Across the Norse world, archaeologists have recovered artifacts made from metal and amber in the shape of a capital letter “T”. These mysterious objects have become known as Thor’s hammer amulets, after Mjolnir from Norse mythology. This article explores the Norse pantheon, the cult of Thor, and the function and meaning of these amulets in the Viking Age.
The Secrets of Mjolnir and the Norse Pantheon
What did the Vikings believe? Popular culture leads us to Ásgard, where Odin ruled as head of a mythological family. Rune stones and sagas show the gods of Ásgard in mortal forms although they held supernatural abilities. One-eyed Odin reigned in Valhalla as head of the family, and a god of war and death. Vikings paid homage to Odin through burial goods and sacrifices. They also depicted the chief deity on rune stones and other artifacts like clothes pins. The shapeshifter, Loki, lived in Ásgard too, an untrustworthy deity who swindled giants and other gods. The twins Frey and Freya played an important role in Ásgard too. Frey was a god of fertility and good harvest, while Freya was responsible for love and fertility. Along with Odin’s assistants, the Valkyries, these gods ruled over the mythical and mortal worlds according to the sagas. But though many of them remain immortalized as the English days of the week (Odin=Wednesday, Thor=Thursday, Frey=Friday), none was or is more popular than Odin’s son, Thor.
Much of what is known about the Norse Pantheon comes from the writings of the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson and the Prose Edda. Sturluson wrote sagas centuries after the Viking Age. Some scholars note that the mythological Ӕsir family rarely appears together or work in tandem in Norse myths. Instead, Norse mythology tends to focus on the tales of single deities acting on their own with little assistance from other gods. This has led to the idea that medieval Scandinavians may have worshipped different deities in different places and times, rather than the entire Norse pantheon.
In any case, the Vikings’ pagan religion made them outsiders in the largely Christian Europe. Chroniclers in monasteries highlighted the medieval raiders’ alternative beliefs in their accounts of the dramatic attacks on religious houses across the British Isles. Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya became marks against the Vikings in the eyes of many Europeans, and the mission to Christianize the pagans began in earnest.
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The Cult of Thor
In Norse mythology, Thor was the son of Odin and the god of war and fertility. His trademarks were the invention of thunder and lightning and a penchant for traversing the clouds via a goat-pulled chariot. He also had unparalleled physical strength and materially, his most famous accessory was his magical hammer, Mjolnir.
The mighty hammer of Thor came in handy when Thor battled the giants of Jötunheimr, who constantly tried to cause disorder in the mortal world of Midgard. Thor frequently found himself at odds with the giants. One tale describes a drinking contest with the giants that saw Thor imbibe so much that he ebbed the tide. Through feats of cunning and physical prowess, Thor emerged as the most popular god of the Norse pantheon, a god the average Viking could get on with.
According to the Sagas, Thor must thank Loki for Mjolnir. Loki convinced or tricked the sons of the dwarf Ivaldi into creating several of the Ӕsir’s most famous possessions. They created Frey’s magic ship, Skidbladner, and his magic boar, Gullinbursti. They crafted Odin’s spear, Gungnir, and ring, Draupnir. They spun a gold headpiece for Sif.
The dwarves, Brok and Sindri, forged Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. Thor wore Mjolnir around his neck. With the dwarves’ magic touch, Thor could wield Mjolnir as hard as he liked, and the hammer would never break and always complete its task. Thor could throw the hammer anywhere and it would always hit its target. And finally, no matter where Thor threw his hammer, it would always return to his hand.
Vikings reproduced Thor’s hammer in many forms. Archaeologists have recovered iron, lead, silver, gold, and amber pendants in the shape of the letter T from around the Viking world. Sometimes these pendants are plain. Other times, amulets have punch marks or niello inlay. Pendants have emerged from excavations of graves, hoards, homes, and towns throughout Scandinavia, Iceland, England, Ireland, and Russia. Some might argue that these objects do not resemble a hammer, but a recent find in Denmark supports this interpretation. A metal detectorist recovered a silver hammer inscribed with runes that read: “This is a hammer.”
Thor’s hammer was engraved on rune stones, vessels, pottery, and coins as well. Thor’s hammer in the form of iron rings has also been recovered, mostly from cremation burials. Archaeologists have recovered a mold in Jutland, Denmark that would have been used to cast Thor’s hammers. Given the proliferation of Mjolnir in the archaeological record, Vikings must have devoted some time to making these tiny hammers. In crafting these mini Mjolnirs, the Vikings were not just honoring Thor, but they were also fashioning unique religious and ethnic symbols of identity.
