Thor’s disgrace

Körmt and Örmt,
and the Kerlaugs twain:
these Thor must wade each day,
when he to council goes
at Yggdrasil’s ash;
for the As-bridge
is all on fire,
the holy waters boil.

Grimnismál 29 Bellows translation

This strophe is often interpreted very literally: Thor cannot pas the Bifrost bridge because is he to heavy, too plump and too ‘fiery’. I wonder if that is all that is to this line. There are some interesting references in other texts that may refer to something that you can call “Thor’s disgrace”. In other words: what did Thor do that he was no longer allowed to cross Bifrost?

In the Harbarthsjloth Thor is travelling back home and when he needs to pass a river, the boatsman Harbard (usually taken for Odin) refuses to take him over. This results in an amusing piece of “verbal fencing” (in the words of Dumézil) in which the following is said by Harbard:

“In Valland I was, and wars I raised,
Princes I angered, and peace brought never;
The noble who fall in the fight hath Othin,
And Thor hath the race of the thralls.”

(24, Bellows translation)

My Larrington translation makes of it: “and Thor has the breed of serfs”. Cottle makes it even stronger (and longer) by saying: “A servile, cringing, coward race | The banners of vile Thor disgrace.”

All good and well, but what then was this shame, this disgrace? The Lokasenna is a good place to look for clues. Loki says the following:

‘Your journeys in the east you should never
brag of before men,
since in the thumb of a glove you crouched cowering, you hero!
And that was hardly like Thor.’

(60, Larrington translation)

This refers to Thor and Loki going to Utgarda-Loki (Prose Edda) and when looking for a place to sleep, they found a cave that turned out to be a giant’s glove. Not too shamefull in itself, Thor even was quite ‘manly’ when he tried to kill the snoring giant when he found out it was one.

Another accusation of Loki then:

…strong leather straps you thought Skrymir had,
and you couldn’t get at the food,
and you starved, unharmed but hungry.’

(62 Larrington translation)

This also refers to the Utgarda-Loki adventure. This time Thor couldn’t open the giant’s bag to take out some food. This indeed doesn’t much add to the manlihood of Thor, but it is by far no big offence.

While reading H.R. Ellis Davidson’s Scandinavian Mythology (1969), I ran into a passage about Thor’s fishing for the Midgard serpent. Together with the giant Hymir, Thor sets out to sea with the head of Hymir’s greatest bull. Either or not on purpose (Ellis Davidson thinks so at least), Thor catches the Midgard serpent. Hymir gets so frightened that he cuts the line and the serpent gets away. Ellis Davison says: “One possible implication of the myth is that Thor lost the opportunity of slaying the serpent when he was about to do so, and that was a tragic failure, resulting in the destruction of the world at Ragnarok.” (p.60). That is quite something to say! Personally I cannot make from the story that Thor tries to catch the Midgard serpent in order to prevent Ragnarok, but more that he caught it accidentally (on the other hand, why the biggest bull’s head?). Also I don’t think that the ancient Germans would have thought that Ragnarok could have been prevented. My last argument against Ellis Davidson’s text is that she writes “resulting in the destruction of the world”, while the Midgard serpent represents the world. Should Thor have killed it, “becoming” would have ended even before Ragnarok!
Different interpretations of the same story, but at least it is mentioned as one of the possibilities of Thor’s disgrace.

About “becoming” and the serpent a scene from Ragnarok:

The glorious son of Earth,
Odin’s son, advances to fight against the serpent,
in his wrath the defender of earth strikes,
all men must leave their homesteads;
nine steps Fiorgyn’s son takes,
with difficulty, from the serpent of whom scorn is never spoken.

(Völuspa 56 Larrington translation)

This strophe is (also) translated in numerous ways. Larrington’s “with difficulty” suggests that there is a strange addition to the text. Some leave it untranslated. A nice interpretation of the happenings in this strophe is that Thor kills the Midgard serpent, “becoming”, the worlds that came out of Ginungagap. Being poisened by the serpent’s breath, Thor paces through all nine worlds, to fall over dead, being freed from shame, he finally re-won his honour, his heilagr.

Let us turn back to the Lokasenna for my last suggestion. The last strophe about Thor in the text is the following:

‘The son of Earth has now come in;
why are you raging so, Thor?
But you won’t be so daring as to fight against the wolf,
when he swallows up Odin.’

(58, Larrington translation)

The Völuspa only mentions that Odin fights the Fenrir wolf and Thor the world serpent. Loki suggests that Thor should have avenged his father, but didn’t. If this indeed what the case, this would have been a gigantic shame in the minds of the ancient Germans. Unfortunately I don’t know of other sources to further ground the suggestion, but the facts and suggestions give enough food for thought. It would be nice to find some parallels from ‘Thors’ in other mythologies (such as the Indian Indra), but unfortunately Dumézil doesn’t treat this subject in his Gods of the ancient Northmen.

One comment

  1. I just finished reading The Destiny Of The Warrior by Georges Dumézil (see book reviews section) in which a few interesting remarks are made. Dumézil says that it is only the “second function” that can sin, because the first function (Tyr/Odin) are one with Örlogr and the third function (Freyr/Freya) do everything for the benefit of man. This leaves the second function somewhere in the middle, divine, but not sinless. In his book, Dumézil describes the three sins of Indra (‘the Hindu Thor’), Starkadr (the ‘Thor warrior’ from Germanic mythology) and Hercules (‘the Greek Thor’). In this part Dumézil doesn’t mention much of Thor, but I can imagine that this could be a reference to what I called Thor’s disgrace. Written about more in length is Thor’s fight with the giant Hrungnir (an initiation combat in the eyes of Dumézil) which Thor easily wins because of a trick. Again some things to think about.

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