Thor’s Hammer

When my son was six months old, I bought him a Nerf Thor’s Hammer. Why? Because I love the character of Thor, both in the comics and in Norse myth. I’m a huge nerd. My wife thought I was crazy. Not because she isn’t a huge nerd (she doesn’t like comics as much as I do, but she still likes them), but because he was six months old. And we did have to take it away from him for a while, right after he learned to walk. Because the hammer became his “doggie wacker”.

Skip forward about four and a half years, now. I’m getting ready to do my exercises for the night. My son’s excited about this, because he enjoys “helping” me with my exercises – something that, in his mind, means “doing them with daddy, or running in circles around daddy while he does them, or playing in the same room”. But he’s swinging his hammer around, and he declares: “I’m going to exercise with this!”

I chuckle. “You’re going to exercise with Mjollnir?”

“No,” he corrects me. “I’m going to exercise with Thor’s hammer!”

I laugh at that. “Thor’s hammer is named Mjollnir.”

He stops and looks at me. “Why?”

To try and answer that, I started by going to the closest things to primary sources I could think of: the Elder (Poetic) Edda and the Younger (Prose) Edda. Sadly, although they mention Mjollnir in several places, they don’t tell the meaning of the name. The closest they get is the Skaldskaparmal () in the Prose Edda, which describes the creation of the hammer and describes it’s properties:

Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.

Since that didn’t help, I started searching. The Online Etymology Dictionary provided this:

Odin’s eldest son, strongest of the gods though not the wisest, c.1020, from Old Norse Þorr, literally “thunder,” from *þunroz, related to Old English þunor (see ‘thunder’ (n.)). His weapon was the hammer mjölnir (“crusher”).”

“Crusher”. That’s promising, but it doesn’t really say where the name came from. But there’s this reference from Lightning: Nature and Culture, written by Doctor Derek M. Elsom, Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University:

In Norse mythology Thor’s hammer is known as Mjolnir (or Mjollnir), a distinctively shaped weapon more akin to an axe than a hammer. The etymology of ‘Mjolnir’ is uncertain, but it is probably related to Old Norse mala (meaning grind), or molva (meaning crush), with possible cognates in the Russian molnija or Welsh mellt (both refer to lightning). Lightning is associated with the hammer, although the mythical narratives focus on the striking blow it delivers and the powers it possesses rather than the fire or light of lightning.

So, that seems to verify the meaning as “grinder” or “crusher” as well as anything can, although Norse Mythology for Smart People speculates it could “also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, ‘new snow,’ and mjalli, ‘white,’ the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity.” Which is interesting, in light of this further quote from Dr. Elsom’s book:

For many Scandinavians the protective powers of Mjolnir were considered so special that Thor’s axe became a symbol used in the blessing of objects (such as ships), births, marriages, deaths and the binding of oaths. Even after Christianity replaced the old gods, it was customary in some parts of Scandinavia for the groom to carry an axe at his wedding ceremony and in Germany it was auspicious for the bride if a thunderstorm occurred during the ceremony.

Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the name Mjolnir is “derived from a Proto-Germanic form *meldunjaz, from the Germanic root of *malanan ‘to grind’ (*melwan, Old Icelandic meldr, mjǫll, mjǫl ‘meal, flour’), yielding an interpretation of ‘the grinder; crusher’.” That tallies well with the fact that “Thor ruled over all the features of the atmosphere, not just thunder, lightning and storms, but the life-giving rains and the winds that propelled ships across the seas” (Dr. Elsom, again).

So here’s my totally-not-a-linguist-or-expert-in-Norse-religion take on it:  Mjolnir was probably a thunderstone, one of the flint arrowheads and axes that were believed to have fallen from the skies. Because Thor was associated with life-giving rains as well as storms, the stones became associated with grindstones as well. So, next time you eat bread, imagine lightning striking the grain to make flour. It’ll make your peanut butter sandwich far more epic.

(I really don’t have the time to get into [i]that[/i] here, but if you’re curious a good place to start is The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore: A Study in Comparative Archaeology. It’s a dated but fascinating read.)