By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
While many gods, especially the more elite and mysterious Odin, have numerous names and titles, none of them have as many positive, praising names as Thor has. Among Thor’s names is, after all, the ‘killer’ of numerous notorious Jotnar, or anti-gods, and he is the ‘defender of Asgard’, and, of course, also ‘protector of Midgard’.
Thor’s Fate Is Inevitable
In Norse mythology, humans and gods alike are doomed to one end or another, usually unknown but equally inevitable for all that. As for the god Thor, the most popular of all Norse gods, he is himself doomed, as told in the poem Voluspa, stanza 54:
Then Thor comes,
to fight the Midgard-serpent—
the protector of Midgard
will kill that serpent in his rage.
But all humankind
will die out of the world
when Thor falls
after only nine steps,
struck down by the venom
of the honorless serpent.
Thor’s Names Are Many
These lines tell us quite a bit, in addition to simply telling of the fall of Thor. For one thing, in the original Old Norse text of that stanza, the plain name ‘Thor’ does not occur at all. Instead, we have a rich vocabulary of poetic synonyms and circumlocutions for referring to Thor, both familiar and magnificent to us mortals.
In this stanza, Thor is ‘the famous son of Hlothyn’ (a name of the earth), and he is ‘son of Fjorgyn’ (yet another name of the earth), and ‘protector of Midgard’, and he is also, more simply, ‘son of Odin’.
Snorri himself, in the Prose Edda, calls Thor by two dozen different titles in a single list, many of them occupational in nature: he is “nemesis of the Midgard-serpent,” “killer of anti-gods,” or “steerer of Mjollnir,” the hammer he fights with.
One of the most frequent names for Thor, Hlorrithi, has puzzled scholars for a long time. But recently, it has been persuasively explained by scholar Anatoly Liberman as meaning “pig rider,”—which suggests a close affinity with pigs at an earlier layer of myth now lost to us.
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So, Thor is familiar enough to be recognizable under many different names, and many of them suggest his positive role as a protector. Connected to that positive role, of course, is the anxiety that we must feel at the prospect of losing him—after all, as that stanza of Voluspa says:
will die out of the world
when Thor falls.
The honorless Midgard-serpent, Jormungand, will kill him then.
Now, from the first, we hear about him—swinging his hammer in the gods’ shadowy first war that the volva remembers—to the last, when he falls against the Midgard-serpent, the primary role of Thor is combat. In every breath and every word that is uttered about Thor, he is always fighting or traveling to go fight. And his enemies are the enemies of the Aesir family of gods and of humankind, and he fights in order to make the human realm, Midgard, and the gods’ enclosure, Asgard, safer.
And Thor’s work is defined by his tools. He fights using his great hammer, Mjollnir, which can destroy anything it touches and returns to him when thrown. To lift it, he wears a magical pair of gloves and a magic weight-lifter belt that together double his already prodigious strength. When not in use, the hammer can also shrink to be worn by him as a small pendant around his neck, much as historical Vikings wore pendants that represented his hammer around their own necks.
Thor: The Protector of Vikings
Several hundred such pendants in the shape of Thor’s hammer have been unearthed from Viking Age finds. No other pendant is so common in Viking Age finds, and the hammers get more frequent in finds from later in the Viking Age.
This increasing frequency through time has led scholars to suggest that the hammer was worn in response to the wearing of crucifixes in the Christian world that the Vikings were increasingly in contact with and under pressure from. That Thor would be chosen as the pagans’ protector was natural; there was no such beneficent role for a figure such as Odin, for example.
Common Questions about Thor’s Names in Norse Mythology
None of the gods in Norse mythology, not even Odin himself, have as many positive and praising names as Thor. Some of Thor’s names are as follows: the killer of the Jotnar or anti-gods, the defender of Asgard, and the protector of Midgard. Apparently, Thor is the most popular of the Norse gods.
Scholars were puzzled at the meaning of this name, which is a frequent name among Thor’s names in Norse mythology. But recently, there’s been a persuasive argument put forward by a scholar named Anatoly Liberman. His argument suggests that the name Hlorrithi actually means ‘pig rider’. This suggests that probably in an older version of the myth, Thor was associated with pigs, a version which is now lost to time.
Thor fights using his hammer, Mjollnir, as his weapon of choice. The hammer can destroy anything it touches, and always returns to Thor after being thrown. But Thor needs a pair of magical gloves and a magic weight-lifter belt to lift the hammer. Historical Vikings would wear pendants of Thor’s hammer around their necks, which shows how popular he was as a Norse god.