With kind permission of the National Museum, Denmark
Mjölnir: The Købelev Runic Thor's Hammer (Lolland)
"A small hammer dating to the 10th century was found recently on the Danish Island of Lolland. Over 1000 of these amulets have been found across Northern Europe but the pendant from Lolland is the only one with a runic inscription." (PASTHORIZONS, The Hammer of Thor [Sunday, June 29, 2014].
Blog History explains: The finder, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen, reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.
Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimetres high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”
There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing."
As to the runic inscription PASTHORIZONS - probably L. Imer's text - continues: “However, the person who inscribed these runes was not a skilled writer, as the proper spelling should have been Hamar . Also the S-rune was reversed.”
We might add a comment on the weird syntax here. How about: DIS IS HAMAR instead?
Looking at it more closely the runic inscription
H M A x I S seems to be very well planned and calculated. It was meant to cite the magic power of the object; i.e. Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, which is associated with lightening.
By inserting a meaningless symbol (x) and omitting the first A the becomes the central rune framed by H and S, which is even more evident as the rune is reversed, a shape, by the way, which is not unique at all.1
If we now figure the value of the 6 runes according to their rank in the younger fuþark (7+14+4+5+x+ 9+11) we get the runic value 50 which is the tenfold of 5. According to its position in the runic row 5 stands for the rune , here – extra huge – in central position. Thus sequence of runes hinges on the rune-name *raiðo 'riding' and the OE derivative rad, in the expression þunorrad 'Þunor's riding, clap of thunder', referring to Thor’s armed chariot, which on its way through the skies produces this frightening growl. How appropriate for Mjölnir, which produces the flashing thunderbolt!2
Having a look at the individual runes they appear to be quite appropriate for an item that is meant to help at war. Certainly, the warrior wants to win his fight, but when his time is up he needs to die in battle if he desires afterlife in Valhalla. Dying in bed would send him to Hel, the realm of shades.
The first rune H (ON hagall, hail) stands for danger of life, here imminent death, while the last rune S (sól, sun) may promise life for the victim, slain by the help of Thor`s hammer, summoned by the rune (reidh, ride, here: noise of Thor’s cart).
We could extend this view on the remaining runes: [M] (madhr, man) stands for the human being, [A] (ár, year, harvest) and [I] (íss, ice), which is synonymous with death.
Risking speculation we may interpret: Peril to life [H] for a man [M] as his “time is ripe” [A]. Thor’s thunderbolt [R] strikes (or helps to strike) him dead in battle [ I ]. This kind of death procures (after)life [S] in Valhalla among the Einherjer.3 If this reading were unique, it would be quite risky, but as shown below the Franks Casket helps with a parallel practice.
We are not quite sure though whether such a spell conjures the "way of Wyrd" of the amulet's owner or that of his enemy.
At this point we may reflect on the number of symbols. There are 6 runes producing the value 50 (10 x 5). But altogether we have 7 characters, a number which corresponds quite appropriately with the “perilous” rune [H]. So the amount of characters (7) signals mortal danger and their value (50) shows how it is brought about or, maybe, how it is averted.
There are interesting parallels to this runic practice on the Franks Casket. Here too, the rune – the initial of
Romulus and Remus – stands for the ride to war. The Roman twins are the sons of Mars, the Roman God of war. On the picture they are accompanied by two wolves, probably an allusion to Geri and Freki, the companions of Woden, the Germanic counterpart of Mars.
Another scene depicts the death of a warrior and resurrection into Valhalla. Here Herh-os (a deity) brings end about, A and E direct fate and S eventually procures entry into Valhalla.
The text (partially encoded in order not to become effective before the time has come) is composed in stave rhyme, the alliterating runes procure the destiny desired.
herh os sitæþ on hærmberge
agl(ac) drigiþ swa hir i erta e gisgraf
særden sorgæ and sefa tornæ
As the wording of the sequence H I R / I / E R T A is not really certain we might even read "IERTA".
In this case we arrive at the sequence H A I S which is even closer to H M A R I S on the amulet.
And there is still another parallel between Thor’s hammer and this panel of the Anglo-Saxon hoard box, the valknutr, Woden(Odin)’s knot of death, which appears twice on this panel below the horse that will carry the dead hero to Valhalla. Two such knots of death, hallmarking Valhalla, are depicted on the lid, and a third one shows behind the third of the Magi, the one who brings myrrh, the symbol of death as it used for embalming the dead body. These 5 knots have their parallel on the shaft of the hammer, one clearly visible below the inscription, the second one, heavily corroded, on the backside beneath an interlace pattern, which is most likely no mere decoration.
To sum it up: The H-rune – initial of a mysterious Herh-os – introduces the adverse fate which is averted by the apotropaic runes for A (encoded) and E (encoded) and ends with the S-rune in alliteration as a hint at afterlife in Valhalla. The numeric value of the runes in alliteration, by the way, is 110, a value repeated in other magic formulas around the chest.
Coincidence or not Helgi, the warrior, dies in the arms of Sigrun, his Valkyrie.
(Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, in the Poetic Edda)
1Gœrlev-Fuþark etc. Düwel, Runenkunde (2001), 88 ff.
2An interesting word found in Old English that could have come from a belief in Thunor is Thunorrad, which means thunder riding or Thunor riding. In Old Norse belief Thunor's Scandinavian counterpart, Thor, is said to ride across the sky in a goat drawn chariot, so it's possible that when the Heathen Anglo-Saxons heard the sound of thunder in the sky, they may well have believed it was Thunor riding across the sky like Thor, and called such a belief Thunorrad or thunder riding.
3 Wikipedia: In Norse mythology, the einherjar (Old Norse "single (or once) fighters") are those that have died in battle and are brought to Valhalla by Valkyries.