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Is a 3000-Year Old Swedish Petroglyph the Oldest Known Depiction of Thor?

Is a 3000-year old Swedish petroglyph the oldest known depiction of Thor?

Here's what Swedish science journalist Karin Bojs (sounds like “Boyce”) suggests in her highly engaging genetic study of Europe, My European Family: The First 54,000 Years:

The Vitlycke rock engraving includes a man driving...a two-wheeled chariot, clearly drawn by a horse. The man holds the horse's reins in one hand and a hammer in the other. Before him, a flash of lightning can be seen. The most likely interpretation is that the man is a thunder god—the Bronze Age counterpart of the god later known to the Vikings as Thor. The thunder god's attribute was an axe or a hammer, with which he would strike to produce thunder and lightning (296-7).

Is she right?

Well, the time and the place are right. The Vitlycke charioteer is one of tens of thousands of petroglyphs located on rock faces near Tanum, Sweden. Petroglyphs are notoriously difficult to date, but experts are agreed that these petroglyphs date mostly from the Scandinavian Bronze Age. We know that Scandinavia was populated by Indo-European speakers during this period, and that these petroglyphs are therefore a product of an Indo-European culture. The pantheons of virtually all IE cultures feature a divine Thunderer, often conceived of as a warrior, armed and riding in a two-wheeled chariot.

Take a close look at the petroglyph shown above. A horned man with a noteworthy ithyphallus drives what would appear to be a highly schematic chariot drawn by (apparently) a horned animal. If so, with apologies to Bojs, this is no horse, but would only strengthen the image's likely identity as a sort of proto-Thor, since Thor's chariot was said to be drawn by goats, and historically the goat is associated with the Thunderer across the Indo-European diaspora. At very least, one can say that, if this chariot is indeed drawn by a horned animal (instead of a horse with unusually elongated ears, say), we are likely in the realm of myth here. No one, after all, hitches an ox to a chariot.

Thor, of course, is not known to be horned in any of the surviving sources. Horned helms are, in fact, known from this period (although not from the later Viking Age), but we have no evidence for horned Thunderers per se.

That the horned man driving the chariot is holding reins in one hand, I would agree. That he is holding a hammer in the other hand, though, I'm not so sure. The two hands actually look very similar, with five strokes each that could be fingers, the divine fingers of a god known for doing great deeds.

Across pantheons, Thunderers do bear a strong family resemblance to one another. They tend to be bearded, virile, irascible; warriors, doers of great deeds, and men of mighty appetites: for liquor, food, and sex.

Thor is not generally known as a phallic god—in the Norse pantheon, such status is more generally accorded to Frey—but as god of rain, well-known as a friend to farmers, such a characterization would not be entirely out of keeping with the Eddas' Thor. The calque between semen and rain is, of course, well-known: You pour your seed out on the ground, says one contemporary hymn to Thunder.

The charioteer's erection would certainly seem to suggest that he is a bearer of fruitfulness, unless this is a battle-induced erection that he sports. (I've heard that men going into battle get erections; never having been in one myself, I can't vouch for this personally. Readers?) Let us say at least that his ithyphallic nature does not rule out the possibility that who we see depicted here might be an Ur-Thor.

Speaking of erections, take a look at the zigzag positioned in front of the charioteer's. Bojs identifies this as lightning, but is it? It does, admittedly, look like lightning as a modern might draw it, but is this how a Bronze Age artists would have done so?

Or is this particular zigzag, perhaps, a sign of moisture instead? If so, the proximity to the charioteer's phallus seems significant. If this is the Thunderer, is this then his fertilizing ejaculate rain? Maybe science reporters need to watch more gay porn.

Is the Tanum Charioteer an ancestor of Thor? If he is, he's a being something different from—though still in accordance with—the Thor of Norse tradition.

But he sure sounds good to me.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Thursday, 28 February 2019

    The head reminds me of another storm god: Set. I think I've seen depictions of both Teshub the Hittite storm god and Baal Hadad the Canaanite storm god wearing horned headgear. Shango the Yoruba storm god I remember for his big axe. I agree with you that the animal pulling the chariot looks more horned than long eared.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 01 March 2019

    Oof, that really does look like the Seth animal. Well, I wouldn't want to try to make a historical case for a connection, but it does seem to me theologically sound, as per my reply to Erin below.

    Say what you will about pagans, we sure do manage to have fun with our religions.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Thursday, 28 February 2019

    I agree that the animal looks more like a goat, and that the hands look like they are depicted with fingers, although the vajra also kind of looks like it has fingers (on both ends) so it could still be a thunder symbol. I think the supposed lightning thingy looks a bit like a snake to me, though. Which would not connect with Thor specifically, but is definitely phallic.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 01 March 2019

    It does look like a snake, I agree, which made me think of sperm cells with their little wiggly tails. I suppose we'll never know for sure.

    I'd just like to note that what we're doing here--you too, Anthony--is a very interesting kind of "theologizing" that is deeply characteristic of the modern paganisms, simultaneously exegesis ("reading out" and eisegesis ("reading in"). As scriptural religions read text, we read art.

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 01 March 2019

    Cool, I was an Art History Major back in the 80's.

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