Thor is, without a doubt, one of Marvel’s main men, both in comic books and on the big screen, as is evident in movie-going audiences flocking to theaters to see the hammer-wielding character in action. According to boxofficemojo.com, gross ticket sales from the three Thor films combined top nearly $2 billion. Leading the way is the 2017 release of Thor: Ragnarok, bringing in more than $844 million.
The popularity of these films, as well as Marvel’s Avengers, and History Channel’s Vikings series, certainly plays a part in the growing interest in Norse history and lore. Yet, Thor’s revered status as a symbol of strength, protection and provision dates back centuries. That fact is evident in the presence and popularity of the Thor’s Hammer amulet in Viking jewelry.
To help us understand Thor and his ever-present hammer a bit better, we turned to fine art specialist Sydelle Rubin-Dienstfrey, PhD Art History, who is manager of the research and writing department at Artemis Gallery.
“The Thor’s Hammer is perhaps the best-known symbol of Norse mythology,” Rubin-Dienstfrey said. “Thor was the powerful god tasked with guarding Asgard, home of the Aesir tribe of deities. Thor tirelessly defended the Aesir from the giants, and the hammer was his trusty weapon. Interestingly, the name Thor literally means ‘Thunder,’ and Thor seemed to personify the spirit of a storm whose thunder was experienced as the resounding boom of his hammer as it decimated his adversaries.”
While this image of Thor is what comes to mind when you hear his name, it is one element of a more complex role within the world of the mythology, Rubin-Dienstfrey explained.
“In addition to serving as a weapon, the Thor’s Hammer played a major role in sacred rituals related to birth, marriage, and death. Some historians also believe that rituals involving people beating hammers were intended to protect communities from evil spirits. So, the Thor’s Hammer was not only a weapon possessing the might and power of a storm but also an instrument of protection against ill will.”
With the Hammer of Thor bearing such meaning, it is easy to understand why the symbol is represented in various forms of Viking artifacts, most specifically as amulets/pendants.
In 2014, a Viking artifact reportedly from the 10th century in the shape of the Hammer of Thor was discovered on the Danish island of Lolland, and it bore an inscription. According to an article posted on www.ancient-origins.net, the text was translated to “this is a hammer,” and it was one of the more than 1,000 similar items discovered throughout northern Europe, referred to as the Mjöllnir amulets, to include such an inscription. The inscribed Mjöllnir amulet currently resides in the National Museum of Denmark.
Museums and historical programs provide an ideal opportunity to gain a better understanding of Norse people, their traditions and beliefs. One such example is the traveling museum exhibition “Vikings: Beyond the Legend,” said Rubin-Dienstfrey, who attended the exhibition with her fellow staff members from Artemis Gallery.
“I think that one of the greatest things about it was that the organizers did their best to bust generally accepted myths about the Vikings that Hollywood sometimes perpetuates,” she said. “For instance, there is this misconception that the Vikings were filthy brutes. However, some of the most commonly excavated artifacts of Viking Era include tweezers, combs, razors and ear spoons. This suggests that they were fairly focused on cleanliness and grooming. What’s more, many scholars estimate that only a small percentage of Vikings were warriors. Most were artisans, farmers, and traders.”
The discovery of ancient Viking jewelry in a myriad of designs, created using a variety of metals and materials (bronze, silver, and stone), is another example of a culture that is more than one-dimensional.
“When one examines examples of Norse visual culture, it becomes apparent that their immense artistry defies common stereotypes of Vikings as horned helmet-wearing barbarians who went around raping and pillaging whomever and whatever crossed their paths,” said Rubin-Dienstfrey. “In addition to some stunning Thor’s Hammer pendants, we have had the privilege of handling incredible bracteate [beaten] pendants that display extremely sophisticated filigree and granulation techniques, as well. To create these works of wearable art clearly required advanced techniques and a keen sensibility.”
Although ownership of artifacts does not necessarily require one to possess an understanding of the culture surrounding it, as many will attest, the value in acquiring that knowledge is immeasurable.
“I think that collectors love the Thor’s Hammer because of its many layers of symbolism. The hammer is associated with the Norse god of thunder, lightning, storms and strength – who protected so many – so by extension, the amulet is believed to protect its wearer,” Rubin-Dienstfrey added. “Finally, the fine workmanship and immense artistry exemplified by these beautiful works make them incredibly desirable.”
In case of Thor’s Hammer, there is so much more to it than meets the eye, as is the case with so many relics of centuries ago.