Monday, January 28, 2013

The Might of the Hammer

The hammer is one of the most well-known and popular Heathen symbols today. Most commonly it is revered as the primary symbol of Thor, the Thunder God and protector of Midgard and humanity.  It is a powerful, direct symbol but it is one which is only understood as a blunt instrument.  Many, especially in modern society, see the hammer as nothing more than a crude implement whose main function is smashing things.  When we look deeper at the history of the hammer and its context in ancient Germanic and Scandinavian society there is much more to it than meets the eye.

The most important aspect of the hammer to understand is it is the first and oldest tool in the world.  In the pre-agricultural Stone Age, also known as the Paleolithic period, the hammer was the first of many simple tools discovered by humanity.  Unlike the more complex knife or axe the humble hammer's origins go back to a simple rock clutched in hand.  By applying the force, weight, and hard face of the hammer early humans had a simple tool that could be used for breaking open objects and creating other tools.  Humans were not unique in using rocks as hammers in this fashion; many animals have been observed in nature picking up and using heavy stones to crack open objects which are too tough for their natural tools to tackle.

What is unique in the human experience was taking it to the next level by using hammers to make tools.  By using repeated blows on flint and other stones humans were able to use this simple tool to make more complex, sophisticated tools.  From the simple stone the hammer would evolve into a more refined implement with the rise of metalworking and more effective tool-making techniques.  When the simple blunt rock took on the powerful shape which has endured since before the invention of writing is unclear but the form we know today is one which is ancient beyond words. 

So what is there to the hammer beyond blunt force?  The hammer is one of the most complete physical embodiments of the complex dance of creation and destruction in a simple, elegant, and utilitarian form.  In the hammer lies the capacity to build and destroy, raise and level, or demolish and reinforce.  The first part of this dance, creation, is one that is often under-appreciated in modern society as best shown with the common phrase, "When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail."  The hammer does far more than apply direct force for driving nails or breaking beams.  With a hammer it is possible to reshape objects, bind two separate things into one new, singular form, and reduce raw materials into a refined, usable shape.  Even the simple act of driving a nail into a board is much more than meets the eye as anyone experienced in simple home improvement can tell you the difference between a solid join and a bent nail is determined by the angle of the swing.

This creative aspect is present because the hammer is more than a tool of blunt force.  With the hammer one turns raw, undirected physical force and gives it direction, focus, and purpose.  Through repeated, precise applications of directed force one can enact one's will on the world around them in a controlled, disciplined fashion.  By taking up the hammer the bearer can realize their potential for interacting with, shaping, and changing the world around them. 

The other side of the coin from the hammer, the one more commonly understood, is destruction.  Hammers smash, shatter, break, bend, and batter like no other tool in the world.  Even the smallest of hammers, in the right hands, can inflict considerable damage.  The destructive aspect of the hammer receives the glory and attention the more creative side lacks.  This is not surprising especially in Heathenry; the most common use of Thor's Hammer in the lore is to slay dangerous giants.  This was also true in life, as best exemplified by the highly common warhammer.  Yet even when used for this purposes hammers must be employed with care and precision, not wanton recklessness.  A missed swing can become a dangerous opening and an improperly applied blow can mean the difference between clean deconstruction and messy collapse.

The most important aspect of the hammer, above and beyond its role as shaper and leveler, is how it symbolizes the strength held within all.  Just as the hammer is the oldest tool it was also one of the most common especially in the days of the pre-Christian ancients.  Even a humble thrall or a poor free farmer could afford and likely owned a hammer.  Unlike swords, the ultimate symbol of aristocratic warrior society, hammers were a tool and weapon that could be possessed and used by anyone.  Its humble ubiquity embodied a simple strength anyone could wield.