In many of the myths discussed so far, Mjölnir is presented as a powerful weapon used to kill giants and trolls. As it’s been incorporated into Marvel’s incarnation of Thor, it continues to be a powerful weapon but has also become the magic item which forces Thor to be a worthy superhero acting according to a human (and predominantly Christian) ethical code, and that version of Mjölnir has even chosen other worthy hammer bearers in certain situations.
But we also know that Mjölnir meant much more to the pre-Christian Germanic peoples than its role in stories as a depiction of awesome military technology. Mjölnir was, and still is, a sacred symbol used to bless, to consecrate, to provide protection, and to bring communities together.
The Origins of Mjölnir
Mjölnir is the weapon of Thor, a hammer created especially for him and used in a variety of circumstances to defeat the enemies of the gods and humanity. According to Skáldskaparmál, Mjolnir was one of several gifts crafted at Loki’s behest, as penance for Loki shearing all of SIf’s famously long, golden hair. Throughout the Eddas, from Thor’s first battle with a giant in Gylfaginning to his demise by the poisoned fangs of Jörmungand at Ragnarök, Thor uses Mjölnir to fight off giants, trolls, the Midgard Serpent, and the forces of chaos and destruction.
Of course Mjölnir isn’t simply a mythological construct designed to aid in the illustration of Thor’s function as the warrior god incarnate.
The word “Mjölnir” is of controversial origin, but some possibilities include the Old Slavic mlunuji and Russian molnija, meaning ‘lightning”, but, perhaps just as tellingly, may also come from the same origin as the Old Norse mjoll, meaning “new snow,” Icelandic mjalli, “white color,” and the Gothic malwjan and Old Norse mala, “to grind.” This could lead to an interpretation of the word to mean “shining lightning weapon”, according to Rudolf Simek, and also fits with interpretations of Mjolnir as “the crusher”. The potential association of Mjolnir with the pureness of fresh snow and the color white is telling, as is the obvious relationship with grinding and lightning, words that we can easily associate with Thor.
Mjölnir in Action
From the standpoint of mythology, Mjölnir was described thusly, again from Skáldskaparmál:
Then [Brokkr, one of the two dwarfs who crafted Mjölnir] gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark [shirt], it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.
“This was [the Aesir’s] decision: that the hammer was best of all the precious works, and in it there was the greatest defence against the Rime-Giants….
Thor needs his iron gauntlets and belt of strength to wield Mjölnir in battle – it is an exceptionally powerful weapon.
From his battle with the Master Builder to his battle with Hrungnir, and in his dealings with Jörmungand and Skrymir and other adversaries, Mjölnir and Thor work just as described when it is presented to the gods, Thor uses this short-handled hammer as a throwing weapon against enemies who would threaten those he would protect.
Mjölnir is more than just a weapon for stories, though, it also represents a real-life phenomenon. Thor was a powerful god who the pre-Christian Germanic peoples saw as the animating spirit of the storm. Therefore, Mjölnir, as the above etymology indicates, was Thor’s lightning bolt. These peoples saw the destruction of the thunderstorm, from the flash of lightning to the rumbles and crashes of thunder, as an epic, ongoing battle between the forces of order against the forces of chaos. Thor, the animating spirit of the storm, used his lightning-hammer Mjölnir, to fight off the spirits of destruction, which were called jötnar, or giants.
From Mjölnir’s function in battle, both in tales and as the lightning strikes that attack the real-life jötnar, we can begin to see how Mjölnir is more than a mere weapon, and more than mere lightning. In previous posts, we’ve discussed sacred space for the pre-Christian Germanic peoples: inside an enclosure, such as the outer wall of Asgard, is innangard when it includes the orderly, civilized, and law-abiding; outside that enclosure is the utangard, the chaotic, wild, and anarchic.
But the enclosed need not be within an enclosure so literal as a fence, nor the wild and disordered so obvious and threatening as the jötnar.
Think here of Mjölnir dispatching the jötnar as excluding chaos and anarchy from the enclosure of the innangard. Mjölnir is the boundary between order and chaos. If you’re civilized, Thor and Mjölnir protect you. If you’re part of the anarchic elements, Thor and Mjölnir oppose you and, if possible, destroy you.
Mjölnir is transforming from a mere implement of war into a powerful symbol: those under the protection of Thor and Mjölnir are part of the innangard that Mjölnir is protecting.
Protecting from whom or what? In what way? And what does it mean to be part of the “civilized order” that Mjölnir protects? For answers to those questions, we’ll need to look at how Mjölnir was actually used as a symbol to get a better idea.
The Historical Mjölnir Symbol*
Mjölnir appears in several artifacts of Northern European culture. In one carving from Tanum, Böhuslan, Sweden, dated to the Bronze Age, a figure generally understood to be Thor is holding a large axe or hammer over a couple. This image is interpreted to be Thor blessing a couple getting married with the large object being Mjölnir, of course. This interpretation is supported by the mythology as well: in one of the more famous stories, when Thor dresses as Freyja to retrieve Mjölnir from the thief Thrym, his success hinges on the fact that he knows Thrym will bring out Mjölnir to be used to bless the marriage between Thrym and Freyja/Thor. This use of Mjölnir may have also had some basis in Mjölnir’s association with Thor and fertility, as it seems this ritual focused on blessing the wife in particular.
