Þunor

by Eric Wodening

An argument can be made that Þórr was the most popular god among Viking Age Scandinavians. Norway alone boasts around thirty places that were named for Þórr. There is a good deal of archaeological evidence for the worship of Þórr, from carvings that may depict the thunder god to the Þórr's hammer amulets found everywhere from Scandinavia to the Danelaw. It is notable that Þórr appears in more Norse and Icelandic myths than any god save perhaps Óðinn.

Although there is much less literary evidence regarding Þunor in Old English sources than in Old Norse and Icelandic literature, from all appearances he was a very popular god in Anglo-Saxon England. In fact, he appears to have been the most popular god among the Saxons and Jutes. In all there were around twelve places in Anglo-Saxon England named for Þunor, more than any other god save Wóden, and the most of any god in the Saxon and Jutish kingdoms. Thundersley in Essex stems from Old English Þunres léah, "Þunor's grove." Thunderfield in Surrey comes from Old English Þunres feld, "Þunor's field," which was also the name of a place in Wiltshire in the Anglo-Saxon period. Þunres hlæw, "Þunor's mound" or "Þunor's barrow" was the name of a place in Kent. Judging by place name evidence Þunor was the major Anglo-Saxon Pagan god besides Wóden. Archaeological evidence for the worship of Þunor in Anglo-Saxon England exists as well. Just as the Scandinavians of the Viking Age wore Þórr's hammer pendants, so too does it appear that the Saxons and Jutes wore them. Amulets in the shape of hammers were found in a Jutish cemetary in Gilton, Kent. Of course, as in the rest of the Germanic world, the fifth day of the week was named for Þunor--in Old English, Þunresdæg.

The importance of Þunor may be reflected in an Old Saxon Christian baptism vow from the Continent from the 9th century CE. It is as follows:

end ec forsacho allum dioboles
uuwercum and uuordum, Þunær ende
UUoden ende Saxnote ende allum
them unholdum the hira genotas
sint.

I foresake all the devil's
works and words, Þunær and
Woden and Saxnot, and all
the demons who their companions
be.

The very fact that Þunor is included in the vow shows his importance among the Old Saxons. The fact that he is listed first may show the Old Saxons regarded him as more important than Wóden himself. If Þunor was regarded so important among the Old Saxons, we may well expect him to be similarly important to their cousins in Great Britain.

Þunor is probably best known as the god of thunder. Indeed, the name Þunor literally means "thunder." In fact, our modern word thunder comes from his name, used as a proper noun. As if his name was not proof enough, further proof that Þunor is the thunder god can be seen in that the ancient Germanic peoples identified him with the Roman god Jupiter, who also governed thunder, lightning, and the storm. The Germanic peolpes borrowed the seven day week from the Roman. The day that the Romans called dies Jovis, "Jupiter's Day," the Germanic peoples renamed "Þunor's Day," identifying Þunor with Jupiter. In Old English glosses, Þunor is often used to gloss Jupiter. As if his name and the identification with the Roman god Jupiter was not enough, Adam of Bremen in in the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum states that the Swedes at Uppsala believed that Þórr governed the air which held sway over thunder and lightning, winds, clouds, fair weather, and harvests.

Old Norse and Icelandic sources paint a colourful picture of Þórr as a huge, red bearded god armed with a hammer. No sources in Old English explicitly state that Þunor was considered to wield a hammer although we do have circumstantial evidence. As mentioned earlier, hammer pendants have been found in 6th century graves in Gilton, Kent. This would seem to reflect the Old Norse speakers and Icelanders' wearing of hammer amulets late in the Viking Age. Given the strong link between Þórr and the hammer among Old Norse speakers, it seems likely that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes also regarded Þunor as linked to the hammer.

More proof that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may have regarded Þunor as wielding some sort of weapon may be seen in a line in The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturn in which Þunor is said to strike the Devil with a fiery axe (...se Þunor hit þryseð þære fyrenan æcxe). Given the overall Christian tone of the work, this could be a reference to the Christian god striking the Devil with lightning (thunder and the "fiery axe"). That having been said, this could also likely be a reference to Þunor being thought of as wielding a fiery axe. As to striking the Devil, it must be kept in mind Þórr was regarded as the enemy of ettins and thurses among the Old Norse speakers and Icelanders. For many newly converted Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, the Christian Devil may have been just another ettin.

