Thor Throats

Eric Lis

The astute reader will have already noticed that for the last two weeks, I've been exploring medical texts that have survived from the medieval period. The fantasy genre draws heavily from the medieval era, and as such, it's a period of history that gamers tend to imagine that we know well. Anyone who reads through the two most popular SRDs will pick up a wealth of information about Earth history, from old analogues of modern jobs to the average weight of ancient coinage. Gamers know more about ancient weapons than the average person would ever need to do, and although some of my closest friends couldn't tell you what the Magna Carta was or the names of Columbus' three most famous ships, they can tell you the difference between a halberd and a guisarme. The truth is that we actually end up with very specialized and narrow knowledge, and most gamers have little to no idea what the arts and sciences were really like, which is a shame, because in our fantasy campaigns, we often populate our worlds with things that we think make sense and which actually don't. Documents such as the writings of King Edward of Portugal shed some valuable light into the parts of history that our player's handbooks and guides largely ignore and help us make our games much richer.

As far as medicine and the sciences go, a lot of data from the medieval period still survives, but it tends to come from certain areas of the world, notably the Middle East and the Mediterranean. While campaign settings like Kos draw heavily upon ancient Greece, most of our games draw primarily from Europe, where for most of history, medicine and science lagged rather embarrassingly behind. In such lands and times, there was very little in the way of a strong healing tradition, which begs the question: how do people conceptualize sickness in a society and culture which may not overly value helping the ill recover? Norse mythology and culture plays a huge role in many fantasy settings, but do you actually know anything about how they treated their sick and dying? Is healing even a priority in a society where the greatest aspiration a man can have is to die gloriously in battle? To give some insight into this, there are papers like this one by Hall, which argues that ancient Scandinavians may have understood illness in much the same way they understood Grendel and sea serpents.

The author of this paper puts forward an interesting theory. He examines several Old Norse texts which refer, on their surface, to monsters, and suggests that they refer, either instead or in addition, to illness. He focuses particularly on one particular word, þurs (or "thurs"), which is generally held to refer to giants/jotunn or ogres and similar monsters. It could refer also to stupidity in some texts, and while it typically referred to evil creatures, there were instances of non-evil characters being referred to as þurs in literature. The author goes on to identify instances in Norse literature where descriptions of heroes contending against monsters could easily have referred to attempts to cure various illnesses, based on references to blood poisons and other common forms of sickness. Hall cites some surviving references to Þórr (better known as Thor) who, though much more associated with un-healing in modern understanding, is recognized as having been one of the Norse gods of healing and protection. Hall, of course, argues that Thor's role as the Norse's pre-eminent slayer of monsters is perfectly consistent with him being a god of healing.

In essence, much of what Hall is saying is that such ancient writings may reflect how a society understands sickness when they lack the language for it. Modern science is able to elucidate sickness the way we do because centuries have been spent painstakingly formulating a whole language for that purpose. The Norse, lacking a language for dysfunctions of anatomy and physiology, could describe things only in the words that they had available, words referring to battles, warriors, giants, and monsters. This isn't to say that the Norse couldn't have held both understandings; even if these ancient texts are a way of understanding disease, it doesn't mean that the writers didn't honestly believe that Thor would one day die fighting Jörmungandr. Many mythologists assume that every story has multiple "true" meanings, and it's at best presumptuous of us to assume that we know exactly what ancient people were thinking. Our best guesses, though, do allow us to at least try to understand how they thought. Like so much in science, it's a process that works best when we force ourselves to remember that our theories could easily be wrong.

Hall's paper is not the same sort of document as the surviving writings of King Edward. When we read Edward's work, we see how an actual scholar of the era conceptualized sickness, whereas when we read this paper, we read a modern scholar hypothesizing one possible way to interpret some very metaphorical documents which have never been perfectly translated in the first place. Hall's work depends on choosing to see these texts as a very specific sort of metaphor, and the paper shouldn't be confused with a historically-accurate analysis, but rather as an attempt to understand how a long-gone people might have thought. Of course, we can never know if Hall's theory is correct in the way that we can read a modern analysis of King Edward and be reasonably sure we understand what he's saying. Rather, what we can get from this is the reminder that we rarely have a perfect understanding of how out ancestors' minds really worked, and there are usually many different ways to understand even a relatively simple idea. If nothing else, the paper presents one way to imagine that the old Norse understood human mortality and how they coped with this, which is certainly something which can help us to populate our world with similar peoples.  

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on January 25, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system