the harvest time."
In his temple at Thrandheim, Thor's celestial progress was depicted in a powerfully anthropomorphized image showing the thundering deity adorned in gold and silver. He "was arranged to sit in a chariot, he was very splendid. There were goats, two of them, harnessed in front of him, very well wrought. Both car and goats ran on wheels. The rope round the horns of the goats was of twisted silver, and the whole was worked with extremely fine craftsmanship." This description from the Flateyjarbók continues to explain how the rope could be manipulated to produce movement and a crashing and grinding noise resembling thunder rolling across the heavens. Just as his presence was asserted in dramatic and impending natural phenomena, so too the dynamism of Thor was ritually manufactured in his worship. He was closely felt and his cult was the most widespread of all the gods and goddesses of the Nordic pantheon. Known as Donar to the ancient German tribes and Thor throughout Scandinavia, his sacred day was dies Iovis (associated with Jupiter) or Thor's-day, considered to be a holy day in Europe and the North well into the Christian era, and also observed as the day upon which the General Assembly of Iceland was opened for many centuries thereafter.
The cult of Thor was still flourishing amongst the eleventh-century Vikings in Dublin. With the ascendancy of Christianity, it was Thor who was thought to be the chief adversary of Christ. His followers in Norway and Iceland declared that he had delivered a challenge to Christ to meet him in single combat. In 876 C.E. the Danish Vikings made peace with King Alfred of England, swearing oaths to him on their Sacred Ring of Thor, whilst Vikings in other parts of the British Isles were simply known as the 'People of Thor'. His popularity was attested to by the many children in Scandinavia who were named after him and by his countless place-names throughout the northern world. At the close of the heathen period the figure of Thor with his hammer was the most commonly seen in temples, where people increasingly looked to him for guidance during the changing times. Many of the figures methodically destroyed by Christian fanatics were man-sized and beautifully wrought, like the one at Thrandheim. Others were finely carved in wood, depicting his wondrous exploits as champion of the gods and man. To the very end of Asgard's reign in the minds and hearts of humanity, Thor blazoned forth. His glory was not so easily set aside but lived in men's inspirations such as that displayed in Longfellow's beautiful poem:
The cult of Thor was not an aristocratic one. It has been said that if "Odin received kings who fell in battle, Thor got the thralls" It is true that, because he was untiring, hearty, hard-working and open-hearted, he was the ideal of peasants. He was also often deceived, and though slow to anger, his wrath unleashed was a terrible thing. Thor was simply not to be withstood in anger, but he was mild and gracious when using his hammer to fix landmarks or consecrate rites of passage. All the gods came to the Well of Urd each day on horseback except for Thor, who preferred to slog on by foot through all the rivers that lay in his path. His was not the circuitous way or the easiest but the most forthright and direct. He was never cunning or deviously clever. When aware of an injustice, he simply struck with his hammer, hurling it through the air to smash the skull of any transgressor. Thus he was ever prepared to fight against the menace of giants and pursue the evil Loki or any other threat to cosmic law and order. Thor's character was one of cheerful readiness to wage the good fight and, though often depicted as simple-minded by Christian antagonists, he was known to have conquered Alwis ('All-wise') in a battle of words, and his awesome powers were seriously depended upon by all the other Ases. There is no doubt that he was the best-loved deity of the North and his character was clearly a model, not only for peasants, but for Vikings too, with their fearlessness and resolute pertinacity. For even as they appeared to the outside world as forces of lawless destruction, among themselves law and order and the keeping of faith between men was of paramount importance. Thor was powerfully representative of the stormy, heroic world of the Vikings. Bearded, outspoken, indomitable, filled with valour and gusto while relying on simple weapons and his strong right arm, he was their collective self-image writ large. He was the hero par excellence who, in addition to all his other formidable qualities, was a strong trencherman, impressing even the giants with his drinking and eating.
