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Hammer in the North: Mjollnir in Medieval Scandinavia

Dan Bray
Sydney University



In the archaeological record of tenth century Scandinavia, there is evidence for the proliferation of small metal amulets representing Mjollnir, the magical hammer of the god Thor. Thor's hammer is recognised as one of the most distinctive religious symbols of the heathen Norse, and for a time was the chief rival of the Christian cross among the peoples of Medieval Scandinavia and Iceland. It was celebrated in Scandinavian mythology as the primary defence of gods and men against destruction at the hands of the fearsome frost-giants. Art, archaeology and folklore attest to the remarkable endurance of the hammer symbol, from the Bronze Age to the present day, not only as a significant religious motif, but also as a powerful ritual device, closely associated with the cult of Thor.

The vast majority of the more than forty Thor's hammer amulets known date from the late tenth and early eleventh centuries and were found primarily in Denmark, south-eastern Sweden and southern Norway, in those areas particularly subject to strong Christian influence. It seems quite likely that the popularity of these amulets came about as a heathen response to the crucifixes worn by increasing numbers of Christians in Scandinavia. Indeed, some of the early crucifixes are quite similar in design to the hammer, and in one example from Foss in southern Iceland, features of both are incorporated into the overall design. Graves have been found with hammers and crosses side by side and from Jutland, Denmark, there is a stone mold from which both hammers and crosses could be cast, indicating a certain level of acceptance of both religious symbols, perhaps in the interest of spiritual pragmatism.

There are examples in literature of this blending of traditions, like that of Helgi the Lean, from Landnamabok, who had been raised a Christian, but who "called upon Thor for seafaring and difficult decisions, and matters he considered of greatest importance". Also from Landnamabok is the case of Einar Thorgeirsson, who with a group of other settlers, claimed land in north-eastern Iceland by setting up at three points an axe (counterpart of the hammer) for Thor, an eagle for Odinn, and a cross for Christ. Sometimes there even appears to be some confusion of Christian and heathen practice, as in the case of King Hakon the Good of Norway, who had been obliged to drink from a bowl of sacrificial ale: "The king took it and made the sign of the cross over it. Then said Kar of Gryting, 'Wherefore does the king so? Will he even now not sacrifice?' Sigurd the Jarl answered, 'The king does as all do, who trust in their skill and strength; he blesses the bowl in the name of Thor, and makes the sign of the hammer over it before he drinks'. However, despite the strong Christian influence on the development of the hammer as a religious symbol, it is evident that the imagery, meaning and function of the hammer were entirely heathen.

Thor's hammers of many different styles are known, from simple shapes in iron or bronze to elaborately crafted works of silver with staring eyes and bearded faces, sometimes suspended on rings and twisted chains. The rings are miniature versions of those kept in the temples of Thor, upon which oaths were sworn and contracts were sealed, so that the wrath of Thor would fall upon those who broke their agreements. The chains, made of twisted wire and sometimes ending in monstrous heads, recall Jormangand, the Midgard Serpent, the monstrous offspring of Loki, whose coils encircle the world, and with whom Thor does battle in a famous episode from Hymiskvida, a scene which is found carved on a memorial stone from Altuna, Sweden, and another stone found under Gosforth Church, Cumberland. Many other memorial stones incorporate hammer designs, such as one example from Stenkvista, Sweden, which shows a hammer hanging from a thong-like serpent design. Often the stones bear runic inscriptions containing the formula "Thur uiki..." (from ON Thor vigja) or "May Thor hallow...", found in such compositions as "May Thor hallow this memorial", or "May Thor hallow these runes", or even "May Thor, the Almighty God, take to himself the body which lies under this stone".

Earlier Thor's hammer amulets are known, primarily from Anglo-Saxon graves in Kent which date to the sixth or seventh centuries, although these would still correspond to a similar period of growing Christian influence amongst the largely heathen Anglo-Saxons. The evidence for the great antiquity of the hammer as a religious device lies in its close relationship with the axe. Many Viking Age graves contain axes deposited alongside hammers or crosses, and axe amulets, many of which are virtually indistinguishable from hammers, have been found throughout the Baltic area dating from the Viking Age back to much earlier periods. Bronze Age (c1600-450 BCE) rock carvings abound with axe and hammer wielding figures, mirrored by a number of bronze figurines with axes and horned helmets found at Grevens Vinge, Denmark, most of which are now lost and only known from drawings made in 1778. These examples attest to the importance of the axe, the prototype of the hammer, as a cultural and religious symbol long before the advent of iron metallurgy, as does a richly decorated bronze axe-head from Vasteras, Sweden, which is far too massive for ordinary use.

