Saga Book of the Viking Society,
Vol. 24, 1997
An excerpt from:
THE GERMANIC THUNDERWEAPON
by LOTTE MOTZ
THE NORTH-GERMANIC PEOPLE looked to Þórr more than to
any other divinity to keep them safe from danger and destruction.
Striding through the landscape, fording rivers and traversing
was always watchful for any threat to gods and men. And the enemies
of cosmic order were well acquainted with his doughty weapon, for
many a giant’s skull was smashed by his hammer, and many a giantess
lay dead after an encounter with the deity. The weapon carried by
god must therefore be considered the most vital of all instruments
battle for survival.
The weapon is invariably designated by the noun
‘hammer’, in the Old Norse texts, and consequently we visualise it
the form of this tool. A close look at the texts reveals, however,
ambiguity in the nature of the implement. Sometimes it is hurled
a missile and sometimes it is brandished like a battleaxe. We may
wonder why a being who is not a craftsman is so consistently
with a craftsman’s tool. Let us now consider the texts for a clearer
image of the instrument.
Þórr’s weapon in the Old Icelandic texts
Þórr’s weapon was forged for him in the smithy of some dwarfs to
as a missile and as a weapon of close attack (Skáldskaparmál ch.
It would never fail, no matter how hard the blow, and it would
the owner of its own accord when it was cast. Þórr indeed threw the
hammer in his duel with the giant Hrungnir, and he broke the giant’s
head into small bits: hann . . . reiddi hamarinn ok kastaði um langa
at Hrungni (he . . . swung his hammer and threw it from a great
distance at Hrungnir; Skáldskaparmál ch. 17). He flung his weapon
also at the Midgard snake, as he was fishing in the ocean, and it is
that the monster’s head was struck from the body: Þórr kastaði
eptir honum, ok segja menn at hann lysti af honum höfuðit vid
(Þórr threw his hammer after it, and they say that he struck off its
by the sea-bed; Gylfaginning ch. 48). In the Eddic poem which relates
the same event, the head was merely battered by the tool before the
fishing line was cut (Hymisqviða st. 23; Edda 1983, 92):
Hamri kníði háfiall carar,
ofliótt, ofan úlfs hnitbróður.
With his hammer he struck down upon the most ugly head (hair’s high
of the wolf’s inseparable (or battle-) brother.
A skaldic poem, Úlfr Uggason’s Húsdrápa, also tells the story; here
the head, hewn from the body, was sent into the sea:
Víðgymnir laust Vimrar
vaðs af fránum naðri
hlusta grunn við hrönnum.
Víðgymnir of Vimur’s ford struck the head (ear-bed) from the shining
snake by the waves (Skáldskaparmál ch. 4).
And with his hammer Þórr smote and shattered the skull of the giant
mason: ok laust þat hit fyrsta högg er haussinn brotnaði í smán
(and struck the first blow so that his skull was shattered into
Gylfaginning ch. 42).
In his journey to Útgarða-Loki Þórr struck a sleeping giant with
force that the edge of the tool, the hamarsmuðr, sank deeply into
giant’s skull: hann . . . reiðir hamarinn títt ok hart ok lýstr ofan
. . .
hann kennir, at hamars muðrinn søkkr djúpt í höfuðit (he swings the
hammer quickly and hard and strikes down . . . he feels that the
the hammer sinks deep into the head; Gylfaginning ch. 45). Three
blows were dealt by Þórr, who held the handle with both hands, and
created three large valleys through his deed (Gylfaginning chs 45,
In a verbal battle with the crafty Loki Þórr threatened to sever
head from the neck with his hammer: herða klett drep ec þér hálsi af
(I shall strike the head (rock of shoulders) off your neck;
57, Edda 1983, 108). A skaldic poet (Bragi gamli) calls Þórr
. . . sundrkljúfr níu höfða (cleaver apart of Þrívaldi’s nine
Skáldskaparmál ch. 4). If we consider the verbs describing the
the hamarr we find that kljúfa has an unequivocal sense of ‘to
we also find drepa af, knýja ofan, ljósta af, ljósta ofan; the words
ofan add to the basic sense of ‘strike’ a sense of removal, of
another place; drepa höfuð af is the term for ‘beheading’ in
no. 259 (NGL I 84–85; cf. no. 241, NGL I 80). We thus find the sense
of ‘severing’, an action accomplished by an axe. The phrase högg
hamars is also found (Þrymsqviða st. 32; Edda 1983, 115); the noun
högg often denotes an act of hewing; axes and swords are denoted as
höggvápn by Snorri (Skáldskaparmál ch. 49).
