The Saga Book of the Viking Society, Vol. 24,  1997

An excerpt from:


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 forests, he 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 the god must therefore be considered the most vital of all instruments in the battle for survival.
The weapon is invariably designated by the noun hamarr, English ‘hammer’, in the Old Norse texts, and consequently we visualise it in the form of this tool. A close look at the texts reveals, however, some ambiguity in the nature of the implement. Sometimes it is hurled like a missile and sometimes it is brandished like a battleaxe. We may also wonder why a being who is not a craftsman is so consistently pictured 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 serve as a missile and as a weapon of close attack (Skáldskaparmál ch. 35). It would never fail, no matter how hard the blow, and it would return to 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 leið 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 said that the monster’s head was struck from the body: Þórr kastaði hamrinum eptir honum, ok segja menn at hann lysti af honum höfuðit vid grunninum  (Þórr threw his hammer after it, and they say that he struck off its head 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 mountain)
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 mola (and struck the first blow so that his skull was shattered into fragments; Gylfaginning ch. 42).
In his journey to Útgarða-Loki Þórr struck a sleeping giant with such force that the edge of the tool, the hamarsmuðr, sank deeply into the 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 edge of the hammer sinks deep into the head; Gylfaginning ch. 45). Three blows were dealt by Þórr, who held the handle with both hands, and he created three large valleys through his deed (Gylfaginning chs 45, 47).
In a verbal battle with the crafty Loki Þórr threatened to sever Loki’s 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; Locasenna st. 57, Edda 1983, 108). A skaldic poet (Bragi gamli) calls Þórr Þrívalda . . . sundrkljúfr níu höfða (cleaver apart of Þrívaldi’s nine heads; Skáldskaparmál ch. 4). If we consider the verbs describing the action of the hamarr we find that kljúfa has an unequivocal sense of ‘to cleave’; we also find drepa af, knýja ofan, ljósta af, ljósta ofan; the words af and ofan add to the basic sense of ‘strike’ a sense of removal, of putting into another place; drepa höfuð af is the term for ‘beheading’ in Gulaþingslög 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. 48), 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 muðr 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 indentations of three valleys; again the employment of an axe is suggested by this action.1 The shattering of the head of the giant mason (Gylfaginning ch. 42), conversely, suggests the action of a hammer. Þórr’s tool does 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 axes (Paulsen 1956, 205–21). Þórr’s hammer is related to or equated with cultic axes of prehistoric times, such as those in rock drawings from the Bronze Age.2 Jan de Vries declares that axes and hammers represent the same instrument (de Vries 1956–57, II 125).
Others, however, have taken account of the discrepancy. In the earlier 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 suggests 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 hamarr 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 was later visualised in many forms: as a wedge, chisel, bolt, or spear, as a 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 us 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 square back of the tool which left the imprint.
2 Marold 1974, 209–11, seems to equate the axes on rock drawings with 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 eine Art Renaissance.’

