Today we find ourselves in a world that has largely lost its sacredness.
This is not to say that there is nothing sacred left in the world, but that generations of philosophy, science, consumerism, and popular culture have served to dull our perceptions to images of the divine.
While this problem impacts individuals and communities on innumerable levels, let’s focus on reclaiming the fragments of divinity that are lodged within masculine images of days-gone-by. Men young and old face a crisis of identity in the post-modern age due to the loss of popular figures within culture that can point one in the direction of a positive masculinity. This has resulted in the proliferation of destructive initiation rituals, as seen in everything from street gangs to college fraternities. While these groups appear to have little in common on the surface, in the depths of the psyche they are connected through an unconscious desires for a life with meaning.
The Norse myth of Thor’s battle with the Giant Hrungnir not only serves to demonstrate the violence of Viking life, but also gives the reader a glimpse into the multi-tiered development of masculine forces at work in men. For those not familiar with this particular myth, I will attempt a retelling of the story alongside my own commentary. The characters in the myth serve to illustrate several archetypes of masculine development. Odin, the father of the gods, represents an initiated man at the later stages of life through his ability to entertain the darkness that is Hrungnir. Thor, the god of Thunder, can be understood to represent a man caught between stages of initiation, perhaps a middle aged man advancing toward midlife, or a younger man just coming to understand what his masculinity means. Magni, Thor’s son, represents youthful masculinity, a time in which anything and everything seems possible. And yet, the most forceful of masculine roles appears to be that of the frost giant, Hrungnir, who with his stone head and heart embodies the notion of the shadow lying at the root of all masculine development. Let us not forget perhaps the most apparent of the masculine roles, the masculine shadow with his stone head and heart, Hrungnir.
The tale begins with Odin the All-father riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, through the nine worlds when the giant Hrungnir accosts him. The two soon quarrel “over the merits of their horses” (4), which results in a race across the nine worlds and directly into Asgard. Odin, being the eldest of the gods, is known to be “in control of all things” (4), and thus must have anticipated his race with the stone-hearted Hrungnir. He further must have intended to entertain the giant within his hall. Recognizing his foresight, it appears Odin acts as a catalyst for Thor’s own masculine quest.
Instead of making war with the giant, Odin invites him into his hall to rest and share in the food and drink of the gods. Odin demonstrates aspects of an initiated male because he is comfortable making the weary giant a guest despite the giant’s evil ancestral heritage. He is not fearful or aggressive towards this symbol of the masculine shadow because he knows such behavior will only inflate its power. Instead, he smothers the giant with kindness and accepts him willingly into his hall. If one accepts Odin as initiated or shamanic masculine energy, then his race with Hrungnir is simply part of a larger plan. Odin enacts a youthful masculine trait by accepting the frost giant’s challenge thereby tricking him into coming into the warmth of the mead hall. Hrungnir quickly becomes inebriated and is unable to hold back his evil and boastful ways. Hrungrir’s actions force the other gods in his hall to confront the evil and hatred that awaits them in the cold and dark beyond their comfortable hold. No longer will they be free to dwell in their paradise of song, food, and drink. Now the image of the ravenous giant has threateningly invaded their minds.
The initiated male is able to entertain the shadow in his life in such a way that he can present it to the youths of his clan in a safe container. He presents them with the devouring giant’s stone heart through his own apparent callousness or detachment. He shows them its stone head by confronting them with his own stubbornness and unwillingness to change. A true elder like Odin will present these qualities in ways that challenge youthful minds to overcome them, while one who is aged but not initiated might only demonstrate them in ways as frosty as does the giant himself.
Odin’s guest serves other ends as well. He acts as an initiator of the fiery tempered Thor. Upon returning to the mead hall, Thor is engaged upon hearing Hrungnir boast about his triumph over the gods. The god’s anger is fanned to a full roar when the giant claims he will sweep Sif, Thor’s wife, away to his own hall. Thor threatens to kill the giant on the spot, but Hrungnir “claims Odin’s protection, and challenges Thor to a duel on his own terms (4).”
Odin rebukes Thor for threatening to shed blood in the Mead Hall, as it is sacred space to the Aesir, but allows him to engage the giant in Hrungnir’s own dark lands (3). Thor’s initiation is not something that can be as easy as striking down a drunken, unarmed foe in a protected hall; he must travel into the dark and cold land of the giant gods to test his mettle. Odin has skillfully set Thor up for further initiation so that he may better understand his own negative masculine energies that are represented in the giant’s brutish form.
Thor epitomizes a man about to pass from one stage of life to another. He is both a young man crossing the threshold into adulthood, confronting the shadow figure his father has determined he must face and a man making the passage to mid-life, forced to recognize the ebb and flow of his natural masculine energies. The hard won strengths of youth must transmute or fall away as one approaches mid-life.
