Once upon a time, when Vikings roamed the earth, a bard named Eilífr Goðrúnarson decided to write a drápa, or praise-poem, in honor of Thor. For his story, he chose Thor's encounter with a frost-giant named Geirrod. To really amp up the praise, he filled his poem with twisty-turny titles for the god. He wasn't content with just "Thunder God." Nope, in Eilífr's hands, Thor became "feller of the life-net of the gods of the flight-ledges" and "the maiden-betrayer of the halls of the shrill-crier" (Þórsdrápa 1.3-1.4, 3.6-3.7).
Huh? Yeah, it's a pretty impossible poem to understand.
Even though we have some trouble with it these days, lots of medieval Icelanders loved it. So a few hundred years later (around 1220), Snorri Sturluson decided to include the story in his Skáldskaparmal, a collection of poetry and poetic terms. Thanks to him, even ordinary folks know what happened when Thor visited Geirrod's hall.
Even if we didn't know that Thor and the Jotun Geirrod was a Viking legend, we'd be able to guess. A bunch of the stuff that happens in this story lines up perfectly with what we know about the values of medieval Germanic warrior culture.
Examples? Of course.
(1) Your word is your bond. Even after he's totally free of Geirrod's clutches, Loki keeps his oath to the giant to lure Thor to his hall without his weapons. Oaths are super-important to a Germanic warrior. You don't break them—ever. If you're going to break it, don't make it. Period.
(2) Hospitality. Grid doesn't just give Thor and Loki a hot meal and a soft bed. She also provides Thor with the dirt on Geirrod and the equipment he needs to defeat him. Now that's hospitality. And that's a medieval Germanic warrior's obligation to his guest. When you agree to host somebody under your roof, it's your responsibility to entertain, but also to protect them. Don't feel like going to battle for your guest? Don't ask them to stay.
(3) The sneaky don't prosper. Everyone in this story who tries to use violence in a sneaky way—for example, by hiding under Thor's chair or inviting him to play a game of catch that's actually a game of fireball—dies. A Germanic warrior isn't supposed to use deception to defeat his enemies. It's okay to be violent, but do it straightforwardly, like Thor does.
The myth of Thor and the Jotun Geirrod follows a quest structure. That means that the hero leaves his home, the place where he feels safest and most comfortable, to journey to a scary, foreign place. Like most quest stories, a lot of this one takes place on the road. That's where you'd expect to encounter danger in a story like this, right? And sure enough, Thor and Loki meet with a giant waterfall of pee, unleashed by Geirrod's daughter, that threatens to drown them as they're crossing the River Vímur.
Thor's crossing of the river symbolizes his passage from his safe, comfortable world to one where everything is the opposite of how it should be. (For more on that, see "Symbols.") It doesn't take long for Thor to tire of this topsy-turvy world and crush all the giants to a pulp. When he does that, he's trying to set the world right again, to turn the mead hall into the safe space it should be.
Usually, the end of a quest story tells about the hero's return to his safe, orderly place. But by killing all the frost-giants, Thor's already restored order. (Although if you're a giant, you might disagree.) Maybe that's why this story ends when the giants die, and not when Thor returns to Asgard.
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. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
The story of Thor and the Jotun Geirrod 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:
Thor's just your average, run-of-the-mill, super-strong, giant-killing god living in Asgard. His likes include his magical hammer and a strong cup of mead. When he's not out killing giants, he's a devoted husband to Sif and a faithful lover to many, many women.
One day, Loki rolls into town fresh from an adventure in Geirrod's hall, which he describes as the most awesome place on the planet. He talks up the place a lot, then suggests that he and Thor make a trip there. But, oh, Thor should leave his weapons behind. Because what kind of good houseguest shows up fully armed?
Actually, Thor doesn't even protest. He thinks Geirrod's hall sounds pretty good, even without his weapons. Loki's very persuasive. And deep thinking isn't really Thor's strong suit.
That would be Grid, a giantess who hosts Thor and Loki on the first night of their journey and gives Thor some good advice: Don't go into Geirrod's hall unarmed, you idiot! (We paraphrase.) She also gives him some gifts that are pretty important later on: a magical girdle, an iron glove, and a staff.
Before they can get to Geirrod's hall, Loki and Thor have to cross the River Vímur. Their crossing is made even more challenging by Geirrod's daughter, who decides to take a big pee in the river, making huge waves that threaten to drown them. (Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go.)
Turns out, Grid truly is an ally to Thor. Her staff sure comes in handy when Geirrod's daughters elevate Thor's chair on their backs, threatening to slam his head against the ceiling (ouch!). With one strong thrust of staff against ceiling, the chair is back on the floor and Geirrod's daughters look kind of like the shells of the eggs we had for breakfast this morning. Gross.
Geirrod invites Thor to move from the goat house to the actual hall (he's moving up in the world!), a long room lined with fires. That seems kind of ominous. Then Geirrod asks Thor to play a game. Word to the wise: Don't play games with giants. No good can come of it.
Geirrod's "game" turns out to be catch, with the catch being that the "ball" is actually a mass of molten iron. Luckily, Thor is prepared. He's got Grid's iron glove. All he has to do is slip that baby on, aim, and send that flaming projectile right back through Geirrod's stomach. Sucks to be him.
In our opinion, Thor gets two rewards. First, he gets to kill a lot of giants, which he really enjoys doing. And second, he gets the satisfaction of knowing that even without his magical hammer, he's still a macho, hard-fighting, giant-crushing superstar.
Our story ends when the giants do, but we imagine Thor traveling home satisfied with his day's work. Oh, and really mad at Loki for tricking him.