The significance of hammers

In our time the instrument denoted as a hammer consists of a shaft of wood and a head of iron. The head ends in one or two flat surfaces, set parallel to the direction of the shaft. The iron part may also end in one sharpened edge set at right angles to this direction. The tool is employed 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 tool, designed for beating or driving, belongs to the iron worker’s craft. Iron hammers did not appear in the Germanic area until the beginning of the 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. The head might end in a rounded surface and also possess a sharpened edge, set at right angles to the direction of the shaft (fig. l, p. 349 below).
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 burial place in Vestly, Rogaland (sixth century) contains a sword, arrowheads, 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 richest find of ironworkers’ utensils was discovered in Mästermyr on Gotland in a wooden box which might have been lost by accident (Müller-Wille 1977, 190–92).
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 time the gods created hammer and tongs and anvil, and thereafter all other tools (Gylfaginning ch. 14). The master smith Völundr crafted with his hammer precious objects for his royal captor (Völundarqviða st. 20; Edda 1983, 120). His tale of insult and revenge found pictorial expression: 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 hammers 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 Sigurðr were frequently depicted in the Middle Ages, engraved on memorial stones, stone crosses, baptismal fonts, or even the portal of a church (Müller-Wille 1977, 130–31, 134). In one of the scenes the smith Reginn, slain by Sigurðr for his treachery, lies amidst his tools, his 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, Setesdal; 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 pictorial and textual references to his calling, and in the assemblages of his tools, laid beside the craftsman in his burial place, symbolising his 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 life. Serving exclusively as craftsmen’s tools, they are not listed by Snorri 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 household but only, with other instruments, among the implements of skilled artisans. Hammers were not crafted for a symbolic purpose, nor employed 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 hammer, 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 attribute 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 sound of a hammer. Þórr, as an armed weather god, has counterparts in other Indo-European mythologies, e. g., the Roman Jupiter, Indian Indra, Greek Zeus, Slavic Perun, Celtic Taranis, Latvian Pe–rkons. We cannot doubt that the figure of Þórr reaches back into Indo-European times. In the age of Indo-European unity, which preceded the Iron Age, this god could not have held an iron worker’s hammer. Indeed, the gods are pictured with various arms: bolts, axes, clubs, or arrows. If Þórr later wields an iron hammer it must have supplanted the earlier thunderweapon, 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 not 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 continuation, were to be replaced by a weapon of the Iron Age it would naturally have 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 by a hammer. In contrast to hammers, axes appear frequently in archaeological finds in the Germanic area, onwards from the Neolithic Age. Crafted in flint and later in bronze and iron, they retained importance 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 areas from the Stone Age to the time of the Viking incursions (Paulsen 1956, 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 for warriors of high station. To substantiate this assumption we may point to an illustration by Matthew Paris in a manuscript of the second quarter of the thirteenth century depicting the battle of Stamford Bridge; here King Harald harðráði alone holds an axe while his followers wield 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 Sibirsk (Paulsen 1956, 138), indicating their unbroken sanctity. Christian imagery did not find expression on workmen’s hammers, and in St Olaf’s axe the tool retained its religious significance into Christian times. Axes, furthermore, were not supplanted by hammers in folk traditions.
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 Vries 1956–57, II 122). Axes still function in the marriage customs of modern times; they may be placed beneath the bridal bed or on the threshhold which the bride must cross.11 Axes are employed against the ravages of storm and wind. In Slesvig-Holstein an axe is thrust into a door-post in  the course of a thunderstorm. It may also be laid on the table to keep 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 Grevensvænge 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 not surprising, for the blacksmith did not rise above other classes in the Germanic Middle Ages, and the highest office of the land was held by a warrior king. The two important smiths of Germanic literature, Reginn and Völundr, are shown in humilation and defeat. It is true that Þórr appears at times in humble form with the features of a peasant lad, but 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 hammers were not common household equipment. They are not listed in the inventories of Viking artifacts among household tools, such as knives, scythes, sickles or axes, but only among the special equipment of skilled artisans. The very rarity of hammer finds also shows that they 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 saga ch. 48, ÍF XXVI 80), whereas hammers are never named. Even the craftsmen of the texts, Reginn, Vo≈lundr, and the skilful dwarfs, did not employ their craftsmen’s tools in battle, for these creatures fight their 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 smiðbelgja). 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, ceremonial, 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 the noun has a less specific meaning, denoting simply the mighty object in Þórr’s hand. Let us now consider how the instrument was visualised in various sources.

11 Bächtold-Stäubli 1927–42, I 743–48 under Axt. It must be noted, however, 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 Thorvaldr’s 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 book, 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 Grammaticus 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 clava, the mighty weapon. And the giant Geruthus is slain by a sword, chalybs (Saxo Grammaticus 1931–57, I 242). In one of the Anglo-Saxon dialogues 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 struck by thunder; such a stone is designated as thorenvigg, ‘Þórr’s wedge’ (Hyltén-Cavallius 1863–68, II 222). A modern farmer of this area told that he had seen the god riding in his carriage; he has also been seen carrying a bolt of stone in his hand (Montelius 1910, 77). The Swedish names thornkile, ‘Þórr’s wedge’, thorensten, ‘Þórr’s stone’, the Norwegian 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 (Blinkenberg 1911a, 69).
A kenning in a skaldic poem, descriptive of Þórr’s weapon, evokes the image of a battle-axe (Þjóðólfr hvinverski, Haustlöng st. 17; Skáldskaparmál 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 ‘mouth’ which also designates the cutting edge of an axe; battleaxes are traditionally referred to as troll-women. Þórr is thus the ‘friend of the edged battleaxe’.
We thus find the following objects in Þórr’s hand: a bolt, a stone, an axe, possibly a hammer, a wedge, a spear, a ball, a sceptre or a club, while in the Icelandic texts one noun only is employed.13 We may also observe that the noun sleggja ‘sledge-hammer’ is never used for Þórr’s 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 believed to represent the god Þórr with his hammer. An unprejudiced look at the object in 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 knees, and 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 unacquainted 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 the forms in which Þórr’s weapon was conceived.

