Friday, September 30, 2011

Blond Thor: Stan Lee Wasn't Wrong

Students and scholars of Norse mythology often roll their eyes at the Marvel Comics version of Thor, with his clean-shaven chin, blond hair, winged helmet and self-questioning insecurity. The burly and macho thunder god of myth, they insist, had a large red beard and was a fully-formed adult god, not a childish figure who defers to a Yahweh-like Odin (cf. Anthony Hopkins’ patriarchal performance as the Allfather in Kenneth Branagh's recent Thor movie). According to this position, the comics character created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby is simply too pretty, too blond, too young.

The first appearance of Lee and Kirby's Thor
Journey into Mystery #83 (1962)

A 2005 issue of The Jack Kirby Collector quotes Lee on the origins of the Marvel superhero: “Before starting the series, we stuffed ourselves to the gills with Norse mythology, as well as almost every other type of mythology – we love it all! But you’ve got to remember that these are legendary tales – myths – and no two versions are ever exactly the same. We changed a lot of things – for example, in most of the myths Thor has red hair, Odin has one eye, etc. But we preferred doing our own version.”

“In most of the myths”? Isn’t Thor always a bearded redhead in the source mythology?

In his Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend (1997), Andy Orchard writes, “Physical descriptions of [Thor] are few . . . According to the eddic poem Þrymskviða (“Thrym's Poem”), however, he has a bristling red beard, piercingly frightening eyes when roused and a frightening appetite.” A simple check of the poem’s text shows that it actually does not mention the color of Thor’s beard. The verse in question reads:
Thor was angry when he awoke
and missed his hammer;
his beard bristled, his hair stood on end,
the son of Earth began to grope about.
Maybe the comic book writer read the poems more carefully than the scholar of Old Norse!

Snorri Sturluson’s Edda makes no mention of Thor’s beard at all, and the Prologue simply states, “Hár hans er fegra en gull” (“His hair is fairer than gold”). This would seem to be a clear case of Thor being described as blond, but it’s not quite that simple.

Thor, pictured in an Icelandic manuscript (1760)
His beard looks blond to me!

The Old Norse fegra usually means “fair” in the sense of beautiful – not necessarily “light in color” – yet it is also used in the compound hárfagra (“light-haired”). Conversely, the Edda elsewhere cites poetic verses calling gold “red wealth,” which would imply that Thor is a redhead. However, other poetic quotations in the work compare gold to both yellow amber and red fire. So, evidence from Snorri doesn’t give a definitive answer on the color issue. In an email exchange, Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir (University College London) underscored this ambivalence: “the issue is also complicated further by the fact that most blond Nordic men have red beards.”

Rudolf Meissner’s Die Kenningar der Skalden (1921) provides an exhaustive list of kennings (poetic phrases that replace specific nouns) in Scandinavian poetry dating back to approximately 850 CE. In the section of the book dealing with references to Thor, there is no mention of beards – blond or red. Over the last hundred years, scholarly dating of Þrymskviða (with Thor’s bristling beard) has ranged from the late 900s to the early 1200s. Snorri’s Edda was written or compiled around 1220. In these early mythic sources, there is no clear answer. 

The first references to a red-bearded Thor appear in the sagas, written after the Eddas (either slightly after or much later – see below). These few mentions of Thor’s red beard appear in strikingly Christian contexts, not pagan ones. They portray Thor a god whose time has passed – a relic of a bygone era. 

In Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorhall remains loyal to Thor during the Viking exploration of Vínland (North America) despite the Christians around him. In one well-known passage, he brags that Thor is more powerful than Jesus: “Didn’t Old Redbeard prove to be more help than your Christ? This was my payment for the poem I composed about Thor, my guardian, who’s seldom disappointed me.” Gísli Sigurðsson (Árni Magnússon Institute) has dated the writing of the saga to between 1220 and 1280. When Kendra Wilson (UCLA) was kind enough to check attestations of rauðskeggr (“red-bearded”) in the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose, this speech of Thorhall’s was the only result she found.

