Thor’s Facelift:

Norse Mythology in the Marvel Universe

In 2011, Marvel added the highly anticipated “super-human” alien, Thor, to their cinematic universe, and was largely considered a success. Kenneth Branagh’s direction of the film conjured an old world Shakespearean atmosphere that allowed for the best possible insertion of skeptical elements, like magic and alien technology, into what had already been established as a world founded on reasonable realism. What most are not aware of, however, is the fine level of integration and energy spent on distilling a working Asgardian cosmology that the film could manage for a largely pagan-illiterate film audience. The film attempts to show the fabled gods in their native habitats, as well as their personalities and relationships with one another, and is effective in doing so. In order to understand how and why Branagh was so successful in his mission requires a foundational grasp on Nordic mythology.

Contrary to any religious tradition, Nordic mythology stands out as one of the most isolated and esotric. Despite having influenced western philosophy, literature, and traditional holidays, Nordic paganism derives its corpus of sacred texts from second hand sources that had only partial exposure to the original pagan milieu. Most of what can be gleaned from the worshipers of Wotan (the Germanic Odin), Týr, and Thor are subject to speculation and anthropological reconstruction from remnants of pagan civilizations along the Rhine and the inner fjords of Sweden and Norway. According to the late H.R. Ellis Davidson, the most reliable accounts of this religious tradition derive from the writings of Snorri Sturluson.

Sturluson was an Icelandic literary scholar who made his home in the most ideal setting for culturally preserving the lost tales of the ancient vikings. By the 13th century, Iceland was already so isolated that much of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was present but not wholly supported on the small island nation. While it was still heresy to glamorize pagan tradition, Snorri’s project, veiled under the pretenses of teaching the poetic traditions of the Viking Sagas, remained largely unopposed when he compiled it in 1220 AD. Even though the sources of the tales he consulted were based on primarily Christian poets and scribes, no attempts were made of moralizing the content or presenting an overtly Christian bent in the recounting of the Asgardians. It is problematic whether or not the tales themselves were influenced by theological developments in the Medieval Catholic Church. However, Iceland, being so far removed from mainland Europe, offered a prime environment for the tales to be reclaimed in. For those who are unaware, modern Icelandic is more or less equivalent to Old Norse, and those who speak the language can still read the Sagas in their original forms. Today in 2013, Iceland still retains a vibrant, geographically preserved language. One can only imagine how much of the viking lore was still intact when Sturluson compiled the Prose Edda, the authoritative source of extant viking mythology. The only other extant source derives from Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian, who a hundred years before compiled his own collection of tales. Davidson, however, criticizes Grammaticus’ moralistic agenda, stating, “His stories are badly told in complex, pompous Latin, and are frequently muddled, repetitive, and spoiled by moralizing. They have none of the charm of Snorri’s work, but they contain material of much interest and value.”

Sturluson begins his work with a prologue explaining the origin of the pagan tales within the context and theological framework of the Late Medieval christian period. Here he delicately and gently addresses the value of the tales and why they should be preserved, connecting Thor to the tradition of antiquity as the grandson of King Priam of Troy. Sturluson’s thesis and hypothesis was that the original Aesir were the descendants of Thor (this being a historical reconstruction), a historical figure mistaken for godhood whose son Odin the Wise, along with his wife Frigg, planted the nacent kingdoms of northern Europe with their offspring. Having forgotten the sovereignty of God and walked away from his will, Mankind started over, looking for evidences of the divine in the created world. Here the philosophy is very much influenced by Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which, in turn, is rooted in Aristotelian philosophy and a groundbreaking departure from Platonic conceptions of God. After the prologue has finished, Sturluson details the sojourning of Odin, Thor’s son, as settling into Sweden and providing infrastructure and laws. Odin’s offspring are named the Aesir, who settle to live in a place called Asgard.

Sturluson’s prologue provides the historical origin of these viking myths, first grounded in the context of Greek heroics, which segues to the King of Sweden’s journey to Asgard to meet with the Aesir. The tale Gylfaginning (translated, The Deluding of Gylfi) is saturated with irony; King Gylfi disguises himself as an old man to learn their secrets and test their knowledge, when he is about to be duped by Odin, the All-Father himself. The All-Father here appears in three forms each enthroned above one another as High-One, Just-as-High, and Third. (Whether or not this detail was influenced by Trinitarian Theology is debatable.) Using the encounter as a narrative device, the three chieftains proceed to “delude” Gylfi by telling him about the exploits of the Asgardians, thus saving Sturluson from accusations of heresy.