The instances in which a head is severed from the shoulders, or
severing is threatened (Húsdrápa, Locasenna st. 57, Gylfaginning ch.
indicate the performance of an axe. The ‘cleaving’ of the heads of
Þrívaldi, in its turn, points to the employment of an axe. The noun
designates in Old Icelandic the steel edge of an axe (RGA 1973– I,
536); it is the muðr of Þórr’s weapon which penetrates deeply into a
giant’s skull (Gylfaginning ch. 45). This muðr creates the
of three valleys; again the employment of an axe is suggested by
action.1 The shattering of the head of the giant mason (Gylfaginning
ch. 42), conversely, suggests the action of a hammer. Þórr’s tool
not produce the sounds which are linked with iron hammers.
The ambiguous use of Þórr’s instrument, as hammer, missile or axe,
has not been given much attention in Germanic scholarship. Sometimes
the weapons are equated. The archaeologist Peter Paulsen includes,
without explanation, a chapter on ‘Þórr’s hammer’ in his book on
(Paulsen 1956, 205–21). Þórr’s hammer is related to or equated with
cultic axes of prehistoric times, such as those in rock drawings
Bronze Age.2 Jan de Vries declares that axes and hammers represent
same instrument (de Vries 1956–57, II 125).
Others, however, have taken account of the discrepancy. In the
edition of his book, de Vries (1935–37, II 213) assumes that Þórr’s
hammer had originated in an axe of stone. Hilda Ellis Davidson
that the hammer was substituted for an earlier axe when men
became impressed by the fires of the blacksmith’s forge (Gelling and
Davidson 1969, 145–46). Oscar Montelius believes that a hammer
replaced the earlier tool when the original meaning of the word
had been forgotten (Montelius 1910, 69; cf. Simpson 1979).
Through my own examination I have reached the conclusion that
Þórr’s weapon was originally a stone or a tool of stone and that it
later visualised in many forms: as a wedge, chisel, bolt, or spear,
stone or club, as a hammer or an axe. The image of an axe was
prominent because of its high social and religious significance. Let
now consider the various aspects of Þórr’s implement.
1 The valleys are ‘four-sided’; yet the edge of the tool, the hamars
muðr (i. e.
peen), could not have created a square indentation. Since we are
told that the
instrument sank in ‘up to the handle’ we may assume that it was the
of the tool which left the imprint.
2 Marold 1974, 209–11, seems to equate the axes on rock drawings
hammers. She declares, 218–19: ‘Axt und Hammer sind nichts Neues in
Skandinavien, seit der Steinzeit finden wir dort Kultäxte und
Amulettäxte . . .
Dennoch erlebt der Hammer, resp. die Axt im 10. und 11. Jahrhundert
The significance of hammers
In our time the instrument denoted as a hammer consists of a shaft
wood and a head of iron. The head ends in one or two flat surfaces,
parallel to the direction of the shaft. The iron part may also end
sharpened edge set at right angles to this direction. The tool is
for crushing or for driving.
Hammers are not easily discovered in the finds of prehistoric times.
It appears that in archaic times the act of hammering was performed
with a stone, a club, or the blunt end of an axe. The specialised
designed for beating or driving, belongs to the iron worker’s craft.
hammers did not appear in the Germanic area until the beginning of
Christian era (RGA 1911–19, II 372–73 under Hammer). The hammer
of the Germanic blacksmith was made in various forms. A square head
might have its shaft-hole placed in the centre or close to the butt.
head might end in a rounded surface and also possess a sharpened
set at right angles to the direction of the shaft (fig. l, p. 349
Frequently the tools have been discovered in the graves of artisans
(Müller-Wille 1977, 149–51). Sometimes an artisan’s utensils were
also found in combination with grave gifts of a different sort. A
place in Vestly, Rogaland (sixth century) contains a sword,
knives, jewels, and a hammer as well as other smith’s tools (Müller-
Wille 1977, 166–67). We may deduce that some men, engaged in
various pursuits, might also practice the blacksmith’s craft. The
find of ironworkers’ utensils was discovered in Mästermyr on Gotland
in a wooden box which might have been lost by accident (Müller-Wille
In the Eddas, hammers are presented (except for Þórr’s hammer) in
relation to the smithy and the blacksmith’s work. In the dawn of
the gods created hammer and tongs and anvil, and thereafter all
tools (Gylfaginning ch. 14). The master smith Völundr crafted with
hammer precious objects for his royal captor (Völundarqviða st. 20;
Edda 1983, 120). His tale of insult and revenge found pictorial
the craftsman and his tools, anvil, tongs and hammers are shown
on the well-known Franks Casket (about AD 700); the picture stone of
Ardre VIII of Gotland (ninth century) displays the smith’s tongs and
and the victims of his vengeance (Müller-Wille 1977, 132, fig. 1).
