Of all the gods in the Norse pantheon, Thor is likely the most influential. His father, Odin, holds a more important place among the order of the gods, but Thor resonated with the hearts and minds of ancient Scandinavia in a very personal way.
If you're not familiar with Thor, you're in the right place. This article will take a deep dive into the history of Thor, his significance in Norse mythology, and his evolution throughout the ages. This is also a great place to be if you've only crossed paths with Thor's hammer in the Marvel Universe.
We're taking the long way, looking at the politics, cultures, and mythologies that carried Thor throughout the last 7,500 years. If you're just looking to understand who Thor is in the context of Norse mythology, skip down to the section "Who is Thor in Norse Mythology?"
There are thousands of years of history behind the superhero we now see on the silver screen. So, clank your hammers and look to the heavens because we're about to unpack the history of the sky god Thor.
Thor's Cultural-Historical Origin
Those looking for a full appreciation of Thor's significance should look at his historical context. Thor starts to emerge earlier and earlier in history as you look closer at Indo-European history. We'll look at the cultural and political roots of Norse mythology, seeing how the converging mythologies of ancient Europe might have merged to create the Norse pantheon.
Let's backtrack through some European and proto-European history, referencing the respective mythologies as we go. It's important to go through political factors that influenced migration and cultural changes.
The following sections don't focus solely on Thor. Instead, they guide us toward his origins in a way that allows us to appreciate his scope and persistence throughout time.
Norse Mythology in The Viking Age
Norse mythology encompasses the dominant beliefs of pre-Christian Scandinavians and Northern Germanic Peoples. It's an evolution of the paganism of Iron-Age Germanic peoples. The Scandinavian Iron Age ran from roughly the 6th century B.C. to the advent of the Viking Age which began around the middle of the 8th century A.D.
The Viking age is marked by the first Norweigian raids upon the coastal lands of neighboring Christian territories. They colonized many small pieces of land, using them for agricultural plots and strategic trade points. They stretched throughout Europe during this time.
These people had been raiding coastal settlements for hundreds of years by the time the Viking Age began. That said, the age is marked by extensive successful raids. The official Viking Age spans from the 790s to the middle of the 1,000.
The consequent wealth allowed Vikings to prosper and enjoy their religion without significant persecution. This would change soon, however.
In the 11th century, European groups started to organize and provide better defenses against these maritime raiders. Further, Scandinavians had integrated with other European groups and Christianity started to penetrate Norse culture. These factors contributed to the end of the Viking Age.
This period of time is the height of Norse mythology's prevalence and importance, however. It had existed for hundreds of years prior, but the expansion and influence of Scandinavians during this time contributed to its proliferation. It's the Viking Age that sets Norse mythology apart as a distinctive religion and distinguishes it from "Old Norse Religion" or "Norse Paganism," as it was called in antiquity.
Old Norse Religion existed after the Germanic peoples separated in the wake of the Roman empire. Thor had a place there, but many of the other Norse gods weren't conceived yet. As we move further back in time, you'll see that Thor actually had extremely important positions in numerous mythologies and religions throughout the ages, even though people might have called him by a different name.
Distribution of Germanic Peoples
The Migration Period, marked by the fall of the Roman empire around 300 A.D. and the consequent restructuring of European peoples played an important role in the spread of Germanic paganism. Rome was in control of the vast majority of Europe, and its collapse allowed millions of people to relocate, organize, and start to form the shape of Europe as we now know it.
A big chunk of that population was what we now refer to as the "Germanic peoples." These were individuals that lived in Central Europe and Scandinavia during antiquity. It's important to note that "Germanic" people didn't necessarily have a shared nationality or identity. They might not have seen themselves as parts of a unified group.
Their geographic proximity is the main thing that unites them. That said, they shared ancestry or cultural heritage. We know this because all people in that region spoke what is known as the Proto-Indo-European language. While there's no record of this language, there is evidence to suggest that it was a widely-shared, mutually intelligible set of dialects used by Germanic peoples.
