The story of how Thor gets his hammer back comes to us from the poem "Thrymskvitha" in a medieval manuscript collection of Norse mythology called the Poetic Edda. Although the collection first appeared in written form in the 12th century, we're lucky to have it at all. Between the 12th and 17th centuries it was lost, finally reappearing in 1643 in the collection of a prominent Icelandic bishop. For hundreds of years, scholars speculated about the existence of this collection, wondering what the thirteenth13th-century Icelandic court poet Snorri Sturluson could possibly be quoting from when he inserted ancient-sounding Old Norse verses in his stories.
So, for ancient Germanic literature geeks, the discovery of the Poetic Edda was a lot like finding the Holy Grail. And even those of you who aren't Germanic literature geeks can rejoice, because thanks to the discovery of the Poetic Edda, we now have even more awesome Norse mythology stories like this one about a cross-dressing thunder god.
Many of the poems in the Poetic Edda were probably composed orally and handed down over many generations. They would have been recited or sung at parties as everyone sat in the hall around a bonfire, drinking a honeyed wine beverage called mead and enjoying the good company.
It sounds nice and cozy, but these mead-hall parties were only one small part of the Viking lifestyle. If the Vikings weren't out trying to make their living with battlefield pillage, they were struggling to survive in the inhospitable wintry landscape of medieval Scandinavia. The harshness of the Viking lifestyle influences their mythology, much of which is violent and apocalyptic – in other words, focused on bloodshed, war, end-of-the-world scenarios and natural disasters.
In "The Theft of Thor's Hammer," for example, the big enemy is a frost-giant named Thrym, who personifies winter weather. When Thor finally gets his hammer back, he doesn't just punish Thrym. He slaughters Thrym's entire household – women and children included. Blood and gore are just par for the course with Norse mythology, and "The Theft of Thor's Hammer" is no exception.
But this story is also pretty silly. Come on, what's funnier than a manly man like Thor being forced to dress up in women's clothing and pretend to be a dainty, blushing bride? The humor in the scenario probably explains this story's immense popularity. It's included in practically every anthology of Norse mythology we know of. Not only that, but this particular motif – macho guy forced to disguise himself as a woman – re-appears constantly in popular culture, with each new generation coming up with its own specific version of Thor-as-blushing-bride.
The character of Thor, even when not dolled up in women's clothing, has had quite a long shelf life as well. Marvel Comics debuted a series devoted to him in 1962, and since then Thor's had his own animated TV series, clothing, toys, trading cards, and video games. In May of 2011, Thor got his own feature film, Thor, with a star-studded cast playing many of the characters that appear in "The Theft of Thor's Hammer." That includes Loki, the Frost Giants and, of course, the thunder god himself. Why not get to know them now, in their original versions?
In Norse cosmology, Asgard, the land of the Aesir gods, and Jotunheim, the land of the giants, are separated by a the Iving River, which never freezes over, making it very difficult to cross. Since the giants and the gods are always fighting with each other, the gods also decided to build a huge wall around Asgard to protect it, making it very difficult for giants to cross into Asgard, and vice-versa. (Psst. You can learn more about the wall in "The Walling of Asgard.") That's why Freyja's feather dress is such a huge help to Loki when he travels to Jotunheim in search of Thor's hammer. It allows him to soar right over all those pesky barriers. Similarly, Thor's chariot enables him and Loki to reach Jotunheim much more easily than they ever could on foot.
Once Thrym sees his "bride" coming, he orders his servants to put straw on the benches, a move that symbolizes decorating the halls for a wedding feast. Very specific things must occur at a Norse wedding feast. People have to stuff their faces, which is why there's enough food at this feast for Thor to eat an entire ox, eight salmon, three barrels of mead, and an entire wedding cake. Also, during the feast, the bride and groom exchange gifts. The bride's family provides her with a "bridal fee," usually in the form of gold.
Thrym's sister demands the bridal fee from "Freyja" in this story, a moment that seems to remind Thrym that he owes his bride a wedding gift. He's already promised the gods that this gift will be Thor's hammer. The irony in this story, of course, is that putting his gift in the lap of his "bride" is exactly what brings Thrym's marriage to "Freyja" to an end. "Thrymskvitha," the poem about the theft of Thor's hammer, characterizes the blows that Thor lands once his hammer's returned to him as the "bridal fee" Thrym's sister has demanded. In this way it uses the conventions of the wedding feast to produce humor in what is otherwise a seriously gross and disturbing moment.
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. To read a general explanation of the 12 stages, click here.
Thor's story doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:
We don't get a great sense of the "ordinary world" in this story – Thor wakes up one morning to find his precious hammer missing.
According to the Hero's Journey structure, a character's quest begins with some sort of call to adventure, after which the hero realizes that everything is going to change. That's definitely the case for Thor in this story. He finds out that not only is he going to have to venture into Jotunheim without his hammer, but he's going to have to pretend to be a woman.
As you might expect, Thor is totally resistant to this scheme at first, afraid that the other gods will laugh at him once he's all decked out in girly clothes. He therefore engages in a "refusal of the call."
