Thor ’77-’78:

On the Never-Ending Road to Ragnarok, Part 3

In The Mighty Thor #264, Loki sits on the throne because Balder, though left in charge of Asgard, departed to visit Karnilla, Queen of the Norns. The throne was left empty. Now that Loki was ruler, he planned to retain his place. He brings forth a scroll, secured in the Cask of Sovereignty, sealed with the Odin Seal. The scroll explains how Loki, Thor’s half-brother, is the ruler of Asgard after both Odin and Thor are absent. Thor accepts this as the law of Asgard. To the reader it is revealed that Loki forged the cask, the scroll, and the seal, aided by the magic powers of the Enchantress and the Executioner. Meanwhile, the Enchantress and the Executioner steal away Odin’s sleeping body to insure their plan will succeed.

Thor, resigned to Loki’s rule, questions why Balder went away. With Sif and the Recorder, he decides to look for the lost god in the Land of the Norns, where Queen Karnilla, a known admirer of Balder, rules. Thor sends the Warriors Three to guard Odin’s sleeping body. On their travels, Thor and companions fight two Storm Giants. The Warriors Three discover Odin’s body has been stolen and they set off to find who has taken him and where. Eventually, they discover the Enchantress and the Executioner, but without Odin’s sleeping body. Battle ensues, and the Enchantress and the Executioner fall down a pit to their doom.

Thor, Sif, and the Recorder find Karnilla, but she tells them Balder never was there. She invited him, but he refused to come. However, Balder’s plight is then made clear as we see him being held captive; Loki sent a false Thor and Karnilla, created by the Enchantress’ magic to fool Balder, which enabled them to take him captive. We see Balder chained and being carried away to his fate.

Thor returns to confront Loki with Karnilla’s words, but The Destroyer appears – a giant suit of lethal armor, powered by someone’s life force and designed to kill a god – intent, as always, on killing Thor. The issue ends with the mystery: whose life force is energizing The Destroyer?

This issue plays with the idea of gods and God directly with the title “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.” As told earlier, this is the First Commandment of the God of the Old Testament, who was telling the Hebrew people to worship Him and Him alone – over all the many other gods also being worshipped at the time. In the context of this comic book, it is a simple reference to the plot line of Loki having commandeered the throne of Asgard. However, any reference to religion was being noticed by my now twelve-year-old self. Even if one did not have the Ten Commandments memorized, the first one, being first, was hard to forget. (Although I recall wondering why this was the first when “Thou Shalt Not Murder” was one of the others… but I digress.)

Another parallel to Christianity arises here, also resonating with history, politics, and mythology. What allows Loki to sit on the throne, even in the face of Thor’s anger – “Stand ye down, base villain! Stand ye down from this throne-whilst thou still canst walk!” – is the written word. A scroll contains Odin’s written instructions, and his words are taken as the law of the land. The same is found within fundamental and evangelical Christianity – the Bible, taken by believers to be the word of God, literally written, becomes the law of their lives. In this case, Loki is obviously a deceitful god, but “the word” puts him on the throne with no dispute. If one reads the Bible today, our current sensibility can find much that would surprisingly be thought of as un-Godlike within it. But when written word is taken to be fact, there is no way to work around discrepancies. They have to be accepted.

We see this in historical accounts, sadly encapsulated in the idea that winners write history. I recall a history lesson from grammar school – to paraphrase, the teacher emphasized that this is HISstory, kids, not HERstory. Surprisingly liberal from a Roman Catholic nun! But now we also see the American textbook industry re-writing children’s history texts to reflect more conservative perspectives on “what really happened.” Whoever writes, or rewrites, history can now influence what children get taught. Religious home-schoolers can teach their children the Bible as fact. In politics and in our laws, our rules are written down. Our entire judicial system is about deciding what our writing means.

