Monday, 28 May 2018
The Northern European Thunder God
Much can be learned about the religious beliefs of our pre-Christian Germanic ancestors by exploring the mythologies and folklore of neighbouring peoples such as the Balts, Slavs and Celts. Indeed we should not confine ourselves to just exploring Indo-European belief systems but also of those other peoples who share our northern European living space such as the Finns, Estonians and Sami. The similarities between the beliefs of the northern Indo-Europeans and the Finno-Ugric peoples is due to two factors: cultural exchange and an ancient common racial inheritance.
For the purpose of this article I intend to focus on one particular example-the northern European Thunder God. Our knowledge of the Germanic Thunor/Thunar/Donar/Thor is limited to primary sources such as the Poetic and Prose Eddas and secondary sources such as folklore and place name evidence. By exploring how this God was viewed by neighbouring peoples we can enrich our knowledge of this most important deity.
In Finland the Thunder God was known by various names, one of which was Tuuri. Tuuri is less well known than Ukko (derived from the Finnish word for thunder, Ukkonen) but at one time was considered to be the same axe and hammer wielding Thunder God. Over time He was relegated to the status of being a God of the harvest, luck and success and became effectively a separate being. Interestingly the modern Finnish word tuuri means luck. There is a village called Tuuri in Alavus, western Finland which appears to have been named after Him. Tuuri's name is cognate with the Estonian Taara who is likewise a Finno-Ugric Thunder God.
Those of you who are interested in Celtic mythology will no doubt have noticed the similarity between Tuuri and the Irish Thunder God Tuireann. Likewise there is an apparent similarity between Taara and the Celtic Taranis. Taranis was not confined to the British Isles but appears to have been a pan-Celtic deity, also worshipped in Gaul and Gallaecia, the Roman name for the north western part of Iberia. Taranis was part of the Celtic triad of Gods with Esus and Teutates. Triads of deities are a common feature in Celtic and Germanic mythology and of course the number 3 is significant in the symbolism and mythologies of the Indo-European peoples, representing the tripartite division of both divine and human societies. Taranis is derived from the Proto-Celtic word for thunder, *Toranos. Likewise the Germanic peoples also personified thunder as their (at one time) primary deity *Thunraz.
My recent studies of the extant heathen beliefs and customs of the Chuvash of the Russian Federation have revealed two very important aspects of their belief system, Vattisen Yaly (meaning 'Tradition of the Old'), the world tree (the Keremet) and their primary sky deity, Tura! Although speakers of a Turkic language their DNA is primarily a mix of Finno-Ugric and Slavic with a hint of Germanic and Turkic! This is reflected in the wide spectrum of facial profiles amongst the Chuvash. The worship of Tura and the centrality of the world tree in their belief system are reminiscent of course of our own Germanic mythology.
Also related to the Germanic Thor is the Sami Thunder God, Horagelles, derived from 'Thor karl' or 'Thor kalle' (Thor- fellow). The Finnish epic The Kalevala, a collection of Finnish and Karelian oral myths and songs also refers to Thor several times in Rune 47. It should be noted that the word ‘Rune’ in the context of The Kalevala refers to songs rather than the Runes as symbols. They were spoken or sung utterances. Likewise in our own Germanic system the term ‘Rune’ actually means the whispering of a secret rather than the Rune stave itself. There is thus the connotation of oral transmission of secret or esoteric knowledge.
As already stated Ukko is a far better known deity than Tuuri and His name is equated with Perkele which means 'devil' in modern Finnish. This is no doubt the result of the demonisation of this important deity by the Christian church. What the church did not incorporate into their own mythology they demonised! It is more than likely that Perkele was His original name and its similarity to the Slavic and Baltic Thunder Gods should be noted. The Baltic variants Perkonis (Prussian), Perkunis (Lithuanian), Perkons (Latvian) and the Slavic variants Pyerun (Russian), Perunu (Old Russian), Piorun (Polish) and Perun (Czech) show a marked etymological common origin. They are all traceable to the reconstructed PIE *Perkunos as is the Germanic Fjorgyn (the mother of Thor). I believe that the Sanskrit rain God Parjanya may also be derived from *Perkunos but scholars are divided over this issue.
Breaking down the elements of *Perkunos we get some valuable details about this God. Firstly *perkus-oak. The oak tree is considered sacred to the Thunder God, no doubt because of its susceptibility to being struck by lightning due to its comparative tallness and high moisture content. The prefix *per has the meaning of 'strike' which of course is what the club, axe or hammer of the Thunder God does. Closely related to these two terms is *pelekus, PIE for 'axe'. The axe, not the hammer was the original weapon of the Anglo-Saxon/Saxon Thunor/Thunar. “Se thunor hit thryscedh mid theare fyrenan aecxe” translated into modern English as “Thunor threshes with a fiery axe.” (Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn). The origins of the thunder axe can be traced back to the Neolithic and it is extremely interesting that the symbol of the axe can be found at Stonehenge. Seventy one axe engravings appear on five of the mighty sarcens. This should not surprise us as phases II and III of the building of Stonehenge is the product of incoming Indo-European peoples into Britain. The dominant culture at the time of phase III was the Wessex Culture, a highly aristocratic warrior culture as evidenced by the Bush Barrow burial find, consisting of a gold lozenge breast plate, three bronze daggers, a bronze axe, a helmet and a sceptre of rare fossiliferous limestone from Devon. Clearly this magnificent monument was dedicated by the Indo-Europeans to their supreme sky deity who we know as the Thunder God.
Whilst the thunder axe morphed into a hammer amongst the Germanic tribes the Balts, Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples retained the weapon as an axe in their mythologies and folklore. However even more ancient than either axe or hammer is the thunder stone, the original projectile of the Thunder God. Amongst the Anglo-Saxon peasantry a whole array of different types of fossils, flints, stones, belemnites and ammonites were used and carried as amulets for protection against lightning. Naturally holed stones known as holey stones, hag stones and Odin stones were hung on nails in barns and houses for protection. According to the scholars J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams in The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World the Proto-Indo-Europeans believed that they lived under a stone vault and stone axes fell from the sky so this belief is extremely ancient indeed. They state that the Lithuanian Perkuno akmuo-thunder stone means literally Perkuna's stone! Thus we have three important elements in the term *Perkunos-the oak, the axe and stone, all integral aspects of the mythology of the northern Indo-European Thunder God.
There are many aspects of the worship of the Baltic Perkonis/Perkunis/Perkons that can be incorporated into the worship of our own Thunor/Thor such as the placing of brass or bronze images of the God under oak trees or on remote hill tops. On our own household altars a perpetual fire can be lighted and maintained before an oaken image. Such practises can help to deepen our own faith and daily walk with the Gods of our ancestors. By showing honour and devotion to the Gods in these small ways we will inevitably reap their blessings and enjoy their protection.
Due to the comparatively late christianisation of the Baltic lands in the 15th century a great deal of genuine heathen lore has been retained amongst the Lithuanians and Latvians and I believe that much of this lore can help us to understand our own heathen Germanic heritage if we recognise that there are common elements of belief amongst the various Indo-European peoples.
The Divine Thunderbolt. Missile of the Gods, J.T. Sibley
The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams
Stonehenge: The Indo-European Heritage/Stonehenge and the Origins of Western Culture, Bruce Kraig and Leon, E Stover
Stonehenge City: A Reconstruction, Leon. E Stover
Stonehenge of the Kings, Patrick Crampton
Perun: The God of Thunder, Mark Yoffe
Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Rudolf Simek
Comparative Mythology, Jaan Puhvel
A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Pagan Celtic Britain, Anne Ross
The Poetic Edda
The Prose Edda