As Thor approaches the testing ground, he is initially frozen with fear at the image of the great clay giant, Mistcalf. Mistcalf can be interpreted as representing the overwhelming anger and resentment that can drive a group of young males toward hatred and warfare. Thor is aided by a positive masculine figure in the form of his brotherly companion, Thialfi. Overcoming his initial despair, Thor fells and kills Hrungnir with one blow. However, a piece of the giant’s shattered whetstone is lodged in the warrior god’s head, knocking him unconscious. He wakes to find the weight of the terrible giant pinning him to the cold, hard earth.
The myth makes a key theme of masculine initiation clear at this point. The stone that possessed the giant has taken up residence in Thor’s own head. Killing the giant is one thing, but ridding the psyche of its presence is quite another as it potentially live on forever in the scars it leaves on the developing warrior. Having encountered these dark forces the initiate must grapple with and incorporate hem instead of seeking to destroy them entirely (1).
Furthermore, as the thunderous god is pinned under the weight of his dreaded foe, he must leave his fate to his young, boastful son, Magni. Magni is able to heave the giant’s corpse off his father with one arm. The near infant god brags to his father of how simply he would have tackled the giant had he been given the chance. He demonstrates all the brazenness of masculine youth that must be left behind by the father Thor in his attempt to truly defeat the giant. Thor and the other gods recognize both Magni’s might and the humorous nature of his arrogant boasts. They do not chide him, but encourage his ferociousness, as it is a quality he will need in the early stages of his development.
Thor, or the potential initiate, must recognize that some qualities of youth are better left to those who are of an age to contain them. Thor’s fiery temper cools as he lies pinned between the Earth, his mother, and the carcass of the dead giant. His efforts to regain his strength and the fearful recognition that he does not possess the power needed to free himself of this burden are only released by acknowledging that a piece of his own youthfulness must be relinquished to the next generation, to his son.
Thor plants the seed of his son’s own masculine growth by passing along to him the golden-maned horse, Gullfaxi, a horse he has won from battling Hrungnir (3). The symbolism of the exchange implies the passing on of Thor’s own knowledge “of strength, of the creative forces, and of youth” (2) to his young son Magni. So too, must a man in the midst of passage from young adulthood to a stable manhood relinquish some of his own masculine fieriness to the generations that will succeed him. Odin appears resentful of Thor’s gift to his son, which can be understood perhaps as his struggle with the loss of his own youthfulness.
In the last section of the tale, Thor goes to his wife Sif in hopes that she will be able to remove the stone that is now lodged in his skull. It is interesting to note that Thor seeks the remedies of his wife despite the fact that his magical hammer, Mjollnir, is said to be able to cure wounds (Cotteral & Storm, 1999). It would seem that the wound Thor has suffered is one in need of a specifically feminine remedy. However his wife proves unable to remove the stone with her own charms (3).
Thor must seek out the remedies of Groa, “a sorceress, noted for her skill in medicine and for the efficacy of her spells and incantations” (3). Groa works her magic over Thor’s wound, slowly drawing out the stone fragments lodged within. In his joy, Thor makes the mistake of telling Groa of how he has saved her lost husband. The news causes her to lose track of her incantations, overwhelmed by passion in anticipation of her husband’s return. Thor is left with a fragment lodged in his head, perhaps representing the absent-minded hastiness of youth that he has failed to fully entrust to his young son. The wound is symbolic of something deeper, a lesson that must be learned over time.
According to poet Robert Bly: (1)
To feel the wound in a particular part of our body gives the wound weight, and to understand it as part of an ancient story gives it weight. Without the weight given by a wound consciously realized, the man will lead a provisional life.
So many tales of Thor’s great deeds are recounted in the Viking Eddas and Sagas that one could hardly claim his life is a provisional one. One can imagine that in the moment of Groa’s bungled incantations, Thor comes to realize his own foolishness and accept the weight of the wound he must live with. With this acceptance, he crosses yet another threshold towards his masculine development, acknowledging that his foolhardy youth must now be a memory. This acceptance prepares the young male to make the transition into full adulthood.
1. Bly, R. (2004). Iron John: A book about men. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Publications.
2. Chevalier, J., & Gheerbrant, A. (1994). A dictionary of symbols. Cambridge,MA : Blackwell.
3. Guerber, H. A. (1993). Myths of the Norsemen : From the Eddas and the Sagas. Minneapolis, MN:
4. Page, R. I. (1990). Norse myths. Austin, TX: University of Texas Publications.
Keith Morrison is a transdisciplinary scholar writing primarily in the field of mythology, psychology, and environment. Here he both demonstrates the timeless adaptability of profound human truths found in mythology, and a three fold approach to understanding various incarnations of masculine identity. The essay is focused on Norse Mythology and its application to the state of the masculine in the world today.
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