Many of us are familiar with Thor and his hammer due to their appearance in Marvel’s Thor and the Avengers movies. But the legends of Thor and his hammer, Mjolnir, go back hundreds of years. The Vikings commonly wore Mjolnir amulets, so why did the Vikings wear Thor’s hammer?
The Vikings wore Thor’s hammer for protection and blessing and to show their devotion to the Norse religion in contrast to Christianity. Most Thor’s hammer amulets or “torshammere” appeared during the 10th century, as Norse religion competed with Christianity. Still, some sought blessings from both religions and merged the symbols into one.
This article will explore the myths about Mjolnir, discuss what these amulets signified, and how the religious climate of the Viking Age caused these amulets to become so popular.
What Is Thor’s Hammer?
In Norse mythology, Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, was a weapon, but it also had other benevolent properties. Thor guarded Asgard and protected humans with Mjolnir, but he also used it to bestow blessings upon humans and gods alike.
Thor was a prominent god associated with thunder, the sky, and farming. Considered the protector of Asgard and the gods, as well as of human communities, he was one of a large pantheon of gods who lived in Asgard, the heavenly home of the gods.
As the god of the sky, the Nordic people understood the sound of thunder to be Thor using his hammer, Mjolnir. In Norse myth, Thor guarded Asgard against giants who constantly sought to attack the realm of the gods.
The etymology of Mjolnir is uncertain, but it may come from Old Norse words for “to grind” or “to crush” (source). Mjolnir had many special properties:
- It always hit its target.
- It was unbreakable.
- It returned to Thor when he threw it.
In many Norse myths, the hammer appeared not as a weapon but as a device to bestow blessings on various important events such as marriages, funerals, and births.
Because Thor’s hammer was so important to the protection and blessing of both human and divine communities, it became a common and important symbol for the Nordic peoples. It appeared on graves, in temples, and, most commonly, on amulets and necklaces worn by people in the Early Middle Ages.
What Does It Mean to Wear Mjolnir?
Because Thor used Mjolnir to protect Asgard and the world from evil giants and serpents, the Vikings wore Thor’s hammer amulets as symbols of divine protection and well-being. Some wore it in defiance of Christianity, while others combined the symbol of Thor’s hammer with the cross, seeking divine protection from both gods (source).
An amulet is a charm that a person wears for magical protection from some form of evil. For example, jewelers might inscribe such an ornament with magical incantations to protect the wearer (source).
Currently, anthropologists know of over 1000 examples of Thor’s hammer amulets or “torshammere” in the shape of Mjolnir. These are generally simple designs of iron or silver, but there are about 100 examples of fine craftsmanship (source)
Most examples have been from the Scandanavian nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but finds have come from Germany, the British Isles, and Iceland (source).
These were pendants that the individual would wear around their neck (source). Consisting of silver, bronze, iron, or amber, the pendant would usually have a loop through the “handle” of the hammer at the top from which to hang from a string or chain (source).
Some pendants were simple and rudimentary, but others were ornate with fine carvings. Some contained runes, an ancient Germanic alphabet with secret or magical meaning (source).
The age of these Mjolnir amulets varies: while some date from as early as the 6th century AD, the bulk of them appear in the 10th when Norse religion and Christianity were in direct conflict.
Amulets shaped like the club of Hercules were common in the 2nd to 3rd century in the Roman empire, and one theory holds that Thor’s hammer amulets derive from this earlier tradition.
The earliest Thor’s hammer amulet is a bronze Anglo-Saxon example from Kent, England, dating to the sixth century (source).
According to some sources, Christians around the year AD 200 would wear crosses in public to differentiate themselves from pagans. However, the Catholic crucifix, with a representation of Christ still on the cross, did not emerge until AD 629 and would not become popular until later in the Middle Ages (source).
Thus, the popularity of Roman Hercules clubs and Thor’s hammer amulets is largely related to their function as symbols of opposition to the Christian cross. Notably, it was in the Viking Age, as Christianity was on the rise in Scandinavia, that these amulets were most common.
As a Symbol of Thor in Opposition to Christ
A Mjolnir amulet, with a similar and yet distinct shape from a cross necklace, set its wearer apart as believing in the Norse gods instead of the Christian God. The Norse deity Thor also became more prominent as a symbol of resistance to Christ.
The Norse had greater exposure to Christianity south of Denmark from the Frisians by the late 8th century (source). During that same timeframe, trading centers were emerging all across Europe, including those of Hedeby and Ribe in Denmark.
The Frankish King Charlemagne fought the pagan Saxons for over 30 years from AD 772 to 804 and attempted to force their conversion to Christianity. The Danes, the people of Denmark, were allies of the Saxons during these wars, and they developed a particular hostility toward Christianity.
While Alcuin of York eventually convinced Charlemagne to cease such forced conversions by AD 797, the damage was already done. Missionary attempts in Denmark in AD 826 met with little success.
Thor’s hammer amulets from this period include a silver hammer from Rømersdal, Denmark, dating to around 700-800. Still, most examples emerge during the Viking Age from AD 793 to 1066, especially during the 10th and 11th centuries.
Viking raids across Europe, particularly in England and the Frankish Kingdoms, brought the Norse closer to Christian civilization.
Hammer vs. Cross
The large-scale “conversion” of the Danes began with the baptism of the Viking Guthrum in England in AD 878 after his defeat by the English King Alfred the Great (source). The English king Edmund even appointed a Dane, Odo, as the Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 942.
