thor, norse god of thunder. a fearless warrior who protectshis people from monstrous giants. he was the idol of vikingsand barbarians in the darkest ageever known to man. but few know the realitybehind his myth. he battled the ancient world'smost colossal sea monster, and he was the last hopefor europe's pagans as they defied the armiesof christendom. fact and fiction collide
in the myth of the mighty thor. two arch-enemies battle to the death. thor, the thunder-godagainst a staggering beast. a giant snake who strikeswith lethal force. it is man versus monster. thor unleashes his deadliest weapon, lightning from his magic hammer. as thunder rocks heaven and earth. the myth of thor is filled withthese epic showdowns.
heroic battles against creatureswho threaten mankind. thor is the champion of the gods. he is the great fighter who can bebrought out when something is really bad. you don't go to thor for wisdom, you go to thor because he's goingto protect you against the evil monsters. tales of thor'sadventures provided escape from one of the bleakestperiods in human history. the dark ages of thefirst millennium a.d. it was a time when the norse world,
stretching from the britishisles to the baltic sea, was in turmoil. the agricultural society,where people were farming and surviving kind of at the very edgeof how it was possible to survive, because it was cold,it was the northern part of europe, it wasn't around the mediterraneanwhere it was much easier to grow things, and it tended to be, from everythingwe can tell, quite violent. war, famine and death were daily facts of life
on the desolate northernfringes of europe. but the myth of thor broughta sense of order to the chaos. it was a religion of the countryside. paganism actually is a latinword that describes that, what the country people believe in, and paganism is not reallywell organized either. it's not like the greek pantheon inthe sense that it's very well organized and everybody knowswhose responsibilities and who's more important than whom.
it's very different. the view of human life in that mythology was a fairly dark and fairly stern one. human beings didn't look forwardto the kind of salvation and heaven at the end of time that'spromised in the christian stories. they had a kind of a darker,a more sorrowful view of life. people have to show greatcourage and hardiness in the face of enormous obstacles. for inspiration,the people looked to thor.
thor was the quintessential hero. he was strong. unlike some of the othergods he was not deceptive, he was not treacherous,but he was steadfast, and as this hero figure, i think,people could identify with him best. in the myth, two of thor's weaponshelp him conquer evil forces: a belt that doubles his strength and a hammer that shootslethal bolts of lightning. no matter how far thorthrows his trusty hammer,
it will return to him like a boomerang. and each time thunder roars, it meansthor's hammer has struck a giant. thor is the master of lightning, and this is not uncommonin other mythologies. the obvious parallel here iszeus in classical mythology, for he is the thunder god. the thunder and lightninggod is the protector god. he's the strongest fighter, so hehas that capability that zeus has, the thunderbolt, the hammer for thor,that can destroy the bad guys.
thor's myth begins with hisbirth to two all-powerful parents. his father is odin,the god of the heavens, and his mother is jord, whichis earth, and so, in a sense, he is of the sky and of the earth, which makes him the perfectgod for middle earth, for "midgard", where humans are. in norse mythology, the worldis made up of three levels, all represented in a form quitefamiliar to the ancient norse: a tree. they used to make housing thatroughly resemble american tepees,
and the entire view ofthe cosmos by the old norse was really based on thatconstruction of housing. you had a centre pole thatwould hold up the walls. it would have been theskeletal structure of the house. it would have been the skeletalstructure of the cosmos - so the small representing the large. that's one of the reasons whytrees become so very important. in the mythical tree'shighest branches is asgard, the dwelling place of the gods.
at the opposite end, beneath the roots, is a cool, dark realm known as hel. this is the land of the dead, and it's from this traditionthat our word "hell" originates. the middle of the treeis "midgard", the earth, a world inhabited by humans. this is thor's domain. as the warrior god, it is his duty to destroymankind's enemies in midgard,
the evil giants. the giants represent chaos. they represent destruction. if an avalanche killed you, if an earthquake got you ora flood or something else, it was the work of a giant. so they represent all thethings that could go wrong with a civilization that was reallykind of on the edge of survival because of the climate,because of how dangerous it was.
