Column: an Essay in Five Hammers

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Pagan Perspectives

Hammer the First

She hands me a tiny white box. I look at it, the gold lettering of the logo for Pathways, our local metaphysical shop, glimmering in the candlelight. It is the night of my first-degree initiation into my family’s coven, and now that the ritual is over, we are gathered around the coffee table altar in the living room of the house where I grew up exchanging presents.

I slide the top off the box. Inside, resting on a pillow of spun fibers, is a silver sigil attached to a slim black cord. I pull it out and watch as the medallion swings back and forth like a pendulum. The ornament is shaped something like an anchor: a loop at the top to hold the cord, then a wide brim, a shaft that descends into two sweeping curves that suddenly collapse back to a point at the bottom.

“I couldn’t help but think that, now that you’re initiated, you ought to have a Thor’s hammer to wear,” she says, “so that one’s yours.”

It will be another year before I have my first encounter with Heathens, and several more years past that before I start calling myself one, but I know as soon as she says it that it’s true. I slip the pendant over my neck. I have worn a necklace like it every day since.

A Thor’s hammer pendant [Nyo, Wikimedia Commons].

Hammer the Second

The first necklace does not last long. While I am home from college that summer, I try to go to the local YMCA to swim and run a treadmill for an hour or so after work, and I realize one day after finishing my post-exercise shower that my hammer is missing. I look all over the locker room, but no luck. They don’t know anything about it at the lost and found, either. The superstitious part of me wonders if the staff confiscated it — it is the Young Men’s Christian Association, after all — and I have mistrusted gymnasiums ever since.

I return to Pathways and buy another Thor’s hammer, the exact same as the one before. I wear that one for a decade. It seems to become its predecessor, to the point that I sometimes remember this necklace as the one my coven-mate gave to me. A strange trick of industrial production: because this is a mass-produced model, two discrete objects can seem to meld into one, indistinguishable in both form and memory. They share an aura, or a lack of one, as Walter Benjamin might observe.

At any rate, this is the hammer that accompanies me through my twenties, which sees me through college, my first stint in graduate school, my abortive career working for the county police, my wedding, my return to school for a doctorate. It’s always there, if sometimes tucked beneath the collar of my shirt, hiding close to my breast. It’s a cliché, but it’s during those times, those places where I’m afraid to show the truth of my religion, that I am most glad to have it near.

Though we may think of religion as primarily a numinous phenomenon, something that happens in the realm of the mind and soul, we invest much of religion’s power into the material world. Sometimes that’s as grand and sublime as the cathedral at Chartres; sometimes it’s as small as a pewter hammer hanging from a black cord. We might say that these objects are not necessary to the religion, that the beliefs and the practices of our traditions would exist without them. Perhaps. But there is a reason that religion, going back its paleolithic origins, has shaped the material world into talismans. Even if a religion is ultimately something that lives in our heads and our hearts, our hands still ask, insist, that we also have something to touch.

Hammer the Third

Some Heathens collect Thor’s hammer necklaces and have one for every occasion. Not me. I usually have just the one, which I wear everywhere and plan the rest of my outfit to match. (I wear three pieces of jewelry on a regular basis: my hammer, my wedding ring, and lately a watch on a black leather band. All of my jewelry is silver, because all of my jewelry has to match my hammer.)

I did, for awhile, have a second hammer, which I only wore on special occasions. Unlike the hammer I wore in my daily life, it had almost no adornments at all, no filigree or inlaid patterns. It was a spike of black iron with a square hammer-head at the bottom. Carved into the metal was a single rune, ansuz. The rune stood for different things, depending on who was asking. For me, it meant Odin, Odin in his most encompassing, mystical form, Odin the breath of ecstasy, the mouth of magick; but it also meant Aldheim, the name I used during my few years in the Society for Creative Anachronism.

In the SCA, I had a sworn brother named Roberto, who found a blacksmith at an event and had him make me the hammer. According to legend, the blacksmith forged a hammer to Roberto’s specifications, but upon inspecting it afterwards, found it wanting. He put the faulty hammer for sale in his shop and forged a second one. The second one was the one that came to me; somewhere that hammer has a phantom, sharing in its aura, despite being commissioned rather than forged on a factory line.