Subsequently, Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark, accepted baptism around AD 960 and sought to convert his people.
Meanwhile, crucifixes appeared in Scandinavia, such as the gold crucifix dating to around AD 900 to 950 from Denmark (source). As the Vikings resisted conversion, the appearance of Thor’s hammer amulets peaked, but most of Denmark accepted baptism by the 11th century.
Recently, neo-pagans have revived the symbol as a form of protest against Christianity. They refer to their religion as “Asatru,” which is Old Norse for “belief in the gods” (source). The association of Thor’s hammer with the swastika has also led some Neo-Nazi groups to use the symbol.
One of the effects of such rapid “conversions” was a great degree of religious syncretism. Syncretism is the attempt to blend different religions or perspectives into one (source). Early on, Viking traders would merely accept the sign of the cross so they could trade with merchants who professed Christianity.
They could accept the sign of the cross without accepting baptism. By taking this halfway approach, many retained their Norse deities like Thor and Odin and simply added Christ to their list of gods.
Consequently, there was a great deal of fusion with regard to religious symbolism during this period — some by the Norse and some by gnostic sects.
For instance, archaeologists have unearthed soapstone molds in Denmark and Sweden that jewelers could use to cast either Mjolnir amulets or Christian cross necklaces. This could be a case of religious syncretism or of a rather unscrupulous merchant who wished to sell to both sides.
Additionally, prior to the Viking conquest of Northern England, York was an important center of learning (source).
Celtic monks from Ireland had brought their knowledge of ancient Celtic religion with them to Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, and there was probably an interest among scholars in finding common grounds among pagan Celtic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon religions with Christianity.
What Does the Viking Hammer Symbolize?
For the Norse, Thor’s hammer symbolized protection, blessing, and well-being (source). Thor’s hammer is also closely related to the sun wheel and the swastika, both symbols originally related to the agricultural cycle and good fortune.
As Thor used his hammer as a weapon to guard both gods and humans against giants, his hammer was a symbol of protection. Some Mjolnir amulets even contained runic inscriptions describing the particular form of security that the wearer sought.
In contrast, the giants symbolized the chaos and threatening aspects of nature. As a result, the Norse believed wearing the image of Thor’s hammer would protect them from these same forces.
Thor’s hammer also symbolized the forces of cosmic order, and in that regard, Mjolnir is related to the solar cross and the swastika. The solar cross and sun wheel are very ancient symbols, with Stonehenge being a famous example of a sun wheel (source).
The Sun Wheel and Odin’s Cross
The sun wheel is a circle divided into four quarters, representing the four seasons. The ancients could use sun wheels like Stonehenge to observe the seasons and help determine planting times for farmers. The relative predictability of the seasons pointed to a cosmic order in the universe.
Another name for the sun wheel is the solar cross, Odin’s cross, or the wheel of Taranis, and Taranis was an ancient Celtic sky deity associated with the sun wheel and lightning. Yggdrasil was the Norse name for Odin’s cross, upon which he hung himself to gain secret knowledge.
In many ancient mythologies, sky gods like Taranis rode along the sky in their chariots, and the chariot wheel resembled the sun wheel. Similarly, the Norse sky god, Thor, rode a chariot pulled by the goats Tanngniost and Tanngrisnir (source).
As a sky god, Thor was a god of weather, and farmers would appeal to him as a god of farming and the agricultural cycle. Additionally, Thor’s wife, Sif, was the goddess of grain and fertility. Thus, Mjolnir amulets could also represent blessing, prosperity, life, and fertility.
The Midgard Serpent
Thor’s hammer also represented the cosmic order as he combatted the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr, who wrapped himself around the world, biting his own tail. Thor first encountered the Midgard serpent while fishing, and Norse legend claimed he would reencounter Jörmungandr during Ragnarok.
Legend has it that Thor and Jörmungandr will kill one another at Ragnarok, and Modi and Magni, the sons of Thor, will inherit their father’s hammer.
For similar myths relating to evil serpents and the cycle of destruction and renewal, check out “Is Egyptian Religion the Oldest?”
Thor’s role as the protector of gods and men carried over into his role as bestower of blessings. In Norse mythology, For instance, Thor used his hammer to bless people during important events like weddings, births, and funerals.
Weddings seemed to have been the most common occasion where the hammer symbolized blessing. There is even a record of Nordic peoples making the “sign of the hammer” during meals as Christians made the “sign of the cross.”
The Early Middle Ages
Marking the end of the Early Middle Ages (AD 476-1066), the Viking Age was formative in the religious and cultural development of Europe. Their invasions ultimately contributed to expanding trade links and cultural ties throughout Europe.
Pagan Norse symbolism found its way into English art and architecture and had precedents in ancient Celtic symbolism, such as the sun wheel. Similar forms of religious syncretism with Christianity had occurred during the Late Roman Empire as emperors attempted to impose their religion on their pagan subjects.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
For more about Thor’s importance to the Vikings, check out “Why Thor Was So Important to the Vikings.”
The Vikings wore Thor’s hammer for protection and blessing but mainly as a symbol of their opposition to Christianity in the 10th century. Recently, Thor’s hammer pendants have gained in popularity thanks to the Avengers movies and to the rise of Neo-Pagan Asratu.
For the Norse Vikings, Mjolnir was a potent symbol of the cosmic order they depended on for their livelihoods.