As to the reference being to an axe rather than a hammer, it must be kept in mind that in the Stone Age and even into the early Bronze age, the two tools would have been nearly indistinguishable. Indeed, it must be pointed out that axe amulets have been found in graves from the Viking Age and even earlier. Similarly, Bronze Age carvings have been found featuring a figure wielding both an axe and a hammer. It seems likely that the axe was identified with the hammer and vice versa, and this indentification persisted even in later centuries.

Old Norse and Icelandic sources also give us a picture of Þórr riding across the sky in a wain drawn by two goats, hence the sound of thunder. References to Þórr's wain and his goats is common in Old Norse and Icelandic sources are fairly common, a notable one being in the tale of Þórr's trip to see Úðgðaloki told in the Prose Edda. It seems very likely that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes saw Þunor as driving a wain across the sky. An Old English term for "thunder" was þunorrád, literally "thunder ride" or "thunder travelling." This is reflected in the Old Icelandic terms reiðarþruma ("noise of the ride") and reiðarduna (the same), and simply reið (most often in the plural, simply "ride") for "thunder." It also brings to mind the images of Þórr driving his wain across the sky found in Old Norse and Icelandic sources.

While we can say that the Angles and Saxons thought of Þunor as driving a wain, we can't say that they thought of it as being driven by goats. There is no literary evidence in Old English sources indicating such. That having been said, it is certainly possible. A grave on the threshhold of the Great Hall at Yeavering contained a metal staff which ended in what is thought to be a stylised goat's head. The staff is thought to have belong to a weofodþegn. The remains of a goat's skull were discovered at the foot the grave. It is possible that the heathen Angles then regarded the goat as a holy animal. If this was the case, the animal might have been regarded as a sacred animal and holy to Þunor. If so, they may have regarded goats as pulling his wain.

As mentioned earlier, in Old Norse and Icelandic sources Þórr was the enemy of ettins and thurses. In fact, he was regarded as the defender of both gods and men. Among the kennings for Þórr listed in Skáldskaparmál is verjandi Asgarðs, Miðgarðs, "defender of Asgard and Midgard." Indeed, Þórr is regarded as the enemy of the gigantic serpent which surrounded Midgard or, in Old Norse, Miðgarðsormr. He was also called Jörmungandr. Hymiskviða tells of a "fishing trip" in which Þórr caught the serpent. The poem can be interpreted so that Þórr slew Jörmungandr. Confirming this is a work by Úlf Uggason which describes a pictoral panel of an Icelandic house which shows Þórr striking off the serpent's head. Indeed, in Hymiskviða, Þórr is called ormseinbani, "the sole slayer of the serpent." Despite this, Ragnarsdrapa by Bragi, describing a picture on a shield, claims the serpent survived the battle. Snorri in the Prose Edda claims the same.

Regardless, there seems to be no literary evidence of a battle between Þunor and the Midgard Serpent in Old English sources. The serpent is a popular theme in Anglo-Saxon jewellery. It is found on brooches and in the form of cloak clasps. Indeed, the famous belt buckle from Sutton Hoo has a serpent design. Kentish sceats from 680 to 710 CE depict an encircling serpent. Unfortunately, it cannot be said whether any of these depict the Midgard Serpent or simply serpents in general. A cross shaft from a church in Eat Merton from 950 CE depicts a human figure fighting a serpent, but given the time and place this could easily be due to Danish influence. Ultimately, it only remains an intriguiging possibility that Angles, Saxons, and Jutes believed Þunor fought the Midgard Serpent.