The amulets

Small artifacts that could be fastened to a chain or a ring, made of iron, but also of more precious metals, plain or elaborately decorated, have been discovered in areas of Scandinavia. They are ascribed to the tenth century AD. Since a vertical part, resembling a shaft, extends from a horizontal part, resembling a hammer’s head, the relics are interpreted 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 fervour 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 precious 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 separation between ‘shaft’ and ‘head’; sometimes the decoration proceeds unbroken from the horizontal to the vertical section. A hammer’s head is always bulkier than the shaft; in the ornaments the thinnest part is at the bottom of the vertical section, and never at the top. The artifacts thus would represent a very stylised version of the craftsman’s tool.
Hammers were, however, never manufactured in stylised form; they were not produced in miniature or in precious metal; they were never decorated 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 decorations (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 the shaft. The pointed excrescence at the end recalls the curve of the edge. 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 the 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 some images show its transformation into a cross (Paulsen 1956, 217). Paulsen also points out (1956, 205) that stylistically the forms of miniature axes, miniature hammers and miniature crosses flow into one another.15

I suggest that the object known as ‘Þórr’s hammer’ represents a middle 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, ownership, and salvation’ (my translation).

15 Paulsen further states that some ‘hammers’ resemble amber crosses worn as amulets. Amulets in the form of crosses are reproduced in Paulsen 1956, 200, figs e, f. Among the charms which dangle from an archaic Greek necklace 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 not replace the ancient image of the axe blade in the jewellery.
It has been claimed that the custom of wearing amulets was stimulated 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 period.16

16 Hilda Ellis Davidson (1965, 13) asserts that the image of Þórr’s hammer appears on runic stones which also show an inscription to the god. This claim 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 on Falster, all in Denmark, and Velanda Skattegården in Västergötland, Sweden (Marold 1974, 195–96). The ‘hammer’ sign appears on stones in Læborg, Spentrup, Hanninge in Jutland, and Schonen, Åby in Västermo, Stenkvista Kirka in Södermanland, Karlevi in Öland, Gårdstanga in Skåne; enumerated in Paulsen 1956, 216, and in Marold, 1974, 196. On such a stone the amulet may 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 bracteates of the Middle Ages. The sign occurs in many regions of the world, and 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 here we find an example of an object, designated by the noun hamarr, which 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 tool of stone; the old name was kept when his emblem was conceived in various ways.
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 the 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 after 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 understand the phrase ‘Þórr’s hammer’ to be the linguistic counterpart to English ‘thunderstone’, German Donnerstein, Dutch dondersteen, Danish tordensten, Norwegian torestein. These names are given to certain Stone Age relics through which in folk belief thunder was created, and they may lead us to trace a connection between Þórr’s weapon and the ancient concept of the thunderstone.

The thunderstone

The belief that thunder and lightning are caused by a stone which falls to earth from heaven is apparent in a great number of traditions. The agent is identified with prehistoric artifacts of stone, stone chisels and 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 embedded 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 special place within the house, hung up near the chimney or beneath the roof, 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 keep the 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 names should be recorded for a significant element of folk belief, and some of these will be cited here.
We find Danish tordenbolt, tordenkile, tordenkølle, dönnesten, tordensten, Sebedeje, Swedish thorvigge, thorenvigg, godviggen, thornkilen, thornskil, gomorsten, thorensten, askvig, oskpil, Norwegian torestein, torelod, dynestein, toreblyg, Dutch donderbeitel, donderkeil, 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 a wedge (German Keil, Danish kile, Norwegian blyg, Dutch keil), a club (Danish kølle), a chisel (Dutch beitel), or a round ball (Norwegian lod). We may observe that Iceland, alone in the Germanic area, does not evince a belief in thunderstones (though one instance has been recorded). 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 a wedge, a bolt, a knife or a chisel, the kind of utensil which had originated in pre-metal times.