So, while they all might have sounded a little different, they would have been able to understand each other in most cases. It's from this set of dialects that all modern Germanic languages derive. These languages include English, German, French, Norweigian, and more.
More than 1/4 of the world's population speaks English, and more than 515 million people speak other Germanic languages as their native tongues. In any case, Germanic groups were constantly struggling against Roman rule and contributed meaningfully to its ultimate collapse.
Long before the Germanic peoples were battling with Romans, smaller groups of their ancient relatives were conjuring up their versions of the gods.
Proto-Indo-Europeans: The Predecessors of The German Peoples
The Proto-Indo-Europeans are a hypothetical (yet very real) group of people. Their "hypothetical" nature is only due to the fact that they lived so long ago that there's very little, if any, archeological evidence to illuminate their lifestyles.
Estimates place these people somewhere between 7,500 B.C and 4,000 B.C. Their original homeland would have been modern Ukraine and Southern Russia, although they spread into Northern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southern Asia. These people acted as the foundational populations for many of humanity's great cities.
Proto-Indo-Europeans existed before the (generally accepted) birth of true writing, which is thought to have occurred sometime between 3,000 and 4,000 B.C. True writing is distinct from proto-writing, which involves a series of images and symbols. Proto-writing first emerged around 7,000 B.C. in modern China.
That means that there isn't any written evidence of their beliefs. There are ways to glean insights into their mythologies, however.
Finding Ancient Commonalities
Linguists and historians have taken a number of insights from the similarities of Indo-European languages that followed. The thinking is that any cultural details shared among the direct descendants of the Proto-Indo-European people must have come from the original language.
The same is true for the traditions that followed the original culture. Piecing linguistic and cultural evidence together has allowed researchers to create a rough sketch of the pantheon of Proto-Indo-European gods.
Reconstructed ideas of Proto-Indo-European mythology show clear evidence of a daylight sky god (Dyēus) and an earth mother who produce secondary deities as children.
These include a dawn goddess daughter and divine twin sons. There is also an additional solar goddess and a few other confirmed individuals that contribute to the pantheon.
Note that Dyēus closely resembles the Latin word for "God." Similarly, the word resembles "Day," most likely because Dyēus was the daylight sky god and this was the Indo-European word for sunlight.
These foundational Gods distributed widely and mutated as they went. We know find traces of this language and mythology in Celtic, Greek, Roman, Norse, Albanian, and many other cultures. In fact, Dyēus' influence (along with the other gods in this pantheon) might have stretched down into the Indian subcontinent and impacted Hinduism and Buddhism.
In terms of our discussion, the most important god in this set is someone named Perkwunos.
Perkwunos, The Original Thunder God
Perkwunos is thought to mean "the Striker."
He's a weather god, broadly encompassing most aspects of weather. Specifically, he's responsible for the behavior of the weather in relation to fertility and crops. Individuals would have called out to Perkwunos in times of drought, for example.
As the harbinger of rain, he was also the bringer of lightning and thunder. Another of his names was "Lord of The Oaks," most likely because these tall trees were some of the first to be struck in lightning storms.
Perkwunos was believed to have a sacred vault in the sky. The name for his vault gets interpreted as "stone weapon" or "thunderbolt." This is referred to as the thunder god's weapon.
Battling Serpents with Might Tools
Finally, the thunder god's protection is called for in the end times of this ancient mythology. Numerous Indo-European myths cite a thunder god battling a monstrous snake or serpent at the end of days. This snake invariably holds up a massive amount of water that would be released if the battle was lost.
Perkwunos fights the snake, yielding his weapon. The name of the weapon is roughly translated as "Meldn."
This description contains numerous aspects that are central to Thor's mythology.
We'll explore the connections between Perkwunos and Thor before moving forward and describing Thor's specific role in Norse mythology.
First, though, it's worth noting that Perkwunos' influence rippled out into a few other mythologies of note, rippling through time in ways that might surprise you. Let's look at those other key evolutions of Perkwunos.
Jupiter, Zeus, Hercules, Indra
Jupiter is the ancient Roman god of the sky and thunder. He was a primary diety at this time. His Greek equivalent was Zeus, who was also attributed as the god of thunder in that culture.
