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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
March 2013

Thor, God of Thunder Thor, God of Thunder

The Midgard Serpent Jörmungand
The Midgard Serpent, Jörmungand
 

The best-known, and most popular, of Odin's sons—at least insofar as humankind is concerned—has to be Thor the Thunder God. Brawny and fearless, with flaming red hair and a temper to match, Thor is greatly feared by giants and trolls alike. . . and thus serves as Asgard's first line of defense against incursions by those terrifying beings.

Their dread of Thor stems in large part from the weapon he bears—a short-handled throwing hammer called Mjöllnir, which strikes his foes with the force and effect of a lightning bolt. Moreover, although he casts it away from him, the hammer can be used repeatedly by Thor because it always flies back to his waiting hand immediately after striking its target ... which it never fails to do! Thor's magical belt of strength increases the velocity of each throw, but it also necessitates his wearing iron gloves in order to safely catch the returning hammer. Miniature Thor's hammer amulets were popular during the Viking Age, as are their replicas today.

Unlike the comic-book version of Thor (which has been around for the past fifty years!), the traditional Thunder God cannot use his hammer to fly through the skies. which is almost as perverse a distortion of Viking lore as the persistent notion that Viking warriors wore horned helmets! When Thor does choose to travel by air it is in a cart drawn by two billy goats (the rumble of the cart's wheels have been said to be the source of thunder). Rain usually accompanies such excursions, much to the delight of farmers... and Thor's beautiful blonde wife, Sif, the Goddess of Grain (whom the comic-books insist on portraying as a brunette, which completely misses the hair color/grain tassels symbolism).

But, giants and trolls aside, Thor's special nemesis is Loki's son Jörmungand, the Midgard Serpent, with whom the Thunder God has an ongoing feud that began when the giant king Utgard-Loki (not to be confused with the Loki who lives in Asgard) tricked Thor into trying—unsuccessfully—to pull the Serpent out of the sea. The second encounter between the great adversaries took place during a "fishing expedition" the Thunder God undertook with the giant Hymir. Thor hooked the Midgard Serpent but was prevented from killing him because the terrified Hymir cut the fishing line that held the sea dragon to his boat. Thor and Jörmungand are fated to meet one last time at Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods!

In the scenario just described, it seems clear that Thor acts as a champion of Order, and the Midgard Serpent as an agent of Chaos. Their first two encounters were standoffs, a reflection of the dynamic equilibrium that exists between Order and Chaos, and which I believe lies at the heart of the ørlog—the Norns' Chant (described in September 2012). So long as this balance is maintained, the Nine Worlds will continue to exist. Should Thor finally destroy the Serpent of Chaos, nothing could ever change, stagnation would set in, and all possibilities for future creativity would cease. On the other hand, if Thor should be slain, Order would totally disintegrate, and the Nine Worlds with it. Alas, the Eddas foretell a third possibility, the mutual destruction of both Thor and Jörmungand at Ragnarök... followed by the Nine Worlds being consumed by fire and flood!

*          *         

About the writer: "Dag" has been telling—and talking about—traditional Norse myths and legends to live audiences across the U. S. since 1980, as well as on a series of audiotapes released by Skandisk, Inc., between 1992 and 2001. He is also the author of seven books on various aspects of Norse lore, including: The Nine Worlds: A Dictionary of Norse Mythology (Skandisk, 2000); Theft of the Sun, and Other New Norse Myths (Skandisk, 2001); The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends... and What They Reveal (Seven Paws, 2005); The Dragonseeker Saga: New Tales of the Nine Worlds (Skandisk, 2009); Way of the Elves: A Nine Worlds Saga (Skandisk, 2012); The Walker in Shadows (Skandisk, in press).

"Dag" has roots in Valdres, his most recent Norwegian ancestors having been associated with farms at the northern end of Volbufjord. If you have any further questions about any of the columns published to date, please feel free to contact "Dag" at rossmado@luther.edu.

    
© 2013  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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