Considering the film Thor in light of the origination of the myth, Sturluson’s tales as dictated through the conversation of Gylfi and the All-Father, much has been done to preserve the conceptual framework of the tales in the film. The Cosmology of the universe places Midgard, the realm of Man, around a great cosmic tree named Yggdrasil, which is mentioned in the Thor film as a galaxy-like cluster of stars. The Bifrost, which in Nordic mythology has been described as a rainbow, pole, tree, or the Milky Way Galaxy, acts as a faster than light warp system between designated realms. The imagery from the film preserves Jack Kirby’s style, while also borrowing from the Boom Tube of the DC comics Fourth World fantasy, also created by Kirby. In the after credits crescendo, the camera, after swooping through a host of galaxies, finally pulls out to see the Yggdrasil formation in full with a system of spiraling roots and limbs. In Nordic mythology, Yggdrasil is the center of all life in the created order, and invokes the spirit of Earth-based religions by subjecting its denizens to the whims of nature’s command. Asgard and Midgard both wrap around its base, forming a disk world cosmology while other realms are placed underneath the roots of the World Tree in darker places. In Thor, the space travel aspect of the universe takes precedence, placing these other worlds far across space and time, thereby removing the immediacy of Asgard’s proximity to Midgard, or Earth. In doing so, Thor has transitioned from being a fantasy epic to a work of science fiction, while retaining much of the conceptual analogues.

The inner politics of Sturluson’s recounting is preserved thinly by Branagh, exchanging the conflict between the Asgardians and the Vanir with that of the frost giants of Jotunheim. In the Prose Edda, the Vanir/Asgardian conflict mirrors the conflict between earth and sky deities respectively. After Asgard won victory over the Vanir, hostages were taken from their realm and placed among the ruling class of Asgard. Njord and Freyr were those taken hostage, Freyr being a god of fertility from Sweden and Njord a god of the sea. The conflict having long been fought and put behind them symbolized the sovereignty of fate and the divine over the powers of the earth. Though Freyr is welcomed into the inner circle of chieftains, his power is never equated to that of Týr, God of Storms, and Odin, All-Father. This conflict between realms in the Thor film is adapted to an ongoing, unsteady truce between Laufey, king of Jotunheim and Odin, who takes Loki as a war hostage. Laufey in Sturluson’s recounting is actually the mother of Loki, the father being Fárbauti. Why the names were switched is likely to be chalked up to one name being easier to pronounce or refer to. Even so, King Laufey’s limited screen time makes the change in subject material the only dubious change to the core mythos.

The dynamic shared between Odin and Thor is more or less similar, but there are a few notable changes to consider. Odin has been markedly retooled to convey a far more Christian emphasis, than the darker, mysterious Odin that Sturluson conveys. Thomas DuBois in his book Nordic Religions in the Viking Age accurately describes the power and weight of the deity:

Odin stands as the uncontested ruler of all, the All-Father, who counts Thor as a son and leads the other gods in counsel at Asgard. His missing eye (ransomed for wisdom), attendant ravens, and eight-legged horse make him easily recognizable in iconographic as well as narrative descriptions. Although presiding as the leader of the Aesir as well as dead warriors, he also seems to have subsumed older aspects of both Vanir magic and shamanic tradition into himself, figuring as an ever-present and resourceful deity, one always behind the corner, waiting to enlist the dying hero in the afterlife wonders of Valhalla or plotting to gain a new type of magic or wisdom.

Odin in Branagh’s film is much older and less vibrant. He is still sovereign and powerful, but hindered by age. His eye is lost in battle as a cost of war, and not given to gain arcane wisdom from the stream of Mimir. Odin’s realm would not have been a large kingdom filled with tens of thousands of constituents but rather a small tribe of superhuman lords and ladies with a contingency of lesser creatures like Dwarves and Giants answering to them. What is preserved, however, is his relationship to Thor. Despite Thor’s lack of beard, red hair, and sizable figure, the on screen Father-Son relationship is accurate to the legends, if not slightly updated with easier to understand language. Thor’s quest for maturity is far removed from the original material that describes him (in the words of H.R. Davidson) as being, “bearded, outspoken, indomitable, [and] filled with vigor and gusto.” She continues to say that, “Thor’s delight in eating and drinking was in accordance with his great vitality and physical strength. His progress through the realms of gods and giants was marked by the continual overthrowing of adversaries and overcoming of obstacles.” While Thor in Branagh’s interpretation is certainly indomitable his subordinates, notably Volstagg, embody more the traditional view of who Thor was and the purity of his character. Branagh’s Thor is specifically wielded as a product of character development, showing a young man becoming a matured king.