Of course, in Old Norse and Icelandic sources, Þórr was the enemy of ettins and thurses. Among the kennings for Þórr in Skáldskarparmál is bani jótna ok trollkvinna ("slayer of ettins and trollwives"). From the number of them related in the Eddas and elsewhere, Þórr's battles with various ettins were among the most popular myths among Viking Age Scandinavians and Icelanders. The skaldic poem Haustlong refers to Þórr's battles with the ettins Geirroð and Hrungnir. In the Prose Edda Snorri also related Þórr's fight with Hrungnir. The Eddic poem Þrymskviða tells of the theft of Þórr's hammer by the thyrse Þrym and how Þórr got it back. Sadly, Old English literature records none of Þunor's battles with thurses, although it seems likely that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes also believed Þunor was their enemy. As mentioned earlier, The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturn states that Þunor strikes the Devil with a fiery axe. For the newly converted Angles and Saxons, the Devil may hve been just another ettin. In fact, the Old English word þyrs was apparently used of Christian demons. One of the Old English glosses translates þyrs as "heldióbul ('Hell devil')" and Latin "Orcus (the Roman god of the Underworld, often regarded as a devil in the Middle Ages)." Even after the Conversion, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes could have regarded Þunor as the enemy of demons.

As protector of the gods and men, the Old Norse speakers also regarded Þórr as the champion of heathendom against the encroaching Christianity. This may explain the preponderance of hammer amulets late in the Viking Age. Both Kristni Saga and Njals Saga tell how the female skald Steinunn opposed the German missionary Thangbrand in Iceland in the 10th century CE. When Thangbrand's ship was dashed upon a rock, Steinunn pronounced that Þórr, slayer of the son of the etitinwife, had wrecked the priest's ship and Jesus had not protected it. Njals Saga adds the detail that Steinunn also confronted Thangbrand and told him that Þórr had challenged Jesus to a duel and Jesus had dared not fight the Thunder God. Thangbrand claimed he had heard that Þórr would be nothing more than ashes and dust. Thangbrand eventually caused the death of a berserkr and was outlawed, thus being forced to return to Norway.

It seems likely that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes also viewed Þunor as the champion of heathendom as Christianity encroached. The entry for 640 CE in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the sons of Ermenred, son of King Eadbald of Kent, were martyred by Þunor. Ermenred's brother, Erocenberht was a particularly vicious opponent of heathendom, destroying the idols in Kent. From the entry it would seem likely that the sons of Ermenred were believed to have been killed by the god himself, although it is also possible that they were slain by followers of the god. Later sources blame the deaths of Ermenred's sons on a wicked counsellor named Thunor, but this seems highly unlikely. Mortal men were never named for gods, so we can safely assume that the wicked man Thunor was an invention of later chroniclers to explain what had happened, perhaps forgetting the early Kentishmen worshipped a god called "Þunor." Regardless, the deaths of Ermenred's sons by Thunor or even Thunor's followers show that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may have regarded Þunor as the protector of heathendom.

In Old Norse and Icelandic sources Þórr was also closely associated with the act of hallowing, of making things holy. In the Prose Edda Snorri states that Þórr hallowed Baldr's funeral pyre with Mjollnir (his hammer). In Þrymskviða, in which Þórr dresses as Freyja (whose hand in marriage Þrym had demanded in return for the hammer), at the bridal feast the hammer is placed in the "bride's" lap to hallow the "bride." In Snorri's tale of Þórr's trip to Útgarðr, Þórr must slay his goats to feed his servants. He resurrects them by hallowing them with the hammer.

Þórr's link to hallowing is confirmed by archaeological evidence. An inscription on a memorial stone from Glavendrup in Fyn, Denmark dating around 900-925 CE reads þur viki þasi runar ("may Þórr hallow these runes"). A tenth century memorial stone from Vining in Denmark reads þur viki þisi kuml ("may Þórr hallow this memorial stone"). Often stones, such as one found in Læborg in Jutland, will simply read þur viki ("May Þórr hallow").

Unfortunately, literary sources in Old English record no link between Þunor and hallowing. Nor does archaeological evidence provide with anything more. Still, it seems possible that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes viewed Þunor as a god of hallowing. It is possible that heathen on the Continent did. A seventh century clasp from Nordendorf in Bavaria bears an inscription, among which are the words Logaþore, Wodan, Wigiþonar. Wodan is easily recognisable as the god called Wóden in Old English and Óðinn in Old Norse. Logaþore is a bit of a mystery. Wigiþonar may be a reference to Þunor. The form wigiþonar resembles the runic formula found on Scandinavian memorial stones þur viki ("may Þórr hallow"). There have been those who have interpreted wigi as the second singular form of the a word which in Gothic is the verb weihan and in Old High German wíhen, both cognates of Old Norse vigja and all three meaning "to hallow". If this is the case, the Germanic peoples of the Continent may have viewed Þunor as a god of hallowing, making it possible that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did so as well. Unfortunately, wigiþonar is also open to other interpretations, so we can be by no means certain.