one can imagine living, for example,in a valley in norway and seeing, as winter progressed, the frostcoming down from the valleys, sort of the frost giants,if you will, and then spring comes, and one can see that as being thor battling back the frostgiants back up the mountain, and we will be ableto have order restored. today, echoes of thor'smythical battles with the giants can still be heard in the forests andfrigid plains that flank the north sea. throughout scandinavia,
mysterious stone memorials dot thelandscape, dating back to the pagan era. they were erected between thefourth and twelfth centuries ad the to mark territory,record important events, and serve as tombstonesfor kings and warriors. they are called runestones, and they are the only cluesleft behind by a society that didn't write down its stories. on the stones are runic inscriptions,much like our latin alphabet. they sort of describe a pieceof mythology or a piece of a story
that we sometimes are luckyenough to have in written form. there is one figurewho features prominently in many of these inscriptions: the thunder god himself, thor. there are quite a numberof cases in runestones where thor's name is carved in the runes with something like, "maythor bless these runes. " they wanted his power to somehowcome through and protect them. in norse myth, each god
battles his own personal enemyfrom among the evil giants. the runestones reveal theidentity of thor's nemesis, a giant who takesthe form of a snake: the midgard serpent. this is snake thatgets larger and larger, and it's foretold that it's gonnahelp bring about the doom of the gods and the end of the universe. snake fear is actuallyhardwired into us. it's cross-cultural, and theold norse picked up on that.
snakes are bad, and they're scary, and that's sort of just the background that you can then buildgood mythology out of. according to the legend, themidgard serpent grows so huge it can stretch around the earthand envelop the world in chaos. it was the midgard serpent that wascircled entirely around middle earth as a symbol of the edge of the world but also a symbol of thedanger of going past that edge. this is the ultimate adversary,one thor is determined to vanquish.
but victory will notcome easy, even for a god. this ongoing contest betweenthor and the midgard serpent really represents the contest betweenthe force that is protecting order, protecting the world of thegods and the world of men, against this ever-presentthreat of outside chaos that always is there tothreaten to destroy us. order versus chaos: it is a classic theme thatresonated in the harsh norse world. in the myth of thor, it is oftenconveyed with a sense of humour.
in one part of the story, thor wants to get close to themidgard serpent without being detected, so he transformshimself into a young boy and asks an ogre named hymirto take him fishing at sea. and they go out deep anddeep, deeper and deeper and further and further outand further and further out, and finally, hymir says, "well,i think this is far enough," and thor says, "no, no.we can go further out yet. " off the coast, thorreveals his true identity
and lures the serpent to thesurface with the head of an ox. and he throws the entire ox headwith a giant hook in it over the side. well, the midgard serpent biteson it, and thor hauls it up, and so this gigantic midgard serpent isnow sticking its head out of the water, and thor is excited about this. he's thrilled.he's reaching for his hammer. he's like, "now i finally got you," but hymir, the giant who'sin the boat, is terrified. as thor raises his hammer to strike,
the ogre cuts the fishing line, and the serpent divesback into the sea. thor is enraged. he has lost a rare chanceto kill his archenemy. so thor keeps having theseencounters with the midgard serpent. sometimes it's disguised,sometimes someone interferes, but in each case, the serpent gets away, and that's probably because the serpentis being saved in some way or another for the final battle betweenthor and the midgard serpent.
this is not the onlymyth that features a clash between a thunder godand a giant serpent. it is a theme found in everycorner of the ancient world. in the hindu holy book of vedas, there is a fight between the stormgod indra and a monstrous snake. and in greek mythology, a serpentine beast named typhonbattled zeus, the god of lightning. these myths were createdthousands of miles apart and thousands of years apart,
but they all tellessentially the same story: a god of thunder and lightning out to destroy a serpentwho threatens the world. but how could so many differentsocieties have shared the same myth? it is likely they emergedfrom common experience. could the serpent in these storiesbe based on a real sea monster? and if so, does that creature stillprowl the depths of our oceans today? surprising evidencesuggests it just might. the midgard serpent,archenemy of almighty thor,
a snake so colossal it canwrap itself around the planet. in the myth, it representschaos and evil in the world, but what could have inspiredsuch a terrifying creature? sightings of giant sea serpentshave been reported for centuries. in the old norse sagas, which arethought to be based on real history, there are even tales of shipsbeing capsized by the beasts. they often describe a giganticcreature with long tentacles that could reach out and snatch downships and drag them to the bottom. this was often referredto as the "kraken".
