|Wired Magazine almost ran a feature on heathen theology. Almost.|
Devon Maloney of Wired Magazine contacted me in early November about Marvel’s new movie, Thor: The Dark World. She wrote that “one of [her] big things at Wired is writing about the sociocultural causes and effects of entertainment” and that she was interested in interviewing me about “how the myth has been updated to this most recent iteration.” Ms. Maloney asked me several questions via email, and I wrote detailed replies.
Unfortunately, the Wired editors decided to kill the feature a week after I submitted my answers. This was completely unsurprising. I was fairly skeptical from the beginning about the likelihood of my comments on ancient heathen worldview appearing in a magazine about “the future of business, culture, innovation and science.” Such is life in the modern world.
With Ms. Maloney’s permission, I am posting her questions (in bold) and my answers. I hope this article will help put the Marvel films in perspective for readers who may not be familiar with the original mythology.
|Thor, Odin, and Loki – as portrayed in the first Thor movie|
Norse mythology, as it survives in the written record, presents the gods as very complicated individuals. Reducing each of them to a single epithet (“god of thunder,” for example) really oversimplifies things.
If we are going to take this material seriously, we need to ask: what is the function of the god? If we say Thor is “god of thunder,” then the question becomes: what function does thunder perform for a society of worshipers? I would argue that thunder itself performs no function. In Thor’s case, it is a manifestation of his function – a sign of his presence.
In the 11th century, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen described Swedish religious ritual and belief: “Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops.” In this view, thunder is an audible sign of Thor’s fertility function. The hammer itself can be seen as a phallic symbol with which the god of the skies impregnates the goddess of the earth, as lightning crashes down from on high.
In the Icelandic version of the mythology – written down in the 13th century – Thor’s fertility function has become obscured. The emphasis is placed squarely on his role as defender of gods and humans from the giants, who themselves represent the threatening forces of nature – flood, avalanche, wildfire and so on. In this version, Thor’s hammer is clearly described as the treasure most valued by the gods, since it is the weapon that “provided the greatest defense against frost-giants.”
|The movie version of Thor seems to have hammer troubles.|
Interestingly enough, Adam of Bremen also tells us that “the people [in Uppsala, Sweden] worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan [Odin] and Frikko [Frey] have places on either side.” In the particular time and place Adam is describing, Thor is the main god of the people, and Odin is off to the side.
In the Icelandic myths, Odin is arguably the most prominent of the gods. He’s also the most complicated, and it seems that centuries of greatly varied beliefs have coalesced into an incredibly dense figure. His domains include death, inspiration, language, magic, poetry, war and wisdom. Scholars have argued that Odin’s role grew over time, to the detriment of the god Tyr – who may have originally stood next to him on the top level of godhood, but who barely appears in the myths that have survived.
The two foundational aspects of Odin’s godhood in the myths are his quest for wisdom and his relationship to human heroes. He travels the world, disguised as a gray-bearded old wanderer. Note that he is disguised as such. The gods are referred to as powers, as forces beyond materiality. They take different shapes as the situation calls for. Even Thor is able to change his appearance and size.
|Odin disguised as an old wanderer – Art by Willy Pogany (1920)|
The Roman author Tacitus, discussing the beliefs of the Germanic tribes in the 1st century, writes that they “do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance.” We do know of artistic representations of the gods from various periods, but it’s interesting that Tacitus records a belief that lines up with the conception of the gods as immaterial forces. The physical manifestation of Odin as an old wanderer is just an appearance or disguise that he puts on when on the road.
In the surviving mythology, Odin wanders through the worlds to gain knowledge of the past, present and future. He sacrifices an eye to gain mystic wisdom. He sacrifices himself to himself (to whom else would the Allfather sacrifice?) in order to bring knowledge of the runes back from the Other World. He willingly goes into the halls of hostile giants and into the land of death to gain knowledge of future events. He goes into the mountain stronghold of a giant to steal the mead that inspires creativity. Over and over again, he makes sacrifices and takes great risks to gain knowledge that he then shares with humanity.
