Of all the symbols of Norse mythology, the Thor's hammer (Old Norse Mjöllnir, pronounced roughly "MIOL-neer") is one of the most important historically, and probably the most famous today.
Thor was the tireless god who guarded Asgard, the celestial fortress of the Aesir, the main tribe of gods and goddesses in norse mythology. The giants, the forces of chaos, often tried to destroy the Asgard and kill the Aesirs, and it was Thor's responsibility to stop them.
The hammer was his main weapon. Thor (whose name goes back to a protogermanic root that means "Thunder") was the god of the storm, and the thunder was experienced as the sound of his hammer crashing down on his enemies. It is therefore not surprising that the Scandinavian name of his hammer, Mjöllnir, probably meant "lightning".
Although the etymology of Mjöllnir is uncertain, most scholars go back to an Indo-European root which is attested by the old Slavic word mlunuji, Russian molnija and Welsh mellt, which means "lightning". It can also be linked to the Icelandic words mjöll, "new snow", and mjalli, "white", the colour of lightning and a potential symbol of purity. The meaning of this symbolism will soon become clear.
Thor's hammer as an instrument of blessing, consecration and protection.
Thor's hammer was certainly a weapon - the best weapon of the Aesir, in fact - but it was more than just a weapon. It also occupied a central place in the rituals of consecration and coronation.
In an episode of Prose Edda by medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, Thor killed and ate his goats, then brought them back to life by collecting their bones with his hammer. The Danish medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus reports that huge hammers were kept in one of the temples of Thor in Sweden, and that people periodically held a ritual there that consisted in beating the hammers against a kind of drum that would sound like thunder. It could have been a ceremony to bless and protect the community and keep enemy spirits away.
Historian Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson provides an excellent summary of the uses of the hammer:
It would indeed seem that the power of the thunder god, symbolized by his hammer, extends to everything that has to do with the well-being of the community. It covered birth, marriage and death ceremonies, burial and cremation, weapons and feasts, travel, taking of earth and swearing between men. Thor's famous weapon was not only a symbol of the destructive power of the storm and the fire of heaven, but also a protection against the forces of evil and violence. Without it, Asgard could no longer be protected from the giants, and men also relied on her to ensure their safety and support the rule of law.
Of all these consecration ceremonies, the use of the hammer to bless a marriage is particularly well established. The existence of this rite is supposed in Thor's story as a transvestite, where the giants stole Thor's hammer and then he went to retrieve it by dressing as a bride in order to marry one of the giants, knowing that the hammer would be presented during the ceremony. When he was presented, he grabbed the weapon and immediately smashed the skulls of all the giants present.
A rock sculpture from the Bronze Age in Scandinavia apparently represents a couple blessed by a taller person holding a hammer, indicating the considerable age of this notion. Historian E.O.G. Turville-Petre suggests that part of this blessing is to give the couple fertility, which would make sense given Thor's links to agriculture and field fertilization.
These roles of the hammer were inseparable from its use as a weapon to defend the Asgard from the giants. As the famous religious historian Mircea Eliade explains in The Sacred and the Profane, one of the universal models of human consciousness is the concept of the cosmos, a kingdom defined by sacred time and space, and chaos, a kingdom defined by profane time and space. The cosmos is typically seen as a circle, an island in a sea of chaos.
In northern mythology, the cosmos and chaos were called innangard and utangard respectively. Asgard, the world of the gods, and Midgard, the world of humanity, both have the element -gard in the modern English version of their names. This suffix (garðr in Old Norse) referred to a fortress or enclosure, something that was cir
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