In my review of True Monsters yesterday, I noted that America Unearthed host Scott Wolter and another of the show’s so-called “experts” on mythology claimed that the Norse god Thor was a real warrior who wielded a piece of electrically-charged technology made from a magnetic meteorite that the ignorant Norse peasants mistook for a magical hammer, Mjölnir. I criticized this view as overly elaborate rationalization, and noted that the hammer is almost certainly a local form of the widespread thunder-weapon wielded by Indo-European thunder gods like Zeus, Teshub, Indra, and others. But it did make me think about where the show got this idea.
To understand this, we should dispense with the real story: The name of the hammer comes from a term for grinding, and it refers to the great mill believed to grind in the heavens, producing the revolution of the stars. This mill of heaven is a cross-cultural myth found in nearly every Indo-European mythology. Both the Russian and Hittite versions of the storm god, for example, wielded grindstones as their thunder-weapons, while in other cultures the sun or sky god had the honor. The confusion with a hammer arose from an Old Norse word, hamarr, which originally meant a stone (as in the grindstone), but which later became the word for hammer in the modern sense. Its Sanskrit cognate, tellingly, means both “hammer” and “thunderbolt.” Calvert Watkins, the late Indo-European linguist, suggests in How to Kill a Dragon (1995) that the Proto-Indo-European antecedent word might have meant “meteor” in distantly ancient times, but he says there is no evidence for it.
So how did this hammer become associated with a meteor? It seems that the idea that the hammer was literally a meteor on a stick wielded by an Iron Age warrior belongs to the show’s “experts,” but they are drawing on a half-understood claim that did in fact associate the hammer with meteors. This comes from two different lines of inquiry that converged together. The first is that in relatively modern times, Scandinavians referred to meteorites as both thunderstones and broken pieces of Thor’s hammer, figuratively identifying stones that fall from heaven with the god on high through the connection between the sounds of meteors breaking into the atmosphere with the similar sound of thunder. This seems to be a later reflex of the popular tradition that meteors were memorials of Thor, as reported in the nineteenth century by Benjamin Thorpe in Northern Mythology. According to him, Swedes considered space rocks to have been tossed about and placed by Thor, the only being strong enough to lift the dense and heavy stones. He notes that these traditions, however, are modern and were current as of 1851.
The second and most important line of reasoning is that worldwide there was a cult of meteor worship which associated these space rocks with the gods in heaven. In Greece, for example, several meteorites were associated with Zeus’s thunder-weapon, which were recorded by the Greek historians. A prime examples is given in Photius’s summary of Damascius’ Life of Isidore (Library, codices 181 and 242; conveniently translated here). This line of inquiry I found particularly fascinating, and in researching it I discovered a terrific little article from 1896 that lays out the case for ancient people’s mistaken association of meteorites with the gods, which, incidentally, also offers a more parsimonious explanation for a good chunk of the ancient astronaut theory’s claims that such stories of fire from heaven were inspired by flying saucers. I’ve posted the full article in my Library.
As much as I wish I could leave the story there, sadly, I did find the exact source that inspired True Monsters and Scott Wolter. It’s our old friend Robert Graves, the poet who raised his own euhemerism to the level of revealed truth in his bestselling 1950s works of mythology. Well, sort of. The connection is a bit indirect. The real source is a French book he put his name on to help sell copies. In the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1935; English translation, 1959), which became a hit in the 1960s thanks to Graves’s name on the cover of the English translation of the French work (he wrote the introduction), we read: “In origin this hammer was doubtless a meteorite which, they imagined, had fallen with a thunderbolt during a storm.” This isn’t a fact but the French authors’ rationalization, based on the material I discussed above. Their speculation is that if ancient hammers were really rocks, and Thor threw his hammer from heaven, then a rock that fell from heaven must have given rise to the myth of the hammer.
This encyclopedia is a favorite source of fringe history cable shows, and I have more than once discovered some of its eccentric interpretations turning up as indisputable “fact.” Graham Hancock, for example, relied on it for his understanding of Norse mythology in Fingerprints of the Gods, where he misunderstood Ragnarok as occurring in the distant past, because the encyclopedia bizarrely gives the events of that future apocalypse in the past tense. (This is probably due to the complex way French handles tenses, which do not map perfectly onto English, but I do not have the French edition to check.) I’ve also seen its claims end up on Ancient Aliens.
To be fair, the French authors were not the first to tie Mjölnir to meteors. An article in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology did the same (briefly) in 1933, and as I mentioned, the 1896 article referenced above implied the same.