Odin has a special relationship to human heroes. He chooses individuals for greatness and provides them with wondrous weapons and horses. He guides their lives, periodically appearing to offer wisdom and help. Inevitably, he also causes their deaths. In his role as the god of war, he is repeatedly referred to as untrustworthy. He is steadfastly on your side until the moment when he turns against you and brings about your death. Such was the conception of heroic life in ancient times; you never know when Odin will step in and gather you to join the army of slain heroes in his hall – the army he is gathering for the final battle with the forces of chaos at the end of time.
Loki’s role is quite different from that of Thor and Odin. For one thing, he is not a god – he is merely “reckoned among” the gods and is actually a giant that the gods have suffered to live among them. Although he’s a colorful and humorous figure in some of his appearances in Icelandic myth, it seems that the oldest conception of Loki is as a bound giant tied up under the earth, angrily waiting until the end of time to break free and destroy the world. This is, for example, how he appears in the Danish version of the mythology recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in the 13th century.
|The Punishment of Loki (Greenaway & Evans, 1882)|
In the Icelandic myths written down by Snorri Sturluson over two centuries after the nation converted to Christianity, Loki has become much more of a comic character. Snorri tells tales of Loki’s adventures that portray him as a mischievous and clever fellow who “was always getting the Æsir [the gods] into a complete fix and often got them out of it by trickery.” However, Snorri first introduces Loki by saying that some call him “the Æsir’s calumniator [slanderer] and originator of deceits and the disgrace of all gods and men.” That last idea seems to be the key to understanding Loki.
As we asked of Thor, we need to ask of Loki: what is his function? There is no such thing as a “god of mischief.” How would mischief play a positive role in a society that placed such an emphasis on proper behavior within the community? In any case, the question is moot: the major scholars agree that Loki was never worshiped as a god in ancient times. The myths back this up: Loki is a visitor among the gods, and is finally revealed as their greatest enemy when he leads the forces that will destroy the world at the final battle of Ragnarök [“doom of the powers”].
The role that Loki plays in the ancient worldview is as a representation of all that is harmful to the community. His antics in the world of the gods provide a mythic version of all that someone could do in the human world to break the codes of conduct. In a society that placed great value on masculinity, he is a male who embodies ergi – a complicated word that suggests all kinds of unmanly behavior.
In one Icelandic poem, Odin describes Loki’s behavior as “the hallmark of a pervert.” Loki spends eight years as a woman doing woman’s work – bearing children and milking cows. He becomes a female horse, seduces a male horse and bears a foal. He eats the heart of a witch and becomes pregnant. He eagerly dresses in drag.
|Two ways to dress in drag: angry (Thor) and giddy (Loki)|
Art by Carl Larsson (1893)
However, Loki’s unmanly behavior goes beyond these obvious gender-bendings. He regularly breaks his word to gods, giants and dwarves. He repeatedly behaves in a cowardly manner when faced with physical harm. He is very willing to place women in danger in order to save himself. He is driven by jealousy to murder a servant and bring about the death of Odin’s son Balder.
Loki’s monstrous children are symbolic representations of threats to society. The giant wolf Fenrir represents the destructive nature of those who break society’s rules and threaten the community from within. Fenrir is raised among the gods, but must eventually be bound when his threat becomes too large. In Old Norse, “wolf” was used as a term for those who had committed a killing outside the bounds of societal norms and had to be removed from the community in order to protect it. The giant Midgard Serpent who lies at the bottom of the ocean represents the destructive forces of the seas – forces that could smash fishing boats and threaten the survival of the community. Loki’s daughter Hel watches over the deceased who have died of sickness or old age – in other words, the cowardly, unheroic and unmanly dead who do not fight for the survival of the community.
Of course, we can question the values that these characters represented. We can question what “manly” means in our own society. However, I think we really need to be careful about projecting our own values backwards in time and reading Loki – as many today seem to do – as the charismatic and misunderstood antihero of the myths.
How would the Vikings perceive this iteration — not details-wise, but qualitatively?
The version of the Norse gods presented in the two Thor films would be, to a large extent, puzzling to those who actually belonged to the culture from which these gods came.
