Time and Meaning Four: Thunder and the Personification of the Sky

The Sun
The Moon
Light, War, and Gods
Fury, Knowledge, and The Gallows
Sound, Thunder, Storms and Strength
Love, Freedom, and Friends
Time, CuttingChange, and The Harvest

These are the days that rule our lives.

Although today is the Free-day, I’m going to write about yesterday, Thursday—the day of Sound, Thunder, Storms, and Strength.  I was planning on Nom’ing on it yesterday, but I was waylaid by an evil mutant space virus that I have since fought and bested.

In any case, let us discover one of my favorite days of the week, as I have always enjoyed Thursdays, even though it is named after one of the least sympathetic mythological figures I know…

As for the the word, itself, Thursday comes from Old English Thunresdaeg, “Thunor’s Day,” which was subsequently influenced by the Norse Thorsdagr, “Thor’s day,” as they rampaged through and conquered large parts of the Angles’ Land–(the later England). Named after the same god–Thunor/Thor–the day’s name is also synonymous with the meteorological phenomenon of “Thunder.”  The same is true for German with Donnerstag (and where Donner==Thunder and is the name of one of Santa’s Reindeer.. of course..).

In any case, the root word for all of these words is a proto-indo-european root *(st)tene- “to resound, thunder,”–which is found throughout the germanic languages and also in, for example, Latin tonare, from which we get our English word “tone.”  Thus, the connections between sounds and thunder and storms are pretty closely linked–which makes sense in that thunder is one of the most profound an basic sounds that early peoples would have recognized…

As for this day–there are four topics that interest me, and all involve Thor’s relationship to other and related deities….

1) To begin…  I hate to say it, but I’ve always thought that Thor was kinda a dick.  Nominally, he was a hammer-wielding sky god connected with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, protecting humanity, making places sacred, healing and fertility.  That’s all well and good, but he’s not known for being all that clever, and, in general, his main goals as a deity seemed to have been eating huge amounts of food (including his own goats, although he then resurrects them to eat them again…), incessantly drinking and trying to break things, and having his property stolen.

In other words–he seems pretty much like the Fratboy of godhood.

Of course, I am probably biased.  I’ve always found the trickster gods–especially Loki, but also Prometheus–to be much more of my kind of mythological figure. As a side point–one might note the similarities between these two tricksters.  Both were connected to fire–which can both help and hurt humans–and both were punished by the head god of the pantheon in similar ways. Prometheus was chained to a rock and then made to suffer having his liver ripped out daily.  Loki was chained under the earth using the entrails of his son, and then made to have a serpent drip venom onto his face.  Interestingly, the punishments end very differently.  Prometheus is set free by a son of his punisher, whereas Loki breaks free and helps lead the final battle wherein one of his offspring–the Fenris Wolf–eats his punisher. Can you tell how much more interested I am in Loki than Thor??? And how much cooler this would be if we were talking about Loki’s day than Thor’s day.

Anyway. I digress.

As is obvious,  gods that use their brains and who represent ambiguity rather than clarity are much more my kind of thing.

Of course, it is possible to compare the behavior of these two gods (Thor and Loki)–as well as seeing even more aspects of Thor’s Fratboyishness–by reviewing one of the most hilarious myths ever.

It entails Thor becoming a Transvestite.

Seriously–the myth of Þrymskviða (Thrymskvitha) was part of the poetic Edda–a collection of Norse poems about their mythology–and it was one of the most popular–and it involves putting Thor in a dress…

Here’s how it went (acc. to the Wikipedia entry on Thor):

In the comedic poem Þrymskviða, Thor again plays a central role. In the poem, Thor wakes and finds that his powerful hammer,Mjöllnir, is missing. Thor turns to Loki, and tells him that nobody knows that the hammer has been stolen. The two go to the dwelling of the goddess Freyja, and so that he may attempt to find Mjöllnir, Thor asks her if he may borrow her feather cloak. Freyja agrees, and says she would lend it to Thor even if it were made of silver or gold, and Loki flies off, the feather cloak whistling.

In Jötunheimr, the jötunn Þrymr sits on a barrow, plaiting golden collars for his female dogs, and trimming the manes of his horses. Þrymr sees Loki, and asks what could be amiss among the Æsir and the elves; why is Loki alone in Jötunheimr? Loki responds that he has bad news for both the elves and the Æsir—that Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, is gone. Þrymr says that he has hidden Mjöllnir eight leagues beneath the earth, from which it will be retrieved, but only if Freyja is brought to him as his wife. Loki flies off, the feather cloak whistling, away from Jötunheimr and back to the court of the gods.