The god Hercules, son of Jupiter, is also attributed with numerous Thor-like qualities. Hercules battles snakes in his infancy, which is parallel to Thor's task of battling the World Serpent during Ragnarok. Since Hercules is only the son of the principal Greek god, it's fitting that his battle with a snake is much smaller in scale.
Later, Hercules would battle Hydra (multi-headed snake) with his iconic club.
It's believed that the origin of the club spreads from the Roman region during the Migration period.
There's evidence of Hercules' club pendants in ancient Europe. At the end of the Migration Period, these evolve into Germanic Thor's Hammer pendants. These clubs were eventually called "Donar's Clubs," with "Donar" being an earlier name for Thor.
*The original German word for "Thursday" is "Donnerstag," meaning that Thursday literally means "Thor's day."
In this instance, Perkwunos evolved into Hercules, only to have his famous club reattributed to Thor's hammer after the fall of Rome. Hercules and Thor existed simultaneously in different parts of Europe, but the similarities between both allowed Germanic and Roman peoples to blend the gods when they came in contact.
To the southeast, we find the god Indra. Indra is a central god in Hinduism, which is another extension of Proto-Indo-European mythology. Indra is the god of thunder, lightning, weather (generally), and war.
There are more connections to draw between various gods, Perkwunos, and Thor. The gods listed above, however, are arguably the best-known deities with direct connections.
Who Is Thor in Norse Mythology?
To those of you who skipped ahead, this is the point where we discuss Thor, specifically.
To those who stuck it out, Skol! Let's dive deeper.
In relation to Germanic Paganism and Norse Mythology, Thor is cited as the Norse god of lightning, thunder, and sacred groves and trees. Further, he's charged with the mythological protection of mankind from the World Serpent, Jörmungandr.
It's evident that Perwunos, the aforementioned thunder god dating as far back as 7,500 years, is the original Thor. In fact, they are one and the same.
Very few central details from Perkwunos' mythology have been changed when it comes to Thor. Many of the other gods that ripple out and mirror Perkwunos have clear similarities, but Thor is the only god that remains relatively true to form.
Enough with the ancient history, though. Let's dig into the Norse myth specifically. Who is Thor? What does he do to help humanity and the gods? What is Thor's Hammer?
Let's take a look.
Son of Odin
Thor is the son of Odin, the principal god of Norse Mythology and Northern Europe in the Viking Age.
Odin gives Thor the responsibility to protect humanity and Earth. Midgard, which is the middle realm in this mythology, is the place where humans occupy the earth.
There are nine realms in Norse mythology, all of which are stacked upon one another and situated around the World Tree, Yggdrasil. Above Midgard, we find Asgard.
Asgard is the home of the gods, and Thor is charged with the protection of this realm as well. As a result of these duties, most of the tales about Thor detail his battles with various giants and foes. Thor's fight with the World Serpent is the most notable of these battles.
Mjölnir: Thor's Mighty Hammer
Archeological evidence in Iceland suggests that Thor was an extremely popular god.
In contrast to some of the other gods that might have played tricks or worked in dimly-lit halls, Thor ripped through the sky on a chariot pulled by divine goats, smashing giants and demons with the great clash of his mighty hammer. The sounds of lightning and thunder would have meant that Thor had squashed yet another foe attempting to enter Midgard.
He was popular because he was admirable. Thor would've been the type of person that a Viking-age individual could respect. As a result, there are tiny Thor's hammer pendants found in gravesites, namesakes found in surnames, and more.
The original Mjölnir, though, was forged in a place called Svartalfheim, the realm of the Dwarves.
It was picked up by the trickster god Loki one day as a tribute to Thor. He didn't do it from the kindness of his heart, though.
Instead, Loki offered Mjölnir as repayment for snipping a lock of Thor's wife's hair. The golden-haired goddess agreed to forgive Loki if he could return with an improved strand of hair from a group of craftsmen Dwarves called the Ivaldi brothers.
