Thorri and the Thorrablot

Source: http://www.inreykjavik.is/thorrablot-opferfeier-fur-die-gotter/

Anyone who thinks to recognize from the title above that this contribution is about the Norse thunder god Thor (Oldnorse: Þórr) is mistaken. Thorri refers to another figure of Norse mythology. But who this Thorri (Oldnorse: Þorri) in fact was, is not cleared conclusively. Unfortunately, the sources are ambiguous about it, they differ in their descriptions.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, written in the 13th Century, Thorri was the king of an early Norwegian kingdom, but his land was not there where now is Norway. From a historical point of view no evidence exist for that, therefore that kingship mention likely belongs to the field of mythology, similarly to the mythical Danish king Rolf Krake (Oldnorse: Hrólfr Kraki) for whose real existence neither evidence exists.

Thorri is said to descent from Fornjot (Oldnorse: Fornjótr) and that name appears repeatedly in Norse mythology.

In the Thulur (Oldnorse: Nafnaþulur), which is the last section of the Skáldskaparmál, one of the main parts of the Prose-Edda (13th Century) by Snorri Sturluson, Fornjot is mentioned as the name of a giant or jotun (Oldnorse: jǫtunn). Today the view is proposed, that he would be the progenitor of a lineage of frost giants.

In the Flateyjarbók, which is a collection of manuscripts of early Icelandic time, a document is included, which narrates about the settlement of Norway (Hversu Nóregr byggðisk – How Norway was Settled). That document contains some more information about Thorri and his ancestor Fornjot.

The Orkneyinga Saga also gives such information and Rasmus B. Anderson in his edition of the Pros Edda also informs about Thorri.

Three different versions read:

There was a man whose name was Fornjot. He had three sons. One was called Hlér (Ægir?), the second’s name was Logi and the name of the third one Kári who was the ruler of the winds. Logi ruled the fire and Hlér the sea.
Kári had a numerous offspring. One of his sons was Jökul (Iceberg), another one was called Froste (Frost) whose son was king Snae (Snow). A third son of Kari was Thorri (Strong Frost) and the winter month was called after him: Thorramonth. Kári’s daughters were Fonn (Packed Snow), Drifa (Snowdrift) and Mjöll (Powdered Snow). All names of his children interrelate with Kár, their father.

Thorri had two sons Nor and Gar and a daughter called Goe. The story goed, that Goe disappeared and her brothers were searching for her. At last they found out who had abducted her. That was Hrolf from the Mountain, a son of the giant Svadi and a grandson of Asa-Thor.
They settled the conflict and thereupon Hrolf married his Goe. Nor married Hrolf’s sister and took residence in a land that he gave his own noame; Norvegr, thus: Norway.

Rasmus B. Anderson description

In this description, Thorri is considered a son of Kári. The “Historia Norwegiae” (A History of Norway), written between 1152 and 1266 supports this origin of the name Norway:

Norway, then, received its name from a certain king called Norr.

Devra Kunin translation of “A history of Norway”

Another description describes Thorri as a son of king Snae:

There was a man named Fornjót. He had three sons; one was named Hlér(Ægir – a szerk.), the second Logi, and the third Kári. He ruled the winds, but Logi ruled fire, and Hlér ruled the sea. Kári was the father of Jökul, the Glacier, father of King Snae, Snow. The sons of King Snae were Þorri, Fönn, Drífa and Mjöll. Þorri was a wonderful king. He ruled Gotland, Kaenland, and Finland. He celebrated Kaens so that snow was made and travel on skis was good. That is their beginning. The celebration is held in the middle of winter, and from that time on was called the month of Þorri.

George L. Hardman translation of Hversu Noregr Byggðist

Following this description, the lineage of the Royal house of Norway is accordingly listed as: Fornjótr–Kári–Frosti–Snaer–Thorri–Nórr–Harald Fairhair, etc.