the kraken was said tohave a long slithery body that moved at lightning speed,just like the midgard serpent. but tales of monster sea snakesaren't limited to northern europe. they can also be found in ancient greece's most famousadventure story: the odyssey. it describes a massive serpentwith a taste for human flesh. the scylla. scylla is this terrifying sea monster with many heads and many arms who,
you know for a fact,will grab up six of your men and eat them. scylla, kraken, the midgard serpent: are these mythical seamonsters coincidence, or could they be basedon something real? a chance discovery in the 19thcentury teased that possibility. fishermen in the north atlantic encountered a massive unknown seacreature and succeeded in capturing it. the longest tentacle measured 35 feet.
it was a giant squid. the amazing thing is that nobodyhad actually been able to prove the existence of a giantsquid up until the 1870s, when finally, after countlessreports of these things by sailors who were never really believed, finally dozens of them washedinto the shore in newfoundland, proving that there reallywere these amazing creatures. a thousand years earlier, tales of these sea monsters terrifiedscandinavia's most rugged seafarers,
roving bands of marauders who builtan empire by dominating the waves: the vikings. the viking... the word "viking"itself means to plunder, to raid, and so the name that wasapplied to these people refers to the actual actof what they were doing. when the fear of giant seacreatures threatened their voyages, the vikings looked to one god: thor. we would have to imagine the norsemen
getting into their shipsfor plunder in the north sea and praying to thor for protection, to help guide them towhere they were going, so thor took on certainkind of significance that elevated him above the othergods in the eyes of the warriors. viking raiders performed aspecial ritual in thor's honour to guarantee theirsafety on the high seas. the ritual involved dismantlinga temple dedicated to thor and taking the pillars of thetemple onto the boats with them
and dropping them overthe side into the ocean in order to show that thorwas dominating the ocean, that they, as thor's servants, weregoing to be able to have safe passage. the pillars cast into the seawere usually cut from oak trees. oak had a special connectionto the thunder god: it was the wood mostoften struck by lightning. in fact, the central place to worshipthor was not a temple or a church. it was a tree known as thor's oak, and it was the mecca ofthe ancient norse world.
we are told that thisoak signifies thor. they would call upon that oak as...maybe even as if it were thor himself. for generations, thor's oak wasthe scene of bloody pagan sacrifices. his followers frequently leftofferings of flesh at its base. oftentimes, the sacrificewas in connection with ensuring that harvest andagriculture and things of this nature would be good for the following year. during particularly bad times, it was claimed that nine ofevery animal would be sacrificed,
and sometimes, in really bad years, thenyou would even sacrifice a human being. we have enough evidence thatthere were sacrifices or executions associated withpaganism and pagan sites, and it's no stretch ofthe imagination to think that they would have takenplace at thor's oak also. according to legend, thor's oak stood here in the town of fritzlar,germany, until 723 ad. that was the year everything changed.
when the forces of anotherreligion arrived from the south, determined to convert all nonbelievers. they set their sights on thesymbolic centre of the pagan world: thor's oak. during the conversion of thenorse, saint boniface came. he gathered people together and says, "if thor exists, if he is so powerful, "then surely he'll strike me downif i cut down his great tree. " the christian account saysthat a mighty wind then came
and knocked the tree down,and when people saw this, they perceived it as a miracleand they converted on the spot. the fall of thor's oak was a symbolicturning point in northern europe. to the pagan faithful, it wasas if thor himself was falling, but it would take far more thanthis to make them surrender. the pagans had their own symbolto counter the christian cross: thor's magical hammer. in the myth, thor uses it to strikedown those who challenge his authority. but what if the thunder god wereto lose his most treasured weapon?
the consequences for both thorand mankind would be devastating. in the myth, this isprecisely what happened. for centuries, thor's hammer was a symbolof power and pride in the pagan world. in the myth, it shoots lightning andhelps thor vanquish giant monsters. the hammer is so important because itseparates humans from everything else, and it gives power thatyou have from tools, power that you couldn't havewith only your bare hands, no matter how strong they were,and that's really important about thor. as strong as he is,he still needs his hammer.
