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Hammer Time: Heathenism and Thor's Hammer
The sign of the hammer, that is, using the hammer for ritual purposes, is widely associated with Heathen practice. Modern Heathenry even has a specific "Hammer Rite," created by Edred Thorsson (Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic 1984), and of course, most of us seem to wear the symbol of Mjöllnir around our necks (as I do). One might say Heathens seem "hammer obsessed." I thought here I might take a look at Thor's Hammer and see what we can make of all this hammer business.

So what's with the hammer? Mjöllnir is Thor's Hammer. What does it mean? Don't assume any particular Heathen site has the last word on this. You might find something like "that which crushes" (Wikipedia provides "crusher") but as Simek (1993) points out, the etymology is by no means certain. One possible interpretation is "the one who makes lightning" but such an interpretation is, he points out, problematic. Another possibility is "the grinder."

This is just another example of why it is important for modern Heathens not to leap to conclusions. We don't most of us speak Icelandic, with sometimes embarrassing consequences, and even scholars argue over the origins of some words. We'd be safer here just calling it Mjöllnir and not worry so much about why this might be. It really isn't all that important and it's certainly not worth quibbling over.

What is certain is Thor's unique association with humans (Olrik 1930:52), a relation, Lindow says, "attested by the metal artifacts known as Thor's hammers. These objects," he goes on to tell us, "are the only indication from the archaeological record of talismans associated with specific accouterments of the gods" (Lindow 2001:290). We have numerous examples of these amulets, which DuBois calls an "anti-cross" (DuBois 1999:159)[1] Whether this is a fair summation of the hammer's significance or not, as Simek points out, "In the Viking Age, Thor's hammer Mjöllnir became the most important symbol for Scandinavian heathendom in its opposition to Christianity" and he mentions the epigraphical (inscribed in stone) representations on runic gravestones as well as the amulets (Simek 1993:219).

So it is important to remember that the hammer is not new; it is not a fad peculiar to modern Heathens. Nor is its role in the hallowing (consecration) of things.

For example, epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) demonstrates that the hammer was associated with hallowing even before the Viking Age: It's consecratory role is demonstrated by Bronze Age rock carvings "of axe or hammer-bearing god-like figures" (Simek 1993:219).

Though Simek cautions against assuming Thor is the hallowing agent, arguing that "these only seem to confirm the cult function of the hammer as a consecratory instrument," (Simek 1993:219), DuBois points to the inscription on the Danish Glavenstrup Stone (carved c. 900-925) as calling "on Þórr to hallow the runes, emphasizing the linkage between the goði and his god" (Dubois,1999:65).

DuChaillu, The Viking Age (1890) I:352-353 asserts that it "was customary, at least in the earliest times, to make the sign of the hammer at burials and marriages." This is evidenced again by Bronze Age rock carvings (Simek 1993:219). DuBois agrees, observing that "Þórr's hammer seems to have a function in sanctifying both funeral pyres (as in Snorri's account of Baldr's death)[2] and brides (as in Þrymsqviða) and both of these mythic acts appear paralleled in human rituals connected with burial and weddings." (Dubois, 1999:162)

According to Davidson,
The popularity of the hammer sign and the uses it was put to in the Viking Age indicate the strength of the cult of Thor in Norway and Iceland. It was used to mark boundary-stones, was raised over a new-born child as a mark of its acceptance in the community, and according to the poem Thrymskviða was brought in at weddings to hallow the bride, and laid on her lap. It was also depicted on memorial stones for the dead, to whom Thor's protection extended, while the conception of the hammer restoring the dead to life is found in the myth of Thor raising his goats to life after they had been killed and eaten. – (Davidson 1993:101)
We see from the sagas that Thor was also invoked to hallow a meal:
"Now when the first full goblet was filled, Earl Sigurd spoke some words over it, blessed it in Odin's name, and drank to the king out of the horn; and the king then took it, and made the sign of the cross over it. Then said Kar of Gryting, 'What does the king mean by doing so? Will he not sacrifice?' Earl Sigurd replies, 'The king is doing what all of you do, who trust to your power and strength. He is blessing the full goblet in the name of Thor, by making the sign of his hammer over it before he drinks it.'" (The Saga of Hakon the Good, c.18)
Whether or not a hammer belongs as an implement on Heathen altars (Paxson, 2006:103) is something individual Heathens will have to decide. It is not attested to in our sources. The only altar implement we know of his a gold ring, which could be the same gold ring worn by a goði on his arm, or it could be a gold ring particular to a temple and kept on its altar. We see this in Eyrbyggjasaga, where we are told of the stall (altar),
and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all man-motes.