Luckily, Thor's gets some help from Loki (who you wouldn't normally think of as a mentor). Loki convinces Thor to don a bridal gown, and also offers to tag along with him as a bridesmaid.
Thor puts on a dress and veil and allows the other gods to deck him out with jangly keys, jewelry, Freyja's precious Brisingamen necklace, and a pretty hat to cover his head. A woman's world is definitely an unknown and scary realm for Thor. As Thor and Loki cross over into Jotunheim and head toward the wedding feast, Thor enters the "crosses the threshold." Things are about to get serious.
Now Thor's "tests" begin as he and his ally Loki infiltrate the land of the giants. First, Thrym notices that his "bride" has a rather large appetite. This observation threatens to blow Thor's cover, but, luckily, the quick-thinking Loki comes up with an explanation involving pre-wedding jitters and fasting to overcome this first test. Next, a glance beneath Thor's veil reveals his scary, fiery, un-feminine eyes, but again, Loki manages to explain this away as the sleeplessness of a nervous bride.
Thor doesn't seem to suffer any of the doubts that many heroes feel during Stage 7, nor is there any one "ordeal" that particularly stands out.
Once Thor's hammer is placed in his lap, he achieves "the ultimate boon." He achieves the goal of his quest, which is to get his hammer back. Since it's Thor we're talking about here, he kills a lot of giants in the process.
"The Theft of Thor's Hammer" concludes before Thor and Loki return to Asgard, so we don't really see a "road back."
Once Thor starts slaughtering giants, he's no longer at all concerned with pretending to be a woman, so it's like his old, masculine self is brought back from the dead. The Thor we know is probably more than happy to be a manly man again, and probably doesn't at all mind saying good-bye to his feminine side.
Though we don't see Thor return to Asgard, we know he heads home with his hammer. The hammer is an "elixir" to the gods of Asgard, because it's the magical tool that allows Thor to protect them from the threat of giants.
In "Little Red Riding Hood," a dangerous foe dresses up as a harmless female and must come up with excuses to justify his "strange voice," "big ears," "big eyes," and especially, "big teeth." Sound familiar? It sure should. Just like Thor, the wolf dresses up as a woman (in this case, Red's grandma) to get what he wants. And his disguise isn't entirely convincing.
There is an interesting difference between these stories, though. In "Little Red Riding Hood," we're rooting for Red, not for the wolf dressed up as her grandma. In "The Theft of Thor's Hammer," on the other hand, we're totally on the side of the guy in who's in disguise. Which makes us wonder, do you feel bad for Thrym? Even just a smidge?
(Need a refresher course on "Little Red Riding Hood"? Read several versions of the story here.)
In Book 13 of The Metamorphoses, Roman poet Ovid tells a story about Achilles dressing in drag. Achilles is famous for being the most awesome Greek soldier – ever. Just like Thor, he's a total muscleman. So how does he end up dressing as a girl? Good question.
When she sees a war coming, Achilles' mom, Thetis, becomes super worried for her son. She forces him to dress as a girl to avoid being drafted in the Trojan War. Just like Thor, though, Achilles can't hide the fact that he's a man. When the clever Greek soldier Ulysses (a.k.a. Odysseus) puts some cool weapons in front of the "girl," Achilles can't resist, and his cover is blown. In this story, the clever guy isn't on the muscleman's side. Ulysses is just too smart for Achilles. It's as if Loki was Thrym's sidekick instead of Thor's.
In her 19th century book American Indian Fairy Tales, Margaret Compton recorded the story of "White Hawk, the Lazy." In this tale, a young man named White Hawk disguises himself as a girl and marries his enemy, Red Head. Once they're married, White Hawk kills Red Head. Does that sound like Thor and Thrym or what?
You can read the full story here.
When Thor loses his hammer, it's a BIG deal. Thor's hammer represents his physical strength and power. It's what makes him such a deadly opponent in battle, and such an awesome protector of Asgard. Since that pretty much sums up Thor's character, it's fair to say that Thor's hammer is what makes Thor, well, Thor. To get it back, Thor has to resort to Loki-ish trickery and craftiness, which is very out of character for him. Nope, Thor hasn't just lost his hammer – he's lost himself.
If we want to go even deeper here and get all Freudian, we might even say that Thor's hammer represents his, um, manly parts (in fancy scholarly language, his phallus). You may think we've got our minds in the gutter over here at Shmoop HQ, but we're serious. Just look at what happens after Thor loses his hammer. No longer is Thor an ultra-masculine superhero protector-of-the-universe. Suddenly, he's prancing around in women's clothing. That the loss of his hammer should also represent a loss of masculinity tells us quite a bit about what the ancient Norse thought made a man manly: physical strength and the power to beat others in a fight.
Of course, the ancient Norse weren't alone in making this connection, or in using a hero's weaponry to represent it. In just about every medieval romance we can think of, like Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Chrétien de Troyes's stories about King Arthur, or even Chaucer's parody of romance in "The Miller's Tale," a weapon is never just a weapon. Nope, it's a symbol of masculinity, and its disappearance or damage represents something going very wrong with the hero's manliness.