Loki, who now drives the inertia of the Marvel cinematic universe, is perhaps one of the most interesting adaptations of all. Scholars are divided on the true identity of Loki in his original Northern European context. From what has been discovered through archeology and works of cultural reclamation, there has yet to be a cult to Loki discovered where men offered sacrifices in tribute to him. In Sturluson’s Prose Edda Loki is neither good nor evil, but acts as an antagonist shrouded in ambivalence. He is a friend to Thor in the mythos, often traveling with him on Thor’s journeys, and often saves the Asgardians from trouble in a variety of tales. Yet he is also associated with Balder’s death, as well as a forerunner to the Nordic apocalypse Ragnarok, where he and his children Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent bring global destruction. Loki in the film matches the same level of animosity of his mythic origin, albeit with a fabricated premise to make his vengeance take logical shape. In the mythology it is unexplained why he hates Balder so much, but the severity of this response could be attributed to Loki’s affiliation with the Medieval devil of Christianity, if not at least explain the expansion made upon his evil characteristics. In Thor 2: The Dark World, Thor and Loki will resume their partnership. How it will compare to the Prose Edda remains to be seen, but given that Loki’s key distinguishing aspect from the Aesir, according to Sturluson, is his flirtatious socialization with all aspects of the Norse pantheon from creation to Ragnarok, his relationships with the dark elves may bring some interesting details to his nature.

Heimdall, lastly, is Thor’s most anachronistic, yet intriguing change made to the core mythos. What is so peculiar about this character is that Branagh preserved nearly the entirety of his conceptual origin, with one exception: he’s black. Acting as both guardian and sentry to the realm of Asgard, Heimdall protects the Bifrost from frost giants and invaders alike. Like Sturluson’s account, Heimdall possesses incredible sight and hearing, as described by Davidson; “he needs no sleep, and can see by night as by day, his ear is perpetually alert for the tiniest sound and the faintest threat to Asgard’s safety.” All of these details are tenaciously accounted for by Branagh other than his race. In Sturluson’s recounting he is described very particularly: “Heimdall is one. He is called the white god and is powerful and sacred. Nine maidens, all sisters, gave birth to him as their son.” In other stories he is described as being the fairest of the Aesir. After the announcement that Idris Elba was to star as the role of Heimdall, several white supremacy groups decried the decision to the casting. Penny-Arcade, an online webcomic notable for their commentary on the video game industry, made light of the situation in comic form, suggesting that the movie was all about white supremacy, featuring a blonde-haired, blue-eyed savior as the lead protagonist. Having a black Heimdall would be a minor change in what otherwise was already an egotistical advancement in white superheroes. That being said, Jerry Holkins (otherwise known as “Tycho Brahe” on Penny-Arcade) expressed his befuddlement at the whole situation because he couldn’t help but understand the claim the groups were making. He expresses through the character Gabe, “Weren’t the Norse Gods white, though? I mean, even a racist clock is right twice a day.” The comic otherwise brings up a good point, though Jerry was speaking in jest. Despite all of this, however, the change did little to effect the movie, and offered a caveat that allowed Branagh to distance Thor’s earthy anthropological origins to being an alien from another planet. The change is a guarantee that Branagh is departing for more modern cinematic and mythological territory.

Considering all the movie has to offer, Thor does an adequate job at bringing to life the cosmology and atmosphere of Sturluson’s original contribution to cultural history. The gods are intact, with a colorful retinue of supporting characters that exemplify the authenticity of Sturluson’s findings. Branagh’s work conveyed Thor’s classical roots, while retrofitting the cosmology with 21st Century flair. With the next movie nearly released, what comes of the franchise awaits to be seen. Now that the groundwork has been laid, Thor has worlds still to explore.

Sources:

Byock, Jesse L.. The Prose Edda: Norse mythology. London: Penguin Books, 2005.

DuBois, Thomas A.. Nordic religions in the Viking Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. Gods and myths of Northern Europe. London [etc.: Penguin, 1990.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m already struggling to express how amazing this article is to me, and ivebbarely started reading it.

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  2. I’m already struggling to express how amazing this article is to me, and I’ve barely started reading it.

    Out. Stand. Ing.

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