The hammer is perhaps best known for its use on grave markers, and depending on exactly how it was understood by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, the swastika may also have been a representation of Mjölnir or Thor’s lightning power, and it, too, was frequently seen on grave markers. Combined with clear runic inscriptions on some markers in which Thor is called upon to “hallow these runes”, Mjölnir and Thor are associated not so much with death as with blessing, consecration, or protection of the dead, soon to be venerated as an ancestor whose wisdom and guidance continued to be present as part of the survivors’ lives. Mjölnir was also used at the time of Balder’s death, to hallow the funeral ship before it began its journey, again affirming this sacred function.
We might take the way that Thor uses Mjölnir to bless his goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr to resurrect them after eating them as an indication of Mjölnir’s use in sacrificial blót rituals. There is clear evidence the hammer was used to bless new-born children as they were introduced into the community. Even the sign of the hammer (as some Christians make the sign of the cross) could be understood to be a protection and a blessing, sometimes made over food or drink. And Mjölnir likely had even more uses than those of which we are aware, for Saxo Gramaticus, in his Gesta Danorum, speaks of a theft of many hammers from a temple of Thor in the 12th century, of various sizes and weights, used for many purposes which Saxo seems not to understand clearly, though it is certainly clear to him that “the Swedes consider [the thief] guilty of sacrilege and a robber of spoil belonging to [Thor].”
But perhaps the most famous use of Mjölnir is its use in a number of amulets that have been recovered from gravesites throughout northern Europe. These gravesites typically date to the Viking age, though there’s some evidence that at least some such use came even earlier than that.
It’s generally believed that the much more prevalent use of these amulets during the Viking Age is a direct response to the increasing influence of Christianity during this period. Some of this influence is simply experiential – Christians, especially the priests who came to proselytize to the northerners, often wore crosses and crucifixes suspended from chains on their necks. To visibly express their own religious devotion, Mjölnir came to be adopted as a similar symbol to express their own participation in the community of the followers of the Aesir.
However, as Christianity became adopted more broadly, particularly by earls, kings, and other elites whose adoption of Christianity made it the de facto religion of a community or region, Mjölnir took on additional meaning. It could be worn as a symbol of belonging in a community, but also as a symbol of defiance. And as Christianity became not a religion of choice, but a religion of force – legally mandated, and forced upon the people by violence – it was a symbol of rebellion.
Mjölnir Defines the Innangard
Let’s put all these uses together, then. When Mjölnir is used to bless a wedding, in addition to a fertility blessing, there’s also an implication by which the man and woman are going through an important rite of passage, joining the community as fully formed adults. They are also now fully part of legal civil society, likely to own property, weapons, tools of trade, and so forth. They have become fully civilized. Thor and Mjölnir will protect them as part of his community as Mjölnir blesses their union.
For newborns and for the newly deceased, Mjölnir is performing parallel functions. At birth, newborns are welcomed into the community, and offered blessing as they begin their journey toward full participation in that community as adults; Thor will protect them from harm so that they can become the warriors, tradesmen, wives, and mothers they are destined to be. At death, Mjölnir offers protection for the grave from robbers, as the graves of Northern Europeans typically included a substantial offering of weapons, valuables, and sacred objects. The protection extends more importantly to the spirit of the deceased, as it is protected in its journey to the afterlife and also, because of a tradition of ancestor worship, protected as it continues to guide its descendants through their lives, helping when necessary, and watching over always.
The use of Mjölnir in formal ritual ceremony defines the innangard importantly as those things offered to the gods, whether in sacrificial rites, in prayer, through other rituals, and simply by being part of the community’s collection of goods that honor the gods. The community is defining itself as followers of Thor and the Aesir by venerating them with each ritual, each prayer, and each sacred space, whether a small shrine in the home or a sacred grove in a nearby forest.
And finally, those who adopt the Mjölnir amulet as their symbol do so to express to themselves and others that they are innangard. They are part of the civilization that continues to venerate Thor and the Aesir, whether, as in the Iron Age, they do so only as people living in relatively isolated communities, or as in the later Viking Age, they do so as a persecuted minority risking death for continuing to be part of a community that has been banished from existence. Sometimes that community was fractured, no longer entire villages, but a small family in one community who was only in touch with another community several miles away. The idea of an innangard that was surrounded by an outer wall like Asgard, or the cosmological understanding of Midgard, no longer made sense, as the community had been conquered by invaders from the south, and the utangard now mixed freely among the innangard.
The community of the followers of the Aesir stubbornly fought to continue its traditions for hundreds of years, and many rituals from those times remain as important parts of Western culture today. Perhaps nominally, the utangard won. But Mjölnir continues to have a strong grip on Western culture to this Thorsday.