Thor was the first-born son of Odin by Fjörgyn, making him the offspring of Heaven and Mother Earth. He in turn took the golden-haired Sif as wife and with her begot the swift hunter Uller, who raced about on snowshoes ruling Asgard and Midgard in the winter season. He was also father of Magni and Modi (strength and courage), who lived together with the rest of the family at the great hall Bilskirnir in Thrudvang, the largest domain of Asgard. Little is known about Sif except that she had wonderful golden hair which seems to have represented the fertility of grain in the world. This complements the role of Thor, who brings the rain which prepares the soil and nurtures the seed planted in it. In this, as in other regards, Thor resembles the Hindu god Indra much more than Hephaestus, the Thunderer of the Greek pantheon. Unlike the lame Hellenic deity, Thor was a towering figure, perfectly proportioned and rightfully confident in his relationship with his consort. His flaming beard, like a red sky, foretold lightning and thunder, unleashing the cloud cows to rumble over the rain-loving earth. His hammer was his vajra, his iron glove its haven. His girdle doubled his immense strength, and his eyes shone like fiery bolts informing earth of heaven's vast potential. Even as a babe in his cradle, Thor had gleefully lifted ten loads of bear skins. Jörgyn was hard put to manage her boisterous son and she handed him over to Wingnir ('the winged') and Hlora ('heat'), who became his foster parents. They were the personification of 'winged lightning', from whom Thor took his names Wingthor and Hlorridi.
Of Thor's treasures, the best was his wonderful hammer Mjöllnir. When Loki had been caught after having had the evil audacity to steal Sif's hair, he sought to appease the infuriated Thor by requesting several master-craftsmen dwarfs to fashion some mollifying gifts. This the tiny workmen did with great art. But as one of them began to finish Mjöllnir, Loki, who up to this time had been distracting them in the form of a fly, became extremely active and stung the little smithy on the eyelid just as he moulded the handle, causing him to make it a bit short. As punishment for this, Loki's lips were sewn up, though it is not certain that the hammer's resultant shape wasn't fortuitous after all. For with its shortened handle it resembled more a fylfot reminiscent of Vishnu's chakra and the swastika, both emblems of periodicity and time's quarterly cycles. With this shape the dwarfs, who represent pre-cosmic forces, placed in the hands of Thor the symbol known elsewhere as the Jaina cross or the tau in the circle that marks the emergence of pure pantheism out of the infinitude of the immaculate Mother Nature. The hammer, flying through the air, thus describes the elliptic path of the earth around the sun, and the sun's path, in turn, around other greater stars. Moving like a whirling swastika, it is the hammer which "striketh sparks from the flint (Space), those sparks becoming worlds". It strikes and gives light and shape to the movement and substance of the universe.
The hammer is the moulder and champion of order formed in the cosmos. It is the chief weapon used in the stormy cycles pitting the Ases against the raw forces of Nature. It is the attribute of all thunder gods, whose natures portray the active masculine and passive feminine conjunct in creation. As it implements order out of chaos, it stands for law and justice in the face of disharmony and evil. The hammer strikes down and crushes injustice. It avenges the wronged and wreaks havoc upon the wrongdoer. Thor's Mjöllnir was known as 'the Destroyer', and when he buried it, it never missed its mark. But like a revolving cycle of time, it returned always to his gloved hand, where it rested in anticipation of the next revolution, the next assertion of order over chaos. Mjöllnir enabled the Aesir to hold Asgard secure from the giants and it safeguarded the world of men, where it hallowed the cycles of birth, marriage and death. The newborn was accepted into the community when the hammer was raised above it, and it sanctified weddings, where the archetypal marriage of heaven to the world of time was re-enacted. Like the fylfot returning, Mjöllnir also ushered out the cycle of an individual life when it was used to consecrate the funeral ship in which the deceased crosses over into the unmanifest. Watching the events at the Highland games in Scotland where the Nordic impact was so strong, one wonders what the original symbolism might have been behind the spectacular hammer throw. Perhaps the contestants at one time felt themselves inspired with Thor's strength and believed that, through them, the powerful god actually revealed a fragment of his might.