As I say, I only wore that hammer for special occasions. I planned to wear it during my pilgrimage to Iceland in 2014; I wanted to wear it during Ásatrúarfélagið’s Þingblót ceremony. But my backpack was stolen a week and a half before I left for Iceland, with my books, my diary, my passport, and my gift-hammer inside. I got the backpack back, eventually, with some of the books still intact. I got a new passport in time to get on my plane, but I never recovered the diary or the hammer, both gifts. I sometimes wonder what became of them, whether the hands that eventually possessed them ever imbued them with the kind of magick they held for me.

Your author, some years ago, with his second Thor’s hammer around his neck [E. Scott].

Hammer the Fourth

I lost the hammer I wore for a decade going through airport security. I can attach some significance to the loss if I try – I had just returned from England, where I had been tracking down the origins of my family tradition and had made the uncomfortable realization that much of that tradition was likely based on fabrications and embellishment. Perhaps I was in need of putting aside things I had carried for a long time. I was also heading to Portland, Oregon, where I knew I would be making some decisions that might change the course of my life. Perhaps I needed a sign to tell me to be ready to accept those changes.

I don’t know; it seems unhealthy to expect every occurrence in one’s life to be full of magickal significance. I took it off to go through the metal detector and forgot to grab it out of the bin, and so ended my ten years of partnership with that hammer.

To be honest, the next hammer and I — another metaphysical shop purpose, sold on a punch-card — never quite meshed. It wasn’t the hammer’s fault. I acquired it during a strange and tumultuous time in my life, and it was of a different design than the one I had worn previously. I may have resented it for that, for its obvious difference from the one I had bonded with before – for not being the pendant I had received for my initiation, even though the one I had lost wasn’t that hammer either. (It also had an annoying fixture for the cord that led to the knot constantly getting caught against my throat. There were several reasons why I never took to it.)

The fourth hammer went missing — I swear this is true — the day after my graduation ceremony. Unlike the other three, I have no theory on what happened to that one. I can’t remember anywhere I might have put it, nor do I remember taking it off during the ceremony. Again, we misplace things all the time, and there’s no real reason to expect that this means anything on a spiritual level, but then I think about it, and the symmetry amuses me. This object of my faith came into my life just as I began writing the book that would finish that phase of my life. Then, as I went through another initiation ritual — for what else is a graduation ceremony, if not a mass ceremony of passage from one stage of initiation to the next? — that hammer vanished.

As Robert Anton Wilson once said, I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.

The author’s current Thor’s hammer pendant, created by Odyssey Craftworks [E. Scott].

Hammer the Fifth

Today I am toying with the latest hammer in my line, small and silver, its design reminiscent of the one I wore the longest but noticeably different. Unlike the others, I know the exact source of this one: it came from the workshop of a Pagan jewelry shop, Odyssey Craftworks, which is owned by friends of mine. I bought it for myself as a final graduation present during this year’s Heartland Pagan Festival – a new hammer to mark this new stage in my life. I already feel more connected to it than I did to the last one – in part, I’m sure, because when I touch this necklace, I can feel the hands of my friends touching it as well.

I don’t know how long I’ll hold onto it; I hope for a long time, but the thing about material objects is that one never really knows how long one will hold them. They move on when they happen to move on.

I’ve worn these hammers for 13 years now, a time in which my experience of Paganism has changed dramatically: they have seen me take my first steps into a mature understanding of my religion, have seen my rituals at their best and their worst. They have seen me take on new approaches to my practice and abandon others. They have been my silent witnesses as my relationships to gods and spirits changed.

To those who know their significance, they have communicated much about me that would otherwise be invisible. They announce my Paganism to the world, a silver flash of my soul. I will be in the supermarket or the bookstore and a stranger will see the hammer around my neck. They will cock their head and ask, always in the same tone, the question: “Isn’t that Mjolnir?”

I smile back. “Yes,” I always say. “That’s Mjolnir. Thor’s hammer, and mine.”