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The image of Thor in the temple usually carried a hammer, and we hear much in the myths concerning this weapon of the god. Snorri tells us that the Aesir proclaimed that the hammer Mjollnir was the greatest treasure which they possessed, since it enabled them to hold Asgard secure against the giants. Clearly this hammer was something more than a weapon. It was used at weddings to hallow the bride, for this explains the ruse employed against the giants in the poem Þrymskviða. Thor was disguised as a bride because he knew that the moment was bound to come when the hammer would be brought out and laid in his lap, and he would thus get it back into his own hands. This use of the hammer symbol may be of very great antiquity in the north. Scandinavian rock engravings of the Bronze Age show figures brandishing a weapon which resembles an axe or hammer, and in one group a large figure raises one of these over two small figures standing together, which has led to the suggestion that this is some kind of marriage ritual. There is, however, an enormous gap in time between these early rock carvings and the Viking age, and more corroboration is needed before such a claim can be accepted.
We know that the hammer was raised to hallow the newborn child who was to be accepted into the community, and it seems also to have been used at funerals, since at Balder’s death it was fetched to hallow the funeral ship before this was set alight. When Thor had feasted on his goats, he made the sign of the hammer over the bones and skin in order to restore them to life. In this new life given by the god, we can see a possible significance in the use of the hammer at sacrifices and funerals, concerning which more will be said below.
Like that of the Christian cross, the sign of the hammer was at once a protection and a blessing to those who used it. An early king of Norway, Hakon the Good, who became a Christian, was bullied into attending autumn sacrifices, and he strove to protect himself from the heathen rites by making the sign of the cross over the cup passed round in honour of the gods. When the company objected, one of his friends defended Hakon, saying;
The King acts like all those who trust in their strength and might. He made the mark of the hammer over it before he drank.
Men were accustomed in the tenth century to wear the symbol of Thor in the form of a hammer-shaped amulet on a chain or cord round their necks. Some of these have been found in silver hoards in Denmark and Sweden, and there is an obvious resemblance between the little hammers and the square, equal-armed crosses with figures of Christ on them which were worn at about the same time. Possibly the wearing of Thor’s symbol came into fashion as a reaction against the Christian one worn by those converted to the new faith. A mould in which both hammers and crosses were cast can be seen in the National Museum at Copenhagen, and indicates that the silversmiths were prepared to satisfy all tastes in religion. The hammer amulet was also used at an earlier period, though in a slightly different form. Small amulets which resemble long-handled hammers and which may be Thor’s hammers were found by Fausset in graves of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Gilton, Kent.
A very significant use of the hammer is that mentioned by Saxo, who tells us that large models of it were kept in the temple of Thor in Sweden, and that in 1125 these were carried away by Magnus Nilsson:
He took care to bring home certain hammers of unusual weight, which they call Jupiter’s, used by the island men in their antique faith. For the men of old, desiring to comprehend the causes of thunder and lightning by means of the similitude of things, took hammers great and massy of bronze, with which they believed the crashing of the sky might be made, thinking that great and violent noise might very well be imitated by the smith’s toil, as it were. But Magnus, in his zeal for Christian teaching and dislike to Paganism, determined to spoil the temple of its equipment, and Jupiter of his tokens in the place of his sanctity. And even now the Swedes consider him guilty of sacrilege and a robber of spoil belonging to the god.
Gesta Danorum, x 1 II, 421 (Elton’s translation)
Saxo evidently believed that the hammers, like the chariot, were used in some kind of ritual to imitate the noise of thunder.
The hammer-shaped weapon is similar to the double axe of antiquity, which also represented the thunderbolt, and which was shown in various forms in temples of the ancient world. Among the early Germanic peoples the god Donar, Thor’s predecessor, was considered to resemble Hercules, the mighty male figure armed with a club who battled against monsters, and part of the resemblance was evidently due to the weapon which the god carried. This identification was accepted by the Romans, and there are inscriptions to Hercules from the Roman period, raised by the German soldiers in western Europe. Tacitus tells us that the praises of Hercules used to be chanted by the Germans as they went into battle, and that they believed he had visited them.
The hammer could of course be used as a throwing weapon, and one of the characteristics of Mjollnir was that it would always return to the owner’s hand. In this way it was a fitting symbol of the thunderbolt hurled by the angry god. Both Snorri and Saxo tell us that the hammer of Thor was short in the handle. Snorri accounts for this by a story of interference by Loki when the hammer was being forged. Saxo tells us that Hotherus hewed off the shaft of the hammer in battle when he put the gods to flight. The idea of a short handle is borne out by the shape of the Danish amulets, and it is noticeable that these all have a metal ring fitted through the handle. If the hammer was thrown through the air, the handle would need to be short, and a ring would make the throw more effective, as in the case of the “hammer” thrown in the Highland games. A hammer with a loop fitted through the handle is shown on a Swedish rune-stone from Stenqvista, where it is used as a sign of Thor’s protection over the grave.
An object very like a hammer or a double axe is also depicted among the magical symbols on the drums of Lappish shamans, used in their religious ceremonies before Christianity was established. The drums themselves were struck with an implement which resembles a hammer, and here we have another connection with the metal hammers said to he used in Thor’s temple to imitate the noise of thunder. The name of the Lappish thunder god was Horagalles, thought to be derived from Thora Galles, ‘old man Thor’. Sometimes on the drums a male figure with a hammer-like object in either hand is shown, and sometimes this is a kind of cross with hooked ends, resembling a swastika. The swastika, or hooked ‘Cross, is a sign found in many regions of the world and known from remote antiquity. It was very popular among the heathen Germans, and appears to have been associated with the symbol of fire. There may be some connection between it and the sun-wheel, well known in the Bronze Age, or it may have arisen from the use of the hammer or axe to represent thunder, which was accompanied by fire from heaven. Thor was the sender of lightning and the god who dealt out both sunshine and rain to men, and it seems likely that the swastika as well as the hammer sign was connected with him.
The Anglo-Saxons worshipped the thunder god under the name of Thunor. Memories of him survive here and there, like the title of High Thunderer, used for the Christian God in a tenth-century charter of Edward the Elder. We have many instances of the swastika symbol from Anglo-Saxon graves of the pagan period, and it is particularly prominent on cremation urns from the cemeteries of East Anglia. On some of these, to be seen in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, it is depicted with such care and art that it must surely have possessed special significance as a funeral symbol. Both the swastika and the hammer symbol are found on stones bearing early runic inscriptions in Norway and Sweden, and some of these call on Thor to protect the memorial and place of burial.
The swastika is also found on weapons and sword scabbards. It can be seen on sword hilts from the peat bogs of Denmark as early as the third century A.D. It is clearly marked on a hilt and sword belt found at Bifrons, Kent, in a grave of about the sixth century. By the seventh century, the Christian cross also appears on scabbards, and an elaborate one recovered from the River Seine has the cross and the swastika side by side.
It would seem indeed as though the power of the thunder god, symbolized by his hammer, extended over all that had to do with the well-being of the community. It covered birth, marriage, and death, burial, and cremation ceremonies, weapons and feasting, travelling, land-taking, and the making of oaths between men. 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. Without it Asgard could no longer be guarded against the giants, and men relied on it also to give security and to support the rule of law.