Upon arrival, Loki spotted two of the most beautiful works of craftsmanship in the Norse world. First, he noticed Gungnir.
Gungnir would become Odin's spear and play an important role in the great Norse sagas. Next, he saw Mjölnir. He would take Gungnir and Mjölnir back to Asgard along with a beautiful new strand of hair.
Some accounts say he stole these from the Dwarves, while others claim that the Dwarves were happy to offer these mythical items as. tributes to Thor and Odin.
From Creation to Ragnarok & Thor's Final Revenge
Norse mythology is one of the few mythologies that are relatively easy to understand. We're often presented with various descriptions and accounts about how things came to be and given dozens of interpretations of those accounts.
In the case of Norse gods, fortunately, there isn't much dispute on the origin story or the nature of the heavens. This is because there are only two primary sources that detail Norse mythology, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, and both are in agreement with one another.
The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems written in the 13th century and detailing Norse mythology. Note that this was written after the Viking Age and after Europe was largely Christianized. Yet, these stories are the earliest known accounts of this mythology. Written slightly after, but in the same century, we also have the Prose Edda. This is a compilation of texts written or compiled by Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson in roughly 1220.
Here's the general arch of the story:
Ginnungagap and The Creation of Ymir
Before any beings occupied the universe, there was a great void in the cosmos. This void was called "Ginnungagap."
On either end of the void existed two worlds, Niflheim and Musphelheim. Musphelheim was the world of fire, while Niflheim was the world of ice.
These two polar opposites attracted each other from opposite ends of the cosmos. As they approached, they interacted in such a way to produce icy cosmic rivers.
These rivers either nourish Ygdrassil (the World Tree), which is sort of superimposed over Ginnungagap or simply exists there as this is happening. Whether or not Ygdrassil is present in the begginnign is one aspect of the creation myth that's hard to determine.
From these rivers grew the first being, named Ymir. He was a giant, and he sustained himself by suckling from the cow goddess Auðumbla.
Ymir reproduced asexually, growing numerous children from his armpits. These children would go on to populate the world of giants, even reproducing with the gods and humans of the heavens.
The Creation of Earth
As Auðumbla nourishes Ymir, she gnaws away at a salt lick, slowly uncovering another man from inside the block of salt. This was Buri, who would become the grandfather of Odin. Odin and his brothers Vili and Vé went on to kill Ymir, using various aspects of his body to create the Earth.
His hairs become the trees, his brains became the clouds, his blood formed the oceans, and so on. This is where the humans come to live and worship the gods above.
Over time, the gods and other creatures end up with a total of 9 realms surrounding Ygdrassil. Among them are elves, dwarves, and other celestial beings.
There's a lot that happens, amongst the gods, but the key narrative involves Ragnarok. Ragnarok means "the twilight of the gods," and refers to the end times. Most gods will die in the end times, and Ragnarok marks the beginning of a new age.
The trickster god Loki and his children play very imporatnt roles here.
Loki, Jörmungandr, & Fenrir
Loki's children are part and parcel to the beginning of Ragnarok. In particular, his son Jörmungandr plays a massive role.
Odin, terrified by the monstrous snake spawn of Loki, cast Jörmungandr out to the sea.
It's worth noting that Jörmungandr isn't a particularly smart character. Most other animal-type beasts in Norse mythology are anthropomorphized to a greater degree than Jörmungandr. He's just a giant snake with the demeanor of well, a snake!
He speaks occassionally and battles with Thor on two notable occassions, but his primary role is sitting, wrapped around the Earth with his tail in his mouth.
The Summoning of Ragnarok
It's believed that Ragnarok begins when three icy winters make the World Serpent uncomfortable, prompting him to release his tail from his mouth and swim upwards.
In doing so, he causes earthquakes and shakes the 9 realms, marking the start of the end times. Jörmungandr poisons the sky with his breath, Fenrir (Loki's monstrous wolf son) escapes and swallows Odin, and Thor moves to take on the giant snake as his last act of greatness.
Thor and Jörmungandr are sworn enemies. They have two notable encounters in the Eddas, and the first is a little comical.