In the new movie, Odin tells Loki that the “Asgardians” (the Æsir, the Norse gods) are not really gods. His reason? They can be killed; they do not have an eternal existence. As with much of the Marvel version, this is reading Norse mythology from an Abrahamic perspective. The god of the Judeo-Christian mythology exists outside of time; he is eternal, unchanging. The Germanic conception of godhood is different from this on a very fundamental level. The gods are of the world; they exist in time. They can be seen as humanity writ large or as the forces of nature given corporeal form, but they are in no sense omnipotent. Marvel’s Odin is actually espousing a conception of godhood that only arrived in the North with the conversion to Christianity.
|Odin the Living Omnipotence|
Marvel Comics art by Jack Kirby (1968)
As portrayed in the films, there is really nothing left of Odin’s role and function from the mythology. The Norse elements have been almost completely removed. In large part, Odin has been rewritten as the god of the Old Testament. In the films, there is no suggestion of the defining aspects of Odin-of-the-myths: his search for wisdom and his relationship with humanity. Instead, he is portrayed as a Biblical patriarch. While the gods and goddesses of the myths gather in council to debate and reach decisions, the Marvel Odin proclaims from his kingly throne like God the Father.
In the myths, Odin willingly sacrifices an eye as a pledge to gain a drink from the well of wisdom. The myth reflects the sacrifices necessary to gain knowledge, and it underscores what lengths Odin goes to in order to gain knowledge. In the first Thor film, Odin is shown losing his eye in battle with the giants. This completely changes the nature of the character and makes him seem more like the wrathful Old Testament god than the Gandalf-like Wanderer of the myths; the individual quest for wisdom has been replaced by a tribal battle to protect the homeland of the chosen ones. I’d argue that – even in the hands of Peter Jackson – Gandalf provides a better cinematic realization of Odin than does the Allfather of the Marvel films.
Ancient poetry refers to Odin as “the sacrifice for men,” referring to his self-sacrifice in order to gain knowledge of the runes – knowledge which he then shared with humanity. The special relationship between Odin and poets, between Odin and human heroes – so fundamental to the mythology – is literally inverted in the Marvel films. Odin, who spends so much time in the myths wandering the world of men, punishes Thor in the first film by sending him to Earth. Odin, who sires heroes on various women, denounces Thor in the second film for wanting to mate with a mere mortal.
The film portrayal of both Odin and Thor owes more to Judeo-Christian mythology than it does to Norse mythology. The first Thor film has a Christian storyline: God the Father sends his son down to Earth to live as a mortal, to gather a small group of followers and convince them of his godhood, to prove his worthiness by sacrificing himself to save humanity.
|Thor taketh away the sin of the world: "These people are innocent.|
Taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine and end this."
This overt recasting of Thor as Christ goes directly against the Norse myths. There is self-sacrifice in the myths, but it is Odin who offers himself up. Tellingly, Odin does so in a heroic (and successful) attempt to gain wisdom – the very antithesis of the myth of Adam and the Tree of Knowledge. Thor’s self-sacrifice, as portrayed in the first film, goes completely against the portrayal of Thor in the mythology.
In the Icelandic myths, Thor is – in many ways – the idealized self-image of the free farmer. He is quick to anger and quick to forgiveness. He is honest and hardworking. He has no patience for unmanly behavior of any sort. This attitude brings him into direct conflict with Odin, the god who uses magic and deception to accomplish his goals. Thor can’t stand magic, since it involves trickery and dishonesty. If Odin wants to attack an enemy, he hides his intentions and works his will with spells and incantations. If Thor wants to attack you, he tells you that he’s going to hit you with his hammer, and then he hits you with his hammer. He’s a pretty direct guy.
The angsty Thor of the movies – worried about his worthiness, pining over Jane Foster, repentant for his overly-confident attack on the giants – would have been an object of ridicule for the Vikings. The mythic Thor was a big drinker, a big eater, a big boaster, and a big fighter. He is always away in Giantland, smashing trolls. The only worry he has is that people won’t think he is manly enough. His solution to every problem is to hit it in the face with his hammer. Marvel’s romance-movie Thor would have been just as off-putting to the Vikings as DC’s romance-movie Superman in Superman Returns was to fans of the Man of Steel.