The swastika is also closely connected to Thor's hammer and it is found as a prominent motif in Scandinavian art from Bronze Age rock carvings to Iron Age brooches, from Migration period swords and scabbards to Anglo-Saxon cremation urns, and so on to the Viking Age and beyond. In Iceland a form of swastika called a Thorshammar was used until recent times as a magical device to detect thieves. It is noteworthy that the majority of Thor's hammer amulets were found in hoards and house-sites rather than graves, perhaps as a dedication to Thor, but more likely as a measure of protection from thieves.

The etymology of the name Mjollnir is uncertain, but it is probably related to ON mala "grind", or molva "crush", with possible cognates in the Russian molnija or Welsh mellt, which both refer to "lightning". Both concepts, crushing and lightning, are entirely consistent with what we know of Thor and his use of this mighty weapon. Scandinavian mythology is replete with the exploits of Thor with his hammer, and these myths provide the foundation of what we know of both the properties and functions of Mjollnir, especially in conjunction with those of Thor himself. From the thirteenth century text of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, there is an account of the magical forging of Mjollnir by dwarves at Loki's instigation:

"Loki Laufeyjarson had done this for love of mischief: he had cut off all Sif's hair. And when Thor found out, he caught Loki and was going to break every one of his bones until he swore that he would get black-elves to make Sif a head of hair out of gold that would grow like any other hair. After this Loki went to some dwarfs called Ovaldi's sons, and they made the head of hair and Skidbladnir and the spear belonging to Odinn called Gungnir. Then Loki wagered his head with a dwarf called Brokk on whether his brother Eitri would succeed in making three precious things as good as these were. And when they got to the workshop, Eitri put a pig's hide in the forge and told Brokk to blow and not stop until he took out of the forge what he had put in. And as soon as he left the workshop and the other was blowing, a fly settled on the latter's arm and nibbled, but he went on blowing as before until the smith took his work out of the forge, and it was a boar and its bristles were of gold. Next he put gold in the forge and told Brokk to blow and not stop the blowing before he came back; he went out. And then the fly came and settled on his neck and nibbled twice as hard, but he went on blowing until the smith took from the forge a gold ring called Draupnir. Then he put iron in the forge and told him to blow and said it would turn out no good if there was any pause in the blowing. Then the fly settled between his eyes and nibbled his eyelids, and when the blood dripped in his eyes so that he could not see, he snatched at it with his hand as quick as he could while the bellows was on its way down and swept the fly away. And then the smith came back, saying it had come close to everything in the forge being ruined. Then he took from the forge a hammer, then handed over all the precious things to his brother Brokk and told him to take them to ¡sgard and fulfil the wager. And when he and Loki produced the precious things, the Aesir took their places on their judgement seats and the decision uttered by Odinn, Thor and Freyr was to be final. Then Loki gave the spear Gungnir to Odinn, the head of hair that was to be Sif's to Thor, and Skidbladnir to Freyr, and announced the features of the precious things, that the spear never stopped in its thrust, the hair was rooted in the flesh as soon as it came on to Sif's head, and Skidbladnir had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted, wherever it was intended to go, and could be folded up like a cloth and put in one's pocket if desired. Then Brokk brought out his precious things. He gave the ring to Odinn and said that every ninth night there would drip from it eight rings equal to it in weight. To Freyr he gave the boar and said that it could run across sky and sea by night and day faster than any horse, and it never got so dark from night or in worlds of darkness that it was not bright enough wherever it went, there was so much light shed from its bristles. Then he gave Thor the hammer and said he would be able to strike as heavily as he liked, whatever the target, and the hammer would not fail, and if he threw it at something, it would never miss, and never fly so far that it would not find its way back to his hand, and if he liked, it was so small that it could be kept inside his shirt. But there was this defect in it that the end of the handle was rather short. Their decision was that the hammer was the best out of all the precious things and provided the greatest defence against frost-giants, and they decreed that the dwarf had won the stake."

