Mjölnir (most common English pronunciation being: "me-owl-neer") was the mighty hammer of Thor, most beloved champion of the Norse gods. Thor used Mjölnir as his primary weapon in protecting humanity and gods alike from sea serpents, giants, ogres, and the forces of chaos.
Thor’s role as protector earned him the kennings (poetic refrains) of “Defender of Asgard and Midgard” and “Friend of Mankind.” Thor and Mjölnir were invoked at pivotal moments – not just battles, but common experiences like weddings, births, funerals, or any time people needed blessings and good fortune. Steadfast, compassionate, and almost invincible, Thor was a deity that Vikings turned to in times of trouble.
Many of the legends of Thor focus on Mjölnir itself, such as its creation by the Dwarves (which was initiated by Loki) and its theft and retrieval by Giants. The Mjölnir symbol (an upside-down “T” with varying degrees of ornamentation) came to signify Thor to anyone who saw it. In time, this symbol became associated with northern paganism in general. Today, people wear a Thor's hammer necklace to represent a variety of things; such as their Scandinavian heritage, their love of Viking history and/or their faith in "the old gods.” The association is so strong that the United States Military now offers the option for Mjölnir on headstones of slain soldiers who self-identified as Heathen, Asatru, or other Northern European polytheists. Likewise, most prisons now allow the Mjölnir to be worn as a "religious" necklace necklace (as an alternative to the cross, Star of David, etc.).
This article will take a look at the use of the Mjölnir symbol in Viking Age jewelry, particularly amulets. We will discuss where these artifacts have clustered, and what these finds can tell us about their place in Norse society. We will also examine a controversy (popular among certain scholars) that Thor's hammer amulets proliferated in response to the spread of Christianity in Scandinavia.
While the word “amulet” first came into use in the Middle Ages, the concept itself is extremely ancient and spread broadly amongst almost all cultures. Essentially, an amulet is a small object carried on the person that is thought to offer some inherent protection against the adverse forces believed to be at work in the world. Amulets can be associated with a god (as is the case with Thors hammer) but are often thought to have some inherent qualities of their own. For example, in Egyptian mythology we see gods using amulets to add to their own power, not merely to channel it.
These magical properties may arise from the shape of the amulet (again, such as the Mjölnir or the cross). They can also arise from the materials the amulets are made of, such as iron or silver to repel evil. These shapes and materials could also be augmented by letters or runes carved on the piece, or by hand signs, gestures, or ritual behavior involving the amulet in particular situations. An example of this in modern times is kissing the cross, but it could be as simple as touching the amulet while saying a prayer.
Amulets were used in burial rituals. Referring to Egypt again, numerous amulets were wrapped into the mummified remains to ensure a smooth transition into the afterlife. However, amulets were much more commonly used in everyday life. In pre-modern times, when people understood their world as a balancing act between order and chaos and felt themselves to be at the constant mercy of the gods and of Fate, amulets provided a small piece of reassurance. An amulet was something that could hopefully tip the scales in one’s favor.
Unfortunately, there are not many mentions of Mjölnir amulets in the sagas, despite the widespread use attested by archeology. So, we do not have a lot of specific written information about what the Vikings thought about them or how they were actually used. It is reasonable that the attitude was similar to that of other cultures. Perhaps, though, the Vikings did not expect grand magical powers from these simple objects. They may have just worn a Mjolnir hammer because they liked it. Or, as some scholars have hypothesized, they may have worn it to declare their faith in the face of a shifting political-religious climate (more on this later). Whatever the case may be, the large numbers of recovered Mjölnir amulets, the wide geographical area in which they were found, and the various settings in which they came to rest suggest that they were indeed very important to the Vikings.
Characteristics of Mjölnir Amulets
Mjölnir amulets tend to be small objects in the shape of a hammer, displayed handle side up. This “handle” is short, as it was in the stories. You may recall, Loki (in the shape of a gadfly) bit the eye of the dwarf Brokkr as he worked the bellows of Eitri’s forge. With the loss of heat, Eitri could not finish the handle. This short handle did not ultimately limit Thor’s ability to wield the weapon. In the stories (and the Marvel movies), we see the god throwing the short-handled hammer at his enemies. The top of the Mjölnir often (but not always) comes to a slight point, giving the overall object a somewhat diamond shaped appearance. This shape is similar to an inverted Tyr rune. Other scholars have observed that what the shape most represents is a Thurisaz rune turned on its side. Because Thurisaz runes are associated with giants, chaos, and evil, this is appropriate – though it is still just speculation.
Mjölnir amulets were commonly made of iron, though the finest examples are made of silver. Some were made of amber, one of the precious stones (and coveted exports) from Scandinavia associated with prosperity and good fortune. As amber was the property of Freyja, it is possible the owners of an amber Mjölnir were invoking two deities at the same time. Mjolnir necklace amulets were also made of more common materials, such as fired clay or wood. Many of these may not survive the ravages of time, and so as common as Mjölnir are in the archeological record, they were likely even more common in the Viking Age.Some Mjölnir pendants were extravagantly decorated with fantastic craftsmanship. Some had more simple designs, such as circles. One found in the Danish island of Lolland in 2014 had a runic inscription. This particular find put to rest a scholarly argument that had lasted a century, for though most saw the amulets as Thor’s hammer, some did not agree. But, as if responding to the controversy from across the centuries, the Lolland Mjölnir’s runes say, “Hmar x is” (“this is a hammer”).
