Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thor vs. Odin in the Hárbarðsljóð

Thor threatens Greybeard
Thor is so cute when he shakes his hammer.
In this poem, Odin has disguised himself as a ferryman on the opposite shore from Thor, freshly returned from slaying yon Jotuns in the mysterious East. Thor just wants a lift to the other side of the sound, but Odin is determined to put Thor through his paces in a battle of um. well. insult and wit, I guess. (No one should really be surprised by this.)

But my question is this: if, as is a common conception, Thor is so "simple" and "dimwitted" why is Odin bothering to challenge him at all? It seems like it would be too easy a mark. And really, some of Thor's replies are pretty great. Some of them typically Hammer-smash, too, but you have to give credit where credit is due!

An example:
Harbarth spake:
24. [...];
The noble who fall | in the fight hath Othin,
And Thor hath the race of the thralls."
Thor spake:
25. "Unequal gifts | of men wouldst thou give to the gods,
If might too much thou shouldst have."
Harbarth spake:
26. "Thor has might enough, | but never a heart;
For cowardly fear | in a glove wast thou fain to crawl,
And there forgot thou wast Thor;
Afraid there thou wast, | thy fear was such,
To fart or sneeze | lest Fjalar should hear."
Thor spake:
27. "Thou womanish Harbarth, | to hell would I smite thee straight,
Could mine arm reach over the sound."

In this back and forth, Harbarth (Odin in disguise) is saying that Thor only receives the souls of Thralls and Peasants into his hall-of-the-dead* and Odin is better because he gets all the REAL, NOBLE warriors to fight for him. Thor replies easily, implying Harbarth knows not of what he speaks, but either way it isn't up to Harbarth who goes where, so NYAH.** And Harbarth responds in turn by calling Thor a big fat coward (a natural progression, I guess) which of course provokes Thor (short-tempered at the best of times) to reply with the Hammer-Smash argument.

Odin gets serious points for saying that Thor was too terrified even to fart in stanza 26, I'm not going to lie. But Thor's "Womanish" response is pretty weak, even before we reach the Hammer-Smash. I feel like this is some kind of test by Odin -- to see if his son has the CHOPS for flyting. I don't think Thor is going to be taking home an A+ on this exam, but he proves he can think on his feet at least a little bit.

...until he loses his temper.

(Part TWO!)

*This supposed hall of the dead belonging to Thor, strictly for the spirits of Thralls and Peasants, isn't referenced anywhere else, according to the note attached -- but I'll tell you what, if Thor DID have such a hall, it just makes him that much AWESOMER in my book.

**I think  he's also implying that he doesn't care or need to care about getting warriors, personally, because he's so powerful already, and this is a pretty good comeback! I mean -- it is kind of true. The Aesir are always calling Thor up to do their dirty work when it comes to defeating giants. Odin has all this power -- can see the future and turn peoples minds and blah blah blah rune magic, but does he USE it to save the gods some trouble? Case in point: that whole wall-building episode, with the builder who wanted Freyja, the sun, and the moon for payment, and the gods setting him up to fail and then uh -- well, he is clearly going to not fail, so they make Loki stack the deck even further, not that they ever had any intention of keeping their word to begin with, but to add insult to injury after totally jerking the builder around, they just go ahead and call Thor in to kill him so they don't have to arrange for any alternate compensation. Guys, I would not advise making any DEALS with the Aesir if Loki is around. Just a word to the wise.


  1. I know none of this. Interesting. Thanks also for translating because I got none of that.

    1. I'm sure I have a translating bias in Thor's favor -- sometimes I am blinded by the Thor Love -- but I have to admit that I check my work against other interpretations! I'm particularly fond of the Crossley-Holland book of Norse Myths: http://www.amazon.com/Norse-Myths-Pantheon-Folklore-Library/dp/0394748468/ . He includes all kinds of helpful notes about the source material for each myth, if you're interested in tracking things back, and offers very clearly written retellings that I've found extremely useful.


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