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Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Survival of the Cult of Thunor in Place-Name, Folklore, Stone and Saga


It is interesting how our native racial Gods survived following the coming of xtianity and the heathen holocaust in both Britain and Europe. Sometimes our ancient law and Gods are hidden away in the sub-text of xtian monkish writings; at other times they are more openly displayed. This is particularly the case with Thunor, a God much beloved and relied upon by the people. He not only was the defender of Middangeard but the bringer of the fruitful  rains, thus a God of both the second and third functions or castes and attracted a large following. He was particularly beloved in Iceland which had many temples dedicated to Him. His name survives in the English landscape, examples being:

Thunderfield (Thunor's Plain) from  Þunresfeld.

Thunderley Hall (Hall at Thunor's Clearing) from Tunresleam.

Thundersley (Thunor's Clearing) from Thunreslea.

Thursley (Thunor's Clearing) from Thoresle.

Thundridge (Thunor's Ridge) from Tonrinch.

Thurstable (Thunor's Pillar) from Thurstapell.

Tusmore (Thur's Pool) from Toresmere.

Thunderlow Hundred (Thunor's Mound) from Þûnor + hlæw.


In addition to place name survival we also have the remarkable synthesis of Germanic heathen imagery with xtian imagery on Anglo-Saxon stone crosses and slabs. The Gosforth Cross is such an example. Gosforth is in the ancient English county of Cumberland which was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The cross in the churchyard of St Mary's Church dates back to between 920-950 CE and is constructed of sandstone. This area was subject to Scandinavian settlement between the 9th and 10th centuries CE and doubtless these Germanic images were the product of these settlers rather than the Angles that arrived centuries earlier and who would have been xtianised by then. Nevertheless it demonstrates a certain tolerance by the xtian church at that time and a lasting regard for Thunor/Thor and our other deities. The cross depicts the attempt by Thor to catch the world serpent but also it has images of the binding of Loki, Heimdall blowing His horn and Vidar tearing at the jaws of the Fenris Wolf.

In the ruins of an old church in Ottrava, Vastergotland, Sweden an old font was discovered in the 19th century which became the focal point of a book by Professor George Stephens-Thunor the Thunderer, carved on a Scandinavian font of about the year 1000. Again it is remarkable how despite the general intolerance of the xtian fanatics Thunor/Thor enjoyed a greater degree of tolerance than many of our other deities. He was far too beloved by the mass of people for the Church to successfully eradicate or demonise.

Even after the peaceful conversion to xtianity in Iceland many of the people still worshipped the old Gods but had to do so privately. This example of tolerance is unique and I am not aware of any similar accommodation in the Germanic world but one must bear in mind that if the Icelanders had not voted to accept xtianity at their Allthing in 1000 CE the might and terror of the king of Norway would have raged against them and they would have lost their precious independence, something which this small but remarkable people still treasure today.

An interesting account of the continuation of the Cult of Thor is contained in Eirik the Red's Saga in which Thorhall (a devotee of Thor) and his xtian shipmates were washed ashore and starving and Thorhall after discovering a beached whale said: "Didn't Old Redbeard prove to be more help than your Christ? This was the payment for the poem I composed about Thor, my guardian, who's seldom disappointed me." Unfortunately his ungrateful shipmates were subsequently poisoned by the whale-meat!

We have many direct and indirect references to Thunor in English folklore:

"It is well known in England, and also in Germany, that no witch can step over a besom laid along the threshold of the house door on the inside. She will kick it or push it aside before she can enter your house, and by this token you may know her for what she is. An axe[Thor`s weapon] and a broom are laid crosswise on the innerside of the threshold over which the nurse has to step when she goes out with an infant to have it christened. This is done that the babe may be safe from all the devices of the powers of evil." (Curiosities of Indo-European Folklore, Walter Keating Kelly, 1863)

In folktales we have the example of Jack and the Beanstalk in which Jack is the giant-killer, Thunor. 
There is a surviving tale of an encounter between the `Devil` and Thor recorded in In Search of the Lost Gods. A Guide to British Folklore by Ralph Whitlock (1979). A legend from Treyford Hill near Midhurst in west Sussex refers to an argument between the `Devil` and Thor whose sleep was disturbed by the `Devil` leaping from barrow to barrow on the hill. The `Devil` taunted him by saying that Thor "was too old to go jumping about in this way." Thor thus flung a rock which caught the `Devil` in his midriff. It is certainly unusual to see the two beings on separate sides which could be an indication of a remembrance of a local cult to Thor or Thunor and that even with the xtian conversion His followers still stayed loyal to him.

In folklore there is an abiding superstition that a girl can dream of her future husband by placing her shoes in the form of a T by her bed at Hallowe'en. The 'T' of course represents the Hammer of Thunor/Thor. (See Whitlock).

In the Germanic lands there is a tradition that Belemnites are missiles shot down from the thunder-cloud and have all sorts of beneficial uses such as stroking the udders of cows when they go dry in order to produce more milk which reminds me of how in tales of Indra the clouds are personified as cows trapped in caves.

1 comment:

Rayne said...

Is it possible that some of the monks from the Dark Ages were less hostile to pagan gods and may have been interested in them?