Whenever you see or hear anything about the Vikings, Thor tends to be part of the conversation. So why was Thor important to the Vikings?
Thor was important to the Vikings because they saw him as the deity protecting the human realm. In addition to being a thunder god protecting them from giants, he controlled the weather and the seas, granting them safe travels at sea and bountiful harvests on land.
This article will explore who Thor was and his role in Norse mythology. We will examine what made the Vikings love Thor so fiercely and look at the impact the Vikings had on shaping Medieval Europe.
Who Is Thor the Viking?
Thor was the Germanic word for thunder, and Thor was the Norse god of thunder and agriculture. Some sources describe him as a middle-aged man with thick red hair and a red beard who always had his hammer, Mjollnir, with him (source).
Thor was the son of Odin, who was the head of the Norse pantheon and the god of war and poetry. Vikings believed that when they died, they would join Odin in Valhalla and be able to drink and party with him.
Though they saw Odin as the chief of the gods, in Iceland and other Northern countries, Thor was the more popular deity. The Vikings or Northmen were Scandinavian raiders and colonizers from Scandinavia, which includes what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Some scholars believe that Thor’s popularity came about because the worship of Odin may have required human sacrifices, while Thor’s did not.
They regarded Thor as a god of immense strength, which he used to protect Asgard and the human realm, Midgard. Vikings believed Thor always shielded them from giants, but his greatest enemy was the serpent Jormungandr.
Thor was always fighting the serpent, a symbol of evil. However, because he failed to kill it, he and the evil snake would have to fight at Ragnarok, where gods and men would meet at the world’s end.
For more information on ancient religions, including the common serpent motif, read “Is Egyptian Religion the Oldest?”
What Did Thor Do?
Thor was the god of thunder, but to the Vikings, he had a hand in everything from agriculture to protecting the world from giants. In addition, the Vikings believed Thor was responsible for the rain and any good weather they experienced and lightning and storms.
Most of us know the Vikings as raiders, but they were also farmers. As farmers, the weather was critical to them. Because they believed Thor controlled the weather, he was far more important than the rest of the gods.
They believe if they pleased Thor, they would have a bountiful harvest and good weather. But if they didn’t, their crops could die, or there would be a drought.
Along with the weather, the Vikings believed he also controlled the seas. Lovers of traveling the seas and raiding other lands, a calm voyage was essential to them. So when the waters were pleasant and easy to navigate, they believed Thor had blessed them.
They also considered Thor the defender of the human realm, believing that Thor was responsible for fighting off giants and keeping them from on earth. When thunder boomed before a storm, Thor was riding around the heavens in his chariot, defending humans against giants.
The Vikings saw Thor as a strong, honest god who could defeat anyone. He was the kind of fierce warrior they wanted to be.
What Is the Significance of Thor’s Hammer?
To the Vikings, Thor’s hammer symbolized power and protection. Thor used the hammer to slay giants and monsters, shoot lightning bolts, and even issue blessings.
While we do not know much about the origin of Mjollnir, according to Norse mythology, dwarfs crafted and gifted it to Thor. Also, no matter where Thor flung the hammer, it would always come back to him.
According to the 12th to 13th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, Thor worshippers in Sweden stored large hammers in his temples. He believed they used them to beat drums to make sounds resembling thunder, probably as a ritual to bless the community.
Norse legend indicates that Thor’s hammer wasn’t just useful for bashing the heads of giants, but he also gave blessings with it, using it for rituals and ceremonies.
Thor’s hammer even played a role in sanctifying brides, as in the story where giants stole his hammer. According to the story, Thor devised a plan to retrieve his hammer from the giants during a wedding ceremony. Anticipating that the giants would bring the hammer out to sanctify the bride, he dressed up as the bride (source).
Additionally, Vikings wore amulets with Thor’s hammer on them, similar to how many Christians wore a cross. Thor’s hammer symbolized protection and security to the Vikings since he used the hammer to protect them from giants and monsters.
So they believed that keeping the hammer close to them would protect them in battle or when they were on a long voyage.
For more on Mjollnir, read “Why the Vikings Wore Thor’s Hammer.”
How Did the Vikings Worship Thor?
As polytheistic pagans, the Vikings primarily worshiped Thor in open groves as a god of natural forces or in the private homes of farmers or chieftains. In some cases, they worshiped an image of the god in a temple or god house, making offerings of food and drink.
Vikings often used natural landscapes to worship their gods, including landmarks such as waterfalls, large rocks, or strange-looking trees (source).
After witnessing European temples and basilicas, the Norse brought these ideas home and began constructing similar buildings for their gods in the sixth century. These “god houses” were places they could go to worship their gods, including Odin and Thor (source).
According to Adam of Bremen, there was a temple to Odin, Freyr, and Thor in Uppsala, Sweden, where they offered male animals every nine years and hung them from trees in the sacred grove (source).
When Did Vikings Pray to Thor?