in one pivotal story, the thundergod loses his prized weapon. without it, he is powerless to takeon the giants that threaten the earth, and the fate of humankindhangs in the balance. in the palace of valhalla,sanctuary of the norse gods a ghastly ogre king quietlyinvades thor's bedchamber and steals his hammer. the ogre knows that without it,thor is helpless, and he plans to use it as blackmail. when his hammer gets stolen,
that's a stripping away of thathuman level of culture and technology that separates you out from the animals. so thor wakes up one morning, gropes around, discoversthat he is missing his hammer, so who does he go to first? strangely enough, he goes to loki. loki is thor's servant,but he is also a god. he is crafty, conniving, and says he knows exactlywho stole the hammer.
he sets out for the landof the ogres to get it back. there, loki meets withthe ogre king, thrym, and the king names his price. and thrym the giant says, "i havetaken thor's hammer and i have hidden it "and no one will find it unlessthey give me freya as a bride. " freya, of course, is this beautiful,sensuous goddess of love, fertility, and sex, and the giants,the dwarves, everybody wants her. freya is also thor's sister. when she hears what the ogrewants, she refuses to surrender.
but something must be doneto get thor's hammer back. well, his hammer is one ofhis identifying features. his hammer is what he usesin order to kill the giants. without his hammer,the gods are in trouble. the people are in trouble. everyone's in troublewithout thor's hammer. the gods call a specialmeeting to discuss the crisis. they agree on a risky strategy: to dress thor up as his sister
and send him as the bride instead. "we'll put the bridal gown on him, "put the veil over him, and we'llsend him down disguised as freya, "and then perhaps he can getthe hammer and come back. " thor is very upset at this. thor is the supermacho uber-masculine god and was not about to,you know, go in drag. but thor has no other choice. he gives in and puts onfreya's bridal outfit.
only his red eyes arevisible beneath the veil. well, now this isvery comical, isn't it? here we have the big, macho god who'sgonna now dress in women's clothes. what exactly is thor's hammer? it is the symbol of his masculinity, and in a sense, it'salso a phallic symbol, and of course thor's now lostthis symbol of his masculinity, and so now he has tobecome the opposite. he has to become a woman becausehe's no longer able to be a man.
with loki at his side, thorheads for the land of the giants. the thunder god is notthe most radiant bride, but to get back his precious hammer,he must swallow his pride. thrym sees him coming and says, "ah, freya, the only thing lacking inmy world is freya, and here she comes," so the first thing they do is havea party, and thor eats all the food. and then, of course,"she" drinks all of the beer. thor's binge immediatelyraises suspicions. how can a blushingbride be such a drinker?
and loki says, "oh, no,don't worry about it. "the bride just traveledfor eight days and nights. "she's really, really thirsty. " but when thrym takes a closerlook at his bride-to-be, he notices that hereyes are red and fiery. thrym jumps back and says,"what's going on with freya's eyes?" and loki, again, quickwith the answer, says, "oh, well she hasn't slept in a weekeither. she was so excited to get here. " "okay," says thrym.
finally, the king is convinced and hands the magichammer to his bride. in an instant, the hammerfully restores thor's power. the thunder god isback with a vengeance. this is the myth,but what is the reality? as christian armies fought theirway north in the first millennium ad, the norse drew inspiration fromthis story of thor's resurgence. when christianity wasbeing forced upon people, the idea of thor andthe symbolism of thor
presented some kind ofpagan resistance movement to the overambitiousattempts to baptize people. the christians had the upperhand in wealth, weapons, and men, but the pagans were preparedto fight to the death. the stage was set,the battle lines drawn. the armies of christ wouldtake on the followers of thor for the souls of northern europe. the armies of christ againstthe followers of thor. the prize: control of northern europe.
this is not a mythical showdown.it actually happened. for 300 years in the dark ages, kings and chieftains across thecontinent collided on the battlefield. gradually, the christians foughttheir way north into pagan scandinavia. by the 11th century ad, the front lines reached theswedish kingdom of uppsala, home to some of the lastsurviving followers of thor. there, every nine years,the pagan faithful engaged in a bizarre and bloodyritual to honour the thunder god.