The major way in which the Marvel Thor intersects with the mythic Thor is in his role as protector of humanity. Dating back to Bronze Age carvings in Scandinavia, the hammer or axe is used as a symbol of blessing, of protection, of community. This symbolism is consistent for four thousand years – from the earliest carvings, through the Viking age and into modern iterations of Norse religion. One of Thor’s defining roles – if not the defining role – is as the protector of the community. The movie Thor’s obsession with protecting our planet, then, actually does line up with the myths. It’s the other stuff – the Christ-symbolism, the tearfulness – that is really goofy.
|Swedish Thor's hammer pendant from the 10th century|
There are also elements of the Marvel Loki that do connect him to the mythic original. The movie Loki fits the description in Snorri’s Edda: “Loki is pleasing and handsome in appearance, evil in character, very capricious in behavior. He possessed to a greater degree than others the kind of learning that is called cunning, and tricks for every purpose.” In the myths, he is Thor’s companion on some of his main adventures. As in the films, he is seductive and untrustworthy.
However, the version of Loki preserved by Snorri in 13th-century Iceland does seem to be a very late, literary version of the character. The Loki of the older poetry is darker and less attractive. He is more clearly a wicked giant, a murderous foe whom the gods have brought into their community and who will eventually destroy the world. The original conception of Loki seems to be as the bound giant, waiting to break free and bring destruction.
The fundamental change the films make to Loki is by having him be a sympathetic, misunderstood anti-hero. This is alien to the Norse conception of Loki as the embodiment of all that is harmful to society. Loki may bring comic relief to some of the myths (as told by Snorri), but he is, fundamentally, someone who breaks all the codes of community and kinship. There is no sense of sympathy for him in the myths. If anything, there is a fierce joy at his torture and punishment as rightfully deserved.
What purpose did the gods Thor, Loki and Odin serve for the Vikings? Sure, it was their religion – but what did these stories provide for their culture and them as individuals just living their lives?
When speaking of this era, I don’t think we can make a distinction between “religion” and “living their lives.” Before the conversion to Christianity, there is little sense of “religion” being something that existed outside of daily life.
|Thor is still a big part of our daily lives.|
Today, the word Ásatrú [“Æsir faith”] is used to designate the modern iteration of the Norse religion. However, the term is a modern neologism. The ancient Germanic tribes seem to have had no word that distinguished religion as something distinct from everyday life. Only when Christianity came to the North did such an idea appear; during the clash of religions, the heathen practice was called “the Old Way” to distinguish it from “the New Way” of Christianity. I think it’s telling that it was referred to as a way – a way of doing things – because that’s what it was: a means of interacting with life and everything in it.
What then, was the function of the myths? I would argue that they provide the same function as the myths of any culture, including the myths of modern Christianity. The stories embody the values of a culture – its worldview. The telling and retelling of the stories bind together the members of a community. Interestingly, bonds is another word used in the sources to refer to the gods themselves.
As a person grows older, that person’s understanding of myth grows. A child reading kiddie versions of the life of Jesus will likely focus on the events of the story – the narrative. An adult reading the New Testament will likely be attracted to deeper contemplation of meanings expressed in the parables – the myths that provide teachings and reflect on the values of the faith. As the individual becomes a mature adult, focus will shift from events and stories to meditation on the meanings and values implicit in those events.
Unfortunately, modern appreciation of Norse mythology is largely stuck at the childish level. We focus almost exclusively on the narrative – on the exciting and seemingly fantastical adventures they portray. We divorce the stories from the culture that surrounded them and brush aside the fact that these stories embody an ancient worldview. Reading the myths as simple adventure stories means that we are reading them with a simpleminded level of understanding.
|At some point, adults need to move past the kids' version.|
This leads to a serious problem. As adults, we do want our stories to contain meaning. When we remove all cultural context from the Norse myths, they are empty vessels. The Marvel films then pour Judeo-Christian values into these vessels and end up with, for example, versions of Thor and Odin that would have been largely alien to members of their root culture. The film producers sidestep issues of religion and culture by positing the “Asgardians” as literally alien – they are clearly stated to be space aliens and are in no way gods. Then, to artificially invest the characters with a fakey gravitas, Odin is recast as a wrathful Yahweh and Thor as a self-doubting Christ. American audiences are comfortable with these portrayals, because the Judeo-Christian worldview is hardwired into our society. You can see the problem: the gods of Norse myths are being used to tell stories that go directly against the values that they originally expressed.
