How Thor got his hammer - Scott A. Mellor
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Much of our information on Norse mythology comes from the Icelanders. After a trip to Norway from 1218 to 1220, the Icelandic law speaker and poet, Snorri Sturluson, returned to Iceland and wrote the Prose Edda, which was a prose version of the Old Norse myths. It is believed that he based much of his prose version on the earlier Poetic Edda, a poetic version of the Old Norse myths from about 40 years previously, which scholars earlier had attributed to the Icelander Sæmundr hinn fróði (the wise) but later was realized not to be true and currently is considered anonymous.
One of the problems with Snorri’s Edda, and even the Poetic Edda, is that it was written two hundred years after the conversion to Christianity and, therefore, long after the polytheist religion was no longer being practiced on Iceland, or even in Scandinavia. During the 13th century in Christian Europe, a dominant method of critical thought was called Scholasticism. Monastic schools were forming into the first universities, and a component of education was this developing philosophical system for Christian theology that, among other things, attempted to reconcile the bible with classical philosophy. Some Icelanders were familiar with this philosophy, a few even having studied at these early universities. Snorri was not a clergyman, rather an aristocratic layman, nor did he study at a European university. Nevertheless, his text demonstrates some of these ecclesiastical teachings. In his introduction, Snorri attempts to reconcile the Bible and Classical literature with traditional Norse belief by claiming that the old Norse gods had originally come from Troy and had come to Sweden and taught the polytheist belief to a Swedish king, thereby deluding this king into believing that they were gods. As a result, we need to be very careful using Snorri’s text for our understanding of the pre-Christian religion.
Snorri is very good, however, in giving us comprehensible stories, like this story of how Thor got his hammer. Though his book may tell us more about the 13th century than the 10th, some of the stories are helpful in giving us insight to both 13th and 10th century society. We discover the importance of the smith to medieval Norse society. And we might extrapolate, based on the gifts given to the gods, these items’ importance. Sif’s hair, golden as summer wheat, is reflective of agriculture, whereas the golden boar is suggestive of animal husbandry, both important food sources for the Norse. Spears were important in warfare and ships were an integral component of Norse society during this period. Gold and arm rings were used in gift giving which created important relationships between people, and hammers would have been of cultural importance for a number of reasons, for ship building, smithing and carpentry.
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