The thunderstone in non-Germanic tradition

The wide diffusion of the belief in thunderstones is indeed surprising. The traditions from outside the Germanic area exhibit strong resemblances to the Germanic pattern. It is thought that the stone has dropped from heaven, that it is embodied in stone artifacts of prehistoric times, axes, knives and arrowheads of flint, that it is embedded in the earth and will slowly rise to the surface, that it has protective qualities, especially that of shielding men from lightning. It is sometimes worn 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 arrow’ (Blinkenberg 1911b, 99 (wrongly printed Iften), 107).

The name Mjöllnir

The name of Þórr’s weapon, Mjöllnir, has been connected with Icelandic 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, Russian 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 with 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 thunder has struck’. This object is called thorenvigg, ‘Þórr’s wedge’. That Þórr was brought into relation with the thunderstone is shown by the names thorvigge, thornkile, thorenvigg, thornskil, thorensten (Swedish), taarenstien (Danish), torestein, torelod, toreblyg (Norwegian). We may understand that folk belief had placed the agent of the thunder clap into the hands of the mighty god. A modern account, cited earlier (p. 337), actually notes that Þórr carried a ‘thunderbolt of stone’. The attachment of the phenomenon to a god is also evident in non-Germanic traditions in such names as Perkuno akmuõ, and in Latin Jovis tela, ‘Jupiter’s arrows’.

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. It is surely a mark of faith in human achievement and in humanist values when the destructive power of the thunderstorm is controlled by a god 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 return of Þórr’s weapon of its own accord parallels the rising of the thunderstone from its embedding in the earth. We also understand why it retained its ancient name. But we must not forget that in later times it was also seen in various other forms.

The thunderweapon in non-Germanic mythologies

The awe and terror caused by thunder and the lightning stroke clearly left their mark on folk belief throughout the world. They also left their imprint on sophisticated mythologies. In the traditions of the Ancient 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 Anatolia 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 even with a sword (Cook 1914–40, II 559, 704, 712, 722, fig. 669 and plate 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 stone, 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 is 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 well-defined entity of men’s surroundings; it had received a meaning of its own as 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 all, in his relentless fight against the giants. He has acquired the features of a folktale hero who achieves his triumphs through his strength of muscle rather than his sovereignty over the elements of nature. In the Icelandic texts he has all but lost his relation to the thunderstorm. While his ride in a goat-drawn carriage may cause the fires of the earth to blaze and the mountains to burst asunder, it does not create the destruction of the thunderstorm.
His hamarr, in turn, is bereft of meteorological significance. By the time of our sources it has become above all Þórr’s invincible weapon. What was retained was the ancient name, its occasional use as a missile, its voluntary return, and its deadly impact on the enemy. The 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 given to 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 Scandinavian languages except for Icelandic natural features, where the word is used to mean rock, crag or cliff. The name has remained, however, in the West Germanic languages in isolated instances, e. g. English thunderhammer, 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’ is retained in a few instances in West Germanic speech. The name of the Highland game of ‘throwing the hammer’ has a counterpart in the Middle High German name steinstosson, also used of a game. The German Hammerwurf, denoting a short distance, parallels the English ‘stone’s throw’. In Dutch both compounds are preserved: steenworp and hamerworp.


Þórr’s weapon has traditionally been held to be a hammer, but in this article I have questioned this assumption. Þórr’s use of this weapon is ambiguous and it is visualised in various forms. The worship of the god predates the use of iron hammers. A hammer did not replace an earlier 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 in 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 was retained after it had acquired a new meaning. It denotes the variety of forms in which the thunderweapon is envisaged. Not only the instrument, but also its name existed in Indo-European times.