You know who Thor is, right? He’s the Norse god of thunder! He’s got a big hammer! Chris Hemsworth, and a big winged helmet!
Of course, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Marvel’s version of Thor, and the movies based on those comics, bear little resemblance to the myths and beliefs of the actual people who worshiped Thor, the Vikings and their ancestors. Even the winged helmet bit is an anachronistic flourish from Richard Wagner that Jack Kirby passed down to today’s Thor and Thors yet to be.
Maybe you even realize that Thor isn’t uniquely “Norse,” either. After all, he comes from a Germanic, and even an Indo-European, tradition of gods associated with the sky, thunder and lightning, and war, including close cousins Donar, Thunor, Thunar, and Thuner, and more distant cousins including Taranis, Perkunas, Perun, and even Zeus and Indra.
But is Thor a god of thunder? As in, a god who cultivates thunder, gives it to the people who worship him, and uses thunder to make the world(s) change to better resemble his code of ethics and hopes for the future.
In comparison, you might be familiar with Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war, who grants these powers to her followers and guides her followers, and the Greek world, Athens in particular, to be wise, and to win war wisely, through superior strategy and tactics. In another pantheon, the Egyptian sun god Ra shined light down upon the Earth, and gave his worshipers better crops and healthier lives.
You might also fill in similar stories for Neptune, Roman ruler of the sea, or Quetzalcohuātl, the Aztec god associated with wind and learning. A worshiper makes a sacrifice, and has specific things to ask for, and the god chooses to respond, or to withhold favor. That’s the archetype, at least.
How do these sorts of stories work for a god of thunder? Or for Thor specifically?
You might first think that a sacrifice for Thor, god of thunder, would be asking for Thor to come with storms, to aid in the growth of crops. And perhaps this is a wish that would be asked of Thor from time to time – we don’t have many records of the beliefs of these ancient peoples. But we do know that the god Freyr was a fertility god, supplicated for good growing seasons and happy harvests. Freyr’s sister Freyja held a similar function. We even have reason to believe Thor’s wife Sif had some association with the growth of fields. With a remarkable dedication among the Germanic pantheon to fertility and agriculture, why ask a “god of thunder” to help out? Thunder doesn’t necessarily produce rain, after all. Sometimes rain showers fall without any thunder at all; sometimes the sky cracks loudly without a drop of precipitation. Thor would be an unreliable agent if he were a god of thunder.
Instead, we have to look at what’s actually happening in the mythological stories about Thor. He is not a farmer; he’s a warrior, and often quick-tempered. In Thrymskvitha, he loses his hammer and, upon finding it (while disguised as Freyja), he kills the giants who took it. In the master builder story, he gives no opportunity for appeal once Loki tricks the giant’s horse, and immediately kills the builder once the wager is complete. Thor finishes the foolishness of his fellow gods by dueling the stone giant Hrungnir, and defeats him handily. He kills Geirrod and Geirrod’s daughters, even without having his hammer Mjolnir at hand. And in the Lokasenna tale, after Loki leaves Aegir’s hall having infuriated all of Odin’s court, Thor tracks him down and helps to imprison his longtime friend and traveling companion. Only in the story of Alviss the dwarf do we see a temperate side to Thor, as he challenges Alviss to a recitation of lore… until Alviss is killed by the rising of the sun.
In these stories, then, we see a god who is constantly at war, with the giants, with a dwarf, with destiny (see the fishing trip story), with whoever crosses his path. Why would a god constantly at war, dangerous to all around him, be worshiped by so many? Why would he be the blessing-god, the one whose sign, the hammer Mjolnir, was taken by thousands of Northerners to show their defiance of an encroaching Christianity?
In each of these stories, Thor is protecting something. Himself, sometimes. But in the master builder story, in Lokasenna, in the Hrungnir duel, Thor is always coming to save Asgard from a threat. And often, he’s called to save Asgard from a threat while he was already fighting against jotuns or trolls. Thor’s existence is a non-stop battle to protect Asgard, and Midgard, and all the nine realms, even Yggdrasil itself, from the chaos of entities who want to disorder the universe. At Ragnarok, Thor kills the most powerful giant at all, the world-encircling serpent Jormungand, and though he himself is killed in the effort, he and the gods succeed in ensuring that it is possible for the world to be reborn, for order to take hold again, even if the major gods fall on that day.
There are gaps in our understanding of the actual religious practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, including the Scandinavians and Icelanders who are the source for much of our knowledge for how the Germanic peoples practiced their pagan faith (continental Europe was converted to Christianity much earlier). Much of what we know of Thor comes from artwork: several depictions of Thor’s fishing trip, where he went to sea and decided to fish for Jormungand, in the absence of any signs of Ragnarok, a sign of Thor’s bravery and acceptance of his fated death by the poisonous fangs of the beast. We’ve found etchings of Thor with Mjolnir, or Mjolnir by itself, showing that the hammer was fundamental to how these peoples understood Thor.
