Thanks to Marvel Comics and their movies, Thor is probably the best-known of the Norse gods. As his many fans know, he was the god of thunder and wielded the magical hammer Mjolnir. While Thor is most often associated with the Vikings, he actually dates all the way back to the time of the ancient Romans.

Who was Thor?
Thor was the son of Odin and his lover Jord. Odin, the ruler of the gods, was married to Frigg or Frigga, and they had several sons: Baldur, Bragi, Hermod, Hoder, and Tyr. Thor himself eventually married Sif, the goddess of fertility. Like his father, he took a mistress. Her name was Jarnsaxa, and they had a daughter named Thrud and two sons named Modi and Magni.

Thor was one of the Aesir or major gods in Norse mythology, and he lived on Asgard. In addition to being the god of thunder, Thor was associated with storms, fertility, war, strength, and oak trees. The day Thursday (Thor’s day) was named after him. Thor was also a defender of mankind and of his fellow gods, which made him one of the more popular deities in the Norse pantheon.

Stories about Thor
As one of the more popular gods, Thor appeared in many stories – and not all of them were flattering.

The comic poem, “Thrymskivda” (Lay of Thrym), for example, starts with Thor waking up to find Mjolnir missing. With Loki’s help, he eventually tracks down the thief, a jotun (giant) called Thrym who wants to marry the goddess Freyja. She naturally refuses, and Loki comes up with the idea of having the big and burly Thor dress up as Freyja, while Loki posed as Freyja’s handmaiden. Thor very reluctantly goes along with the plan and, and he and Loki eventually present themselves at Thrym’s hall. Thor eventually retrieves Mjolnir and promptly uses the hammer on Thrym and his friends.

Another myth explained how Thor acquired Mjolnir. Loki, the god of mischief, loved to play pranks, and some of them were juvenile and mean. On one occasion, he cut off Sif’s hair while she was sleeping. Thor was furious and threatened to kill Loki if he didn’t replace her hair. Loki went to the dwarves of Svartalfheim, who were famous for their prowess as smiths and craftsmen. He challenged the dwarves to prove who was the best smith among them by making several magical items for various gods. Not only did the dwarves make new golden hair for Sif, they also crafted the hammer Mjolnir. The hammer became such a prominent and well-known symbol for Thor that the Vikings used hammers in many of their religious rites, especially when they sought protection from evil forces. They even used hammers to bless marriages.

In another myth, Thor and Loki decided to travel Utgard, a stronghold of the giants ruled by the wily Utgard-Loki. He challenged Thor and his companions to a series of contests. Utgard-Loki seemed to want to humiliate Thor, for he challenged him to do things like pick up a giant cat and wrestle an old woman. To Thor’s chagrin, he and his companions lost each contest badly. It wasn’t until they were about to leave that Utgard-Loki confessed the truth: He had pitted Thor and the others against opponents they could not hope to defeat. The cat, for example, was actually the Midgard Serpent Jörmungand disguised through magic. The old woman Elli was the personification of old age, and nobody can defeat that.

Utgard-Loki also admitted that he had been impressed by Thor’s efforts.

What is Ragnarök?
Ragnarök is a cataclysmic future event that involves various natural disasters and a colossal battle. The word comes from the Old Norse for “fate of the gods.” During the battle, all of the gods’ enemies attack at the same time. Those enemies include the inhabitants of Jotunheim and Muspelheim, Jormungand, the great wolf Fenrir, and Loki. Different sets of enemies will pair off and fight each other to the death, often killing one another in the process. Thor, for example, will fight Jormungand and slay it, only to die from the gigantic serpent’s venom moments later. A new world will then arise from the ashes of the old. The survivors, including Thor’s sons Modi and Magni, will rebuild their lives in the new world.

Do people still worship Thor?
Yes. While Christianity largely supplanted belief in the old Norse gods, belief in them persisted in some areas. The Vikings didn’t have an actual name for their religious traditions until they encountered Christianity. Afterward, they called worship of the Norse gods “Forn Sidr” (old way) in contrast to Christianity, which they described as the new way. Modern believers call their religion “Asatro.” A majority of worshippers live in Denmark, but some also live in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and even the United States.

Who decided to turn Thor into a superhero?
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, respectively a writer and an artist for Marvel Comics, introduced Thor as a superhero way back in 1962. A year later, they made Thor one of the founding members of the Avengers, along with Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Wasp.

How faithful are the comics to the myths?
Not very. Lee and Kirby may have been fans of Norse mythology, but that didn’t stop them from playing fast and loose with it. For starters, the superhero Thor is blond and usually clean-shaven, while the mythological Thor has red hair and a beard. In the comics and movies, Thor loves the mortal Jane Foster, and Sif is simply a friend and fellow warrior. In the myths, Thor and Sif are married. The superhero Thor uses Mjolnir to help him fly, while the mythological Thor drives a chariot pulled by two giant goats.