Thor prepares to throw a stone at Geirrod's daughter Gjalp at the river Vimur, in Nordens Guder by Adam Oehlenschlager, illustration by Lorenz Frolich, 1885.

How to Kill Giants Without a Hammer

Illustration by Johannes Gehrts in Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen, by Felix Dahn and Therese Dahn, 1885.
Illustration by Johannes Gehrts in Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen, by Felix Dahn and Therese Dahn, 1885.

The standard description of Thor goes something like this: he’s a powerful god with red eyes that can glow brightly in his fury, and he has red hair and a red beard. You’ll seldom see him without his mountain-crushing hammer, Mjolnir, which he wields while wearing his girdle of strength, Megingjord and the iron gloves Jarngreipr. He gets around in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr.

Strip away all of the accessories, the hammer, the belt, the goats, and what’s left?

Enter Loki. You knew that was coming, right?

Loki had taken Frigg’s falcon suit so that he could go flying across the land. Upon his travels, he found himself in the court of the giant Geirröd. He landed upon a windowsill in Geirröd’s great hall, but disturbed the master of those lands who called for the bird to be brought to him immediately.

Geirrod and Loki, illustration by Patten Wilson, in One for Wod and One for Lok, by Thomas Cartwright, 1908.
Illustration by Johannes Gehrts in Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen, by Felix Dahn and Therese Dahn, 1885.

Loki flew away immediately, and easily outpaced the man who was sent after him. But as Loki was flying up over the wall to Geirröd’s lands, he decided to taunt his pursuer, staying just out of reach to make sport of his clear advantage over the giant. But his cockiness caught up with him, and the falcon-Loki was captured.

When the falcon was brought before him, Geirröd saw that this was no ordinary falcon, and recognized the intelligence of a man behind that falcon’s eyes. He bid the bird speak to him, but Loki remained silent.

So Geirröd locked Loki into a chest and starved him for three months.

When he opened the chest, Geirröd asked the falcon again, “Who are you and why have you come to my lands?” Loki had sense enough to answer this time, and explained who he was immediately. To secure his release, Loki turned to his most trusted talent: deceit. He swore an oath to bring Thor to Geirröd’s hall but promised that he would convince Thor to leave Mjolnir and Megingjord behind for this journey. And Geirröd could then deal with Thor however he liked. The deal was struck, Loki was released, and he returned to Asgard seeking Thor’s aid in speaking with the giant Geirröd. How exactly Loki convinced Thor is not explained in the poem Thórsdrápa, the source of this story.

Thórsdrápa and Snorri’s retelling in Skáldskaparmál differ on who Thor’s companion was going forward, whether Loki faced his captor again or whether Thor’s frequent assistant Thjalfi went along again.

In either case, they were walking into a trap.

Luckily for Thor, Geirröd didn’t consider that Thor had family living nearby. On his journey, Thor stopped at the home of the giantess Grid to stay the night. And Grid is the mother of Thor’s half-brother Vidarr the Silent, who will avenge his father Odin at Ragnarok. Grid was fully aware of Geirröd’s plan to ambush Thor and his companion, and helped him prepare for battle. She gave him her own belt of strength, her own set of iron gloves, and her quarterstaff, called Gríðarvölr (Grid’s staff). Thus would Thor be ready for battle despite the handicap Loki had given him before his journey began.

As Thor pressed on in his journey, he came to the river Vimur, greatest of all rivers. But the river was swollen from flooding, but there had been no rain. Thor was unphased, and used the staff to dig into the riverbed for a better position as he waded through the deep water. Loki (or Thjalfi) clung tightly to the belt of strength.

Gjálp doubles the power of the river Vimur. Illustration by Ernst Hansen in Nordiske Myter og Sagn by Vilhelm Grønbech, 1941.
Illustration by Johannes Gehrts in Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen, by Felix Dahn and Therese Dahn, 1885.

