By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Thor was by far the most popular of the Norse gods, to judge not only from the stories about him preserved in the Eddas but from archaeological evidence, too, which backs up his overwhelming popularity. Several hundred pendants in the shape of Thor’s hammer have been unearthed from Viking Age finds, often from the graves of people who wore them around their necks.
Thor Deemed Lucky in Norse Mythology
Several Viking age rune stones contain the words, ‘Thor bless’, in consistent-enough language indicating that it must have been a well-known formula. Even outside the Norse myths, Thor’s status is assured in other written sources, such as the sagas, where we find that a quarter of all named human individuals have Thor somewhere in their names.
Enormous numbers of men are named ‘Thor-stone’ (Thorstein), ‘Thor-helmet’ (Thorkel), or ‘Thor-spear’ (Thorgeir), and more. Interestingly, just as many women are named ‘Thor-beautiful’ (Thorfrith), ‘Thor-love’ (Thorunn), or ‘Thor-battle’ (Thorhild).
It is hinted in the sagas that it was regarded as lucky to give a name to a child with Thor in it.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
When Thor Won a Battle of Wits
When it comes to battles of wits, here, too, Thor does not always get the worst of it, as one of the tales in the Poetic Edda, called Alvissmal, attests to.
According to this poem, an ugly, corpse-like dwarf shows up at Thor’s home bragging about how eager he is to spend the night with his new bride—Thor’s otherwise unknown daughter.
Enraged, Thor challenges him, and asks the dwarf by what right he has claimed the young woman there.
The dwarf insults Thor, and says he does not know who Thor is either, except, probably, just some idle coward. Thor quickly sets him straight, and tells him that as the bride’s father, no one will be going home with his daughter without his consent.
At this point, the dwarfs’ demeanor changes and he becomes more friendly. Sensing this change, Thor begins asking him questions about what different phenomena are called in different realms.
Thor wants to know, for example, what humans, gods, elves, and dwarves each call the earth, or the sky, or the wind. The dwarf replies each time with a long list of names for each thing, showing evident pride in the good memory that allows him to answer all these questions.
The purpose of the dwarf’s list of names for each of these things was to provide a Norse poet with a ready storehouse of poetic synonyms. Since Old Norse poetry relied on alliteration but also restricted the number of syllables per line, a creative poet had to come up with ways to say what he wanted to say with other words.
For example, one could call the wind just ‘wind’, and that’s one of the names the dwarf gives for it, but he also lets you know that others call it, for example, Noisemaker, Screamer, Noisy Traveler, or Stormy.
A Norse Poet’s Memory-aiding Device
But this is just a poetic convenience; the poet is able to choose from among these options to match with other words in his poetic lines to make them alliterate: Old Norse ‘noisy traveler’, or dynfari, for example, gives him a way to say ‘wind’ while alliterating with words that start with d.
So the entire questioning game that Thor puts the dwarf through is really just a Norse poet’s memory-aiding device.
Deus Ex Machina
Interestingly however, it ends with a simple deus ex machina: Thor, it turns out, kept the dwarf talking so long so that the sun could come up and turn him to stone.
This was not a normal characteristic of dwarves, and simply seems to serve as a plot convenience in the story. Amusingly, this is the only time we see Thor really get the best of someone else intellectually. He is not normally regarded as clever or wise, unlike his father Odin.
Norse Mythology: Thor Held in High Regard
And yet, this in no way hinders Thor from being held in higher regard. Only Thor could be gently mocked by being able to assume the attributes of a bridal goddess, as he does in Thrymskvitha.
The same, for Odin or Loki, shape-shifting figures who behave in many ways outside the manly norms of the Norse culture, the incident wouldn’t be as embarrassing, but it also wouldn’t be as humorous. And for a less well-known and popular warrior figure, the incident would overwhelm any reputation he had earned for his manly composure.
But as for Thor, he could only be jested at as the false bride if every other story about him portrayed him as mighty, even if, as in the story of his visit to Utgartha-Loki, he sometimes could be outwitted.
Common Questions about Thor: The Best among All Norse Gods
Thor asked the dwarf questions about what different phenomena are called in different realms. He wanted to know, for example, what humans, gods, elves, and dwarves each call the earth, or the sky, or the wind.
The entire questioning game that Thor puts the dwarf through is really just a Norse poet’s memory-aiding device.
Thor, it turns out, kept the dwarf talking so long so that the sun could come up and turn him to stone.