Thor’s Goats

Engraving of the Norse thunder god, Thor, and his goat-drawn chariot,
Tanngnjóstr and Tanngrisnir pull Thor’s chariot through the sky.

Goats appear often in world mythology. The Norse thunder god, Thor, is said to ride in a chariot drawn by two magickal goats, Tanngnjóstr (Gap Tooth) and Tanngrisnir (Tooth Grinder). The rolling of the wheels of his chariot creates thunder that rolls across the sky. Thor occasionally kills and eats Tanngnjóstr and Tanngrisnir, but by placing their bones and skin together, they return to life the following day. Once, however, the goats weren’t restored intact. According to Padraic Colum’s book, The Children of Odin, this is how it happened.

“As they traveled on in the brass chariot drawn by his two goats, Thor told Loki of the adventure on which he was bent. He would go into Jötunheim, even into Utgard, the Giants’ City, and he would try his strength against the Giants. He was not afraid of aught that might happen, for he carried Miölnir, his hammer, with him.

“Their way was through Midgard, the World of Men. Once, as they were traveling on, night came upon them as they were hungry and in need of shelter. They saw a peasant’s hut and they drove the chariot toward it. Unyoking the goats and leaving them standing in a hollow beside the chariot, the two, looking not like Dwellers in Asgard, but like men traveling through the country, knocked at the door of the hut and asked for food and shelter.

“They could have shelter, the peasant and his wife told them, but they could not have food. There was little in that place, and what little there had been they had eaten for supper. The peasant showed them the inside of the hut: it was poor and bare, and there was nothing there to give anyone. In the morning, the peasant said, he would go down to the river and catch some fish for a meal.

“‘We can’t wait until morning, we must eat now,’ said Thor, ‘and I think I can provide a good meal for us all.’ He went over to where his goats stood in the hollow beside the chariot of brass, and, striking them with his hammer, he left them lifeless on the ground. He skinned the goats then, and taking up the bones very carefully, he left them down on the skins. Skins and bones he lifted up and bringing them into the house he left them in a hole above the peasant’s fireplace. ‘No one,’ said he in a commanding voice, ‘must touch the bones that I leave here.’

“Then he brought the meat into the house. Soon it was cooked and laid smoking on the table. The peasant and his wife and his son sat round the board with Thor and Loki. They had not eaten plentifully for many days, and now the man and the woman fed themselves well.

“Thialfi was the name of the peasant’s son. He was a growing lad and had an appetite that had not been satisfied for long. While the meat was on the table his father and mother had kept him going here and there, carrying water, putting fagots on the fire, and holding a blazing stick so that those at the table might see to eat. There was not much left for him when he was able to sit down, for Thor and Loki had great appetites, and the lad’s father and mother had eaten to make up for days of want. So Thialfi got little out of that plentiful feast.

“When the meal was finished they lay down on the benches. Thor, because he had made a long journey that day, slept very soundly. Thialfi lay down on a bench, too, but his thoughts were still upon the food. When all were asleep, he thought, he would take one of the bones that were in the skins above him, and break and gnaw it.

“So in the dead of the night the lad stood up on the bench and took down the goatskins that Thor had left so carefully there. He took out a bone, broke it, and gnawed it for the marrow. Loki was awake and saw him do this, but he, relishing mischief as much as ever, did nothing to stay the lad.

“He put the bone he had broken back in the skins and he left the skins back in the hole above the fireplace. Then he went to sleep on the bench.

“In the morning, as soon as they were up, the first thing Thor did was to take the skins out of the hole. He carried them carefully out to the hollow where he had left the goats standing. He put each goatskin down with the bones in it. He struck each with his hammer, and the goats sprang up alive, horns and hoofs and all.

One of Thor's goats is lame.
“But one was not as he had been before. He limped badly.”

“But one was not as he had been before. He limped badly. Thor examined the leg and found out that one bone was broken. In terrible anger he turned on the peasant, his wife, and his son. ‘A bone of this goat has been broken under your roof,’ he shouted. ‘For that I shall destroy your house and leave you all dead under it.’ Thialfi wept. Then he came forward and touched the knees of Thor. ‘I did not know what harm I did,’ he said. ‘I broke the bone.’

Thor had his hammer lifted up to crush him into the earth. But he could not bring it down on the weeping boy. He let his hammer rest on the ground again. ‘You will have to do much service for me for having lamed my goat,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’

And so the lad Thialfi went off with Thor and Loki. Thor took in his powerful hands the shafts of the chariot of brass and he dragged it into a lonely mountain hollow where neither men nor Giants came. And they left the goats in a great, empty forest to stay resting there until Thor called to them again.”

The Children of Odin, Padraic Colum (New York: Macmillan, 1920)


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