Thor, the powerful god of thunder in Norse mythology, was the mighty defender of gods and goddesses, who were constantly under siege by the forces of chaos. Thor was the most popular god in the Norse pantheon, and his many exploits are recalled in many myths and tales—far more than any other Norse god or goddess. Honorable, loyal, and brave, Thor best represented the values of the warrior class of ancient Germany and Scandinavia.
Thor was the oldest and most powerful son of Odin, the ruler of the Norse gods called Aesir. Thor defended their home, called Asgard, from the forces of chaos, represented by the Jotun, a race of giants who were ancient enemies of the Aesir. Thor’s main weapon was his hammer, called Mjollnir (also spelled Mjolnir), which was so heavy that only Thor could lift it. Mjollnir could smash whole mountains and it never missed its mark when thrown. Lightning flashed whenever Thor threw Mjollnir, and thunder rumbled as Thor’s chariot crossed the sky.
Several myths describe Thor’s huge appetite. He once ate an entire ox along with eight salmon and washed it all down with three barrels of mead (an alcoholic honey drink). Another myth tells of a drinking contest in which Thor attempted to drink the sea dry. He failed, but he lowered the level of the sea slightly, creating the first tides. Although Thor was the strongest of the Aesir, he was not the smartest or wisest. Knowing he would react furiously, Jotun giants often taunted Thor to goad him into a fight. Loki, known among the Norse gods as a trickster and mischief maker, was especially fond of teasing Thor. Many Norse myths describe how Loki’s reckless behavior caused problems for the Aesir gods—problems that could be solved only by Thor and his mighty hammer.
Unlike myths from other regions, the gods of Norse mythology were mortal and their deaths were foretold by prophesy. Thor and the other Aesir knew they would one day fight the giants in a great battle called Ragnarok. In this battle, Thor was destined to slay the giant Midgar, a vicious serpent so big that its body coiled around the world. As the creature expired, Thor would be poisoned by its venomous breath. Thor would stagger nine steps backward before collapsing in death. Nearly every god and giant would die during Ragnarok, but all would not be lost. Thor’s sons, Magni and Modi, would be among the survivors who would begin a new race of human beings and a new world cleansed of evil and treachery.
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Image: Thor wields his mighty hammer during Ragnarok, the cataclysmic fight with the Jotun. Credit: Thor’s Fight with the Giants (1872), oil on canvas by Mårten Eskil Winge; Nationalmuseum (Stockholm)