In "Out-Thoring Thor in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta" (2006), Merrill Kaplan (Ohio State University) describes how Thor appears in the saga as a “demonic entity” who is “young-seeming, powerfully built, and red-bearded” and is referred to only as rauða skegg (“red beard”). The saga itself was likely compiled between 1225 and 1250.

In Flóamanna Saga, Thor appears several times in the dreams of Thorgils, a man who “was among the first to be converted” to Christianity in Iceland. Thor repeatedly threatens the hero in an attempt to turn him back to the old religion, but he is unsuccessful. When he visits Thorgils in his dream-visions, the god materializes as a “large and red-bearded man.” According to Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (edited by Kirsten Wolf, Paul Acker and Donald K. Fry, published 1993), this saga is dated between 1290 and 1350 and was most likely written by a Christian clergyman in southern Iceland.

Thorgils isn't the only one who dreams of Thor!

So the first traceable appearances of Thor's red beard appear in sagas dated c1220-c1350, not in the earlier mythological sources from c850-c1220. The chronology can be argued, but it is clear that the saga version of Thor's appearance is the one that has stuck with us. Long after the age of saga-writing, the red-bearded Thor remained as the popular image of the god in folklore of various lands. The French scholar Georges Dumézil writes, "Whereas the Edda presents [Thor] as a man in the prime of life, the Lapp tradition, in accord with several popular Norwegian expressions, makes him an old man with a red beard.” Jacob Grimm wrote in 1835 that “this red beard of the thunderer is still remembered in curses, and that among the Frisian folk, without any visible connexion [sic] with Norse ideas: ‘diis ruadhiiret donner regiir!’ (let red-haired thunder see to that) is to this day an exclamation of the North Frisians.”

Marvel’s youthful, inexperienced Thor – especially as portrayed in the early Lee/Kirby stories – also has roots in the Eddas. Both Hárbarðsljóð (“Harbard’s Song”) and Hymiskviða (“Hymir’s Poem”) refer to Thor as sveinn (“boy” or “lad”). Snorri glosses the second poem by writing that Thor “went out across Midgard, having assumed the appearance of a young boy,” but the original text makes no such claim that Thor's youth is put on as a disguise.

Snorri’s description of Thor’s fight with the giant Hrungnir also posits a younger, less-experienced god of thunder: “Thor was eager not to let anything stop him from going to single combat when he had been challenged to a duel, for no one had ever done that to him before.” Dumézil discusses this passage in connection with initiation rites for young warriors, which underscores the idea that Lee and Kirby’s immature Thor is not necessarily out-of-step with mythological sources.

Jack Kirby’s classic Thor design incorporates earlier elements of his work that stretch back over twenty years before the character’s first appearance in 1962. In 1941, the superhero known as Mercury – a Kirby character for Timely Comics (which eventually evolved into Marvel Comics) – moved from Red Raven Comics to Captain America and underwent a name-change to Hurricane, “son of Thor, god of Thunder, and the last descendant of the ancient Greek immortals.”

The son of Thor kicks butt!
Art by Jack Kirby

Despite this strange confusion of mythologies, the character is noteworthy in that he is blond and wears winged headgear – two attributes of the later Marvel superhero version of Thor. Of course, the wings relate to clasic portrayals of the Roman Mercury, not the Norse god of thunder. Similar character design of another character named Mercury appears in the December, 1948 issue of Venus – edited by, of all people, Stan Lee.

Mercury appears in Venus #3 (1948)

In 1942, Kirby (with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon) published a story called “The Villain from Valhalla” in issue #75 of DC’s Adventure Comics. It features the first Kirby-designed version of the Norse god thunder god, portrayed as a villain with a red beard and horned helmet who fights the heroic Sandman. Although this “Thor” is really just a mobster using futuristic technology to imitate the god, Kirby's first vision of the character is much closer in appearance to the bearded Thor of the sagas than it is to the later Marvel character.