Thor asks Loki if his efforts were successful, and that Loki should tell him while he is still in the air as “tales often escape a sitting man, and the man lying down often barks out lies.” Loki states that it was indeed an effort, and also a success, for he has discovered that Þrymr has the hammer, but that it cannot be retrieved unless Freyja is brought to Þrymr as his wife. The two return to Freyja and tell her to put on a bridal head dress, as they will drive her to Jötunheimr. Freyja, indignant and angry, goes into a rage, causing all of the halls of the Æsir to tremble in her anger, and her necklace, the famed Brísingamen, falls from her. Freyja pointedly refuses.[36]

As a result, the gods and goddesses meet and hold a thing to discuss and debate the matter. At the thing, the god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that, in place of Freyja, Thor should be dressed as the bride, complete with jewels, women’s clothing down to his knees, a bridal head-dress, and the necklace Brísingamen. Thor rejects the idea, yet Loki interjects that this will be the only way to get back Mjöllnir. Loki points out that, without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade and settle in Asgard. The gods dress Thor as a bride, and Loki states that he will go with Thor as his maid, and that the two shall drive to Jötunheimr together.

After riding together in Thor’s goat-driven chariot, the two, disguised, arrive in Jötunheimr. Þrymr commands the jötnar in his hall to spread straw on the benches, for Freyja has arrived to be his wife. Þrymr recounts his treasured animals and objects, stating that Freyja was all that he was missing in his wealth.

Early in the evening, the disguised Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and the assembled jötnar. Thor eats and drinks ferociously, consuming entire animals and three casks of mead. Þrymr finds the behaviour at odds with his impression of Freyja, and Loki, sitting before Þrymr and appearing as a “very shrewd maid”, makes the excuse that “Freyja’s” behaviour is due to her having not consumed anything for eight entire days before arriving due to her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr then lifts “Freyja’s” veil and wants to kiss “her”. Terrifying eyes stare back at him, seemingly burning with fire. Loki says that this is because “Freyja” has not slept for eight nights in her eagerness.

The “wretched sister” of the jötnar appears, asks for a bridal gift from “Freyja”, and the jötnar bring out Mjöllnir to “sanctify the bride”, to lay it on her lap, and marry the two by “the hand” of the goddess Vár. Thor laughs internally when he sees the hammer, takes hold of it, strikes Þrymr, beats all of the jötnar, kills their “older sister”, and so gets his hammer back.
—————–
The end.

Now.. how hilarious is that.  Thor loses his hammer, dresses in drag, eats like a pig, drinks 3 cases of mead, and then slaughters everyone he can see.

And then we name a day after him.

Humans are weird.

2) What about Comparing Thor to similar gods in other pantheons?  In defense of picking Thor, one might note that the Germans took the names for their days by making comparisons to the ones that the Romans used and in this case, the Romans’ choice for Thursday was Jupiter.  The fifth day was Iovis/Jovis dies–Jupiter’s day–(Jupiter is actually the combination of Jovis piter–meaning “O Father, Sky-God”…), which has subsequently become Jeudi in French, Jueves in Spanish, etc..

Now.. Jupiter was the Roman “king of the gods,” who was also a sky-god and the god of thunder.  As I noted a year ago today, etymologically, Jupiter is related to Tyr/Tiwaz, who is at the root of our word, Tuesday.  In terms of his attributes and his symbols, however, Jupiter is clearly far more tied to Thor, not only due to the association with “thunder,” but also with the fact that Jupiter was tied to the “sacred oak,” which was also a sacred tree for Thor.

Beyond that, however, the characters of the two gods diverged.  Jupiter, as the head god of the Romans, quickly became a ‘god of war,’ but not necessarily of battle and martial skill–for which they had Mars–but of granting victory (of which the Romans had many–at least for the first 500 years..).  In addition, he became the god of “oaths” and witnessing, which fit his role as “sky-god” watching over everyone.  Of course, both of these associations fit well with Roman society–which is famous for its legal system as well as for conquering a number of places.

Thor, in contrast, was probably the most popular Norse god–outlasting most of the others as Scandinavia was christianized–but he was never considered the head God–which was Odin’s job (although he may have stolen it from Tyr…).  In addition, Thor was much more a god of battle than of war–and therefore much more similar to Mars–and even more so to Ares of the Greeks–as he engaged in the “relentless slaughter of his foes” with his impressive hammer.  Thor didn’t just sit back and preside over victory as Jupiter–KING OF THE GODS–did, but rather he gave you the berzerker strength and courage to go out and invade, pillage, and destroy your enemies.  Vikings, anyone??

