The Thunder god


The God of Thunder, Thor (Donar), (from which we get Thursday), was almost as important as Odin, for he not only controlled the thunderbolt, but he was also the god of war.  He was a rather rude, simple god, always ready to face danger and fight off the evil race of giants.  He was thought of as being in charge of the peasants who fell in battle, while Odin was in charge of the nobles.  Once when he came to a wide inlet which he could not cross, he accosted the ferryman, promising him some oatmeal, porridge, and herrings which he had in his sack if the ferryman would take him across.  The man was actually Odin in disguise, and he jeered at the humble fare thus offered him.  Thor tried to recount all the famous victories he had won against the giants, but Odin would come back with greater victories, totally unimpressed.  So he had to walk the long way around, for Odin wouldn’t take a barefooted, penniless vagabond.  He couldn’t use his magic hammer, Mjölnir, against the chief of the gods.  This hammer was the thunderbolt, and its magic property was that it would always fly back to his hand after he had thrown it, and that it would never miss its mark.  He also possessed a miraculous belt that doubled his strength when he put it on, and a pair of iron gloves that he wore when he threw his hammer.

One morning Thor woke up and discovered that his hammer was missing.  He immediately summoned the mischievous god, Loki, to see if he knew anything about the theft.  “It must have been taken by a giant,” he said, “but I will find it for you, never fear.”  So saying, he put on a magic robe made of feathers and flew to the land of the giants.  There he learned that the giant, Thrym, had hidden it eight fathoms below the earth, and the only way he would surrender it was if he were given the hand of the goddess of Love and Beauty, Freyja, in marriage.  Since there was no way out of this predicament, Loki consented to tell the gods.  They were horrified, but Loki had a plan.  He suggested that Thor dress up to look like Freyja, and put on her gold necklace.  After hesitating at first, Thor finally agreed, and the two set off for the land of the giants.

Thrym was so thrilled with the thought of his bride that he ordered the wedding banquet to be prepared at once.  He was a bit surprised to see the bride wolf down a whole ox, eight large salmon, plus innumerable side dishes, as well as three barrels of mead.  But Loki explained away his doubts by saying that the girl had been so nervous as the thought of her wedding she hadn’t been able to eat anything for days.  This made Thrym all the more eager to get on with the ceremony and he leaned over in trying to kiss the “bride.”  But when he saw the ruddy complexion and the eyes which flashed lightning, he backed away in dismay.  Again Loki reassured him.  She had been so upset she hadn’t slept for eight nights.  The giant was so eager by now to consummate the marriage that he sent for the buried hammer, Mjölnir, and placed it on the bride’s knees, according to ancient custom.  Laughing to himself triumphantly, Thor’s hand closed over his precious hammer.  In a twinkling he downed all the giants and then joyously returned to the ranks of the Aesir with Loki.


The two gods had another even more exciting adventure together – the one time when Thor thought a giant had vanquished him.  He and Loki, accompanied by two peasants, were walking all day in giant country, and by evening were thoroughly exhausted.  In the forest they came upon a rather odd-looking house, with a front door as wide as the whole house, but it seemed serviceable and empty, and its shape did not seem important to them.  They made themselves at home and fell asleep.  At midnight, however, there was a terrible earthquake.  The floor itched and tossed and the travelers woke up with a start and rushed out.  All night they stayed awake in a nearby hut, keeping watch, but nothing else happened.

At daybreak, Thor looked and came upon a sleeping giant.  Now he understood the reason for all the noise of the night before.  He was furious, and just about to wake the huge creature up with a well-aimed blow of his hammer, when the giant leaped to his feet.  “I am Skrymir.”  he said, “and you are Thor.  Where have you put my glove?”  Taken aback at first, Thor suddenly realized that the house he and his friends had spent the night in was not a house at all, but the giant’s glove, and the shed they had moved to after the “earthquake” was the thumb of the glove!  The giant said he would like to go with them, so all five went off together.  In the evening Skrymir pretended he was completely worn out and fell asleep before supper.  But when Loki and Thor attempted to untie their sack containing the store of provisions which the giant had  carried during the day as a sign of friendliness, they found the knots were too tight to be undone at all.  Right away, Thor knew who to blame for this turn of events, and he tried to wake up Skrymir.  It was hopeless.  In vain he pounded on the giant’s skull with the full force of his hammer.  The sleepy Skrymir only half woke up complaining about bird droppings or acorns falling on his forehead.  The four had to go to bed supper-less.  In the morning Thor tried again, and this time the giant woke up, pretending to wipe off a leaf from his brow.  He told the group he had to be on his way; they weren’t far from Utgard where they going anyhow.  Then he disappeared.

When they reached Utgard toward midday, Thor went straight to the palace and demanded to be admitted.  The giant king, Utgardaloki, said no one was permitted to enter until he had first proved himself by some famous deed.  Loki immediately volunteered to prove his prowess.  The giant king sent him one of the other giant, Logi, as an opponent in a great eating contest.  They were served huge portions of meat on plates as big as vats.  In less time than it takes to tell, Loki had devoured everything but the bones.  His opponent, however, had eaten meat, bones, and the plate as well.