Where that just mentioned Kaenland, also written as Kvenland, was situated, is contentious. Regions in Sweden and Finland are proposed, but also somewhere in between of both, along the northern part of the Baltic Sea.

And the third version is narrated in chapter 1 and 2 of the Orkneyinga’s Saga. Both chapters cited in its entirety:

There was a king named Fornjot, he ruled over those lands which are called Finland and Kvenland; that is to the east of that bight of the sea which goes northward to meet Gandvik; that we call the Helsingbight. Fornjot had three sons; one was named Hler, whom we call Ægir, the second Logi, the third Kari; he was the father of Frost, the father of Snow the old, his son’s name was Thorri; he (Thorri) had two sons, one was named Norr and the other Gorr; his daughter’s name was Goi. Thorri was a great sacrificer, he had a sacrifice every year at midwinter; that they called Thorri’s sacrifice; from that the month took its name. One winter there were these tidings at Thorri’s sacrifice, that Goi was lost and gone, and they set out to search for her, but she was not found. And when that month passed away Thorri made them take to sacrifice, and sacrifice for this, that they might know surely where Goi was hidden away. That they called Goi’s sacrifice, but for all that they could hear nothing of her. Four winters after those brothers vowed a vow that they would search for her; and so share the search between them, that Norr should search on land, but Gorr should search the outscars and islands, and he went on board ship. Each of those brothers had many men with him. Gorr held on with his ships out along the sea-bight, and so into Alland’s (The sea in which are the Åland Isles in the Gulf of Bothnia) sea; after that he views the Swedish scars far and wide, and all the isles that lie in the East salt sea; after that to the Gothland scars, and thence to Denmark, and views there all the isles; he found there his kinsmen, they who were come from Hler the old out of Hler’s isle, (Now Læssö in the Cattegat) and he held on then still with his voyage and hears nothing of his sister. But Norr his brother bided till snow lay on the heaths, and it was good going on snow-shoon. After that he fared forth from Kvenland and inside the sea-bight, and they came thither where those men were who are called Lapps, that is at the back of Finmark. But the Lapps wished to forbid them a passage, and there arose a battle; and that might and magic followed Norr and his men; that their foes became as swine (that is, were panic stricken and rushed wildly about) as soon as they heard the war-cry and saw weapons drawn, and the Lapps betook themselves to flight. But Norr fared thence west on the Keel, (The ridge of mountains which forms the watershed, backbone, or keel, between Sweden and Norway) and was long out, so that they knew nothing of men, and shot beasts and birds for meat for themselves; they fared on till they came where the waters turned to the westward from the fells. Then they fared along with the waters, and came to a sea; there before them was a firth as big as it were a sea-bight; there was a mickle tilths, and great dales came down to the firth. There was a gathering of folk against them, and they straightway made ready to battle with Norr, and their quarrel fared as was to be looked for. All that folk either fell or fled, but Norr and his men overcame them as weeds over cornfields. Norr fared round all the firth and laid it under him, and made himself king over those districts that lay there inside the firth. Norr tarried there the summer over till it snowed upon the hearths; then he shaped his course up along the dale which goes south from the firth; that firth is now called Drontheim. Some of his men he lets fare the coast way round Mæren; he laid under him all withersoever he came. And when he comes south over the fell that lay to the south of the dalebight, he went on still south along the dales, until he came to a great water which they called Mjösen. Then he turns west again on to the fell, because it had been told him that his men had come off worsted before that king whose name was Sokni. Then they came into that district which they called Valders. Thence they fared to the sea, and came into a long firth and a narrow, which is now called Sogn; there was their meeting with Sokni, and they had there a mickle battle, because their witchcraft had no hold on Sokni. Norr went hard forward, and he and Sokni came to handstrokes. There fell Sokni and many of his folk.