And then there are the many Thor’s hammer pendants, found throughout Scandinavia, sometimes in graves, sometimes in stores of valuable items. These pendants appear to have been most popular during the Viking Age, when Scandinavia began to interact with Christian Europe on a much larger scale. These items indicate that the wearer is protected by Thor, proud of his ancestors’ faith, and firmly anti-Christian. But we know that even though these devices were popular among the common people who held Thor closest to their hearts, later in the Viking Age, the ruling class, closer to Odin, decided to accept Christianity, either as a matter of conscience or to ensure their rule would survive any invasions from the south.
Thor blessed and protected his followers; Odin taught his to find ways to win at any cost. Even the forced conversion of millions. If Thor guides his followers and helps them be brave individual warriors in battle, it is difficult to invoke his name when there is never a battle for their homes in the first place.
Thor blesses the home and the community, whether that community is just a few families cooperating to survive, or a wider group of villages aligned for trade purposes, or all of humanity. He’s there for marriages, for funerals, to aid in war, and to provide strength at any time to his followers. He is the god most closely associated with the family and the common man.
So what the Hel does Thor have to do with thunder and lightning?
Reference books on Norse mythology, of which there are quite a few, agree that Thor is a thunder god. And they always point out that “Thor” is basically “thunor” or “thunraz” all of which mean “thunder”. So Thor isn’t just an entity that produces thunder, at least etymlogically speaking. Thor and thunder are the same thing.
Thor is the warrior who carries the hammer Mjolnir, associated explicitly with the Roman Jupiter in the 1st century CE, and reminiscent of Heracles as well.
Thor is the god of protection, of blessing and loyalty to the community, and is the patron of the warrior class, which in the Viking Age could be almost any able-bodied male. The myths about Thor the protector are backed up by his journeys to battle giants, the agents of disorder, wherever they may be, whether near or far.
Thor assaults his enemies by throwing his (short-handled) hammer Mjolnir, which he uses to destroy giants, even the most powerful, with a single blow, and Mjolnir returns instantly to his hand once the blow is struck. Mjolnir is an instrument of blessing, showing that Thor is with you. But it is also an instrument of death. And it is the living lightning, reaching out from Thor’s position in the sky to kill a giant, and quickly returning to his hand. Just as a lightning strike often seems to hit the ground and quickly return to the sky.
And the sound of thunder is the sound of Thor chasing after each enemy, as he rides his chariot, pulled by the goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngjostner. The sound of thunder is that of the goats, the wheels, perhaps the items in the back of the chariot. This is why you hear thunder even when you don’t see lightning – Thor is traveling to attack his (our) enemies.
So like many other gods, Thor lives and fights in the sky, throws a lightning bolt, and causes thunder. Sure, on that level, he’s a thunder god.
But thunder is incidental to what he’s actually doing (this is true of the other thunder gods as well). Thor is constantly vigilant, fighting to ensure that encroaching chaos cannot find its way into our world. Thor is not an omnipotent or omniscient force, and therefore sometimes fails, so that his lightning strikes hit things he didn’t intend, and he sometimes is not strong enough to stop a storm from becoming so powerful that it causes serious damage. But he is always there, always fighting to protect us. He is one of us, after all, a child of Earth as well as a child of Asgard.
Thor isn’t so much a god of thunder; rather, Thor is thunder. Thor in his thunder-form is the natural force of the battle between order and chaos. Thor in his literary form is that battle personified in the shape of a man, who is sometimes angry, sometimes peaceful, but always in tune with the human drive to be the master of nature, to make our world hospitable.
The fact that our ancestors* didn’t really understand that thunder is the shockwave borne from the intense heat of a lightning bolt isn’t really relevant. And there’s no need to think of it as backwards that these ancestors wanted to name a powerful force that filled their skies: gods like Thor and his cognates around the world, dating back millennia, show that we’ve been trying to understand our place in the universe for as long as we’ve been able to understand, and millennia from now, whether we remember Thor or not, we’ll still be dreaming up ways to think about who we are, where we’re going, and how we fit together as a people.
It’s pretty awesome. Remember our ongoing search for truth next time you hear Thor’s chariot come rumbling by.
*Obviously not everyone is descended from a Scandinavian, but almost all of us are descended from people(s) who worshiped sky/thunder gods; almost everyone reading this is part of a culture that still values Thor or a god similar to him in some way. Thor is more universal than even Marvel realizes.