Reginn, who forged a precious sword for his fosterling Sigurðr, is
another famous smith of Germanic literature. The adventures of
were frequently depicted in the Middle Ages, engraved on memorial
stones, stone crosses, baptismal fonts, or even the portal of a
(Müller-Wille 1977, 130–31, 134). In one of the scenes the smith
Reginn, slain by Sigurðr for his treachery, lies amidst his tools,
hammers, tongs, anvil and bellows (rock drawing in Södermanland in
Sweden). In another the living craftsman creates the weapon with his
utensils: hammer, tongs and anvil (church portal in Hylestad,
Müller-Wille 1977, 133, fig. 2). The images of tongs and hammers are
also carved on the burial stones of human artisans (in Denmark).
The assembled evidence shows clearly that the hammer was one of
the most important of the blacksmith’s implements, present in
and textual references to his calling, and in the assemblages of his
tools, laid beside the craftsman in his burial place, symbolising
life’s work on his stone.
No evidence, however, indicates that the employment or the symbolism
of the hammer transcended the narrow boundary of the blacksmith’s
craft. Neither archaeology nor texts point to the use of hammers
in warfare or to any status in the ritual of religious or public
Serving exclusively as craftsmen’s tools, they are not listed by
Sturluson among the arms of combat, such as axes, lances, swords, or
arrows (Edda Snorra Sturlusonar 1848–87, I 563–71). They are not
listed by archaeologists among the ordinary tools of a farmer’s
but only, with other instruments, among the implements of skilled
artisans. Hammers were not crafted for a symbolic purpose, nor
in ceremonial, nor enriched with decorations or shaped into
elaborate forms. Though in the course of the centuries beliefs and
superstitions might become attached to the blacksmith and his
the tool was in Germanic times symbolic only of the iron worker’s
trade. (Certain amulets will be discussed later.)
Þórr and his implement
Not a single act of craftsmanship is ascribed to Þórr. He is not a
craftsman but a fighter. An artisan’s implement is not a fitting
for a person whose life’s work is battle. Þórr’s instrument is never
shown with other craftsman’s tools, and it does not produce the
of a hammer. Þórr, as an armed weather god, has counterparts in
Indo-European mythologies, e. g., the Roman Jupiter, Indian Indra,
Greek Zeus, Slavic Perun, Celtic Taranis, Latvian Pe–rkons. We
doubt that the figure of Þórr reaches back into Indo-European times.
the age of Indo-European unity, which preceded the Iron Age, this
could not have held an iron worker’s hammer. Indeed, the gods are
pictured with various arms: bolts, axes, clubs, or arrows. If Þórr
wields an iron hammer it must have supplanted the earlier
as has been suggested by some scholars.
There is no evidence, however, to show that hammers supplanted
earlier aggressive arms. Hammers have not been recovered from hoards
of Viking treasure and thus could not have held much practical or
symbolic significance. The most exalted place in weaponry was in
medieval times accorded to the sword. One hundred and thirty-three
sword names are listed in the þulur (name lists in Snorra Edda) and
a single hammer name. Mysterious powers were attributed to some
swords, as to that of Freyr which fights by itself when wielded by a
doughty warrior (For Scírnis st. 8–9; Edda 1983, 71). Swords were
forged for young warriors by master craftsmen, such as the sword
Gramr for Sigurðr or the sword Nálhringr for Þiðrekr. If an older
weapon of high religious status, a guarantor of life and its
were to be replaced by a weapon of the Iron Age it would naturally
been supplanted by a sword.
Þórr’s weapon is often a shafted instrument, whether a hammer or an
axe. Let us see whether the older tool, the axe, was ever superseded
a hammer. In contrast to hammers, axes appear frequently in
archaeological finds in the Germanic area, onwards from the
Crafted in flint and later in bronze and iron, they retained
and significance and became the favourite weapon of the Viking
raiders. From the earliest times onwards axes were imbued with religious
value; cultic axes are seen among the rock drawings of the Bronze
Age and were graven on memorial stones.
Miniature axes have been found that were intended to be worn as
amulets or for adornment in a tradition which extended in certain
from the Stone Age to the time of the Viking incursions (Paulsen
190–221; de Vries 1956–57, I 116). Throughout the northern and
north-western parts of Europe we come upon especially precious and
richly decorated blades. These must have served as a sign of rank
warriors of high station. To substantiate this assumption we may
to an illustration by Matthew Paris in a manuscript of the second
quarter of the thirteenth century depicting the battle of Stamford
here King Harald harðráði alone holds an axe while his followers
various other weapons.
From the thirteenth century onwards a crowned lion, clasping an axe,
is depicted on the royal seal of Norway (Paulsen 1956, 262). Thus we
do not find that the hammer has replaced the axe in warfare or in
heraldry. When Christianity and Christian imagery came to the North
of Europe the cross was shown on certain axes, as on the axe of
(Paulsen 1956, 138), indicating their unbroken sanctity. Christian
did not find expression on workmen’s hammers, and in St Olaf’s
axe the tool retained its religious significance into Christian
Axes, furthermore, were not supplanted by hammers in folk
Axes are cast on the eve of the Thursday (Þórr’s day) before
Easter onto the sprouting fields to promote the growth of fruit (de
1956–57, II 122). Axes still function in the marriage customs of
times; they may be placed beneath the bridal bed or on the
which the bride must cross.11 Axes are employed against the ravages
storm and wind. In Slesvig-Holstein an axe is thrust into a
the course of a thunderstorm. It may also be laid on the table to
lightning from the dwelling (Schwantes 1939, I 273). Axes and not
there is a figure holding an axe in its hand from a burial-find in
in Zealand; two drawings made before 1780 show that the figure was
one of a
pair when found (see RGA 1973– , I 564).