Thor’s Hammer as Amulet
The stranger stood about five foot, eleven inches (180 cm). He was somewhere between 35 and 45 years old. He was in England for the winter of 873-4 CE but home was likely somewhere in southern Scandinavia. The trip to England for raiding, trading, or conquest proved a fatal mistake. An Anglo-Saxon foe thrust a spear at the Repton warrior’s face, hitting him twice above the eye. He took another blow to the head. Then his opponent slashed his leg, cutting his femoral artery — a fatal wound. His comrades suffered a crushing defeat at Repton, where archaeologists have uncovered a mass Viking grave. The survivors removed the Repton warrior’s organs and buried him with a sword, boar’s tusk, two beads, and a miniature Thor’s hammer.
Although Thor’s hammers appear to have been worn as necklaces and bracelets, finds in graves like the Repton warrior’s burial suggest that they were amulets, not simply jewelry. Miniature hammers predate the Viking Age and have been recovered from England and Scandinavia. During the medieval period, small hammers increased across Scandinavia.
In mythology, Thor’s hammer offered protection to the mortals of Midgard and those that passed on to Valhalla. At Viking Age weddings, Mjolnir served as a symbol of fertility. Archaeologists have found more Thor’s hammers in female graves, than male burials, leading some to argue that the amulet served an important fertility function throughout a woman’s life and into death. Thor’s hammer may also have offered wearers protection as the god was associated with strength. In the volatile world of medieval Scandinavia, a person could use protection from political uprisings, climate change, and warfare. Archaeologists have discovered Thor’s hammers alongside Christian crosses, suggesting some took protection from anywhere they could get it.
Thor’s hammer amulets were not always worn on the body. At Tissø in Denmark, archaeologists found what has been interpreted as a cult center. Here Scandinavians gathered for centuries, rebuilding and evolving over time. Through the years, the focal point of the center remained the main hall. In deposits dating to the ninth and tenth centuries CE, archaeologists found twenty-five Thor’s hammers alongside figurines of Odin and Thor. Thor’s hammer amulets seemed to have functioned as votive offerings as well as objects to be worn at home and abroad.
Thor’s Hammer at the Intersection of Belief
It was around 965 CE, when Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark, held a feast. One of his guests was the Christian priest Poppo, who was determined to convert the Viking leader to Christianity. Unconvinced, Bluetooth made a deal. If the priest could prove that the Christian god was mightier than the Norse gods, then he would convert.
Poppo took a red-hot iron in both hands and paraded around the king. When he finished, his hands were unmaimed and Bluetooth was sold. Thor had been defeated. The Jelling Stone went up and the Vikings became Christians, or so the story goes. However, the Christianization of medieval Scandinavia was a slower process, with the new religion adopted more variably across the region. Several Thor’s hammer amulets have been recovered with punch marks in the shape of crosses. Some scholars view these cross marks as evidence of a fusion of Norse pagan and Christian symbolism. Others speculate that the presence of Thor’s hammer was a reaction to the Christianization movement.
Archaeologists have found evidence of other cultural crossovers. In England, coins have been found that depict both English kings and Catholic saints alongside Viking swords and Thor’s hammers. These intersections show Vikings adapting to the worlds they entered and adopting new styles and political and religious symbols with flexibility. Perhaps their adaptability was strategic. Or maybe with such a large pantheon, the Vikings found it easy to incorporate one more deity into their belief system.
Mjolnir in the New World
According to tradition, the gods of Ásgard battle the giants in an epic final battle that results in a total collapse of their mythological world, known as Ragnarök. Medieval Scandinavia eventually embraced Christianity and parted ways with the pagan Ӕsir pantheon. The conversion came gradually and disparately. But with the adoption of Christianity, Mjolnir began to fade away from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
But Mjolnir has been revived again and again. The eighteenth century saw Mjolnir return along with the popularity of pagan histories. Fascists adopted Thor’s hammer as one of many symbols in the twentieth century with neo-Nazis showing particular interest in the mythical tool. Marvel’s twenty-first-century adaptation of the Norse pantheon has commercialized Mjolnir as a novelty toy. From Viking Age hoards and burials, Mjolnir has traveled far through space and time. As promised by its creators, the mighty hammer of Thor always comes back.