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Main page » Non-Fiction » Science literature » Thor the Wind-Raiser and the Eyrarland Image

Thor the Wind-Raiser and the Eyrarland Image


Sometime around 1816, during excavations at Eyjafjörður, in northern Iceland, a small bronze image of a seated male figure was discovered. The object was cast by the "lost wax" process, sometime in the 10th century or earlier, and perhaps had once been gilded. It is 3-dimensional, 6.7 cm. tall. The seated figure appears to be naked except for a conical hat or helmet. His mouth is open, and he grips with both hands two vertical columns that descend from the vicinity of his chin and terminate between his knees in a clover-leaf design.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the so-called Eyrarland image (EI) was already identified as a likeness of Þórr in 1820, when the first illustrations of the figure were published in the Swedish journal, Iduna. That identification has persisted to the present day, and many descriptions of EI confidently identify the object that is being grasped with both hands as Þórr's hammer, Mjöllner. The only problem is, it doesn't resemble other representations of Mjöllner, nor does it match the description of the hammer the dwarfs fashioned for Þórr. Partly for this reason, other theories have been advanced from time to time to explain the object in the figure's grasp. Among the more interesting was one proposed by Lotte Motz in a 1992 article in The Mankind Quarterly, that EI represents a musician "playing an instrument which shows a close resemblance to a double flute."

In Thor the Wind-Raiser, Richard Perkins presents what is probably the definitive explanation of the Eyrarland image, one that accepts the figure's traditional identification as a likeness of Þórr, yet is not far from Motz's vision of a wind-instrument player. Perkins begins by reviewing the importance of wind-power in early societies, and the widespread invocation of particular deities to assure favorable winds. This would have had especial relevance for Viking Age Scandinavians, who were distinguished for their seafaring exploits. Favorable winds bestowed advantage in trading and warfare; a contrary wind or becalmed seas could mean loss of fortune or even one's life. Yet the wind was a fickle and mysterious force. As Hávamál counsels,

        much veers the wind ere the fifth day
        and blows round yet more in a month.

Several passages in the sagas and Eddas suggest that Òðinn was seen as having special influence over the wind. According to Hyndluljóð 3, Òðinn "gives favorable winds to men;" in Hávamál 154 he alludes to a runic charm that allows him to calm the wind; and in Ynglinga saga, Snorri tells us that, "with words alone [Òðinn] could . . . still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased." Nevertheless, it is Þórr who had the strongest association with the wind, judging by the surviving record. There a several recorded instances of seafarers calling upon Þórr for fair winds. A skaldic verse records how Þórr wrecked the ship of the infamous missionary, Þangbrandr. Flóamanna saga recounts the vengeance Þórr takes on the newly converted Þorgils Þórðarson, causing his ship to be first becalmed and later smashed by a gale. Dudo of St. Quentin records the practice of 10th-century Norman Vikings, who offered human sacrifices to Þórr to assure favorable winds at sea. And Adam of Bremen, in his description of the gods honored at the great heathen temple at Uppsala, says the Swedes of that time believed Þórr "governs the air with its thunder, lightning, wind, rain, and fair weather."

But how, exactly, does Þórr influence or command the wind? Perkins finds the answer in a rather obscure text, Rögnvalds þáttr ok Rauðs, which has been preserved both independently and as part of the Saga of Olaf Tryggvasson. In this tale, Rauð maintains an image of Þórr that is so powerful, it walks and converses with him. When Olaf Tryggvasson heads for Rauð's island to convert him to Christianity, Rauð calls upon Þórr to create a headwind against Olaf's ships. The god does so by blowing into his beard, as one would blow into a wind-instrument to make a sound. Perkins translates the relevant passage as, "Þórr blew hard down into his whiskers and sounded the voice of his beard." This had the desired effect of creating a headwind so strong, it pushed the Christian king and his ships back into the harbor they had just left.

It is known from Hallfreds saga that Viking-Age Scandinavians carried small amulets in the likeness of Þórr. Perkins relates this fact to three surviving figures from that period, one generally accepted as representing Þórr and the other two plausibly so.  What these three objects have in common is that each portrays a male figure gripping his beard with both hands. Although no satisfactory explanation for this has been offered previously, Perkins suggests that each of these finds is a representation of Þórr blowing into his beard, and that they are in fact wind-raising amulets.

In the longest chapter of his book, Perkins turns to a careful examination of EI, considering 13 possible theories before concluding that the object is in fact - like the other three figures just mentioned -- an image of Þórr raising a wind by blowing down into his whiskers, "sounding the voice of his beard" as he grips it with both hands. The figure was probably thought to have magical properties, and was perhaps carried in the purse of a skipper who sailed from the Eyjafjörðr in the Viking Age.

"Miniature though he is," Perkins concludes, "he may still appear to some to huff or to puff, skegg at hrista. Some may think he glares as fiercely as when he struck fear into the heart of Þjálfi's father. Many will concur in the suggestion that he has a 'noble' and 'dignified' demeanor. Some might feel they are indeed in the presence of Ása-Þórr, defender both of Miðgarðr and of Ásgarðr. But even those who cannot concede these things will probably agree that the Eyrarland image in an object of interest, even of fascination.

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Tags: figure, seated, hands, vertical, columns, Image, Eyrarland, grips