Jack Kirby's first version of Thor
Adventure Comics #75 (1942)

In 1957, Kirby drew a story called “The Magic Hammer” in DC Comics’ Tales of the Unexpected #16. This bearded Thor is almost identical to Kirby’s 1942 version, but his hammer now has the same design that Kirby would use five years later for the Marvel superhero. Also notable is the design of Thor's tunic, which features the same stylized circular bosses that are prominent on the costume of the subsequent Marvel character. Unlike the 1942 story, this tale portrays Thor as an actual Norse god, complete with a foil in the villainous Loki – who would, of course, become the main villain in the Marvel series.

Kirby's second Thor, same as the first
Tales of the Unexpected #16 (1957)

How did Kirby’s later conception (beardless, blond) change so radically from these two similar designs, separated from each other by fifteen years? A possible “missing link” can be found in a 1959 story illustrated by Steve Ditko, who was known to Stan Lee since the early 1950s and who began working in 1955 for Atlas Comics, another Marvel precursor that featured writing by Lee. Ditko drew “The Hammer of Thor” in issue #11 of Charlton Comics’ Out of This World. It features a young Viking – initially blond and beardless – who discovers Thor’s mystic hammer in a cave and uses its magic power to drive invading Huns out of Scandinavia. In a strange echo of Snorri’s euhemerism, the final panel implies that this human hero was remembered as a god by later generations.

Steve Ditko's Thor finds the magic hammer
Out of This World #11 (1959)

Finally, in 1962, issue #83 of Marvel’s Journey into Mystery featured the first appearance of Lee and Kirby’s thunder god in “Thor the Mighty and the Stone Men from Saturn.” The influence of Ditko’s version is clear. Dr. Don Blake finds a wooden cane in a Scandinavian cave; when he strikes it against a boulder, it becomes the Thor’s magic hammer. Kirby’s visual storytelling of a human character's discovery of Thor's hammer in a cave is quite similar to Ditko’s:

Kirby's version of the hammer-finding scene,
suspiciously similar to Ditko's

As in the Ditko tale, the hero uses the newly-found weapon to repel an invasion of Scandinavia. In this case, which takes place in contemporary times, the invaders are space aliens rather than Huns. Did Lee know Ditko’s tale and instruct Kirby to replicate its plot and imagery? The murky nature of Lee and Kirby’s collaboration – and who created what elements – has led to recent court battles, so there is no clear answer to be found. However, we do know that Lee insisted later Marvel artists study and imitate Kirby's work, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that, in this instance, he asked Kirby to emulate the earlier Ditko story.

Kirby’s final version of Thor is blond, clean-shaven and wears a winged helmet, combining elements from both his earlier Mercury/Hurricane character (the headgear and blond hair) and his second Thor (the hammer design).

Kirby's classic Thor, with clean-shaven chin, blond hair & winged helmet

The wings are also clearly related to the imaginary Viking helmets popularized in the Romantic Era through productions of Richard Wagner’s Edda-derived operas.

Fritz Feinhals as Wotan (Odin) in a
1903 production of Wagner's Ring

As for the youthfulness of Lee and Kirby’s Thor, it may – like the plot of the origin story – come from Ditko’s version, but is more likely part of Lee’s idea of featuring young and inexperienced characters such as Spider-Man, the X-Men and even Millie the Model in the new “Marvel Age of Comics.”

As Lee said of the myths, “no two versions are ever exactly the same.” The complicated back-history of Kirby’s design reflects, in a way, the complex and contradictory nature of the ancient myths and sagas. What is clear, however, is that we can’t simply dismiss the 1960s Marvel Thor as having no connection to the source material. Writers and artists pick and choose what elements of myth they will use in their interpretations, and academics do the same as they polish their scholarly interpretations.


be_slayed said...

Interestingly, Thor's Indic counterpart Indra is explicitly described as hari-smasru, which is often translated as "red-bearded", or "blonde-bearded", though elsewhere hari is often translated as "tawny" (which admittedly is still in the same colour range). In part I think the colour is meant to be symbolic, as Indra's horses are also "hari" coloured, and the special Soma drink which is so closely associated with Indra is also "hari" coloured.

What is interesting, is, rather like the Marvel Comics Thor, Indra has more recently been depicted as beardless. Though "more recently" includes at least the last few centuries, and probably longer, as every visual depiction of Indra I'm familiar with shows him as beardless (see, for instance, ).

