THE USE OF THOR’S HAMMER
The image of Thor in the temples 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. We know that the hammer was raised to hallow the new-born child who was to be accepted into the community, and I 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.
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 honor of the gods. When the company objected, one of his friends defended Hakin, 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 10th century to wear the symbol of Thor in the form of a hammer-shaped amulet on a chain or cord around 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 cross with figure 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 of Copenhagen, and indicated 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 hammers 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 caused 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 its sanctity. And even now the Swedes consider him guilty of sacrilege and a robber of spoil belonging to the god”. (Gesta Danorum, xiii, 421)
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 Germans 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 they believed he had visited them.
(By H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Gods and myths of northern Europe”)