Just past mid-current, as the water was coming up to Thor’s massive shoulders, he spied the reason for the swelling of the river: Geirröd’s daughter Gjálp stood with one leg on each side of the river, and she was swelling the waters of the river from her own urine (or possibly menstrual fluid).

Thor pulled up a great stone from the riverbed. He called out to Gjálp, “A river must be stemmed at its source!” and he threw the stone and stuck her squarely in the pelvis. She reeled from the strike, and hit the ground in agony, though she survived and soon moved on. Thor was able to complete his trip across the river. He pulled himself up by a rowan clump, and this is the origin of the saying (which none of us knew before) that rowan is Thor’s deliverance.

A short time later, Thor came to Geirröd’s home. He and his companion were shown to the guest quarters. Thor sat in a chair that had been set out. But immediately the chair, with Thor in it, started rising sharply toward the ceiling. Thor had hold of Grid’s staff, so he hastily pressed it up against the ceiling and with all his strength, pushed himself and the chair back down from the ceiling. There was a great crash and loud screaming.

Thor, using Grid's staff, presses down on his attackers. Illustration by Ernst Hansen in Nordiske Myter og Sagn by Vilhelm Grønbech, 1941.
Thor, using Grid’s staff, presses down on his attackers. Illustration by Ernst Hansen in Nordiske Myter og Sagn by Vilhelm Grønbech, 1941.

Back on the ground, Thor saw that by putting all his strength into using the staff, he had broken the backs of Geirröd’s daughters Gjálp and Greip, who had been the ones attempting to smash him upon the ceiling.

Within moments, Thor was called into the main hall of Geirröd’s abode, a long room with a central fireplace all throughout used sometimes for cooking but more often for working with iron. Geirröd told Thor they would be competing against each other in games, tests of strength and endurance, in that very room.

But as Thor was getting prepared for sport, Geirröd took the initiative to deceive: he used some nearby tongs to take up a piece of hot metal, and he threw it straight at Thor, and the blow would surely have killed. But Thor, ever vigilant, always prepared for battle, caught the iron shot, hot as it was, with the iron gloves Grid had given him. Geirröd realized his mistake and quickly hid behind a pillar. But Thor, red eyes ablaze, hurled the glowing bar of metal at Geirröd through the pillar, and through Geirröd, and through the wall on the other side, and it passed through several feet of earth when it finally landed well past the end of Geirröd’s land.

Thor defeats Geirröd, from Departed Gods by J.N. Fradenburgh, 1891, artist unknown.
Thor defeats Geirröd, from Departed Gods by J.N. Fradenburgh, 1891, artist unknown.

So ended Geirröd and his daughters. And so was Loki saved once again by his adopted family in Asgard.

*** *** ***

Obviously Thor finds a way to kill giants even when he leave Mjölnir at home. How he was able to do that is an important illustration of how the gods and giants are thoroughly intermingled: Thor is the son of a giant, and Odin is the son of two giants, having been born just after the beginning of the universe, when the only living beings were primordial forces. Loki is a giant living among the gods and the Asa-gods took in several of the Vana-gods, and count all the Vanir among their brothers and sisters. So it’s not surprising that even when Thor goes on an expedition to Jotunheim with an ambush lying in wait, he has allies on the scene ready to help. Who knew Germanic mythology was so cosmopolitan?

But of course, we might in fact accept this as one of the central lessons of this tale, something which the whole of pre-Christian Germanic mythology already speaks to. Even though these peoples had a clear conception of the insider and the outsider, of the innangard and the utangard, they recognized the moral and political complexity of life. To survive as a species, the Aesir and Vanir had to band together to move on. From the story of the master builder to the adoption of Loki to the ongoing intermarrying and child-rearing with giants, mythology is littered with the gods acting in ways that recognize that compromise and cooperation are valuable to the welfare of the community.