The Fishing Trip
Thor's first crack at Jörmungandr came during a time of peace in Asgard.
There was peace between the giants and the gods, so a pair of two friendly giants invited the gods to their home in Jötunheim for a great feast. They were only missing a large pot or cauldron to brew enough ale for everyone in attendance.
There was a giant named Hymir with the right pot for the job, but he lived far away in Midgard. Thor volunteered to go and pick up the cauldron.
When Thor arrived, Hymir slaughtered a few bulls to eat for the duration of his stay. Surprisingly, Thor eat two bulls in one sitting, frustrating Hymir and prompting the two to go fishing the following morning.
They needed more food, and they were lucky to catch two massive wales while out on the water. Hymir was ready to go, but Thor kept staring out to sea.
He took the rows and used his supernatural strength to push them out as deep as they could go.
Thor had beheaded a bull before leaving and brought the severed head along on the water. He slipped it onto a hook and dropped it into the water.
Hymir knew that Jörmungandr might have been lurking below. He also knew that Ragnarok would start if Jörmungandr released his head from his tail in the process of being caught.
Terrified, Hymir saw that something tugged on the line and jerked hard enough for Thor to lose his footing. The only creature strong enough to put up a fight with Thor was Jörmungandr.
Thor was stronger, though, and he started to pull the line up so that Hymir could see the top of Jörmungandr's head coming out of the water. If Thor would have pulled him out, Ragnarok would begin.
Smartly, Hymir snipped Thor's line and sent the great snake back to the depths. Thor angrily pushed the giant out of the boat and rowed home.
Thor and Jörmungandr Battle During Ragnarok
When Ragnarok is in full swing, all manner of evil beasts and foes of the gods will be fighting in the chaos of an unsteady cosmos.
Odin is swallowed, the earth is flooded, and the battle rages on. Thor is destined to seek Jörmungandr and battle him once and for all. Thor and Jörmungandr encounter one another and have one last battle.
Thor pulls out Mjölnir and smashes the serpent to its death. The World Serpent's breath is poisonous for the gods to breathe, however, so Thor, in the wake of his victory, takes nine paces and stumbles to the ground.
He takes his last breaths, and this great hero of the ages dies.
Ragnarok Is Yet to Come
The story of the end times has yet to unfold, according to Norse myth. Naturally, if it had happened and it was true, we wouldn't be here! That means that Thor is still out there in the heavens, clanking his great hammer and laughing alongside the Hindu and Roman gods who share his likeness.
Odin is still out there, posing a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, and watching over the fallen heroes in Valhalla.
When Ragnarok does occur, most of the Norse deities will die along with the Midgard serpent and the rest of Loki's children. The myth says that a new, extremely fertile age will begin at that time and the earth will be repopulated by two humans who survive the wreckage.
What Is Thor's Significance Today?
So, now you know where Thor comes from and what kind of impact he's had on world history.
Countless people have worshiped him or iterations of his spirit that spread out throughout various world cultures. If we fast forward to 2022, we still see Thor all over the place.
We can see him readily in the Marvel Universe or detailed in extremely popular games like God of War. There are still festivals and gatherings that celebrate Norse Gods, whether or not the individuals in attendance are actually "worshipping" them.
That said, there are still small groups of people who practice and worship the Norse gods in similar ways to the days of old.
1. What Was Thor The God of?
Thor is the god of thunder, lightning, and weather in Norse mythology. He has other duties as well, but these are the ones he's best known for.
2. What Did Thor Call His Hammer?
Thor's hammer is called Mjölnir. He didn't name it, however, as it was created by Dwarves and gifted to him from Loki, the trickster god who was apologizing for snipping a lock of Sif's hair.
3. What Did Thor Do to His Goats?
Although the story isn't mentioned in this article, there's a tale where Thor slaughters and cooks the goats that pull his goat drawn chariot.
He does this to feed a poor peasant family as well as Loki and himself. Thor is known to have eaten full bulls in one sitting, so the gesture was purely to help the people around him.
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