We may conclude that hammers did not replace earlier implements in
folk belief, heraldry, ceremonial, or human warfare. This finding is
surprising, for the blacksmith did not rise above other classes in
Germanic Middle Ages, and the highest office of the land was held by
a warrior king. The two important smiths of Germanic literature,
and Völundr, are shown in humilation and defeat. It is true that
appears at times in humble form with the features of a peasant lad,
he was never redrawn as a blacksmith.
It might be argued that in his form as a folktale hero the god might
do battle with an ordinary household tool. But in Viking times
were not common household equipment. They are not listed in the
inventories of Viking artifacts among household tools, such as
scythes, sickles or axes, but only among the special equipment of
skilled artisans. The very rarity of hammer finds also shows that
were not common in a household (cf. note 4 above). Moreover, the
Norse farmers accomplished their bloody deeds with spears, axes,
pikes or swords, and even a servant might wield a spear (Ynglinga
ch. 48, ÍF XXVI 80), whereas hammers are never named. Even the
craftsmen of the texts, Reginn, Vo≈lundr, and the skilful dwarfs,
employ their craftsmen’s tools in battle, for these creatures fight
enemies by magic means (Motz 1983, 90–115). I venture to assert that
no episode of the Icelandic texts shows the killing of a man with a
craftsman’s hammer. Þórr’s deeds thus would have no model in the
literature, myth, folklore or social reality of Norse tradition.
It is true that in one humorous poem Þórr is cast in the role of a
blacksmith (Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, 11th century; ÍF IX 267–68). In this
poem the noun hamarr does not appear; the man is named in mockery
the Sigurðr of the sledgehammer (Sigurðr sleggju), the king of the
tongs (konungr tangar) and the Þórr of the bellows (Þórr
The poem testifies, incidentally, to the low esteem accorded to the
craftsman by the warrior. The poem does not point to any special
relationship between the god and the craftsman’s hammer.
If the hammer did not replace other instruments in heraldry,
human warfare, and especially in folk belief, why should it replace
the Stone Age instrument in the hand of Þórr? Yet the noun hamarr
consistently designates the weapon in the texts. We may wonder if
noun has a less specific meaning, denoting simply the mighty object
Þórr’s hand. Let us now consider how the instrument was visualised
11 Bächtold-Stäubli 1927–42, I 743–48 under Axt. It must be noted,
that in one small area near Skåne, it is a hammer which is laid
beneath the bed
of the bride (see Elgquist 1934).
The visualisation of Þórr’s weapon
We find Þórr’s weapon visualised as various objects and a hammer is
not prominent. On a picture stone from Altuna, Uppland (eleventh
century) the god holds a shafted instrument which might indeed be a
hammer; it might also be a double axe, such as those of the rock
drawings of the Bronze Age (fig. 2, p. 349 below). On the Gosforth
Stone (tenth or eleventh century) the shafted object holds a greater
resemblance to an axe than to a hammer. On a stone of Ardre (ninth
century) a spear is wielded against a water monster. On
Cross Slab (Isle of Man, tenth century) a male figure carries fish,
dangling from a cross, and he holds a square object, a stone or a
ready to be hurled, in his right hand (Gschwantler 1968, 166).
In describing Þórr’s statue in the temple of Uppsala, Adam of Bremen
(IV 26; 1961, 470) mentions a sceptre as Þórr’s attribute, and this
information is repeated by Olaus Magnus (1555, 100), where Þórr is
depicted with a sceptre in a woodcut. It is true that Saxo
mentions ‘Jove’s hammers’, malleos quos Ioviales vocabant, in his
Gesta Danorum (1931–57, I 350); these are, however, not the weapons
of the god, but cultic instruments which might imitate the sound of
thunder. Þórr’s weapon, on the other hand, is a club, clava, in his
account (Saxo Grammaticus 1979–80, I 72; 1931–57, I 66). Saxo thus
clearly distinguishes between the hammer, a cultic tool, and the
the mighty weapon. And the giant Geruthus is slain by a sword,
(Saxo Grammaticus 1931–57, I 242). In one of the Anglo-Saxon
Solomon and Saturn, thunder swings a fiery axe (Menner 1941, 169).