When the old gods were either cast down as demons or ridiculed in the wake of spreading Christianity, Thor was often mocked as one who spent much of his time killing trolls or disposing of one or another giant interloper. It is true that Thor was involved in an almost continual battle with the giants. Being the champion of rain and growth associated with the return of summer to the harsh Northland, he never ceased his attack against the forces of cold darkness and icy death. But he was not always completely victorious in his courageous forays. At one time the Frost Giants sent out a series of especially cold winds from the interior of Jötunheim which blighted the tender green shoots growing in the fields of Midgard. Thor immediately prepared his chariot and hastened to force the giants to keep within their bounds. Reaching the barren wastes of their country, he and his party covered ground blanketed with a grey mist and passed by a great iceberg that rose out of it like a ghostly corpse. Everything was dim and uncertain.
In the evening they reached a strange, roomy inn, empty of inhabitants or food, only to discover in the morning that they had rested in the thumb of a giant's glove. Shocked by this realization, they were relieved to find that the Jötun, whose name was Skrymir, was willing enough that they should peaceably follow him. While Skrymir slept, Thor lost no opportunity to attack him. With Mjöllnir he dealt a terrible blow upon the head of the snoring giant, who merely rubbed the place with his hand. Thor hit him harder on the crown, making a deep hole, but Skrymir thought it only an acorn that had fallen on him and resumed his sleep. Towards morning the Ase dealt another fearful blow, causing the Jötun to awake and declare that some birds building a nest in the tree above must have dropped a twig on his head. Stymied, Thor and his party had to content themselves with continuing on their way towards the palace in Utgard in the heart of Jötunheim, where, as Skrymir happily informed them, they would find bigger men than himself.
In the afternoon they sighted the shining, icy palace and, slipping between the bars of the postern gate, entered the royal hall to stand before the throne of Utgard-Loki, Prince of the Thurses. He stared at the travellers and said, "I know thee, Asathor, and guess thou canst do more than thy appearance would justify one supposing." He then commanded them all to show him what each of them could do. One of them boasted of his eating prowess and was pitted against the giant's cook, who proved to be the better trencherman. A large trough was filled with meat and the two contestants tried to devour it from either end. The cook, however, not only ate the meat but disposed of the bones and the trough as well. The same sort of defeat was suffered by the Ases in a footrace, and Thor was challenged to a drinking bout using a horn from which, no matter how deeply he drank, he could not lower the contents. Thor was then asked to demonstrate his strength by flinging a grey cat up to the ceiling, but his first attempt to lift it only made it arch its back and he was never able to raise it from the floor. Thor's final humiliation came when he was unable to outwrestle the prince's ageing nurse, who stood as immovable as a rock. He sank to one knee in bitter frustration and could not be assuaged by the cheerful invitation of the giant to sit and enjoy his hospitality.
The next day Utgard-Loki accompanied Thor and his party to the borders of his domain, where he revealed how he had tricked them. "Three times, Asathor, didst thou strike at my head, but I always shoved a mountain between me and thee. Look, see the marks made by thy hammer serrating yon towering peak? The cook who won the eating contest was wildfire and the runner who outran your sprinter was thought. When thou tookst the horn to thy lips, thou didst drink so much that every shore was uncovered and people thought the tide had ebbed. Thou didst not know that the drinking horn was connected to all the oceans. Thine eyes were blind to that as to the fact that when thou didst lift the grey cat, thou hadst clutched up a tiny curve of the Midgard serpent which binds the world round. And my old nurse, who looked so weak, was old age which none can withstand when his time has come. Go now, Thor," he finished, "this is my realm where I rule and there is no space for men to cultivate the land no matter how Asathor might split the mountains and the eternal ice with his thunder!" Thor had raised his hammer to punish the Jötun for his magic spells, but he had vanished, leaving the great god and his companions in a bare, stone-strewn wilderness.