Because Thor was responsible for everything that was an integral part of their livelihood, the Vikings prayed to him daily. For example, they would pray to Thor when they needed good weather or good crops.
When the crops weren’t doing so well, and they worried about diseases, they prayed to Thor. If something important happened in their lives, they would pray to Thor and ask for his blessings. These things included:
- Business contracts
- Protection on long voyages
- A victory in battle
They prayed to him whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted. If they were out working in the fields and felt like praying to Thor, they would.
In English, we derive our name for the fifth day of the week from Thor, Thursday. Prior to the 12th century, the Anglo-Saxons referred to the day as thunresdaeg (þunres-dæg) or thursdæg (þūres-dæg) in Old English (source).
The Anglo-Saxons knew Thor as þunor or Thunor, which also meant thunder (source). Previously, the ancient Romans named each day of the seven-day week after one of their gods, and they named the fifth day of the week dies Iovis in honor of Jupiter.
Similarly to Thor or Thunor, Jupiter was a sky god associated with the weather, so the Anglo-Saxons simply assigned Thunor to the fifth day of the week.
With the development of Middle English in the 12th century, which the Norse influenced, thunresdaeg or thursdæg became thūres-dai and eventually Thursday (source). So Thursday was originally the day of Thor or the day of thunder.
When Did the Vikings Stop Worshiping Thor and Why?
By the mid 11th century, most Danish and Norwegian Vikings had accepted baptism into Catholicism, and Swedish Vikings by the mid 12th century. Prolonged exposure to Catholicism in areas where they settled and a desire to trade with Catholics contributed to their conversion (source).
The Vikings were not as hostile to Catholicism as we might think. During their raids across Europe, Vikings attacked many monasteries, but that had more to do with the poorly defended wealth located within those monasteries than it did any particular hostility toward Catholics per se.
The Vikings were polytheistic pagans, meaning they already worshipped multiple gods. Many were willing to simply add Christ to the list and accept the sign of the cross for trading purposes. However, it would take time for them to convert to monotheistic Catholicism.
There had been a few attempts before under the missionary Ansgar, starting in AD 826. Still, they didn’t last until the conversions of Harald Bluetooth of Denmark and Olav Tryggvason of Norway in the latter half of the 10th century.
Professing faith in Christ enabled Norse merchants to trade more easily with merchants in predominantly Catholic areas, and it made it easier for those who settled in England, Ireland, or Scotland to get along with the local population.
After raiding England in AD 991 and 994, Olav Tryggvason made peace with the English king and renewed his commitment to Catholicism. In AD 995, he went to Norway to take the throne and succeeded.
Olav brought English ships filled with English priests and a bishop. Olav aggressively tried to impose the religion on his subjects, destroying Viking temples in the process, but it took another 35 years before the inhabitants of Norway accepted the religion.
The conversion of Scandinavia and the concentration of power in the hands of kings like Canute the Great and William the Conquerer helped bring the Viking Age to a close.
When we think of the Vikings, poets and masterful storytellers are probably not what comes to mind, but it makes sense that they would be storytellers and poets. If anyone had a story to tell during medieval times, it was the Vikings.
They had gone on so many adventures and raided so many countries that, of course, they told stories and myths and created legends. In Viking society, there was a skald or poet whose job was to interpret myths and retell oral histories.
The Vikings had two primary forms of literature: Eddas and sagas. Sagas are stories filled with heroes, family, and adventures, while Eddas are more about mythology. Eddas told the stories of their gods, who they were, and how they created the world.
Much of what we know about Norse mythology comes from the 13th-century Icelandic Eddas. For instance, the Poetic Edda is a manuscript from the 13th century that contains a collection of older poems from AD 800–1100.
End of the Early Middle Ages
The Viking Age (AD 793–1066) brought the Early Middle Ages (AD 476–1000) to a close and prepared the way for the High Middle Ages (AD 1000–1300). The invasion of Europe by Scandinavian Vikings and Asian Magyars and Bulgars helped contribute to the development of feudalism in Europe.
Feudalism was a system where an individual would serve a man of higher rank by working or fighting for him in exchange for land and protection (source). Local nobles were able to build castles in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the invasions, which allowed the local residents to take refuge (source).
As a result, people tended to look to the landed aristocracy instead of the king for protection against invaders.
The Viking Age also had a critical impact on trade, opening vast areas for trading that were previously closed. Their assimilation into Catholicism also made transactions easier across Europe and stimulated the economy. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
For more on the influence of the Vikings on Europe, make sure you check out “The End of the Viking Era.”
The Vikings loved Thor because he was the embodiment of their warrior culture. They viewed him as straightforward, strong, and fearless. The Vikings went into battle with such wild abandon because they believed Thor would protect them.
As a weather god, the Vikings looked to Thor for fair weather for their crops or for long voyages at sea. According to Norse Mythology, he was the guardian of earth, protecting humanity from a race of giants.
Thor also served as a source of unity among those Scandinavians resisting the influence of European Catholic culture. Despite this, the Vikings disappeared as they gradually assimilated.