Eric said...

Good article but to assume Stan Lee's word is anything but hype is a mistake. It was and still is Marvel company policy to state that Stan Lee "created" characters he generally never drew nor wrote stories of before artists brought pages into the office telling their first stories to avoid lawsuits with artists, primarily Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, who were the true innovators of the company's primary properties. Kirby was the student of mythology and storyteller, knew all about the ancient legends and worked with the pencil and told the stories. Lee worked in an office and commissioned and scheduled and sold them, but he didn't write them; his tool was the telephone, and any dialogue he may have written was virtually always added to completed story artwork, he did not submit stories to be drawn to artists in advance as they did at DC. Using this method Marvel could get a story AND art AND character designs out of an artist in advance and pay only for the art (with a flat work-for-hire fee). Kirby's version of Thor was brought into the Marvel offices as one of a number of ideas submitted at the same time to Lee by Kirby when he was asked to come up with some new characters to help rescue a dying company, and someone can correct me if I'm wrong but I believe some of the first Thor stories were given to Stan's brother Larry Lieber to dialogue, so Lee may not even have been involved with any early work on the character at all. If Lee contributed anything to the character it is likely to have been a request for him to wear a red cape and blue suit, as he wanted a new character who would be like Superman for the company. In other words, and in a nutshell, what Lee asked for was a Superman, and Kirby brought him Thor.

Kirby's prototype for the version of Thor with an alternate identity was probably the golden age version of the character: At any rate, it's Kirby who deserves credit for developing the character; he had a deep lifelong fascination with mythology and "New Gods" and was a brilliant storyteller, and that art and story came BEFORE the "writing," not after. What Lee was was a brilliant SALESMAN who sold Kirby's mythology-based character to a new generation of "true believers."

Bill said...

Great Blog post. Great facts. Very accurate.
Eric's comments - not so much! For example mythology, including Thor & Loki figured into Timely stories in the late 40s when Kirby was NOT employed at Timely. Stan Lee WAS writing stories then though. Hmmm

Eric said...

Bill, with all due respect, that proves nothing whatsoever. I can show you thousands of pages of Kirby artwork, most of which if you look at the originals have dialogue pencilled in the margins. Show me ONE typewritten original of a Stan Lee comic book script. You can't. Because they don't exist. The only written pages I've ever seen by Stan Lee are two pages of comments/ideas related to the Fantastic Four while Kirby was developing the project, most of which, like the idea that Ben Grimm and Reed Richards would fight over Sue's affections, Kirby didn't choose to use. To understand the relationship of the two men you need to understand that Kirby was the senior of the two by 10 years, with 20 years experience in creating comic book characters and drawing and writing their stories, and a voracious reader of science fiction and mythology, and that Stan Lee was to him a kid relative of the publisher, 10 years his junior, in the office who would phone him with sometimes an idea for a story, or sometimes just a deadline, and that Kirby would sometimes use ideas Lee suggested but also felt free not to. Because Lee's "inspirations" in advance of any story being drawn were whims expressed over the telephone, not written stories he'd typed out and sent to Kirby in advance. That NEVER happened. EVER. Show me something to the contrary and I will retract that comment but it simply can't be done. There is no such thing as a Stan Lee Marvel comic book script in existence. When Kirby ignored Lee and did things his own way, we got things like the Silver Surfer, which Stan Lee had nothing to do with. But if he had been the "writer," shouldn't he have?

Please read from p. 80 on in this interview, the only time Kirby, usually an extremely polite man and one who did not wish to bite the hand that fed him, ever spoke up about the situation, after he had gotten tired of being screwed over by Lee and Marvel and gone to DC. You just cannot give credit to a guy who did not write stories as being the "creator" of anything, especially when those stories were drawn out entirely by someone else before being brought into his office. Lee didn't draw the first design of the character Thor or any other Marvel character, nor, as Kirby says in the interview, did he know squat about Norse mythology before the comic book was developed. Kirby designed virtually all of the classic Marvel superheroes, inventing their images and drawing or laying out most of the first stories of each. Lee put his "spin" on material that originated with others and was paid for work-for-hire and has spent most of his life taking advantage of the idea of the fact that it suited Marvel as a company for him to have "created" things better than it did to have it seem that the artist/writers of the original stories that are now making the company mountains of revenue from licensing had anything to do with the work they did.