Though the strength of the giants as a perennial threat is affirmed in this story, other tales more commonly reveal a triumphant Thor. When Mjöllnir was stolen by the giant Thrym, its outraged owner accepted the help of Loki, who borrowed Freya's falcon cape and flew over the wastes of Jötunheim until he located Thrym's palace. The giant laughed at his questions about the hammer and told him it was buried eight miles deep in a cleft of the earth, and that no one should have it unless they brought him the fair goddess Freya as a bride. When Loki returned to the Ases with this message they were furious, and Freya recoiled in anger and horror. The Ases then assembled at Urd's Well, where Heimdal suggested that Thor himself don the bridal garments and disguise himself as Freya with her dazzling necklace, overbrooded by a modest veil. It was not in Thor's nature to accept such a proposal, for he abhorred anything that might diminish his powerful masculinity in the eyes of others. But when Loki pointed out to him that if he did not retrieve Mjöllnir the giants themselves would invade Asgard, he consented to do as they entreated.
Thrym sat waiting in his hall, ordering his men to prepare a great banquet for Freya's arrival. When the bridal party arrived, the tables were laden with costly food and drink. All partook of the fare with gusto, but no one could rival the bride. She ate a fat ox in no time, then eight huge salmon and all the sweet cakes made for the women. In addition, she drank two barrels of mead, leaving the Thurse astonished with her capacity. The Jötun was so excited by her appetite that he raised her veil to steal a kiss. But the sight of Freya's flaming eyes caused him to shrink back and exclaim. Loki, disguised as Freya's maid, quickly assured him, saying, "My lady has not slept for a week in happy anticipation of her wedding day. That is why her eyes are so fiery." Then Thrym, intoxicated by love and mead, commanded that the hammer should be brought from its hiding place and used to sanctify the marriage straightaway. He ordered that it be placed upon the lap of the bride and was delighted to note that this seemed to offer her much glee, because her veil shook with her barely controlled laughter. Suddenly the veil was ripped away and Asathor stood up, terrible to look upon. He raised his bare arm holding Mjöllnir aloft and the walls of the room cracked and lightning darted through the hall. He struck a mighty blow and Thrym lay stretched at his feet with a broken head, his guests and servants soon to follow.
The flames made their way out through the roof and the great palace fell, leaving a heap of smoking ruins where the powerful giant had reigned. Overlooking the destruction he had wrought, Thor's face bore a gentle and kindly look. The spring sun rose over the debris, and he called upon the children of men to instil new life into the ashes so that farms and civil order might flourish there. He graciously moved about in their midst, fixing boundaries with his hammer and consecrating the tilled soil. The god of summer, deprived of his hammer in winter, had once again proved victorious. Thrym had hidden it eight miles in the earth, signifying the eight months of Nordic winter. He desired to possess Freya, the fair goddess of spring and fertility, in order to deprive man of the bright growing weather she brought with her. In regaining his hammer, Thor defeated the unseasonable threat of the Frost Giants and kept famine and disorder at bay.
When Thorolf Mostrarskegg, the 'Bearded Man of Most', decided to escape the tyranny of Harald Fairhair, he sailed away from the island of Most off the coast of Norway for Iceland. As a devoted follower, he had asked Thor before leaving if this were the best course to take. Receiving a favourable reply, he took the high-seat pillars from the god's shrine and some of the earth from under his iron-topped altar. When Thorolf's ship approached the coast of Iceland, he threw the pillars overboard and landed where they washed up on the shore. He built a great temple there, using the carved oaken pillars to flank the seat of honour, and he went around his new estate consecrating its boundaries with fire from the god. The divine nails he placed in the pillars harkened back to a legendary duel fought between Thor and the giant Hrungnir, who was armed with a whetstone and stone shield. When the giant buried his whetstone it was smashed into pieces, one of which lodged itself in Thor's head. This sacred nail was associated with the kindling of fire or lightning, relating back to the idea of the hammer which "striketh sparks from the flint". If those sparks become worlds, then Thor's hammer both creates and propels them in their cyclic motion. The fire that consecrated the boundaries of Thorolf's Icelandic estate is thus also that which defines the boundaries of solar systems and galaxies in their orbits, while the iron-topped altar (the place where the sacred fire was never allowed to go out) and the oaken pillars stand as its transmitters between heaven and earth.
