By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
There’s no better way to get acquainted with the cast of Norse gods than to let them introduce each other to us, by means of pointing out each other’s personal shortcomings and character flaws. The roles of the gods are, after all, not as clear-cut and one-dimensional as popular treatments and assumptions often suggest. It is their personalities that make them unique, memorable individuals, not what we might call their ‘powers’ or abilities.
No Connection between Thor and Lightning?
Looking up the name of any god in a popular print or online encyclopedia will lead one very quickly to a short definition, such as ‘god of thunder’ for Thor or ‘goddess of love’ for Freyja. But the gods are never given such titles in our authentic Old Norse sources. It is only the modern readers who have tried to impose these ‘definitions by role’ on the Norse gods.
Let’s take Thor for example. His name does literally mean ‘thunder’, and is exactly cognate with, or from the same ancestor word, as the English word ‘thunder’. In other words, the ancestral word that became English thunder also became Old Norse Thor.
And likewise, his great hammer with which he smashes the skulls of gods’ enemies is named ‘lightning’, or so we assume is the original meaning of its name, which in Old Norse is Mjollnir. This bears a close resemblance to, and a close relationship with, the Russian word molnija, or ‘lightning’. As with other word relationships, this is not to suggest that the Norse word is borrowed from the Russian, or vice versa, but that both come from a common shared root in the ancestral Proto-Indo-European language.
So, at an early, unrecorded stage, one can assume that Thor was closely associated with the natural phenomena of thunder and lightning. And yet, in our written sources in Old Norse, he is associated with thunder only one time: during his duel against his stone-headed enemy Hrungnir. There, Thor is said to appear amid thunder and lightning.
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Thor: Upholder of the Norse Ideal of Manliness
By contrast, the Eddas give us a strong sense of his personality. Thor is a man who hates lies and prefers to deal directly with his enemies. He is a man with a huge appetite for food and drink. Thor is also an exemplary upholder of the Norse ideal of manliness—he is what the Norse call a drengr. Thus, one knows Thor, and likewise the other gods and supernatural beings of the Norse cosmos, very well as a character, as someone whose personality an actor might assume on a screen.
But our simple contemporary ideas of which god is god of what and which goddess is goddess of what are based mostly on the meanings of names, and not on the behavior of these beings in the only real sources available to us.
So it is best to let go of trying to put labels on the gods, and try to get to know them more as one would get to know the characters and motivations of people in a novel or a biography.
There is a poem collected in the Poetic Edda that is called ‘Lokasenna’. Now, in Old Norse, senna stands for ‘truth-telling’ and Loka is the possessive form of Loki’s name. So, this is ‘Loki’s truth-telling’, though the truths in question are not pleasant and some might be exaggerated to have a more caustic effect.
There is a scene in this story that is much like that in a celebrity roast, where all the participants know one another and are basically at peace but show how well they know each other by making knowing ‘digs’ and jabs at each other.
Yet, there is also a sense of foreboding that hangs over even these bitingly humorous interactions. Loki will do much worse than insult the gods at Ragnarok, when he leads their enemies to kill them, and at the very feast where he pokes fun at their sexual indiscretions, he also admits to causing the murder of the beloved god Balder.
Loki: The Murderer
Loki is a shape-changer who might take many forms. All that one knows about his ‘basic’ or ‘natural’ form is that he is supposedly handsome and will have scars around his lips from when they were sewn shut.
During this splendid feast, Loki took exception to the generous praise the gods were heaping on their waitstaff, and he killed one of the servants.
In a less classist society, one might react more strongly to a waiter murdered before our eyes, but the gods are still a little upset, and they shake their shields at Loki and shout at him and drive him out into the forest before returning to resume their feast.
One has to remember that this is a society with different ideas about virtue and honor than our own, and not all murders are regarded as equally murderous—or equally condemned.
For a high-status being such as the god Loki to murder a mere servant isn’t really even a notable crime (none of the gods bring it up again), but what he has done is disturb their peace and shed blood in a place where they were at their ease. His expulsion seems more in the way of shunning a guest who doesn’t know how to behave at dinner than the exiling of a psychopathic killer.
Common Questions about the Flaws of Norse Gods
Thor’s name literally means ‘thunder’, and is exactly cognate with, or from the same ancestor word, as the English word thunder.
Thor‘s great hammer with which he smashes the skulls of the gods’ enemies is named ‘lightning’, or so we assume is the original meaning of its name, which in Old Norse is Mjollnir.
In the Poetic Edda, there is a poem titled ‘Lokasenna’. In Old Norse, senna means ‘truth-telling’, and Loka is the possessive form of Loki’s name. So, this is ‘Loki’s truth-telling’, though the truths in question are not pleasant and some might be exaggerated to have a more caustic effect.