As the god of hallowing, the Old Norse speakers and Icelanders associated Þórr with the taking of oaths. Eyrbyggja Saga describes a temple to Þórr in which there was a ring upon which oaths were sworn. Such oath rings also appear elsewhere in the Icleandic sagas and even other sources. The Irish Annals of the Four Masters records how the Irish king Maelseachalainn stole from the Vikings of Dublin the ring of Tomar (an Irish version of the name Þórr). From Anglo-Saxon history we know in 876 that Viking invaders swore on a holy ring to King Ælfræd that they would leave England (they broke that oath that very same night). Þórr's status as a god of oaths can also be seen in the fact that the 11th century Russian chronicler Nestor records that the Scandinavians in Kiev ratified a treaty with the Byzantines by swearing an oath on their weapons to Perun. By Perun, the Slavic god of thunder, Nestor probably meant Þórr, the two gods having so much in common that Nestor could easily identify the two.

Unfortunately, there is no literary evidence that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes associated oaths with Þunor. The archaeological record gives us no evidence of such either. Here it must be stressed that a lack of evidence does not prove that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did not associate Þunor with oaths. It simply means that we cannot say anything either way.

As mentioned earlier, according to Adam of Bremen the Swedes offered sacrifices to Þórr for good harvests. This is perhaps natural. as the god of thunder who brings the rain, Þórr has a direct impact on the fertility of the land. This is borne out by place name evidence. The name Þórsakr ("Þórr's field") appears occasionally, more often in eastern Sweden. The name Þórsvin ("Þórr's meadow" or "Þórr's pasture") is also found in Scandinavia. Both names show that Þórr was thought of as a god who brings fertility to crops by early Scandinavians.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes also quite apparently viewed Þunor as a god of fertlity. The name Þunresfeld ("Þunor's field") is found in Anglo-Saxon England, showing that they thought of Þunor as one who brings fertility to crops.

Of course, in both Scandinavia and England more places were named for Þunor than simply fields and pastures. In Scandinavia there were places named Þórslundr ("Þórr's grove"), perhaps again reflecting his status as a fertility god. There were also names such as Þórsberg ("Þórr's rock"), Þórsáss ("Þórr's ridge"), Þórshaugr ("Þórr's mound"), and Þórshörgr ("Þórr's mound" or "Þórr's holy place"). It must be noted that all of these places are ones that are frequently struck by lightning during storms, so they might have been regarded as holy to the god. Trees (as in groves--which Tacitus tells us the Germanic peoples used for worship anyhow) and high places (mounds, rocks, ridges) tend to be struck by lightning more often than other places.

Similar names were found in Anglo-Saxon England, showing similar beliefs. There were places named Þunresleah ("Þunor's grove"), again perhaps reflecting Þunor's status as a god of fertility, and Þunreshlæw ("Þunor's mound"). Curiously, places named for Þunor are entirely found in the Saxon and Jutish kingdoms of England. There are none in the Anglian areas. It can only be assumed that Þunor was not as important a god for the Angles as he was for the Saxons and Jutes.

Sadly, we can say very little definitive about how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes viewed Þunor. We can treat as a fact that they viewed him as the god of thunder. We can be very certain that they regarded him as wielding a hammer or axe and driving a wain. We can have no real doubt that he was regarded as a bringer of fertility and we can also be fairly certain that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes regarded him as the champion of heathendom and may have regarded him as the enemy of thurses and ettins as well. We can only guess that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes regarded Þunor as a god of hallowing. Sadly, we have only the evidence from Old Norse to show the role Þunor may have played in oaths among the Germanic peoples. While there are very few literary references to Þunor in Old English and only scattered evidence regarding him, we can also be sure that he was a very important god in Anglo-Saxon England.

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