Thor goes fishing

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The story of Thor’s fishing trip is a well known and popular story in Norse literature and art.

Reference to the story appears in both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, as well as other poems, manuscript illustrations, and various rune stone carvings.

In the poem Hymiskviða, the Æsir gods had been hunting and after they ate their prey, they had an urge to drink. The gods decided that they would need to find suitable cauldrons and brew their ale at the sea jötunn, Ægir’s home.

Ægir is a sea jötunn associated with the ocean. He is also known for hosting elaborate parties for the gods.

Thor arrives at Ægir’s home and finds him to be cheerful, looks into his eyes, and tells him that he must prepare feasts for the gods. Annoyed, Ægir tells Thor that the gods must first bring to him a suitable cauldron to brew ale in.

Ægir with his wife Ran and nine daughters.
Ægir with his wife Ran and nine daughters.

The gods search but can find no such cauldron anywhere. However, the god Týr tells Thor that he may have a solution; east of Élivágar lives giant Hymir and he owns a kettle large enough.

Hymir is a giant, husband of the giantess Hroðr and according to the Eddic poem Hymiskviða the father of the god Týr. He is the owner of a mile-wide cauldron which the Æsir want to brew beer. 

Élivágar (Ice Waves) are rivers that existed in Ginnungagap at the beginning of the world.

So, after Thor secures his goats at Egil’s home, Thor and Týr go to Hymir’s hall in search of a cauldron large enough to brew ale for them all.

Egil is the name of a farmer who looked after Thor’s goats while the god was visiting the giant Hymir. Egil is possibly the father of Thor’s servants Þjálfi and Röskva.

'Thor and Tyr in their Goat-Drawn Chariot', 1925.
‘Thor and Tyr in their Goat-Drawn Chariot’, 1925.

They arrive, and Týr sees his nine-hundred-headed grandmother (Áma or Amma) and his gold-clad mother, the latter of which welcomes them with a horn. After Hymir—who isn’t happy to see Thor, because he threw a cup and broke it on Hymir’s head—comes in from the cold outdoors, Týr’s mother helps them find a properly strong cauldron. Thor eats a big meal of two oxen (all the rest eat but one), and then goes to sleep.

In the morning, he awakes and informs Hymir that he wants to go fishing the following evening, and that he will catch plenty of food, but that he needs bait. Hymir tells him to go get some bait from his pasture, which he expects should not be a problem for Thor. Thor goes out, finds Hymir’s best ox, and rips its head off to use for bait.

The name of the ox is Himinhrjód (“heaven-destroyer”) or Himinbrjoter (“sky-cleaver”).

The two fishermen go far out from land – both Eddas emphasize the great distance they row into the ocean. They row to a point where Hymir often sat and caught flat fish, where he drew up two whales, but Thor demands to go further out to sea, and does so despite Hymir’s warnings.

With the ox-head as bait at the end of his fishing-line, Thor snares the enormous, world-encircling serpent Jörmungand.

hymir

The thunder god struggles mightily to land the creature, pulling so hard on the line that his feet go through the bottom of the boat and push against the sea-bed.

Runestone showing Thor's foot going through the boat as he struggles to pull up Jörmungandr
Runestone showing Thor’s foot going through the boat as he struggles to pull up Jörmungandr

The thrashing of the serpent causes giant waves to crash over the boat and “all the ancient earth” to collapse, causing the giant Hymir to panic and cuts the line.

800px-thor_and_hymir
Thor goes fishing for the Midgard Serpent in this picture from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

As Jörmungand sinks back into the waters, Thor throws his mystic hammer into the water after the serpent.

This encounter between the god Thor, the giant Hymir, and the midgard serpent Jörmungand, seems to have been a very popular tale, because it appears in many motifs in Norse art.  The Altuna Runestone, the Ardre VIII image stone, the Hørdum stone, and the Gosforth Cross have all been linked with the tale of Thor fishing for Jörmungand, as well.

Sources:

  • Snorri Sturluson (Author), Jesse L. Byock  (Translator). The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Penguin Classics, 2006.
  • The Eddic poem Hymiskviða
  • The Eddic poem Völuspá.
  • The Skaldic poem Húsdrápa
  • The Altuna Runestone, (U 1161) 11th century Runestone located in Altuna, Uppland, Sweden. (see below)
  • The Ardre image stone VIII , 8th or 9th centuries located in Ardre, Gotland, Sweden. (see below)
  • The Hørdum stone, discovered in Hørdum, Denmark. (see below)
  • The Gosforth Cross at Gosforth (formerly part of the kingdom of Northumbria). (see below)
Statue of the Viking God Thor at Mariatorget
Featured image: (Tors fiske) Statue of the Viking God Thor at Mariatorget (Maria Square), a city park in Södermalm, Stockholm

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Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


Depictions of Thor fishing on: the Altuna Runestone, Ardre image stone VIII, Hørdum stone, and Gosforth Cross

The Altuna Runestone.