This story provides the basic properties of Mjollnir, namely that it would never break, it would never miss its target, and it would always return to Thor's hand, much like a boomerang. However, this is by no means the limit of Mjollnir's capabilities. The crushing power of Thor's hammer is demonstrated in the tale of Utgardar-Loki, also from the Snorra Edda, wherein Thor meets a cunning giant named Skrimir and three times lands mighty blows on Skrimir's head while he is sleeping. Each time, the giant wakes up and asks if a leaf, an acorn or a twig has fallen on his head, but later the giant reveals himself as Utgardar-Loki and explains that he had used magic to deceive Thor, and that those hammer blows had been directed onto a nearby hill, which now had three new square-shaped valleys.

The association with lightning is found in a number of episodes. It is mentioned explicitly in Thor's encounter with Hrungnir, who had challenged Thor to a duel and arranged to meet him in Giantland. As Hrungnir stood ready, he all at once saw lightning and heard great claps of thunder, then Thor appeared in his ¡s-rage, and threw his hammer from a great distance. Hrungnir threw his own whetstone club in return, but when it collided with Mjollnir, it broke into many pieces, and the hammer hit Hrungnir in the head and shattered his skull, which was also made of stone. Lightning is implied by a similar encounter with a giant called Geirrod, who threw a lump of molten iron at Thor. This time, by Loki's connivance, Thor did not have Mjollnir with him, but all the same he caught the molten iron with a pair of iron gauntlets and threw it back, and it crashed through an iron pillar, through Geirrod, through the wall behind him, and deep into the earth.

The relationship between Thor and his hammer draws obvious parallels with other Indo-European sky-gods, most notably Indra, Zeus and Jupiter, who all had the thunderbolt as their primary weapon. It is important to note that this similarity was not lost on medieval writers, either, many of whom identified Thor with Jupiter, as well as Thor's hammer with Jupiter's sceptre. Thor was the son of Odinn and Jord, symbolically heaven and earth, as were those other sky gods, and he ruled over all the features of the atmosphere, not just storms, thunder and lightning, but also the life-giving rains and the winds that carried ships across the seas. However, it is Thor's use of Mjollnir that rids the world of monsters and giants, and protects the homes of both gods and men, and this is his primary function.

There is another side to Thor's use of Mjollnir, though, and that is as a device of consecration and magical power. When Thor was on his way to Utgardar-Loki, he stopped at a farmhouse and made a meal for his hosts of the two goats, Tanngniost and Tanngristnir, who drew his chariot. In the morning, he gathered the bones and skins of the goats, raised his hammer and blessed the skins, whereupon the goats were restored to life. Also, as part of the funeral ceremony for the slain Baldr, Thor hallows the funeral pyre with Mjollnir. The implication of this, especially in relation to the runic inscriptions from memorial stones, is that Thor's protection continued beyond death.

In the comic poem Thrymskvida, Thor is obliged to disguise himself as Freyja in bridal veil, with Loki as bridemaid, to be married to the giant Thrym, in order to retrieve his hammer, which had been stolen by the giant. When, as was custom, the hammer is laid in the bride's lap to consecrate the marriage, Thor takes up his hammer and kills Thrym and all the giants in his house. Hallowing the bride appears to be an ancient practice indeed, if the interpretation of a particular Bronze Age rock carving, depicting a large figure holding a raised hammer or axe over two smaller figures, is correct. Even long after the conversion to Christianity, in certain parts of Norway and Sweden it continued to be the custom for a groom to carry an axe at the wedding, to give him mastery and to ensure a fruitful union; and in Germany it was thought lucky for the bride if there was a thunder-storm during the wedding ceremony.

Even up to the turn of this century, prehistoric stone axes and fossils were called "thunder-stones" or "thunder-weapons" in Denmark and kept as charms against disaster, hidden in cupboards, walls or floors. They were expected to keep away not only fire and lightning, but also trolls, witches and rats, and they could be used to ward off disease and make medicines, to keep milk from going sour, to guard horses from harm in their stables, and to protect unchristened children in their cradles - as in heathen times the hammer had been used to accept a new-born child into the community. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, German soldiers could buy these "thunder-stones" from the chemist to give themselves protection from bullets.

