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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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