Jupiter was civilized–Thor, most definitely, was not.

On the other hand, Thor’s story is also a lot more human than Jupiter’s.  Whereas Jupiter was the eternal king of the gods–until he was wholesale replaced by Jesus–Thor’s story did not have such a happy end.  Thor was destined to kill and be killed by another spawn of Loki–namely the Joermungandr, the World Serpent–in the final battle of Ragnarok. Thus, unlike the perfect, undying and obviously not-human Jupiter, the Germans had gods who had things to fear–primal monstrous terrors–born of themeselves–that they could not escape.  What this says about the foundational concerns of both societies–or perhaps their state of development–is worth pondering..

3) The third comparison one might want to make for Thor concerns the, perhaps, best-known pantheon for Westerners–the Greek.  Here, Zeus is obiviously the God of Thunder and King of the Gods like Jupiter is, (while also being etymologically related to Jovis), but he’s not quite so restrained and perfect as Jupiter.  Instead, he’s a bit more like Thor in his appetites and his moodiness.  In general, one does not picture Zeus presiding over imperial army victories, so much as raping various nymphs and battling various titans single-handedly.

Interestingly, one could note that both the Greek and Germanic cultures were based on a bunch of combative and relatively “small” groupings that were constantly bickering with each other.  In contrast, Rome was a far larger and more organized society.  Comparing Thor/Zeus/Jupiter, we find that their thunder gods match their social organizations.  The Roman god is supreme and legalistic, the Greek God is particularistic and a bit rapacious, and the Germanic God is fierce and a bit tragic.

4) Looking back further into mythological history, it’s interesting to note that the “thunder” gods were not the first instances of sky-powers that humans recognized.  Within the Greek pantheon, Zeus became the new sky god after defeating his father, Cronus–the Titan of Time–and dividing the world up with his two brothers, Poseidon and Hades.  They supposedly drew lots and Zeus got the sky, Poseidon took the seas, and Hades took the underworld (earth).

However, before all of this, there had been an earlier Sky entity, Ouranos/Uranus, who was actually the personfication of the sky itself, the consort of Gaia (mother earth), and the father of the titans.  Etymologically, Uranus came from a proto-indoeuropean root *ers that meant “to moisten,to drip” (related to our verb, to urinate! haha!) and he therefore was the “rainmaker” or the “fertilizer” according to his name.  This makes sense, in that the sky provides rain/water to fertilize the earth .

This original primeval sky god/power–who was more associated with rain/water and who physically was bound/a complement to the mother earth–was eventually overthrown by father time in an epic battle involving sky penis castration.  Thus, the primitive chaotic state of nature was subdued by the forces of time and history could begin.

Later on, as the next generation came around, Time itself was subdued and pushed into the background by the more anthropomorphic gods who then chose what parts of the universe to rule over.  Note–they weren’t actually physical manifestations of these elemental forces, but instead were personalities that had control over these forces and could use them to do their will and create their own stories.  Thus, we see a mythological progression where this second generation of “sky gods” aren’t really the sky itself anymore, but merely wear the sky as a kind of uniform or costume as they go about their business of godlike activities.

That’s at least where Zeus and Jupiter come into the story.. The early mythology of the Norse is both weirder and very different… involving fire, ice, giants, cows, and salt licks.  The differences in these early origin stories also show up in a number of other characteristics.  Thor’s connection to thunder, for example, is also far stronger than Zeus and Jupiter’s, in that his name literally means “thunder,” whereas their names mean “sky.”   Perhaps this had to do with the far greater occurrence of storms in the north, in comparison to the mediterranean–and also that the Germanic groups developed significantly later than the mediterranean ones.  One might further note that there is no “mother earth” character for the Germans, rather the earth of many worlds is constructed out of the flesh of a dead giant and connected by the world tree Yggdrasill. Thus, with no “mother earth,” there is no need for an earlier “father sky” entity.

Overall, it should not surprise us that humans from very different worlds constructed very different origin stories… each according to the climate they lived in and built upon the elements that structured their perceptions and experiences… Such an observation might help us understand which gods we create and worship today, whether it be media, the car gods, or the new superheroes of the movie screen…

About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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One Response to Time and Meaning Four: Thunder and the Personification of the Sky

  1. Pingback: Time and Meaning Five–The Poetry and Ambivalence of Mind | The Philosophy of NOM

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