Mjolnir (Thor’s Hammer) Tattoo

A word that is probably more familiar to players of Halo (the popular combat video game), the actual name of this month’s tattoo symbol comes from Norse mythology. Mjölnir (pronounced myol-neer) is the hammer of Thor, the powerful and vibrant god of thunder, and it is an icon that has been used for centuries in connection with both power and protection.

Much of what we know about the pre-Christian religions of northern Europe comes from the rich prose and poetic literature of Scandinavia, where Christianity took root relatively late, around 1000 A.D. In those stories, Thor is invariably a colossal man with a red beard, a booming voice, and fiercely burning eyes. He strides around the Northern heavens with great gusto and energy, straightforward and fearless, preferring not to ride a horse like the other Norse gods but sometimes riding in a chariot pulled by goats.

Thor's Battle Against the Giants (1872) by Marten Eskil Winge

Thor’s Battle Against the Giants (1872) by Marten Eskil Winge

While Thor was the great protector of gods, men, and the right order of the world, he was also quite literally synonymous with thunder. Even as the rolling of his chariot would create the sound of the thunder, it was Mjölnir (or Crusher) that would create thunderbolts as he hurled it through the sky, assailing his enemies before it magically returned to him. Thor relied on the might of his right arm and Mjölnir to win the day and it was hailed by the other gods as their greatest treasure, knowing that it would keep them safe. In fact, the creation of the hammer amongst a host of other godly treasures explains its characteristically short handle.

The Stenkvista Rune stone of Södermanland.

The Stenkvista Rune stone of Södermanland.

According to Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241), an Icelandic historian and poet who wrote the Prose Edda, the story begins with Loki, the clever trickster god, who mischievously cuts off the golden hair of Thor’s wife. But realizing that he would bear the brunt of Thor’s anger, he found two skillful dwarfs that forged hair of real gold for her, but it was hair that also actually grew. The two dwarfs went on to make a magic ship for Freyr and a great spear for Odin. But always looking for something better, Loki found a second set of dwarfs to compete with the first, wagering that it would be so unthinkable that they could outdo the first, he would bet his own head. As the second pair of dwarfs started to create their incredible treasures (a boar with golden bristles that shined at night, a gold ring that could create nine other rings every ninth night), Loki began to worry that he might actually lose the bet. So, he turned himself into a fly and set about annoying the two smiths at their work. As Mjölnir was being forged, Loki stung one of the dwarfs on the eyelid, causing him to raise his hand at a critical moment, resulting in the shortened handle. Even so, the hammer never missed its mark and always returned to the hand of the thrower and was proclaimed the greatest treasure. With his usual cunning, however, Loki managed to keep his head, since he had never said his throat could be cut in order to take the head.

Drawing of a 4.6 cm gold-plated silver Mjölnir pendant found at Bredsätra on Ôland, Sweden.

Drawing of a 4.6 cm gold-plated silver Mjölnir pendant found at Bredsätra on Ôland, Sweden.

Many archaeological examples of Mjölnir amulets have been excavated throughout Scandinavia, generally dating from 800 to 1000 A.D. Buried with both men and women, they take various shapes that range from nearly an arrow shape, to a T-shape, and also a near-cross and were likely used as protective talismans – a practice that was ushered out by the arrival of Christianity. Likewise, stones carved with Thor’s hammer flourished in the same period, eventually giving way to stones with crosses.

Perhaps one of the most notable uses of the name Mjölnir in recent times, however, was its adoption by Nazi cartoonist Hans Schweitzer. Because he thought of his cartoons and posters as hammers that he flung against the enemies of National Socialism, he signed them with the name Mjölnir, prompting party propagandist Joseph Goebbels to compare his work to bombs. Indeed, the ancient swastika has sometimes been known as Thor’s hammer (although it may have begun as a swastika with curved arms associated with Odin, which in turn may have been adopted from the Romans, where the swastika had been associated with their highest deity, Jupiter). Because there is a history of Norse religious symbols connected with the Nazis, icons such as Thor’s hammer have found some modern use among neo-Nazis and white supremacists, as well as neo-pagans.

Today, the Mjölnir symbol is seeing a resurgence in the form of both tattoos and amulets. Because of its long religious use before Christianity, it can be seen as a hearkening back to the generically protective purposes it served then and its association with Thor, thunder, and lightning. It has thus been claimed by modern paganism, particularly Nordic paganism, as a pre-Christian symbol signifying their belief system. However, its association with Nazism, exceedingly brief as it was, has made it a symbol of that movement and its ideals as well (and as such is included in the database of the Anti-Defamation League). Seen as an isolated piece of art or a single tattoo, it is impossible to know which interpretation would fit. However, it is an ambiguity worth serious consideration as you research your tattoo symbol choices.

Mjolnir Tattoo

Mjolnir Tattoo


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