Anyway, it’s another case of “experts” parroting information from their sources without understanding the underlying material.
11/1/2015 09:59:19 am
In Chinese martial arts there is a weapon called the meteor hammer, I wonder if the English entomology has anything to do with these ideas. (I have no idea if the Chinese name is the same. Usually they aren't.)
The troll Krampus
11/1/2015 10:37:55 am
According to this site, the name element "mjall" means "fresh, powdery snow". But I figure the connection to a stone is actually hail. Perhaps meteors too. But the deity who wields the weapon is a storm god, something that is noticeable in the sky as clouds, thunder, lightning, and hail, as apposed to meteors. Meteors just fall with no warning. That is not to say that meteors were not attributed to the storm god though as you've pointed out meteors being attributed as memorials to Thor in Scandinavia.
11/1/2015 04:16:37 pm
According to the old Cleasby & Vigfusson Icelandic Dictionary, mjöll (with two Ls) is powdery snow, but mjöl (with one L) is flour. To confuse matters, some manuscripts spell Thor's hammer as Mjölnir, others as Mjöllnir. I have no idea whether we have a sequence of meanings from an ancient word for "cloud" to both "powdery snow" and "flour"- and from the latter to mola ("mill / grind"), or in the opposite direction.
11/1/2015 11:25:42 am
When Scott Wolter can be called a "historian" on History Channel's Pirate/Templar debacle and declare to all that St. Anthony was the patron saint of thieves... is there any doubt that he has become a near constant source of misinformation for a viewing public that somehow believes it can get an education from a television set.
11/1/2015 01:49:21 pm
Steve St. Clair, where are you? Are you asleep? Someone has the gall to make a disparaging remark about Scott Wolter. Leap, and I mean, leap to his defense.
11/1/2015 01:56:30 pm
Wolter is sounding more and more like the idiots on Ancient Aliens if he is now making theories that involve the euhemerision of Nordic gods.
11/1/2015 04:50:44 pm
Surely I am not the only one who fully expects Wolter to show up as "expert" on AA next season.
11/2/2015 11:47:05 am
I'm sure he'd rather follow his buddy Alan Butler to Oak Island, but as that's also produced by Prometheus, and not Wolter's standby Committee Films, you won't see Wolter on either Oak Island or Ancient Aliens. So he's left begging for scraps on True Monsters; which is of course produced by Committee Films.
11/1/2015 02:00:34 pm
Huh, I did not know that about the grindstones. Perhaps that association might explain the shape of the quite ancient type of amulet known as the "Thor's Hammer"? It's been relatively recently (last July) confirmed by archeology that these were indeed representations of Mjollnir, but the pointed shape doesn't resemble an actual hammer, especially not a war-hammer, in the slightest. Maybe the shape in part comes from an older symbol representing a hand-mill or grindstone? A domed shape seems to have been common, according to Google Image Search.
11/1/2015 02:23:54 pm
On Wikipedia's page about Mjölnir, according to reference , the Hittite word /malatt-/ could mean "(sledge)hammer, bludgeon, cudgel, club, mace"; the Russian word /molot/ "(sledge)hammer".
11/1/2015 04:10:19 pm
Welcome to the world of meteorites, and asteroid and comet impacts, and their effects on man as reflected in ancient religions, as seen in the archaeological and ethnographic record.
11/1/2015 04:26:14 pm
I've reported on this before, but I think it's important to note that there is a big difference between integrating meteors into mythology and, as some fringe theorists like Alan Alford propose, making them the central cause of religion. Down to the 19th century, some European churches displayed meteors as religious wonders, but that doesn't make Christ into a space rock.
11/1/2015 09:34:46 pm
Nonsense. Thor's hammer was forged in the heart of a dying star, as was proven in the 2011 documentary film "Thor" directed by researcher Kenneth Brannagh.
11/2/2015 12:12:29 pm
I saw that documentary. It has the delightful Mythology Expert Natalie Portman giving some mind blowing explanations of Viking history and Norse religion.
Ark the seagull
11/2/2015 08:17:24 pm
+5 against dragons, that stuff, you definitely want your warhammer made of that
11/3/2015 10:35:28 am
you know this thing with the dying star is also the explanation in marvel comics.and you know it would be pretty cool if it was a meteorite and it might be you know we say a falling star and we mean meteor if you consider the fact that most peaple then believed that it was made in the core of an almost dead star maybe they created the story because of that what i said the up line or maybe not .Also i will have a meteoric hammer or mace or both
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