One side of the Altuna Runestone illustrates a legend recorded in the Hymiskviða of the Poetic Edda, in which the Norse god Thor fishes for Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent. Thor goes fishing with the jötunn Hymir using an ox head for bait, and catches Jörmungandr, who then either breaks loose or, as told in the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda, the line is cut loose by Hymir.

The Prose Edda provides the additional detail that while Thor was pulling on the line with Jörmungandr on the hook, his feet went through the bottom of the boat.  The image on the Altuna Runestone does not show Hymir, which may be due to the narrow shape of the stone, but it shows Thor, his line and tackle and the serpent, and notably, Thor’s foot which has been pushed through the hull of the boat.

altuna_picture_stone
Detail from Altuna Runestone showing Thor’s foot going through the boat as he struggles to pull up Jörmungandr.
altuna_u1161_andra_sidorna_20050205
The three other sides of the Altuna Runestone (U 1161).

The Ardre image stone VIII.

The largest and most noted of the Ardre image stones is the Ardre VIII stone,which dates to the 8th or 9th century. The stone depicts scenes from Norse mythology, notably the Lay of Weyland the smith, Thor fishing for Jörmungandr, the punishment of Loki for the death of Baldr, and Odin riding to Valhalla on Sleipnir.

Other images on this stone, such as the woman on the right with two swords, are not currently understood as they do not conform to any known Norse myth that has survived to the present time. The image-stone’s longboat motif with its mariners somewhat resembles a depiction found on the Överhogdal tapestry No. III from Härjedalen.

 Ardre rune stone VIII.
Ardre rune stone VIII.

The Hørdum stone.

The Hørdum stone was discovered in 1954 during trench work adjacent to the church in Hørdum. Before the historical significance of runestones and picture stones were understood, they were often reused as materials in the construction of roads, bridges, walls, and buildings. The image on the stone illustrates a legend recorded in the Hymiskviða of the Poetic Edda, in which the Norse god Thor fishes for Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent.

The image on the Hørdum stone shows Hymir, Thor, his fishing line and a portion of the serpent. Thor’s foot has been pushed through the hull of the boat. The ox head bait is not shown, but may have been on a section of the image that has been worn away. Hymir is depicted holding a tool, apparently in preparation to cut the fishing line, consistent with the version of the myth told in the Gylfaginning. It has also been suggested that an image of the head of the serpent can be seen in the natural fracture edges of the stone under the boat.

thorstenen_hoerdum_kirke
The Hørdum discovered in Hørdum, Thisted Municipality, North Denmark Region, Denmark, depicting Thor fishing for Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent.

The Gosforth Cross

The Gosforth Cross is a large stone Anglo-Saxon cross in St Mary’s churchyard at Gosforth in the English county of Cumbria. Formerly part of the kingdom of Northumbria, the area was settled by Scandinavians some time in either the 9th or 10th century. The cross itself dates to the first half of the 10th century. The cross shows scenes described in the Poetic Edda, such as:

  • Loki bound with his wife Sigyn protecting him.
  • The god Heimdallr holding his horn.
  • The god Víðarr tearing the jaws of Fenrir.
  • Thor’s failed attempt to catch Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent.

The cross also has Christian symbolism, including a depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. The combination of Christian and Norse pagan symbolism on the cross may be evidence of the use of pagan stories to illustrate Christian teachings.

The cross is 4.4 metres tall and made out of red sandstone. It is estimated to date from 920-950 and is still in fairly good condition.

Gosforth Cross outside St Mary's church in Gosforth. From the SW
Gosforth Cross outside St Mary’s church in Gosforth. From the SW
Engraving of a stone panel, possibly part of the second cross, showing Thor fishing.
Engraving of a stone panel, possibly part of the second cross, showing Thor fishing.

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Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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Njord Kane is an infantry and cavalry veteran who also served in law enforcement just prior to entering into the world of academia where he pursued the disciplines of military science, social psychology, and anthropology. Having left his profession, he now takes care of his adult autistic sons at home while passionately writing about early Norse and Mesoamerican culture and history at spangenhelm.com and readicon.com. Kane is also the author of numerous books including, The Vikings, The Maya, and The Viking Hero Series.

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