Thor’s Hammer Mjöllnir, (pronounced roughly “MIOL-neer”) is undisputedly the most historically important and easily recognizable symbol of the Norse Gods, but it is much more than a powerful weapon.
Thor (whose name goes back to a Proto-Germanic root that means “Thunder”) is the most recognizable guardian of Asgard. God of the storm and thunder, he uses his mighty Mjölnir (meaning “lightning”) in the defense of his home Asgard, a realm constantly under attacked by giants and the forces of chaos. Whenever a viking heard thunder, he or she hears the sound of Mjölnir crashing down on the foes of Asgard.
While the etymology of Mjölnir is uncertain, most scholars trace the name back to an Indo-European root, attested in the Old Slavic word mlunuji, Russian molnija, and Welsh mellt, all of which mean “lightning.” It may also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, “new snow,” and mjalli, “white,” the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity, a fitting significance, as Mjölnir is much more than a weapon.
While Thor’s hammer is certainly a weapon, it also occupies a central role in rituals of consecration and hallowing.
The hammer was used in formal ceremonies to bless marriages, births, and funerals as well. In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Thor routinely kills and eats the goats who pull his chariot, bringing them back to life by hallowing their bones with his hammer.
The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus records that huge hammers were kept in one of Thor’s temples in Sweden, and that periodically the people would hold a ritual there that involved beating the hammers against some kind of drum that would resound like thunder. This could have been a ceremony to bless and protect the community and ward off hostile spirits.
The power of the thunder god, symbolized by his hammer, meant protection and well-being over the whole community. It covered birth, marriage, and death, burial, and cremation ceremonies, weapons and feasting, traveling, land-taking, and sometimes even the making of oaths between men, a practice usually reserved to oaths made over Ullr oath rings. The famous weapon of Thor was not only the symbol of the destructive power of the storm and of fire from heaven, but also a protection against the forces of evil and violence, dubbing Thor the Protector of Mankind.
The use of Mjölnir to bless a marriage is especially well-established. A Bronze Age rock carving from Scandinavia depicts a couple being blessed by a larger figure holding a hammer, which indicates the considerable antiquity of this practice. Part of this blessing consisted of imparting fertility to the couple, which would make sense in light of Thor’s connections with agriculture and the fertilization of the fields.
A rare rune-inscribed Mjöllnir amulet 1.100 years old
Read more about what Marvel gets wrong about Thor HERE (part 1) and HERE (part 2).
These roles of the hammer were inseparable from its use as a weapon to defend Asgard from the giants. In Norse religion, cosmos and chaos were called respectively innangard and utangard. Asgard, the homeworld of the gods, and Midgard, the home world of humanity, both have the element -gard in the modern English versions of their names. This suffix (garðr in Old Norse) denoted a fortress or an enclosure, something which was circumscribed by a wall, a fence, or some other kind of boundary to separate it from the areas outside of it. It was a cosmos that was protected against the utangard chaos that surrounded it. The world of the giants was called either Jotunheim or Utgard. Jotunheim simply means “the home of the giants,” while Utgard means “outside of the gard,” just like the more general term utangard. The Aesir, humanity, and their worlds were seen as being innangard, a cosmos, while the giants and their world were seen as being utangard, chaos.
When something or someone was consecrated with Thor’s hammer, it (or he or she) was taken from the realm of chaos and "absorbed into the cosmos". It was protected from the ill effects of chaos and its denizens, sanctified and sanctioned by the social order and its divine models. The profane was banished and the sacred was established.
This pattern is borne out both in the use of the hammer as a weapon and in its use as an instrument of blessing, consecration, protection and healing. When Thor smote giants with the hammer, he was defending the cosmos and banishing the forces of chaos. When he blessed a marriage, a birth, a field, or a dead person with it, his act had the same significance.
Even after the Norse population officially converted to Christianity, the cult of Thor symbolized in His hammer continued.
A Viking Age casting mold discovered in Denmark that could forge both cross and hammer pendants. Several Viking Age soapstone casting molds have been discovered in Denmark and Sweden that have molds for casting both cross and hammer pendants.
These amulets and memorial stones also exemplify the coexistence of Christianity and Odinism in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, however tense or amicable it may have been in different places and at different times. The Vikings’ conversion to Christianity was a highly fluid affair during the Viking Age and many, perhaps even most, people had elements of both religions in their beliefs and practices. Thus, the cross and the hammer could be used simultaneously without apparently causing much of a stir or creating cognitive dissonance. Consider, for example, the grave of a woman buried near the trade town of Hedeby. Her body was adorned with a cross necklace and a lead Mjölnir, with her grave decorated with hammers.
Hedeby Viking burial
The fact that Thor’s hammer became the symbol of the Nordic Old Religion rather than the spear of Odin, the ship of Freyr, the necklace of Freya, the horn of Heimdall, or any of the other available options, is a testament of the importance of Thor, protector of mankind, through the ages.
If you want to know how Mjölnir was created, read our previous post HERE.