This complexity was recognized in Germanic society as well. There was an established social hierarchy, with a top-level class of sovereign elites, a class of tradespeople and farmers, and a class of indentured servants and slaves. Different classes favored different gods, who represented different ways of living. Communities also favored different gods, but perhaps more importantly, alliances were made (and sometimes broken) between communities, including marriages and agricultural alliances, all because life requires cooperation to succeed.

Simply by the gods having seeds planted throughout the nine realms, like how Odin’s liaison with Grid created Thor’s half-brother Vidarr, they created allies who might help them wherever they went. Those who were hearing this story when it was first told would of course recognize this and barely notice: of course Grid would help her son’s brother. You don’t leave kin to die, even when the perpetrator is from your own community.

Thor's salvation - the Rowan. Illustrated by Gillian McClure, in Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland, 1993 edition (original 1980).
Illustration by Johannes Gehrts in Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen, by Felix Dahn and Therese Dahn, 1885.

Thor’s encounter with Gjálp at Vimur is also noteworthy. It is another of the few times in mythology in which the giants are described as being actually physically large, and larger than Thor in particular. The question of what metaphor exactly is being employed by this encounter is difficult to say for certain. The most obvious interpretation of the swelling of the river is that Gjálp is urinating into the river, and as such is embodying the destructive force of the flood against Thor. But I’ve also encountered an interpretation that suggests the increased power of the river is being caused by menstrual fluid, which doesn’t seem to be obvious from the story itself, but instead seems to come from reading Gjálp as the personification of feminine opposition to male strength, and as such the waters that would oppose Thor might be menstrual fluid, something more iconically feminine, rather than urine, which has less symbolic value in that respect. I’d prefer to interpret Thor using a stone to “dam a river at the source” as innocuous, a reference to the literal meaning of that expression, or it may have a meaning less palatable to modern sensibilities about keeping feminine mischief in check, possibly with violence. And in this case it’s worth noting again that these were tales for a different time, when wisdom and advice were quite different – the latter interpretation is at least plausible, and probably likely for certain audiences. I will note, at least, that this scene is far more prominent in the version told in Snorri Sturluson’s Skaldskaparmal than in the older, more pagan Thorsdrapa.

And one final note: Thor doesn’t just survive because of cooperation. It’s also because he’s really strong, and really good at throwing things. I’m not certain how important the exchange of Megingjord for Grid’s belt of strength is – Rudolf Simek suggests the belt is an invention of Snorri as a way of adding spice to these tales, and I’m inclined to agree – but at the very least, the attempt by Loki and Geirröd to diminish Thor’s power by leaving him without Mjölnir is key to the success of this story. And yet he defeats Geirröd’s daughter Gjálp by hitting her with a well-aimed stone while up to his shoulders in river water (and something else). And once confronted by Geirröd himself, he catches something Geirröd throws at him (catching not being all that important when Mjölnir always returns on its own), and then throws it back, accurately throwing through a pillar and piercing Geirröd and the wall behind him. It seems here Thor is the lightning at least as much as Mjölnir is. And it also seems as if Geirröd unknowingly stumbled onto an important part of the history of Mjölnir – hammers weren’t always hammers as we understand them today. Things got smashed with rocks, and Germanic peoples understood lightning to be not a hammer flying down from the sky and quickly returning, but rather a thunder-stone being flung down and deep into the ground, a crusher of a slightly different kind. All Geirröd did was give Thor a different kind of ammunition for his well-trained arm.

So there are a great many lessons to be learned from this story, ranging simply from the fact that Loki gets away with everything, until that day when he doesn’t, to the importance of cooperation both inside and outside the community, to Thor having a really kick-ass fastball. I do not recommend any catchers from Major League Baseball stand behind the plate when he’s on the mound.

Pitcher Noah Syndergaard, nicknamed Thor, hurls another win for the New York Mets.
Pitcher Noah Syndergaard, nicknamed Thor, hurls another win for the New York Mets, May 26, 2015. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

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