at this time, both men andanimals were sacrificed to thor and their carcasses were hung uparound the temple and in the trees. it was quite a grisly ritual. in the late 11th century, this practice was challengedby sweden's new king, a christian named inge the elder. when inge came to power, most ofhis subjects still worshipped thor, but he was determined to change that. he enforced christianity
and ended the sacrificeof horses and other animals and forbid the pagan rites, and hispeople did not like this very much. among the pagan holdoutsin inge's kingdom was his own brother, blot-sweyn. he seized on the religiousunrest and made a play for power. and we see this clash between them, where we have the christian brothertrying to impose christianity but his pagan brother drivingthe christian brother into exile. initially, the pagans succeeded,
but a few years later,inge regained the upper hand with a surprise attackon the pagan temple. by force and fire, thor'sfollowers were defeated, and the christians claimed sweden. conflicts like this occurred inkingdoms throughout northern europe. today the scars of theseclashes can still be seen. in the swedish town of uppsala,there is a christian church with foundations that dateback to the 11th century, the same period when king ingeburned down the pagan temple.
the church may even have been built directly over the ashes of that templeas a symbol of christianity's triumph. people who are used to going to thoseplaces to celebrate their old religions will now come to the same placesand celebrate the new religion, and that was in line with whathad happened all across the area when the conversionto christianity came. adjacent to the christian church, there is a series of pagan burialmounds dating back to the dark ages. it's believed that this is the largestpre-christian gravesite in sweden.
mounds like these can still befound throughout scandinavia. many have been excavated, and they often turn up anunmistakable symbol of thor, small hammer amulets. they were often cast in bronzeand worn around the neck. these amulets are identifying markersthat either "i still believe in thor," or worn as sort of arepresentation of trying to evoke the power of these gods inparticular circumstances. these artifacts demonstrate the power ofthor's myth in the ancient norse world.
to the norse, thor'sappeal was in his humanity. he was a god, but healso had weaknesses. he possessed strength and couragebut also uncontrollable rage. and just like humans, thorstruggled with his own limitations. he's not always the brightest. he is strong and brave and courageous,and he defends mankind, but he can be deceived, and usually the things that deceive him are the same things that deceive us.
in the myth, thor's shortcomings are revealed in hisstruggles with the giants, who symbolize an unconquerable foe: the wrath of nature. nature was very mucha threatening force. nature was a thingthat could betray you. nature was what was out to get you. so all of these storiesare meant to show thor as the champion of man,
but even in the face of forcesof nature, he will lose. in one story, an ogre king namedutgard-loki seeks to humiliate thor, so he assigns himthree impossible tasks, each secretly tied tothe forces of nature. the first challenge is todrink a horn full of ale. it seems easy enoughuntil thor tries it. and he drinks with all his might, and he seems to be barely able tochange the level of the ale in the horn. he's very surprised and abit embarrassed about this.
after all, you know,a god as lusty as thor ought to be able to downat least one horn of ale. the thunder god hasfailed his first task, and the next is even tougher. thor is told to liftthe paw of a giant cat. and so thor says,"well, of course i can. " he's trying to lift thiscat off of the ground. he can barely get onepaw off of the ground. now this is getting embarrassing.if he can't lift a cat, what is wrong?
strike two. perhaps thor is notso powerful after all. with his reputation on the line, the thunder god faceshis final challenge. he must wrestle a feeble old woman. utgard-loki, again laughing, and the other giants laughingat thor's discomfiture, says, "well, we'll try an easy one then. "here is this old lady. can you wrestlean old lady and beat her in a fight? "
as he prepares to pounce... thor is overpowered. the ogre's plan has worked. thor is humiliated. the king now reveals his secret. utgard-loki explains what's happened. "thor, you were drinking from a horn,but the horn was set into the sea, "so there was no way you coulddrink from the entire sea. "secondly, i asked youto pick up my cat.