Thor loses his hammer, which, as we've already mentioned, is kind of like a symbolic castration. (Ouch.) Then, to add insult to injury, he's forced to wear women's clothing. This forced cross-dressing might just be further feminization to echo the loss of his hammer (cough! phallus!). In other words, it might be the story's way of hammering its point home (pun intended): "Hey! Look! Thor's being symbolically castrated and feminized! Ha ha ha!"
Still, we suspect something else is going on here. Because once Thor is all dolled up in women's clothing and trying to act like a woman, he's really, really bad at it. In fact, if Thrym weren't quite so dumb, and Loki quite so crafty, Thor would never be able to pull it off. His "manly" characteristics, like his decidedly un-dainty appetite and his fiery eyes, would give him away in a heartbeat. He's so manly he could never really pass as a woman.
So, in a very strange paradox – in which a symbol means exactly the opposite of what you think it should – Thor's cross-dressing as a woman somehow just ends up proving his manliness. By using cross-dressing in this way, "The Theft of Thor's Hammer" is making it symbolize exactly the opposite of what modern cross-dressers do. When a person cross-dresses today, they're usually trying to make an argument about how "constructed" – how dependent on easily-changeable stuff like clothes, performance, and manners – male-ness and female-ness really are. But the ancient Norse didn't really agree with this argument.
Neither, it seems, did the ancient Greeks. When Achilles' mother forced him to dress as a girl to avoid being drafted in the Trojan War, he, like Thor, gave himself away with his manliness, in this case by being stoked about weaponry.
Cross-dressing in Shakespeare, however, is a little bit more complex, and is usually female-to-male cross-dressing, which opens up a whole different can of worms. For more examples of famous literary cross-dressers, check out our Learning Guides to Twelfth Night and As You Like It.
If you want to get acquainted with some modern cross-dressers, you might want to rent Some Like It Hot (1959), Victor Victoria (1982), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), White Chicks (2004), or Rent (2005). The list goes on and on, and cross-dressing seems to mean something slightly different in each incarnation, which just goes to show you what a powerful and flexible symbol cross-dressing can be.
When Loki needs a quick mode of transport to Jotunheim (the land of the giants), he knows exactly where to find it. Freyja has a magical feather dress that allows its wearer to fly like a bird. Freyja's happy to lend it to Loki. In fact, she tells him, she would give it to him "though of silver bright … though 'twere of gold" ("Thrymskvitha," 4.1-2).
Why does Freyja make a point of proving how super-willing she is to lend her feather dress to Loki? Well, it's because she's a Vanir god and Thor is an Aesir god. The Vanir and Aesir once fought a huge war, and Freyja was traded as a hostage to the Aesir gods. Because of that, we might suspect her of harboring resentment toward the Aesir. Her generosity with her feather dress, though, puts her beyond such suspicions. So her willingness to let Loki borrow her dress symbolizes her cooperation with Loki and Thor.
Freyja's feather dress joins a long tradition of magical modes of transport, the most famous of which is probably Aladdin's magic carpet in One Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. Arabian Nights). The ability to go from point A to point B very quickly may not seem so miraculous to modern folks, since we've got planes, trains, and automobiles, but the ancient Norse had to go on foot, on horseback, or on ships dependent on the weather for locomotion. Similarly, the Arabs went on camels, which explains the fascination that magical modes of transport must have held for them. These objects must have symbolized an incredible degree of ease and freedom.
Even after the creation of supersonic planes and bullet trains, however, we're still delighted by Harry Potter's floo powder and Nimbus 2000, or Star Trek's "Beam me up, Scotty." In our case, the fascination seems to be with the unusual or the instantaneous.
When Thor must disguise himself as Freyja, he wears lots of bling, but one piece of jewelry really makes his disguise authentic: the necklace Brisingamen. Freyja was so obsessed with possessing the Brisingamen necklace that she slept with four dwarves to get it, which, as you can imagine, really irked her lover, Odin. He took it from her, and she had to start a war between two human tribes to get it back.
Freyja's willingness to lend her special necklace to Thor symbolizes her complete loyalty to the Aesir gods even more than her willingness to lend her feather dress to Loki. Because the necklace was so famously associated with Freyja in Norse mythology, it also symbolizes Freyja herself.
Freyja's desperate desire for Brisingamen was probably due to what jewelry symbolized more generally in Germanic culture: beauty, femininity, and, most importantly, power. A warlord's ability to dress his lady in tons of bling sent a message to his underlings that he was the man – he had won a lot of battles and pillaged a ton of gold. That's why the women in Beowulf are constantly described as "gold-adorned." Jewelry's association with power takes on its most famous incarnation in J.R.R. Tolkien's Germanic literature-inspired epic The Lord of the Rings, in which the fate of the world depends on a single ring.
Freyja, however, doesn't depend on Odin's power for the Brisingamen. In fact, she directly defies him by sleeping with other men, so that Brisingamen comes to represent Freyja's independence and power, rather than her lord's. Some jewelry that's more closely-related to a women's power and choices, rather than men's, appears in Guy de Maupaussant's short story "The Necklace," and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. In these stories, women's pride and choices become interestingly entangled in the jewelry they wear.