Most Mjölnir were very plain though. Interestingly, plain iron hammers are found even in ship burials and grand hordes of silver and jewels, underscoring the inherent value of these inexpensive items.
There were two competing traditions of Mjölnir amulets. The most familiar tradition was to wear the Mjölnir as a pendant, using either a chain, cord, or leather thong. The other tradition (thought to perhaps be the older tradition) was to suspend one – or even several – Mjölnir from a ring. In at least one grave find, evidence pointed to this ring being worn on a belt. The ring style Mjölnir are often more commonly found in treasure hordes, while the pendent style was widespread enough to turn up anywhere Vikings roamed.
Where were Mjölnir Found, and What Might that Say About the Vikings?
Mjölnir amulets are most commonly found in Sweden, Denmark, and parts of Germany that are near Denmark. However, they have also been found in many other countries. There have been finds in the southern and eastern Baltic. Some have turned up in Poland, a place were the Vikings had bases of operation, including the famous Jomsviking brotherhood. Some have been found in the British Isles, Iceland (of course) and Eastern countries such as Ukraine and Russia. Interestingly, relatively few have been found in Norway (about a dozen, compared to more than 450 in the Malaren/Birka district of Sweden).
These Norwegian finds tend to deviate from the patterns found elsewhere. For example, in Norway, the pendant style and ring style show up at about the same time, and more Mjölnir are found in graves.
Outside of Norway, only about 10-25% of Mjölnir are found in graves. They are found in the graves of both women and men, and in inhumation as well as cremation burials. The rest are from treasure hordes are stray finds. This demonstrates that Mjölnir were not just part of burial rituals but were a valued part of life. Though Thor is a macho god by our standards, the use of Mjölnir by Norse women show that they had a special reverence for him. The use of Mjölnir to bless weddings and births (described in the stories and born out in archeology) underscore this relationship between the champion god and his female worshippers. However, Mjölnir amulets show up in male graves and in “male” contexts, too. So, it seems that the worship of Thor and appeals to his protection were distributed across the community.
Mjölnir Versus Crosses?
Scholars have hypothesized that Mjölnir amulets proliferated in 10th and 11th century Scandinavia in response to the Christian cross. The case for this is fairly straightforward:
- Though Mjölnir amulets existed in Scandinavia before the Christian activity of the late 10th and 11th centuries, they became much more common during the period when religious change was escalating.
- The Mjölnir amulet and the cross pendant as used by medieval Christians served similar functions. Both expressed faith in a savior deity (though the type of salvation differs significantly) and were thought to ward off evil. Either could serve as an instant visual cue as to someone’s faith.
- Under the political and cultural threats posed by widespread conversion (which was largely driven by increasingly-powerful Viking kings emulating the rest of Europe) it would be natural for Vikings adhering to the indigenous faith to adopt some type of expression of their own – a clear way of visually differentiating “us” from “them.”
The fact that Christian crosses and Mjölnir were not necessarily used in a mutually exclusive way does not support the argument, nor does it automatically detract from it. As described in other articles, the religious tapestry of the Vikings was dynamic and complex. Mjölnir and crosses have been found in the same graves, for example. One artifact that demonstrates the overlap and syncretism between Christianity and Nordic polytheism in Viking communities was a mold for casting metal crosses and Mjölnir at the same time! Another intriguing artifact is the “wolf cross” found in Iceland. This cunningly crafted amulet could be interpreted as a Mjölnir or a cross. It is attached to the chain by the head of a wolf (an apocalyptic symbol for the Vikings).
There are a few difficulties or counter arguments to the Mjölnir versus Cross hypothesis though. Some scholars, such as Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide of the University of Bergen, argue that there is not enough evidence to make these conclusions. He sites the large regional variations in Mjölnir distribution indicating something that falls far short of a supposed large scale popular resistance. Indeed, the very idea of a homogenous indigenous faith resisting hated foreign influence may be anachronistic. That is, its easy for us to see it that way through hindsight, but archeology, place names, the literary record, and other clues paint a picture of a Viking Age that is far more complicated. The debate continues, though, in and out of scholarly circles.
One of the difficult things about studying Mjölnir (and several other aspects of Viking archeology) is that some artifacts we now have were discovered a hundred years ago, and perhaps by accident, so documentation may be lacking, and important context clues missed. There will probably always be controversies and questions surrounding them. However, the picture that clearly emerges is that Mjölnir amulets were used in a variety of contexts wherever Vikings roamed. They were personal treasures of both men and women, the humble and the wealthy. They symbolize the Viking worldview of the balance between order and chaos, and express hope that there was “someone up there looking out for them.” For that reason, and many others, there is perhaps no other symbol or type of artifact that is as distinctly “Viking” as the Mjölnir amulet.
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- W. Nordeide. Thor’s Hammer in Norway: A Symbol of Reaction Against the Christian Cross? Old Norse Religions in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Nordic Academic Press. 2006. (4) (PDF) Thor's hammer in Norway. A symbol of reaction against the Christian cross? | Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide - Academia.edu
- Gillan. How a Viking Amulet Solved the Mystery of Thor's Hammer. Ancient Origins. July 16, 2020. https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/discovery-hammer-thor-artifact-solves-mystery-viking-amulets-001819
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- G. Rodgers & K. Noer Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018
- Price. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.