Geirrod wasn't the first giant Thor killed, and he certainly won't be the last. In the many battles to come, Thor will usually win. Until Ragnarök, that is. (DUM da dum dum DUM).
Thor returns home to Asgard safe in the knowledge that he doesn't need a hammer to be an awesome dude. However, we're guessing that when he gets there, he still holds that hammer real close. Because even though he doesn't need it, it's always nice to have a magical hammer.
"The power was inside you all along…" Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard some version of this heartwarming bit of dialogue. It comes from a plot device called the "magic feather." A hero, sometimes in need of a confidence boost, possesses an object he thinks is the source of his awesome abilities. Then (gulp!) he loses the object, but must carry on without it. And—get this!—he does an fantastic job.
Turns out, the object wasn't really the source of his power. No, he was. Now, we're not saying that Thor's hammer and girdle of might aren't magic. They are. It's just that, as the myth of Thor and the Jotun Geirrod proves, the thunder god doesn't need them to kick some giant butt. Here are some other stories in which the heroes learn that their power comes from within:
Okay, so Gilgamesh actually doesn't discover the power he's seeking—immortality—inside himself, but he does learn that it doesn't exist in an object. An immortal being has told Gilgamesh of a plant that will make him young again, and he finds it, only to quickly lose it to a serpent while he's bathing (and no, we're not sure why he couldn't wait until he got home to take a bath). He's pretty broken up about it. He cries—a lot. But when he gets back to Uruk, he sees the city walls and realizes that these walls—and fame—will live forever, or at least a lot longer than him.
The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are all searching for things they think they lack. The Tin Man wants a heart, the Scarecrow a brain, and the Lion courage. They believe the Wizard of Oz can give them these qualities. When they find the Wizard, he turns out to be just an ordinary guy from Omaha, Nebraska. But he gives the three searchers physical representations of what they want, which cause them to believe they do possess these qualities after all. The 1939 film version of the story takes this idea even further, with the "wizard" actually telling the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion that they already possess the qualities they're looking for.
When Timothy Q. Mouse wakes up in a tree next to his elephant companion, he's convinced that the little guy used his enormous ears to fly there. But Dumbo doesn't believe that he can fly. With the help of a group of crows, Timothy convinces him that a "magic feather" (yup, that would be the feather this plot device is named after!) will enable him to fly. But as Dumbo is jumping from a high platform, the feather slips from his trunk, and he begins to fall. Luckily, Timothy (who's perched on his head) confesses that the feather isn't magic after all. Dumbo pulls out of the dive, flies, and becomes the star of the circus.
When the giantess Grid hears that Thor's planning to venture into Geirrod's territory without any weapons or armor, she thinks it's a pretty stupid move. So she gives Thor some gifts—a girdle (or belt), staff, and iron glove—that become very useful to him later on in the story. In fact, it's fair to say that Thor wouldn't survive without these gifts.
Although our super-macho hero might not want to admit it, these gifts represent Thor's dependence on the wisdom and kindness of another for his survival. But individually, each of these gifts has a unique symbolism and a long history in mythology and literature.
Let's break it down
You might be wondering what a girdle actually is. Well, that depends on when you're wearing it. Today (and starting in about the 1920s) a girdle is an elastic waist-cincher designed to hold women's stomachs in (the things women do for fashion, right?).
But for most of history, a girdle was just a belt. When a woman wore a girdle, it usually symbolized her sexuality—in particular, her virginity. But because a man used a girdle to hold his sword, it symbolized his power and protection. How about some examples?
Thor actually already has a girdle. When he wears it, it doubles his strength, basically making him undefeatable. But he left his personal girdle home on this trip. Lucky for him, he found a spare.
Who do you picture when you think of a staff? Probably a wizened, elderly man with a long, white beard, right? Wizards—guys like Gandalf and Dumbledore, for example—often carry staffs, which, in addition to possessing magical powers of their own, symbolize authority and wisdom.
In the myth of Thor and the Jotun Geirrod, the staff might symbolize Grid's wisdom, which Thor uses as he ventures into the giant's territory. It might also symbolize Thor's journey; since medieval pilgrims often carried staffs to use as walking sticks, the staff is also a symbol of travel.
In the Middle Ages, everyone—not just fancy ladies—wore gloves. Gloves came in pretty handy when you were doing hard physical labor. In battle, armored gloves could protect your hands. And since without your hands, you can't do much, hands—and by extension, the gloves people wore on them—came to symbolize power.
A lord might express his permission for a vassal to found a town or possess a piece of property by giving him a glove. Torqued off at someone? You might express your desire to do battle with them by throwing a glove on the floor in open court. You've "thrown down the gauntlet," which is just a fancy word for glove. If the offender picks it up, then the fight is on.
So in the myth of Thor and the Jotun Geirrod, Grid's glove might symbolize the transfer of her "power" (in the form of knowledge of Geirrod's tricky ways) to Thor. It also tells us that it's "game on" for Thor and the giants.
When people cross important borders in stories, it's often about more than just a physical journey. In this case, the river crossing symbolizes Thor's passage from the world he knows—a world where hostesses like Grid treat their guests right and people pee an average amount—to one where nothing is what it seems.
Take Geirrod's hall for instance. It should be a safe, welcoming place for road-weary travelers. That's what the hall normally symbolizes in Germanic literature. And at first, it seems to be. But then, weird things start to happen. A chair levitates. The "friendly" host invites Thor to play a game of catch the flaming iron in a room lined entirely with fires. Thor's job is to turn the world back into one where things make sense. And since he's Thor, he can do that without re-crossing the river. All he has to do is kill all the giants.