After that Norr fared on into the firth that goes north from Sogn. There Sokni had ruled before in what is now called Sokni’s dale. There Norr tarried a long time, and that is now called Norafirth. There came to meet him Gorr his brother, and neither of them had then heard anything of Goi. Gorr too had laid under him all the outer land as he had fared from the south, and then those brothers shared the lands between them. Norr had all the mainland, but Gorr shall have all those isles between which and the mainland he passes in a ship with a fixed rudder. And after that Norr fares to the Uplands, and came to what is now called Heidmörk (todays Hedemark); there that king ruled whose name was Hrolf of the Hill; he was the son of Svadi the giant from north of the Dovrefell. Hrolf had taken away from Kvenland Goi, Thorri’s daughter; he went at once to meet Norr, and offered him single combat; they fought long together and neither was wounded. After that they made their quarrel up, and Norr got Hrolf’s sister, but Hrolf got Goi to wife. Thence Norr turned back to the realm which he had laid under him, that he called Norway; he ruled that realm while he lived, and his sons after him, and they shared the land amongst them, and so the realms began to get smaller and smaller as the kings got more and more numerous, and so they were divided into provinces.

G. W. Dasent translation, 1894

Because two of the three cited versions see Thorri as a son of king Snae, that view should be preferred over the version in which he is seen as a son of Kári. However, some restraint is appropriate here, because it is assumed, that for the related passage in ” How Norway was Settled” the Orkneyinga’s Saga was used as the source for it.

Thorri’s festival started at the time he provided enough snow to boost traveling by ski. The festival took place in the midst of winter and since then the month in which the feast was held was called Thorramonth.

From the Prologue of the Prose-Edda and also from the “Gesta danorum” (Deed of the Danes, ca. 1200), by the danish author Saxo Grammaticus, we know the point of view to identify mythical figures as humans — Norse deities are interpreted as humans and the famous city of Troy was their ancestral home. However, the authors Snorri and Saxo did not invent that idea, the viewpoint does not even originate from Norse sources, it was practiced already many centuries before in classical Antiquity. (See for an explanation about this the appendix 1 at the end of this article)

This same phenomenon also can be recognized when it concerns Thorri. But because his father fornjot is identified in the sources as a frost giant and his sons Hlér (Sea), Logi (Fire) und Kári (Wind) are mythological powers who rather often are interpreted as personified fundamental forces of nature. Therefore, Thorri can be placed at the same supernatural level. That anthropomorphism (humanization) is more like a degrading of heathen divine beings by medieval Christian clergy authors, following an ancient doctrine from before Christianity.

So, Thorri descends from the Norse Giants or Jotnar (plural of Jotun) as is also the case with several other deities we know from The Eddas, like e.g. Odin, Thor and Loki.

In addition, there possibly also exists a family relationship between Thorri and the god and sea giant Ægir. Chapter 1 of the aforementioned Skáldskaparmál starts with the words:

Einn maðr er nefndr Ægir eða Hlér

Translated, that is:

A man was called Ægir or Hlér.

If the name Hlér points to the same person, then Thorri’s father or great-grandfather Kári would be a brother of Ægir. The Orkneyinga’s Saga support that view:

Fornjot had three sons; one was named Hler, whom we call Ægir.

The already mentioned document from the Flateyjarbók, “How Norway was Settled” reports a Midwinter ritual which was dedicated to Thorri, and is called Thorrablot. Because of the veneration of Thorri in that ritual, the conclusion is reasonable, that Thorri can be seen as a Scandinavian god of winter. That midwinter festival is especially documented at Iceland. Admittedly, it seems, that some sources do not see a ritual for Thorri but one he performed; that also is possibly caused by his humanization.

The Christianizing of Iceland went along with the disappearing of Pagan rituals, including the one of Thorri. Only in the 19th Century, most likely influenced by the characteristics of the Romance era, this ritual got its revival. In 1873. Icelandic students who lived in the Danish capital Copenhagen would have preformed a Thorrablot. Also some other groups who were shriving for the independence of Iceland, would have done the same.