In the nineteenth century in Argyllshire, there was a custom called the "Thun'er Spell", in which a piece of wood tied to a cord was whirled through the air, much like a bull-roarer, and this would secure immunity from lightning. The Saami (Lappish) people of the far north of Scandinavia remembered Thor as Horagalles, from ON Thor Karl, or "Old Man Thor", depicted him with hammer and swastika, and used hammers of carved reindeer antler to beat drums to help the Saami shamans induce their ecstatic trances. Saxo Grammaticus, writing in the twelfth century, tells of Magnus Nilsson, who in his Christian zeal took from a temple of Thor in Sweden many large bronze hammers which had been used to imitate the crashing of thunder. Thor was also known as Oku-Thor, or "Driving-Thor", for his chariot, pulled by his goats, also made thunder as it travelled across the sky; and it is said there was an image of Thor in his chariot at Thrandheim which would make the noise of thunder as it was pulled along.

The cult of Thor had gained in popularity through the Viking Age, so that by the tenth century, he was venerated above all other gods in most parts of Scandinavia. Unlike the grim and aristocratic Odinn, Thor was a god of the people, and a friend of landowner and peasant alike. Thor was patron of justice, his oath-ring could seal any contract, the Althing assembly of Iceland was opened on Thor's day (Thursday), and the judge's gavel or auctioneer's hammer undoubtedly owes its origin to the hammer symbol of Thor's might and authority. Thor was seen as a protector, defending the old order of the heathen landowners and petty nobles from the predations of the land-grabbing, power-hungry and zealously Christian Kings of Norway. Wearing the sign of the hammer, then, was not just a symbol of one's trust in Thor, it was also an instrument of his protection.

In conclusion, it must be recognised that Thor's hammer Mjollnir was far more than just a symbol to the heathen Norse. It carried the power of Thor with it, moreover, it represented the focus of Thor's power, the thunderbolt before which nothing could stand. As a ritual device, it offered Thor's power as a force for the protection of everything a good heathen held dear; hallowing births, marriages, and deaths; binding oaths, securing property, and consecrating land. As a weapon, Mjollnir defended the world of men and the community from the forces of darkness and chaos which ever threatened to overwhelm them. As a tool, the hammer gave Thor's power to tame the elements. When Christianity came to Scandinavia, Thor stood for the maintenance of the old ways in the face of Christian oppression, and as Steinunn, a tenth century Icelandic poetess described it, he challenged the upstart Christ to a duel. Mjollnir was ranged against the cross, and as much as the cross influenced the development of the hammer, so the hammer left its mark on the symbolism and use of the cross in medieval Scandinavia, and the mighty thunderclap of that duel still echoes through the ages.

Daniel Bray
Sydney University
& Rune-Net


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E. O. G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1964, 83.
H. R. E. Davidson, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, Routledge, London, 1993, 102.
E. O. G. Turville-Petre, op. cit., 84.
Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Erling Monsen (ed.), Dover, New York, 1990, 89.
H. R. E. Davidson, Thor's Hammer, Folklore, vol. 76, The Folk-Lore Society, London, 1965, 12.
Ibid., 13.
H. R. E. Davidson, Pagan Scandinavia, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, 136.
Ibid., 53.
E. O. G. Turville-Petre, op. cit., 84.
Ibid., 81.
Snorri Sturluson, Sk·ldskaparm·l, Edda, Anthony Faulkes(trans.), Everyman, London, 1987, 96ff.
Ibid., Gylfaginning, 39ff.
Ibid., Sk·ldskaparm·l, 78ff.
Ibid., 82ff.
E. O. G. Turville-Petre, op. cit., 101.
M. Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956, 1962, 97ff.
Snorri Sturluson, op. cit., Gylfaginning, 37ff.
Ibid., 49.
L. Hollander (trans.), The Poetic Edda, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1962, 104-9.
H. R. E. Davidson, Thor's Hammer, op. cit., 11.
Ibid., 11ff.
Ibid., 13.
E. O. G. Turville-Petre, op. cit., 84.
H. R. E. Davidson, Thor's Hammer, op. cit., 3.
E. O. G. Turville-Petre, op. cit., 94.

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