Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

When the Norse God Thor and Our Lord Met in Battle

Do they return to idols? Do they recover, taking up the spaces left free by the Church of Christ, characteristic aspects of the pagan world?

A few days after the Amazon Synod, the Pachamama Synod — from the fetish depicting “Mother Earth,” which between 6 and 27 October was the center of ceremonies not far from the tomb of the apostle Peter — Iceland holds our attention. In the outskirts of Reykjavík, in fact, a temple dedicated to a Germanic deity loved in Iceland is about to be inaugurated: Thor, the hammer-wielding god. Son of Odin, he is like the Jupiter of the Romans, venerated by the Vikings — “people of Thor” — as god of lightning, symbol of strength. A day of the week is named after him: Thorsday, hence the English Thursday.

It’s an oral tradition, fixed in writing in the Norse poems collected in Edda by the Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson (circa 1178–1241), which records a growth of the faithful — twelve in 1973, 4,300 today — and acknowledgment by the state, which therefore allows the celebration of marriages and funerals with legal value and access to the proceeds of the tax destined for religious organizations — just as if nothing had happened more than a thousand years ago, when Christianity was accepted by the people of Iceland at the national parliament.

It seems to hear the pagan god boasting of his power and challenging “Christ Galilean” to a test of strength:

I am the God Thor,
I am the War God,
I am the Thunderer!
Here in my Northland,
My fastness and fortress,
Reign I forever!

Here amid icebergs
Rule I the nations;
This is my hammer,
Miölner the mighty;
Giants and sorcerers
Cannot withstand it!

These are the gauntlets
Wherewith I wield it,
And hurl it afar off;
This is my girdle;
Whenever I brace it,
Strength is redoubled!

The light thou beholdest
Stream through the heavens,
In flashes of crimson,
Is but my red beard
Blown by the night-wind,
Affrighting the nations!

Jove is my brother;
Mine eyes are the lightning;
The wheels of my chariot
Roll in the thunder,
The blows of my hammer
Ring in the earthquake!

Force rules the world still,
Has ruled it, shall rule it;
Meekness is weakness,
Strength is triumphant,
Over the whole earth
Still is it Thor’s-Day!

Thou art a God too,
O Galilean!
And thus single-handed
Unto the combat,
Gauntlet or Gospel,
Here I defy thee!

Thus the choir sings in “The Challenge of Thor,” the first of eight scenes of Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, cantata for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 30, by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934), on text taken from The Tales of a Wayside Inn by the American poet H.W. Longfellow (1807–1882), with additions by H.A. Acworth. The English musician, who for some recalls especially the very English March in D Major, Op. 39, No. 1, from Pomp and Circumstance (1901), gained fame with this cantata in 1896.

The one mentioned in the saga is St. Olaf, king and martyr, inscribed in the Roman Martyrology on July 29. Having become king of Norway in 1016, he spread in his kingdom the Christian faith, which he had known in England, fighting paganism; on July 29, 1030, he died by the sword, killed by enemies in battle.

“In the following scenes,” the composer in a note to the full score wrote, “it is intended that the performers should be looked upon as a gathering of skalds (bards); all, in turn, take part in the narration of the Saga and occasionally, at the more dramatic points, personify for the moment some important character.” In fact, between the introduction and epilogue, each of the eight scenes stops briefly on an episode from Olaf’s life:

  • “The Challenge of Thor,” discussed above, in which the Norse god vows to defy Christianity.
  • “King Olaf’s Return,” where the king accepts the challenge.
  • “The Conversion,” in which Olaf confronts and kills Ironbeard, champion of Thor.
  • “Gudrun,” in which Olaf must kill his traitor wife on their wedding night.
  • “The Wraith of Odin,” who visits Olaf during a party.
  • “Sigrid,” the queen whom Olaf tries to convert.
  • “Thyri,” the beautiful sister of the king of Denmark who becomes Olaf’s wife.
  • “The Death of Olaf,” which the king finds in a sea battle facing the Danish invaders.

Those saddened to see the doors wide open to the return of paganism might be consoled with Elgar’s music and particularly the witness of committed Christians like the great martyr Saint Olaf, to whom all of northern Europe looked since the Middle Ages.

Image: marvelousRoland via Flickr (cropped).

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...