According to the folklore of Värend in Småland thunder is a stone,
thrown by Þórr or Gofar, still often found in places which were
by thunder; such a stone is designated as thorenvigg, ‘Þórr’s wedge’
(Hyltén-Cavallius 1863–68, II 222). A modern farmer of this area
that he had seen the god riding in his carriage; he has also been
carrying a bolt of stone in his hand (Montelius 1910, 77). The
names thornkile, ‘Þórr’s wedge’, thorensten, ‘Þórr’s stone’, the
torelod, ‘Þórr’s ball’, indicate that the instrument was viewed as
a stone, a ball or a wedge. The Greek noun keraunos, ‘thunderbolt’,
was routinely translated as thorvigge in Danish medieval texts
A kenning in a skaldic poem, descriptive of Þórr’s weapon, evokes
the image of a battle-axe (Þjóðólfr hvinverski, Haustlöng st. 17;
ch. 17). Here Þórr is named the ‘friend of the troll of the
snout’, rúni tro≈lls trjónu; trjóna ‘snout’ is a variant of muðr
which also designates the cutting edge of an axe; battleaxes are
referred to as troll-women. Þórr is thus the ‘friend of the edged
We thus find the following objects in Þórr’s hand: a bolt, a stone,
axe, possibly a hammer, a wedge, a spear, a ball, a sceptre or a
while in the Icelandic texts one noun only is employed.13 We may
observe that the noun sleggja ‘sledge-hammer’ is never used for
implement. It has been claimed that the hammer was engraved on
memorial stones of medieval times. What was engraved, however, is
the image of certain amulets which may bear a resemblance to a
hammer in some of their stylisations. These will now be discussed.
13 A statuette of bronze from Eyrarland in Iceland is traditionally
represent the god Þórr with his hammer. An unprejudiced look at the
the man’s clasp shows that this has small resemblance to a hammer.
Its shaft is
split in the middle, terminates in three knobs, rests on the man’s
issues from beneath his mouth. It is held in a way in which no
hammer is ever
held. When the picture of the statuette was shown by me to persons
with Norse scholarship, the object was never recognised as a hammer.
If it was
identified at all it was identified as a musical instrument (cf.
Motz 1992). In the
present article the object on the man’s knees is not counted among
in which Þórr’s weapon was conceived.
Small artifacts that could be fastened to a chain or a ring, made of
but also of more precious metals, plain or elaborately decorated,
been discovered in areas of Scandinavia. They are ascribed to the
tenth century AD. Since a vertical part, resembling a shaft, extends
a horizontal part, resembling a hammer’s head, the relics are
as replicas of the hammer swung by Þórr, and the name ‘Þórr’s
hammer’ has been applied. They are said to indicate a rise of
pagan faith in the face of triumphant Christianity.
The interpretation of these objects as ‘hammers’ may be questioned.
They are flat, sometimes elaborately decorated and fashioned of
metals, of minute size, and they were worn as jewels or as
amulets. The blacksmith’s hammer is invariably bulky and consists of
wood and iron. In most examples of the amulets there is no
between ‘shaft’ and ‘head’; sometimes the decoration proceeds
from the horizontal to the vertical section. A hammer’s head is
always bulkier than the shaft; in the ornaments the thinnest part is
bottom of the vertical section, and never at the top. The artifacts
would represent a very stylised version of the craftsman’s tool.
were, however, never manufactured in stylised form; they were
not produced in miniature or in precious metal; they were never
and were never worn as amulets. Hammers, it was noted earlier,
are not listed among the artifacts of Viking treasure.
Some of the amulets resemble the blade of an axe. We may recall that
axe blades are flat and may be fashioned in precious metal; they are
seen in very stylised form and are often adorned with elaborate
(sometimes the decoration of an amulet is the same as that
incised on certain axes; Paulsen 1956, 208). The thickening of the
horizontal section recalls the thickening of an axe-blade towards
shaft. The pointed excrescence at the end recalls the curve of the
Axe blades were produced in miniature through the ages. The custom
was indeed very popular at the time of the Viking raids (RGA 1973– ,
I 566). Miniature blades of silver, named St Olaf’s Axe, are sold to
present day (figs. 3, 4, 5, pp. 349–50 below).
On the basis of the evidence I suggest that the so-called ‘Þórr’s
hammer’ represents yet another form of the axe-blade pendants of
archaic tradition. It is true that some amulets resemble hammers and
some even bear resemblance to the Christian cross. We know that the
Christian cross exerted great influence on the pagan symbol; and
images show its transformation into a cross (Paulsen 1956, 217).
also points out (1956, 205) that stylistically the forms of
axes, miniature hammers and miniature crosses flow into one
I suggest that the object known as ‘Þórr’s hammer’ represents a
stage between the axe blade and the cross. Paulsen observes with
regard to axes (1956, 233): ‘In the Viking Age we recognise the axe
. . .
as the symbol of battle, of power, of dignity, of legality,
salvation’ (my translation).