There’s a decent amount of stuff about moms here. To what extent was motherhood important in Norse myth, with regard to Thor? If it wasn’t very important to the Vikings, why do you think this has been updated?
Lineage in Old Norse society was determined through the father. If Thor had been human, his name would have been Thor Odinsson. His mother is not Odin’s wife Frigg – as portrayed in the films – but Jörð, the Earth herself. Although she is named several times in connection to Thor, Jörð never actually appears in any surviving myths.
The Marvel movies really mess with the familial relationships. In the myths, Loki is not Thor’s adopted brother. He is a giant who has sworn blood-brotherhood with Odin and come to live with the gods in Asgard. Swearing blood-brotherhood was a very serious thing in Old Norse society. After performing the ritual – which was much more involved and intense than simply pricking your thumb – the two men were legally bound together as kin, with all the rights and responsibilities that relationship entailed.
|Tom Hiddleston in a typical pose as Marvel's Loki|
The Marvel films fabricate an intense relationship between Odin and Frigg as parents of Thor and Loki, and they fill this relationship with pop-culture ideas of sibling rivalry, adoption and resentment. In the actual myths, Loki calls Frigg a slut and taunts her by bragging that he caused the death of her son Balder. This is a bit different from his tender love for her in the new movie! Since Frigg is the mother of neither Thor nor Loki in the myths, there is absolutely none of the sibling striving for attention of the film.
I think there are pretty clear reasons why these changes were made to the film relationships. First of all, Kenneth Branagh completely wasted Renee Russo in the first Thor movie, and it seems like there was some executive decision made to beef up her role in the new film. Second, the sibling rivalry idea is a simple and inoffensive modern concept that the average viewer can easily grasp. The worldview embedded in the Loki myths is much more complicated and problematic for modern audiences: parentage determines character, unmanly behavior deserves public ridicule, betrayal deserves torture, etc. Americans today are so obsessed with the concept of the anti-hero – with the problematic sympathetic victimized underdog – that they naturally gravitate towards the “complicated” Loki.
|Tom Hiddleston and Rene Russo as Marvel's Loki and Frigga|
I wouldn’t say that the concept of motherhood has been “updated.” I would say that the creation of these relationships in the films is part of the divorce of the myths from their original cultural and religious context and their tweaking with Abrahamic approaches to myth. Odin has been recast as the Angry Patriarch of the Old Testament, Thor has become Christ the Son (especially in the first film) and Frigg has become Mother Mary (especially in the second film). The movie Frigg plays the role of the sympathetic mother who visits Loki, hears his heartfelt pleas and offers her condolences. These are generic post-Christian roles that could have been placed on any fictional characters, and they have no root in the Norse myths themselves.
Besides the general “fantasy comic book character” thing, what are some of the most telling modifications of the Thor/Odin/Loki myth that make it palatable and relatable to a contemporary audience? Like, are there parts of the original Norse myths (not details, but in general) that are outdated and invalid, and that’s why they change?
I’m not sure how myths can possibly become outdated and invalid. Rituals can change, evolve, adapt or even be abandoned. Theological interpretations can also shift over time. What gives myths their power is that they survive through the long years and can be heard or read by succeeding generations, forever. It is this very durability that makes them so amazing.
We can approach the myths in many different ways. We can come to them with childlike wonder and simply enjoy them as tales of adventure. We can come to them with sophisticated understanding and use them as a means of coming to terms with our own place in the world. We can come to them as scholars and use them as a means of reconstructing the worldview of the culture that gave birth to them.
I wouldn’t say that the Norse myths have changed. I’d say that the producers of the films have used some elements from the myths and some from the Marvel comic books, then thrown in a heavy dose of Abrahamic mythology and generic tropes of Hollywood film. This says nothing about the myths themselves, but it says a lot about how the entertainment industry grinds up cultural artifacts to create works that are easily graspable by the widest possible demographic.