High heaven burnt and found its way to earth. The oak was sacred to Thor and believed to be especially vulnerable to lightning. The great Thunderer was often worshipped in the open under the huge oaks of the ancient European forests, his devotees, like the yeomen of old, even welcoming the possibility of a lightning flash. Shakespeare's King Lear spoke about the "sulphurous and thought-executing fires, vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts", and others have described how lightning, seen from afar, seemed to single out a great oak from amidst a forest of trees for its mark. In Iceland, where there were no oaks, the high-seat pillars perpetuated the idea and kept alive the lines of communion between Thor and his followers. In this sense, the oak of Thor is like the axis mundi which connects the continual fiery motion of the invisible Kosmos with the rotation of cyclic time in manifestation. The unseen whirling hammer (or swastika) thus mirrors itself through the umbilical link of the oak which leads into the new-born world. Once the organized world is 'hammered out' of the frosty mists, the onus of its preservation falls upon the shoulders of the Vishnu-like Thor, who uses his hammer constantly for this purpose. The struggle between the forces of solve and coagula are continually his concern, and his fire transmitted to man becomes the heroic resolve of all those who strive to maintain and uphold justice, law and order, and the proper times and places for proper things, what the ancient Greeks called sophrosyne.
The business of preserving cyclic harmony has nothing to do, however, with inflexibility, or the attempts people make to 'freeze' things the way they are. It involves rather a control over the storms of life, the struggles between the forces of solution and dissolution within one's own nature. Thor not only produced storms with his rumbling wagon, but he continually and rhythmically inserted an electrification of birth and growth and even death into the scheme of things. He fought against chaos and the disruption of cycles, but he never strove to halt the seasons in their track or demolish duality altogether. He was, instead, the controller of storms who could subdue both fire and water. When he journeyed to Geirod's realm in Jötunheim and foiled the giant's scheme to kill him and send him to Hel, he conquered a terrible tempest of volcanic fire and ice-swollen rivers meant to vanquish him once and for all. He brought into balance the downward- and upward-pointing triangles of manifestation so that the uninterrupted revolution of cycles could continue in their course. Ardent disciples of Thor knew that the flint in their god's forehead was the source of fire which brought the water of rain, as night follows day. They also must have intuited that the divine 'nail' struck in their own brow was the source of fiery insight which would enable them to gain control over the raging storms within themselves. Yearning for such enlightenment, they stood around the high-seat pillars of Thor's temples and sought to emulate their god. They did not fear the lightning flash but hoped it would travel through the oaken pillars, through the pillars of their own bodies, and fill them with a cosmic revelation.
When a Christian convert of old was preparing for a journey overseas, Thor appeared to him in a dream, leading him to a cliff where great waves were breaking over the rocks. The would-be seafarer shuddered in his sleep and the god said to him, "Into such rough seas shall you come and never be delivered from them, unless you turn to me." One does not know if the man attempted the voyage but the meaning is clear. Unless a man grasps the mystery that lies at the heart of universal motion and understands its inevitability and its necessary cyclic expression in time, he will perish on the rocks of fear, desire and covetousness and all the other snares that attempt to fly in the face of this motion. There is no stopping of the cycling hammer. Once it is released, it never fails to hit its mark. Only when its cycle of movement is complete does it return to Thor's hand. One sails out upon the sea or sallies forth amongst the forest oaks, never knowing when rocks may appear or lightning strike the earth. But followers of Thor know that all cycles take their course under law and to this they strongly cling. The details of when and how may not be understood, but the revolution of Mjöllnir is assured and its arms ever cycle round a still point of unswerving, unalterable law. The giants will be held at bay, but not forever. A life of spring and summer becomes a winter that cannot last.
When the strife and passions of life are over, the peace that follows is only a turning in the hammer's path. But the iron gauntlet is ever there to pick it up again and hurl it forth heroically into another day. Out of the darkening storms rumbling over the crags of Jötunheim it springs forth, a lightning bolt awhirl, etching its way from heaven to earth.