15 Paulsen further states that some ‘hammers’ resemble amber crosses
as amulets. Amulets in the form of crosses are reproduced in Paulsen
200, figs e, f. Among the charms which dangle from an archaic Greek
is one identical in shape to one of the Germanic ‘hammer’ amulets.
It surely did
not reproduce Þórr’s hammer (Cook 1914–40, II, fig. 633 on p. 700).
I suggest that it was the axe blade and not the hammer which
symbolised loyalty to the pagan faith. The hammer, therefore, did
replace the ancient image of the axe blade in the jewellery.
It has been claimed that the custom of wearing amulets was
by the Christian custom of wearing the Christian cross. The
wearing of amulets, was, however, an established tradition among the
Germanic peoples. Hundreds of golden bracteates, showing scenes of
cultic significance, for instance, which testify to the popularity
of the practice, have been discovered and ascribed to the Migratory
Hilda Ellis Davidson (1965, 13) asserts that the image of Þórr’s
appears on runic stones which also show an inscription to the god.
cannot be substantiated: what appears is the image of the amulet, as
can clearly be noted in some instances by the presence of the loop. And these
stones do not
coincide with the stones bearing inscriptions to Þórr. The latter
are seen on the
stones of Glavendrup in Fyn, Virring in North Jutland, Sønderkirkeby
Falster, all in Denmark, and Velanda Skattegården in Västergötland,
(Marold 1974, 195–96). The ‘hammer’ sign appears on stones in
Spentrup, Hanninge in Jutland, and Schonen, Åby in Västermo,
Kirka in Södermanland, Karlevi in Öland, Gårdstanga in Skåne;
Paulsen 1956, 216, and in Marold, 1974, 196. On such a stone the
turn into a cross (Paulsen 1956, 217).
The magic sign
A sign, actually named Þórshamarr, does, in fact, exist in Norse
tradition; it resembles a swastika. Such signs are found on archaic
artifacts, on boundary markers, on runic stones, and on the
of the Middle Ages. The sign occurs in many regions of the world,
does not seem to have originated in the North of Europe. We may
assume that here an important sign became attached to an important
god (de Vries 1956–57, II 127). It has no relation to a hammer and
we find an example of an object, designated by the noun hamarr,
has no link with the craftsman’s tool.
The noun hamarr
If we assume that Þórr’s weapon was visualised in many forms we may
wonder why one noun was so consistently and unvaryingly applied. We
may also search for the underlying reason. My investigation of the
noun hamarr has led me to the following conclusion: the noun has
another meaning,‘stone’; Þórr’s weapon was originally a stone or a
of stone; the old name was kept when his emblem was conceived in
The Old Icelandic hamarr is possibly traceable to an Indo-European
root *(a)kam- with the meaning ‘pointed’, ‘sharp’, ‘stone’. We thus
find Sanskrit á´sman- ‘stone, rock’, Lithuanian akmuõ ‘stone’, Greek
ákmon– ‘anvil’, Old Slavonic kamy ‘stone weapon’, Avestan asman-
‘stone, heaven’, Old High German hamar ‘hammer’, ‘hammer used as
a weapon’, Old Icelandic hamarr ‘crag, rock, cliff’ (de Vries 1962,
207; Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon 1989, 303).
The meanings indicate that the craftsman’s tool, the ‘hammer’, was
originally a stone. This indication is verified by archaeology.
Flattened stones without handles have been excavated in Denmark near places
where iron smelting took place as late as the last centuries before
Christian era, together with stone anvils to work the iron which was
gained from swamps (fig. 6 on p. 350 below; Brøndsted 1957–60, III
113). Germanic speech thus retained the name of the simpler tool
it had been replaced by the shafted instrument of wood and iron.
If we apply the sense of ‘stone’ to the noun hamarr and remember
that the god’s name corresponds to English ‘thunder’, we may
the phrase ‘Þórr’s hammer’ to be the linguistic counterpart to
English ‘thunderstone’, German Donnerstein, Dutch dondersteen,
tordensten, Norwegian torestein. These names are given to certain
Stone Age relics through which in folk belief thunder was created,
they may lead us to trace a connection between Þórr’s weapon and the
ancient concept of the thunderstone.
The belief that thunder and lightning are caused by a stone which
to earth from heaven is apparent in a great number of traditions.
agent is identified with prehistoric artifacts of stone, stone
stone axes, and also fossils which are encountered in the fields.
The belief has kept its vitality in the Germanic area into modern
times. It is thought that in its fall the object becomes deeply
in the earth and that it will slowly rise to the surface. Wonderful
qualities are attributed to such a stone. It is treasured, put in a
place within the house, hung up near the chimney or beneath the
or set on the shelf for storing milk. Above all, it will protect the
house against lightning, but it may also guard the health of cattle, or
trolls from harming men.