The peasant Thjalfi offered himself next.  He claimed to be the swiftest runner in the world, but when the giant Hugi race against him, Thjalfi was left far behind, though he ran faster than lightning itself.  When it came to Thor’s turn, he was convinced that he at least would be victorious in his contest.  No one could drink as much or fast as he!  Utagardaloki sent for the huge drinking horn which the giants were accustomed to empty in two draughts, at the most.  Thor seized it and gulped down first one, then two, then three draughts, but he hadn’t changed the level in the horn at all.  Bitterly disappointed and unbelieving, he attempted to prove at least how strong he was by picking up from the ground a certain cat.  It didn’t budge, except for one paw which he managed to lift about an inch off the ground.  Then he tried to wrestle with the old woman, Elli, but she forced one of his knees to the ground.  Thor was completely humiliated, and was about to turn away in disgrace, when the king stopped him.  “Don’t go,” he exclaimed.  “You are the strongest person in the whole world.  It was I who met you in the forest in disguise.  And it was only because I covered my head with mountains that you did not kill me with the blows of your hammer.  Loki was unable to beat Logi because he was fire itself.  As for Hugi, he was thought, and no one can outrun thought.  You couldn’t empty the drinking horn because the other end was plunged in the inexhaustible sea.  But you did manage to set the tide in motion.  The immovable cat was the serpent of Midgard whose coils surround the earth.  It was bad enough that you moved his paw, for you started a terrible earthquake.  And don’t let the fact that you couldn’t beat an old woman upset you.  She was Old Age, and no one will ever conquer her.  “Furious that he had been made a fool of, Thor started to hurl his hammer at the giant.  But Utgardaloki had disappeared, and with him the castle.  There was nothing in sight but the grass which grew on the deserted plain.

The Teutonic-Scandinavian myths, comprise stories that are very difficult to sort out because they were reworked by Christian authors during the periods of the intense converting campaigns – from 500 to 1000 A.D.  North German, South German, Danish, Norse, and Icelandic legends have different names for the same gods, plus considerable discrepancies in their roles, their importance, and their functions.  Most of the stories come from an anonymous collection of poems known as the Elder Edda, and a prose version known as the Younger Edda.  The date of composition of these works has been very difficult to ascertain, as is the case with almost every true folk epic, but generally the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries are held to be the time at which these tales were recorded.  Many of them date from at least the ninth century.  One of the significant differences between the Scandinavian legends and the Greek, as anyone will notice immediately, is the tremendously important role magic plays, and the delight in cruelty and meanness, personified in Loki.  There seems to be little joy or hope either in Asgard or on earth.  The hero always tries to prove his valor or his goodness, but can only do this by dying.  In death he triumphed.  Such a courting of death is totally foreign to the Greek soul, which believed in life – that the world was a marvelous creation.  No Norse poet could have written as Sophocles did in his play Antigone: “many are the wonders in the world, but nothing is more wondrous than man.”  For the Teutonic – Anglo-Saxon tradition, wonders and portents were the province of the demons.  Magic was the real power.

In Led Zeppelin’s epic tune Immigrant Song, one of the lyrics is “Valhalla I am coming.” It refers to Norse Mythology.  Valhalla is a hall in Asgard where the souls of fallen warriors are taken by the “Valkyries,” which are spirits of war who carry up heroes who have been slain.  Only heroes are taken to Valhalla, where they will wait for their certain doom.

Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!

On we sweep with threshing oar, Our only goal will be the western shore.

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
How soft your fields so green, can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war. We are your overlords.

On we sweep with threshing oar, Our only goal will be the western shore.

So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing.


The Twilight of the Gods

From the very beginning of their life in Asgard, the gods had known they would have to die.  As long as they could, they tried to put off the terrible event by preventing the giants and dwarfs from getting too strong, and tying to maintain justice and honesty.  But one among their number could never be trusted; that of Loki.  And his love of trickery spread to others the gods aware that he was responsible for the death of their beloved Balder, the last deed in a series that had been growing more and more evil.  He finally had to be punished and was clapped in irons.  But this made him the eternal enemy of the gods, and when he broke his chains he joined the ranks of their irreconcilable opponents, the giants and demons.

One day the watchman, Heimdall, saw that the wolf, Fenrir, had broken the unbreakable chain, and was sailing toward Asgard on a boat whose helmsman was Loki.  This boat was approaching from the North.  From the West another ship was coming, manned by the giant Hrym and a phantom crew.  The giant Surt appeared from the South with other giants, and the fire they started began to burn away the innards of the earth.  The heat reached the vault of the heavens and it cracked in two.  The gods and the giants were at last face to face, as prophesied from the beginning of time.

By agreement, they fixed the battlefield, a square measuring one thousand leagues on a side, in front of Valhalla.  Its name was Vigrid; here the terrible butchery took place.  Odin was the first to perish in the titanic battle.  He attacked the wolf, Fenrir, and was swallowed hole.  His son, Vidar, avenged him by piercing the beast through the gullet to its very heart.  Thor went after the hideous beast he had long ago tried to kill – the great serpent of Midgard – which crawled toward the thunder-god, spewing out such powerful poison that sea and earth and air alike were polluted.  Thor crushed the skull of the monster with his magic hammer, but he had breathed in so much poisoned air that he staggered away, and after nine steps, fell dead.  Loki and Heimdall had always been enemies, so in the battle each sought out the other.  But in killing Heimdall, Loki himself was killed.  The mischievous god who had turned good into evil was finally dead.  Only one god was left alive, one-handed Tyr.  He ranged the battlefield looking for the wolf Fenrir who had taken his right hand.  He was too late, for Odin’s son had already killed him.  But upon hearing a terrible growling behind him, he turned around to face the dog of the underworld, Garm.  Tyr plunged his sword deep into the ferocious beast’s heart, but in so doing, he was mauled to death.

All the Gods were dead.  A great flood rose up from the seas as the earth began to loose its shape.  The starts fell from the sky, and soon the whole earth had sunk beneath the ocean.  The end had come.  In the great cycle of legends preserved in the anonymous poems known as the Eddas there is an eventual rebirth of the world and new gods.  But they are uninteresting, dull creatures compared to the golden shining gods, the Aesir, who had lived in Asgard.