Study Guide

The Theft of Thor's Hammer Context

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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?

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