"well, the cat was the midgard serpent. "who can pick up somethingthat rings the earth? "and thirdly, i asked you tofight with my grandmother. "well, that wasn't just my grandmother,that was old age, "and who can defeat old age?none of us can. " thor flies into a ragewhen he discovers the trick. but the king instantlyvanishes into thin air. utgard-loki has usedmagic to trick thor. this story shows the contestbetween thor's brute strength
and the giant's dark, magical powers. to the ancient norse, this storydemonstrated that even the gods can't overcome theawesome power of nature. according to norse belief, thor would battle nature's evilogres until the end of time, then one final epic clash would unfold betweenthe forces of order and chaos. it would be called ragnarok,the viking armageddon. as ragnarok's apocalyptic events unfold,
the entire earth will erupt intremors, the sun will darken, and a bitter winter will gripthe earth for three full years. not only will, you know, firebegin to consume everything, but mountains will beginto fall into the sea. there will be greatearthquakes and terrible floods. ragnarok paints a grim pictureof mankind's final fate, but it isn't entirely unique. many cultures throughout the ageshave predicted a catastrophic doomsday: nostradamus,
the ancient maya, even the romans. and there is one ancient text thatpredicts an eerily similar end of days: the bible's book of revelation. the similarities betweenrevelations and ragnarok are in the area of weather phenomena and monsters rising fromthe deeps and from the sky and the destruction of physical world and the bringing together of allthe people who've ever existed,
bringing their soulstogether and judging them. ironically, despite centuries of bloodyconflict between christians and pagans, their final prophecies are intertwined. but while the christian and paganapocalypse stories may have similarities, in one respect, they aredramatically different. in ragnarok, the gods die. ragnarok, the finalchapter in norse mythology: it is the ultimate clashbetween order and chaos. ragnarok is the great battlebetween the giants and the gods
and, really, all the badguys and all the good guys. everything is brought into disarray. everything is brought into chaos, and every god meets hisantithesis in his opposite. it is a cataclysmic battle. everything that would be normative inthe world will be turned upside down. this seismic clash will culminatein a long-awaited showdown: the thunder god, thor, against his arch nemesis,the midgard serpent.
thor's been itching to fight this midgardserpent ever since it was created, and finally, he gets his chance. this time, there's nobody interfering. it's just straight-up mayhembetween the two of them. the midgard serpent wrapsits coils around thor and is squeezing the life out of him,but thor has on his belt, which gives him the extra strength, the power that he needs toeven lift his own hammer, and so he's able tobreak free of the coils.
after a vicious back-and-forthstruggle, thor lands a fatal blow, but in a cruel twist of fate, he is exposed to the lethal venomthat drips from the serpent's wound. thor will pay the ultimateprice for his victory: his life. so these two arch adversaries who have been at each otherthroughout the mythic cycle finally destroy each other, and we have the meeting of chaosand order canceling each other out. according to the myth,when ragnarok unfolds,
the world as we know itwill come to a terrifying end. all the gods, giants, and most of mankindwill die along with thor. in the aftermath of this, the only thing thatsurvives is the world tree, and within it, a manand a woman have hidden. the grass grows again and they meeton the plain where asgard had been, and they set aboutcreating a new cosmos. a viking adam and eve.
strangely, the end of norsemyth bears a striking resemblance to the beginning of the bible, but this is more than a coincidence. when the ragnarok myth was finallywritten down in the 13th century, christianity was already firmlyrooted in northern europe. to help sway europe's pagans, christian missionariesmade norse mythology a prequel to the old testament. the norse gods die,and adam and eve are born.
we can see ragnarok as lookingat the end of the pagan world, and obviously, after this greatdevastating and destructive event, then a new world can comeand christianity will arrive. so even though this is the doom of thegods they kind of wipe the slate clean. now there's a fresh startin a paradisiacal world, and in this beautiful world,there's a chance to start afresh and to do thingsproperly and to be good. this was a way that you couldget the old norse as the backstory and get it to meshwith the christian idea
that there was an adam and eveand a beginning and so forth. as christianityconsumed the norse world, the followers of thorwent underground for good. the cult of thor seemed to fade asthe christian conversion of the north began to really take hold. the conversion itself took centuries to really fully penetrate toeveryday custom and belief. so it was a slow sunsetfor thor's religion. centuries after thechristian conversion,
thor's legacy quietly lives on. the fifth day of the week, thursday, is named after him. it is thor's day, and heendures in popular culture as a comic book and movie hero. but centuries ago, thor was far more than afootnote from a lost religion. he was the divine protector ofthe world's most terrifying warriors.