Mythology is an interesting variant on all this, as myths get rewritten often, and numerous versions of almost every myth are available. The value in myth is that every version is “correct” with each variant myth imparting a bit of wisdom toward what the mythic narrative “means.” It is up to everyone who hears or reads a myth to unpack its contents to find what they can inside. An important reminder – Loki completely forged this document, but its written quality makes the words real and the meanings demand obedience. When there is only one version written down, taking it literally as truth can be very dangerous as the nuances we usually survive by simply may not be included within.

A less important, but still fascinating, parallel to the Church arises when the writers try to inject some humor into the narrative. As Thor, Sif, and the Recorder leave Asgard to find Karnilla, they ride off on horses. In actual Norse myths Thor had a goat-cart, a chariot pulled by two goats, but something in the modern sensibility of comic book readers suggests a goat-cart might not be all that well received. Odin, though, did have a horse in the myths, an eight-legged animal named Sleipnir. Sleipnir does make an occasional appearance in the comics, so it wasn’t uncommon to have the three travel on horseback. The Recorder has never been in the saddle though, and in his idiomatic manner, says “Statement: Whoa, horse—WHOA!” as it takes off in the manner of most horses who realize their rider has no business being on their back. To which Sif and Thor cornily reply:

Sif: “As thou didst say, friend Recorder—tis thy duty to record all that may occur this day–!”

Thor: “Including, methinks, thine own first case of saddle sores!”

The intent here is obviously humor – and this is corny comic book humor at its most obvious. However, with the promised parallel to the Catholic Church, this reminds me of the kind of humor I heard at Sunday mass during sermons and otherwise generally from Catholic priests. Humor was almost always a way in for a priest to get to a discussion on how the weekly bible readings related to real, day-to-day lives of the parishioners. But the humor was always, strictly, along the lines of Thor cracking wise about saddle sores. Kids – whether at Church, or while reading the latest Thor – were never too impressed with such humor. Unless they came up with it themselves.

Another parallel more disturbing becomes apparent when Sif is confronted in battle with the Storm Giants. This is not the Sif you expect from Thor movies of today, as she is shown, mouth agape in fear, thinking: “’Tis for me alone to aid the mighty Thor, as befits a goddess born! But the very sight of yon lumbering behemoth fills me with a terror such as I have never known before! A fear so great, I…I am unable to even move!” Reading now as an adult, I cringed, and cringed some more as Thor simply defeats both giants without even another word from Sif. As a boy, I did not know any girls reading superhero comics, so I probably never thought twice. Thor was the hero after all. However, Marvel’s portrayal of Sif here fails on all levels. Sif was a warrior; a storm giant should have caused her nothing but an annoyance.

And of course, the Catholic Church had its own problems with the role of women. There are still no female priests; there was no divine feminine – in certain Gnostic ways of thinking, Mary is considered as equally divine as the male gods, but Catholics were not then or now known for their Gnostic thinking. The major role for women in the Catholic Church at the time was the nun, a position whose numbers have fallen drastically and for me, deservedly so. So, although my intent for this chapter is to contrast the dual narratives of my childhood, the Marvel Universe and the Catholic religion, when it came to portraying women comparing them is more to the point. This is not a comparison that makes either mythology look good.

As an interesting coda to this issue and the idea of women’s roles, Stan Lee’s Soapbox ends with the announcement that Marvel will be publishing their fourth volume of the Origins series, a series of trade paperbacks reprinting the origin stories of Marvel characters. The fourth volume is surprisingly announced to be “The Superhero Women.” A quick check shows that Hela, The Norse Goddess of Death gets featured in that volume, but no origin of Sif. Not surprising, I guess…

Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph P. Muszynski, Ph.D., is a managing editor at the University of Chicago Press. Joe earned his doctorate in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute with a dissertation titled “Structure, Form, and Content: Mythology and Comics.” He blogs on comics and myth at “Into the gap…” (mythandcomics.blogspot.com). Check out his book “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)” on Amazon. Email him at joemuszynski@earthlink.net

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