We have noted that the concrete form of the talisman is identified
with prehistoric artifacts of stone. It is only natural that many
should be recorded for a significant element of folk belief, and
these will be cited here.
We find Danish tordenbolt, tordenkile, tordenkølle, dönnesten,
tordensten, Sebedeje, Swedish thorvigge, thorenvigg, godviggen,
thornkilen, thornskil, gomorsten, thorensten, askvig, oskpil,
torestein, torelod, dynestein, toreblyg, Dutch donderbeitel,
dondersteen, German Schurstein, Donneraxt, Donnerkeil, Donnerhammer,
English thunderbolt, thunderaxe, thunderhammer, thunderstone,
thunderflone. Some of the names that have archaic forms have an
archaic sense, and we cannot be completely sure of their meaning. We
have some certainty, however, that the weapon was visualised as a
stone, an axe, an arrow (English bolt, Danish bolt, Swedish pil), as
wedge (German Keil, Danish kile, Norwegian blyg, Dutch keil), a club
(Danish kølle), a chisel (Dutch beitel), or a round ball (Norwegian
We may observe that Iceland, alone in the Germanic area, does not
evince a belief in thunderstones (though one instance has been
Notions concerning the concept are also rare in northern
Norway. Thunderstorms are infrequent in northern Norway and are
exceptional in Iceland. The tradition might have been forgotten or
might never have developed (cf. Blinkenberg 1911b, 93). The objects
encountered in these places are all of stone, and they represent, as
wedge, a bolt, a knife or a chisel, the kind of utensil which had
in pre-metal times.
The thunderstone in non-Germanic tradition
The wide diffusion of the belief in thunderstones is indeed
The traditions from outside the Germanic area exhibit strong
to the Germanic pattern. It is thought that the stone has dropped
from heaven, that it is embodied in stone artifacts of prehistoric
axes, knives and arrowheads of flint, that it is embedded in the
and will slowly rise to the surface, that it has protective
especially that of shielding men from lightning. It is sometimes
as an amulet to guard its owner against danger.
Evidence of these beliefs has come from Hungary, Lithuania, Belgium,
France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Assam, Burma,
Cambodia, China, Japan, the Guinea Coast, and the Sudan (Blinkenberg
1911b, 98–120). We find the semantic equivalent of the Germanic name
‘thunderstone’ in the Lithuanian Perkuno akmuõ (Perkun is the god of
thunder), Moravian kámen hromovi, French pierre de tonnerre, Spanish
piedra de rayo, Portuguese pedra de raio, Italian pietra de truono,
ancient Greek keraunía líthos.
As in the Germanic area, the name may indicate that the lethal
missile was envisaged as a Stone Age tool, as in Greek astropoléki,
‘sky-axe’, or as a weapon, as in Hungarian Isten mjila, ‘god’s
(Blinkenberg 1911b, 99 (wrongly printed Iften), 107).
The name Mjöllnir
The name of Þórr’s weapon, Mjöllnir, has been connected with
mjöll, a word for fresh snow, with reference to its shining or
flashing, and to mala and mølva ‘to grind’ (de Vries 1962, 390; cf.
Alexander Jóhannesson 1956, 677). It is also plausible to relate the
name to Slavic and Baltic cognates: Old Slavonic mlunuji,
molnija, ‘lightning’, and Latvian milna for Perkuns’s weapon (see
Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon 1989, 627). It is noteworthy that in Slavic
and Baltic the thunderstone is designated by a noun that is cognate
Icelandic hamarr : Lithuanian Perkuno akmuõ, and Moravian kámen
hromovi. These facts suggest that the Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic
peoples, who were neighbours, had at one time formed a cultural
subgroup among the Indo-European nations.
The thunderstone and the god Þórr
Hyltén-Cavallius (1863–68, II 222; quoted in Blinkenberg 1911b, 87)
reports that lightning is believed to be a ‘wedge of stone thrown by
Thorr or Gofar, and is still often found in the places where the
has struck’. This object is called thorenvigg, ‘Þórr’s wedge’. That
was brought into relation with the thunderstone is shown by the
thorvigge, thornkile, thorenvigg, thornskil, thorensten (Swedish),
taarenstien (Danish), torestein, torelod, toreblyg (Norwegian). We
understand that folk belief had placed the agent of the thunder clap
the hands of the mighty god. A modern account, cited earlier (p.
actually notes that Þórr carried a ‘thunderbolt of stone’. The
of the phenomenon to a god is also evident in non-Germanic
in such names as Perkuno akmuõ, and in Latin Jovis tela, ‘Jupiter’s
We may assume that two different beliefs existed side by side: that
the stone fell of its own volition and that it was hurled by a god.
surely a mark of faith in human achievement and in humanist values
when the destructive power of the thunderstorm is controlled by a
in human form who is also the ‘friend of men’. In tracing Þórr’s
weapon to the thunderstone we may understand why it was sometimes
cast, for it retained the ancient image of the fall from heaven. The
of Þórr’s weapon of its own accord parallels the rising of the
from its embedding in the earth. We also understand why it retained
ancient name. But we must not forget that in later times it was also
in various other forms.