On the stall should also stand the blood-bowl (hlautbolli), and therein the blood-rod was, like unto a sprinkler (stökkull), and therewith should be sprinkled from the bowl that blood which is called "Hlaut", which was that kind of blood which flowed when those beasts were smitten who were sacrificed to the Gods. But round about the stall were the Gods arrayed in the Holy Place. (Eyrbyggjasaga, IV)[3]
It has been argued that the Thor's Hammer amulets we see attested to in the Viking Age arose in response to the Christian cross. Whether this is true or not (and no real evidence exists to contradict it) their abundance certainly attests to Thor's popularity in the Viking Age, and to Thor's role as a champion of Heathen belief against the growing strength of the followers of the White Christ: "On the pagan Þórr stones of the region, this head-and-cross arrangement becomes directly paralleled in a head-and-hammer depiction, pointing again to the Christ-Þórr juxtaposition" (DuBois 1999:159). We see Thor's role as protector of Heathens in Njal's Saga:
"Hast thou heard," she said, "how Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and how he did not dare to fight with Thor?" "I have heard tell," says Thangbrand, "that Thor was naught but dust and ashes, if God had not willed that he should live." "Knowest thou," she says, "who it was that shattered thy ship?" "What hast thou to say about that?" he asks. "That I will tell thee," she says: "He that giant's offspring slayeth Broke the mew-field's bison stout, Thus the Gods, bell's warder grieving, Crushed the falcon of the strand; To the courser of the causeway Little good was Christ I ween, When Thor shattered ships to pieces Gylfi's hart no God could help." And again she sung another song: "Thangbrand's vessel from her moorings, Sea-king's steed, Thor wrathful tore, Shook and shattered all her timbers, Hurled her broadside on the beach; Ne'er again shall Viking's snow-shoe, On the briny billows glide, For a storm by Thor awakened, Dashed the bark to splinters small."(Njal’s Saga, c.98)[4]
This is a role modern Heathens might find comforting in the face of increasing hostility on the Religious Right towards all things outside of their own extreme form of Christianity.

To whatever forces we owe the origin of the hammer amulet, it is unarguably the most prominent symbol of Heathenism. It is also unarguably Heathen. To whatever other uses modern Heathens may put the hammer, we should wear it proudly, both as a symbol of Thor's protective presence, and as a sign of our devotion to the customs and traditions of our ancestors.

[1] For the significance of divine implements in Norse Heathenism see DuBois (1999), 158-163.

[2] Gylfaginning, c.49

[3] Of this ring, the Landnámabók (4:VII) tells us, "A ring weighing two ounces or more should lie on the stall in every chief Temple, and this ring should every chief or godi have upon his arm at all public law-motes (logthing) at which he should be at the head of affairs, having first reddened it in the blood of a neat which he himself had sacrificed there. Every man who was there to transact any business, as by law provided by the Court, should first take an oath upon that ring and name for the purpose two or more witness in evidence, he was to say, that I take oath upon the ring, a lawful one (lögeid) so help me Frey and Niord and the Almighty God, to this end that I shall in this case prosecute or defend or bear witness or give award or pronounce doom according to what I know to be most right and most true and most lawful, and that I will deal lawfully with all such matters in law as I have to deal with while I am at this Thing."

[4] See for this also Kristni Saga (IX). Thangbrand, a German missionary, was in Iceland 997-999, shortly before the conversion of 1000 CE. There he found some powerful supporters, but also many opponents, especially among the poets, one of whom was Steinunn, a female skald. Another was Vetrliði, whom the missionaries murdered while he was cutting peat. Another poet, also murdered by the Chris¬tians, had described Thangbrand as the ‘effeminate enemy of gods’ (argan goðvarg).

Sources Cited:
DuBois, Thomas A. (1999) Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, University of Pennsylvania Press.

DuChaillu, Paul B. (1890) The Viking Age (2 volumes) Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Davidson, H.R.E. (1993) The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, Barns and Noble Books, New York.

Lindow, John. ((2001) Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, Oxford University Press.

Olrik, Axel (1930) Viking Civilization, The American Scandinavian Foundation, W. W. Norton and Company Inc. Publishers.

Paxon, Diana (2006) Essential Ásatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism, Citadel Press.

Simek, Rudolf (1993) Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Translated by Angela Hall, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Sidebar Notes

Thor is the "friend of man"

The hammer's ritual use is not new - it is a practice (pardon the pun) hallowed by tradition