But already before that time, Thorri was featured on Iceland in another way. In 1728 the Icelandic minister Jón Halldorson wrote in a letter, that he doesn’t know whether he should acclaim Thorri as an old custom or a new-fangled idea of the common people. He states, that he does not know any reasonable person, who, dressed in frivolous costumes, participates in such activities and in fact he feels ashamed to write down such balderdash to let distinguished people read it.

The Thorrablot is a dinner in the evening where the participants hold speeches and render poems. Because after the revival of this feast Thorri was often mixed up with the well-known Norse god Thor, the latter is often also honored in this festivity.

In the 60s of the 20th century, the celebration of the Thorrablot became a mainstream fame at Iceland. Responsible for that was the owner of a restaurant in Iceland’s capital Reykjavík. They started to offer a special meal on a platter, a kind of trough made of wood. The food was called þorramatur (Thorri-food). The meal consisted mainly of sliced or cut pieces of meat and fish, both based on old recipes from the country, who almost had disappeared. Preparations based on pickled, salted, dried and smoked food — preservation methods from the time before the time of refrigerators and freezers.

Today, the festival is celebrated by many Icelanders in the period between mid-January and mid-February; whether Thorri or Thor is honored is more or less irrelevant for them.

Instead on a platter, meanwhile the food is mostly served as a buffet.

Appendix 1 – concerning the humanization of Pagan deities

Contrary to what is very often supposed, the clerics and chronicler from the Middle Ages did not invent the humanization of Pagan deities themselves. In fact, it was part of the teaching and training they got as priests or monks. They likely adopted it indirectly from the Roman author Quintus Ennius (239–169 BCE). In his turn, Ennius had borrowed it from the Greek philosopher Euhemeros, who lived a generation earlier at the Royal Court of the Macedonian king Cassander.

The literary works by Ennius mainly consisted of statements by Greek authors which he presented in his own words. In one of his works Ennius conveyed the theological doctrine by the greek Euhemeros; that doctrine says, that the gods at the Mount Olympus were no supernatural powers who actively intervened in the lives of humans, but great military leaders, famous sovereigns and similar humans from past times, who, after their demise were remembered in an extraordinary way – quasi like deities. At first glance this may look like a piece of theology, but actually it was tough, practical politics by Euhemeros. His idea was meant as motivation for the Greece ruling class (kings and other rulers) to act for the good of the community in such a way, that they could be honored posthumously in the form of a divine status.

The Romans Ennius took over the concept with a similar aim: he probably wanted to make the people around him familiar with the idea that one superior person even could be deified in his lifetime already. Specifically, he headed for the deification of the Roman general Scipio Africanus, who beat in North Africa Hannibal.

In his 40 volumes comprising historical work the Greek chronicler Diodorus, who lived in the 1st Century BCE, had entered the doctrine Ennius published and especially his work was a standard work about classical antiquity in the monasteries during the medieval.

In addition, Lacantius (ca. 240–ca. 320 CE), an early Christian Author and consultant of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I, had taken over that doctrine, but with another aim. He used Euhemeros’, respectively Ennius’ theory as evidence, that Pagan deities in origin were humans and thus inferior towards the god of the Christians.

It is very likely that this chain of arguments concerning the humanization of Pagan deities found its way into the works of Snorri Sturluson, Saxo Grammaticus and many others.

Further reading

Anderson, Rasmus B. (translator), The Younger Edda. Also called Snorre’s Edda, or The Prose Edda, Author: Snorre, Chicago, 1901.

Dasent, George W. (translator), the Orkneyingers’ Saga, 1894. Available online as a PDF file and online readable at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/is3/is302.htm

Hardman, George L. (translator), Hversu Noregr Byggðist (How Norway was Settled), 2011.

Kunin, Devra (translator), A History of Norway (Historia Norwegiae) and the passion and miracles of the blessed Óláfr, Viking Society for Northern Research, London, 2001.

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