Odin was the chief of the gods, but Thor may have been the most popular. A few experts have postulated that this was because Odin demanded occasional human sacrifices while Thor did not, but the real reason for Thor's popularity is fairly obvious. While Odin was the Allfather, it was no real secret who his favorite children were. The men to which he was patron were kings, jarls, poets, and outlaws – individuals (rather than equal members of a community) who could see themselves in Odin's often-egocentric activities. Thor, by contrast, was the great protector of all that was good, as the Vikings defined it. Where Odin was wise, Thor was strong. Where Odin was cunning, Thor was straightforward and stalwart. While Odin was wandering the nine worlds seeking insight into the arcane, Thor was riding across the skies in his goat-drawn chariot smashing giants with his hammer. Thor was a merry warrior. He was indomitable, indefatigable, and steadfast. If Thor were a mortal, every Viking would have wanted to raise an ale horn with him. He was the paragon to which Vikings aspired.
Evidence of Thor's popularity and status as a role model can be seen clearly in Iceland, where more than a quarter of the founding population had some form of his name in theirs (i.e., Thorkill, Thorgest, etc.). Hundreds of Mjölnir (“Lightning,” Thor’s mighty hammer) amulets have been discovered in Viking graves and other Norse archeological sites. Norsemen continued to wear these hammer amulets even after converting to Christianity, suggesting that Thor's role as a hero and protecting influence had not diminished. Of course, he is still in that role today in our culture.
Thor's chariot was pulled by his two flying goats (Tanngrisnir "teeth barer" and Tanngnjostr "teeth grinder). Likewise his father Odin had a chariot pulled by a flying 8-legged horse named Sleipnir. Many believe that Odin and Thor were the original inspiration for Santa. And of course, most know that the day 'Thursday' comes from the Old Norse term Þorsdagr, meaning "Thor's Day."
No god was stronger than Thor. Some of the giants were, but that only made the challenge of beating them more enjoyable for the red-bearded god. His hammer, Mjölnir, was able to destroy mountains, and he used it to smash the heads of the giants that threatened Asgard (the realm of the gods) and Midgard (the world of humanity). When the Vikings saw the skies flashing and felt the rumble of the storm, they knew that Thor was fighting for them again. But Mjölnir was not just a weapon. Thor used Mjölnir to hallow – that is, to restore, make holy, or to bless. With Mjölnir, Thor could even bring some things back to life. Thor was invoked at weddings, at births, and at special ceremonies for these abilities to protect and sanctify.
Thor is often called the God of Thunder. This is not wrong, as his name means “Thunder,” but his role was bigger than that. Thor was a sky god, like Zeus or Marduk, and the god of weather. Thor was the son of Odin and Fyorgyn (also called Jord, as well as other names). Fyorgyn is called a giantess in some narratives but seems to be associated with the older Indo-European tradition of the Great Mother earth goddess. That Thor was the principal male deity celebrated at Yule (a winter solstice festival with very deep roots) reinforces this association.
They say men marry women who are like their mothers, so Thor married Sif (one of the only mellow, “nice girl” goddesses one finds in Norse myth) who seems to also be an earth/agricultural goddess. Herein lays another reason for Thor’s popularity and importance in the lives of ordinary Vikings. For the Vikings, favorable weather at sea could give them great advantages over enemies (and competitors) while bad weather could be deadly. When they returned to their homelands in Scandinavia or their colonies, many Vikings were farmers. The relationship between the weather and the fertility of the land (often seen as a conjugal union in Indo-European faiths) is the basis of feast or famine. So Thor did not just protect humankind from the giants – the destructive cosmic/natural forces – his efforts and his favor blessed them with safety at sea and bounty on land. It is no wonder that he was loved, idolized, and revered.
Though Thor was profoundly strong, he was never reluctant to go out of his depth. In the stories, we often see him venturing far into the giant's territory with nothing to protect him but a disguise. In one tale, he rows a giant's boat out into the ocean, beyond where anyone else has ever been, all so that he can pick a fight with the Jormugund, the World-Coiling Serpent.
This story, or the inspirations behind it, may be one of the reasons old maps had "here be dragons" scrawled on the watery edges of the known world. It is unclear in the story whether Thor already knew that this same monster was fated to be the death of him, but the battle was so terrifying that the giant accompanying Thor cut the god's fishing line and Jormugund slipped back into the deep. Thor was so angry the giant intervened that he killed the luckless wretch and went home in disgust. Here we again see Viking values of bravery and exploration, as well as complete intolerance of what they considered weakness or cowardice.
We can see Viking values in Thor's personality. Thor had great strength, both of body and of character. Strength was essential to the Vikings. Thor was undeniably an alpha male, but he was also a team player – another indispensable quality for Vikings whose success or failure relied on their ability to work together on the ship and in the shield wall. He had a strong sense of community with his fellow gods. He had a violent temper, and most of his stories end up with him cracking the skull of the giant who galled him, but he was usually cheerful and could be forgiving. While Thor's children out of wedlock were further testament to his hot-blooded, virile nature, he was fundamentally a "family man" and was fiercely protective of his wife. Thor was the god the other gods often turned to and counted on, and this was how any good Viking would want to be thought of by his peers.
Most of these characteristics are still valued today, and Thor’s archetype is still visible in the action heroes of our books and movies. What is completely missing in Thor is the self-doubt or any of the “reluctant hero” aspects that are so popular in our culture. Thor’s ethics of whom he killed and why are also those of a Viking god, and not something most modern people would be comfortable with in their heroes.
Every Norse man and woman would probably know all the stories of Thor by heart and would see in these stories what they should be. This exaltation of taking action, of going beyond boundaries, and of finding glory in battle were contributing factors to both the proliferation and the success of the Vikings. Of course, models are just models, and there were undoubtedly plenty of Vikings who were the antithesis of Thor. But in the stories of their most-beloved god, we can see how the Vikings saw themselves and what they wanted to be.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
- McCoy, D. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Norse Mythology Accessed January 9, 2018. Norse-mythology.org
- Zolfagharifard, E. Hammer of Thor' unearthed: Runes on 1,000-year-old amulet solve mystery of why Viking charms were worn for protection. Daily Mail. Published July 1, 2014. Accessed January 9, 2018 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2676386/Hammer-Thor-unearthed-Runes-1-000-year-old-amulet-solve-mystery-Viking-charms-worn-protection.html
- Brownworth, L. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom. 2014
Thor in battle
By Mårten Eskil Winge - 3gGd_ynWqGjGfQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22007120
Thor fighting Jormungandr
Thor und die Midgardsschlange. A scene from Ragnarök, the final battle between Thor and Jörmungandr. Published ca. 1905. Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin. Page 56. Photographed and cropped by User: Haukurth.