The thunderweapon in non-Germanic mythologies
The awe and terror caused by thunder and the lightning stroke
left their mark on folk belief throughout the world. They also left
imprint on sophisticated mythologies. In the traditions of the
Middle East the rule of the pantheon is accorded to the weather god
who wields the weapon of the thunderstorm. And he is almost always
pictured with his sign of sovereignty. In Syrian iconography he is
shown with a club as he strides across the mountains (Helck 1971,
170), and the weather god carved into the rock Yazilikaya of
holds a spear (von Schuler 1965, 212). In north-Syrian images of the
first millennium BC the axe is the most common of his attributes. The Mesopotamian god of arms, Ningirsu, is in possession of a
seven-headed mace (Jacobsen 1947, 394). Zeus triumphs over Typhoaeus
with a bolt, but he is also shown with a double axe, a spear, and
with a sword (Cook 1914–40, II 559, 704, 712, 722, fig. 669 and
XXX). The battles of the gods are of vital significance, for through
them the order of the cosmos is created and upheld. We may observe
that the instrument used for fighting the divine battle shows some
resemblance to the fighting tool of folk belief, envisaged as a
mace, a club or an arrow. The archaic object has assumed various
forms in the myths. From a missile it has turned, in many cases, into an
instrument of close attack. In the instances in which the weapon is
hurled, the ancient image of the fall from heaven has been retained.
The god Þórr
We cannot doubt that Þórr belongs in kind with the strong god of
storms through whom the cosmos is upheld. He possesses the ancient
thunderweapon, and, like that of Zeus, it has retained its name. It
clear that the medieval Norsemen no longer remembered the derivation
of the instrument or the archaic meaning of its name. When it was
associated with Þórr, the noun hamarr did not relate to a
entity of men’s surroundings; it had received a meaning of its own
an object of sacred and mysterious significance. Thus no synonym is
ever used for Þórr’s attribute.
If we examine the figure of the god in the Germanic context we still
find him as the champion of cosmic order, and he is depicted, above
in his relentless fight against the giants. He has acquired the
a folktale hero who achieves his triumphs through his strength of
muscle rather than his sovereignty over the elements of nature. In
Icelandic texts he has all but lost his relation to the
his ride in a goat-drawn carriage may cause the fires of the earth
blaze and the mountains to burst asunder, it does not create the
of the thunderstorm.
His hamarr, in turn, is bereft of meteorological significance. By
time of our sources it has become above all Þórr’s invincible
What was retained was the ancient name, its occasional use as a
missile, its voluntary return, and its deadly impact on the enemy.
Slavonic kámen hromovi, the Lithuanian Perkuno akmuõ, as names for
the thunderweapon, using nouns which are cognate to Germanic hamarr,
indicate that the designation had already existed in Indo-European
times. It is only natural that a name meaning ‘stone’ should be
an instrument of stone.
If the name hamarr was given to the thunderstone, as argued in this
article, the meaning ‘stone’ was subsequently lost in the
languages except for Icelandic natural features, where the word is
to mean rock, crag or cliff. The name has remained, however, in the
West Germanic languages in isolated instances, e. g. English
German Donnerhammer. In a Middle High German curse,
cited by Grimm, donerstein actually interchanges with hamer : sô
slahe mich ein donerstein (let me be slain by a donerstein), and dat di de
hamer sla (may you be struck by a hamer).20
20 Grimm 1875–78, I 149, 151. The archaic sense of hammer as ‘stone’
retained in a few instances in West Germanic speech. The name of the
game of ‘throwing the hammer’ has a counterpart in the Middle High
name steinstosson, also used of a game. The German Hammerwurf,
short distance, parallels the English ‘stone’s throw’. In Dutch both
are preserved: steenworp and hamerworp.
Þórr’s weapon has traditionally been held to be a hammer, but in
article I have questioned this assumption. Þórr’s use of this weapon
ambiguous and it is visualised in various forms. The worship of the
predates the use of iron hammers. A hammer did not replace an
implement in Germanic folk belief, imagery, ceremonial or warfare.
The noun hamarr has the meaning of ‘stone’, ‘rock’. The belief in
thunderstones was widespread in the Germanic area. The thunderstone
was often believed to be Þórr’s weapon. A similar process took place
ancient mythologies. Þórr’s earliest weapon was a stone which later
was also seen in other forms: among these the axe is prominent. His
weapon did not receive its name or nature from the ironworker’s tool
but from the ancient concept of the thunderstone. The noun hamarr
retained after it had acquired a new meaning. It denotes the variety
forms in which the thunderweapon is envisaged. Not only the
but also its name existed in Indo-European times.