How a Viking Amulet Solved the Mystery of Thor's Hammer
In 2014, archaeologists solved a long-running mystery through the discovery of a 10th century Viking artifact resembling Thor’s Hammer. Before then, they were only working with a hunch about the 1,000-plus ancient amulets that had been found across Northern Europe.
The Prominence of Mjölnir Amulets
The relics, known as the Mjölnir (Mjöllnir) amulets, appear to depict hammers, which historians have linked to the Norse god Thor. However, this could not be concluded with certainty for a very long time as their shapes are not conclusive and none of them contained inscriptions revealing their identity.
But things changed in 2014, when one amulet was found with a clear indication describing what the pendant is trying to depict. That artifact was found in Købelev, on the Danish island of Lolland. It was the first of its kind to be discovered with an inscription.
The runic text reads “Hmar x is”, which translates to “this is a hammer”. Cast in bronze, and likely plated with silver, tin, and gold, the 1,100-year-old pendant shows that Thor’s myth deeply influenced Viking jewelry.
The rare rune-inscribed Mjöllnir amulet. Credit: National Museum of Denmark.
“This is the only hammer-shaped pendant with a runic inscription. And it tells us that (the pendants) in fact depict hammers,” Henrik Schilling, a spokesperson at the National Museum of Denmark, said about the find.
Featuring an interlacing decoration on one side of the hammer head and the short runic inscription on the other, the Mjölnir amulet discovered in 2014 is believed to have been made by a local craftsmen. Fragments of silver needles and a mold for making pendants indicate that the jewelry was produced in a silversmith’s workshop on Lolland island.
Another example of a rare Thor’s hammer amulet was found in 2018 in the breath-taking Þjórsárdalur valley in the south of Iceland. That artifact is special because it is the first known example of a stone amulet in the shape of Thor’s hammer. That Mjölnir amulet also has a slightly different style than others and archaeologists believe that it shows the influence the emergence of Christianity had over some Norse cults.
The stone Thor’s hammer amulet. (Fornleifastofnun Íslands)
Thor’s Hammer was Once a Symbol of Pagan Defiance
According to Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing, healing, and fertility. Thor is a prominent god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic peoples.
He has accompanied people from the Roman occupation of the regions of Germania, to the tribal expansions of the Migration Period, to his high popularity during the Viking Age, when, in the face of the process of the Christianization of Scandinavia, the Mjölnir amulets were worn in defiance. Norse pagan personal names containing the name of Thor also bear witness to his popularity.
Etching by Hugo Hamilton, depicting the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen Ansgar the preaching Christianity to the ‘heathen’ Swedes. (Public Domain)
Amulets in the shape of Thor’s hammer were also believed to protect their owners and they were extremely popular. These type of amulets were also often buried with Viking warriors. For example, such pendants have been found in a mass grave of members of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England in the 9th century AD.
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Beliefs about Thor’s Hammer
The name of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, means “lightning”. This is a clear reference to one of the ancient Norse god’s powers. In fact, people once believed that Thor’s hammering caused thunder and lightning during storms . Mjölnir also allegedly had the power to level mountains.
Thor’s hammer was a magical weapon and it always returned to the deity after he threw it, like a boomerang. It was certainly with the god as he battled his enemies and defeated monsters, but it also served him in other ways. For example, one popular story including Thor using Mjölnir in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda says that a hungry Thor killed and ate his goats, then hallowed their bones with his magical hammer to bring them back to life again. Thor’s hammer was very useful tool indeed!
Another story tells of Thor being dressed as a bride when he pretended to agree to marry a giant because a group of giants had stolen Mjölnir. He knew that the hammer would be used in the marriage ceremony and stole it back then promptly used it against his enemies.
It is believed that the ancient Norsemen did actually use relics in the shape of Thor’s hammer in rituals to consecrate marriages, births, and funerals. The beating of drums using items that symbolized their favored god’s hammer also took place to protect communities from evil spirits.
With the prominence of Thor’s hammer in Norse myth and the great symbolism it held, it makes sense that amulets shaped like Mjölnir were so popular.
Top Image: Thor's silver Hammer (Mjolnir) pendant on a chain. Source: Olga Makukha /Adobe Stock
Updated on July 16, 2020.