The truth of matters:

symbolseeker said...

The Norse were well versed in astronomy, a necessary science for sailing. Asgard was located at the Sea of Azov (northern Black Sea); access to the Mediterranean and oceans would require this skill. Using astronomy for direction and telling time requires tools, which leads to the images of Odin with one eye. The use of lenses is much older than conventionally recognized; when one uses a telescope, or a menhir to measure the movement of the heavens, it requires shutting one eye. It is reasonable to conclude that one-eye symbols can be associated with mastery of astronomy, and they are commonly imaged with other astronomical symbols such as stars. ref: Symbology, Decoding Classic Images;

Anonymous said...

One thing I always found noteworthy about Snorri Sturluson's Edda was that he explicitly states the Aesir came from Asia -- he seems to be saying they were literally men, but considering the research that indicates the Norse gods were variants of earlier Indo-European deities, such as the Indra comparison above, I've always wondered how much Sturluson meant by his comments on the origins of the Aesir.
I also applaud your in-depth research on the comic-book history of Thor, much of which I never knew. I was more aware of the later work done by Walt Simonson -- who wanted to actually change the character's hair colour to red, and did add the beard -- as well as Peter Madsen's Valhalla series (in which Thor is definitely the red-bearded thunder god).
Very interesting post -- thanks for this.

JamesGrantGoldin said...

Extremely interesting. I never knew about the Ditko story - which looks kinda influenced by Kubert's "Viking Prince." The earliest blonde Thor I'm aware of is "Thor's War Against the Giants" by Marten Eskel Winge. (1872) Thor is blonde and close-shaved, looking a bit like Liam Hemsworth, in fact, with bare arms, a red belted tunic and a flowing fur cape.

Dave said...

Awesome Blog! Thanks! Great posts too!

Unknown said...

Stan Lee merely took the attributes of Thor, as well names of the gods, and places that would be more appealing to the youngsters. In the Poetic and Prose Edda, Thor is always coming back from fighting or going to Jotunheim to fight the Etins, who are detrimental to freedom and order of nature. That makes him a hero of all The Nine Worlds except, Jotunheim and Helheim of course. It makes sense that Marvel would add him to the ranks of heroes in the comic world.
In my opinion, it doesn't matter what color hair he has, and whether Marvel was correct according to the myths. If it leads the youngsters to learn the TRUTH about their/our heritage and culture, the gods and goddesses, Norse heroes, and the Nine Worlds so be it.
They will learn who the real Asa-Thor is, and can imagine him any way they want to imagine him. Thus is the gift bestowed by Odin, Haenir, and Lodur.
~Stay Tru~

scott ruplin said...

I just discovered yet another golden age Thor by Simon and Kirby studios, courtesy of the fanzine "The Jack Kirby Collector". In Boy Commandos #7 there's a story titled "The Shadow of Valhalla". Thor here has a horned helmet, a red beard, and a tunic. Odin actually looks a little like his later Marvel rendition. The story was, alas, not drawn by Jack but S&K studio artists.


Very good article, very imformative.
I’ve always felt that, in making Thor blond and clean shaven, Lee and Kirby were trying to invoke the image of the archetypal Viking [think Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings,” with much longer hair]. They also wanted a younger looking hero who the readers could identify with [red-bearded and burly looked too much like somebody middle aged].
Thor was always one of my favorite heroes [first saw him in his second appearance in “Journey Into Mystery” #84 [1962]. It was also some of my earliest exposure to the Norse myths. Sure, they weren’t strictly accurate—but boy, did they make my spirit sing! The Norse myths had a raw and primeval power that gripped the soul. Jack Kirby had an instinctive grasp of the mythical [it would not fail him, even when he was doing “The New Gods” for DC].
One of the best examples of Kirby’s ability to tap into the archetypal, was in the creation of The Destroyer in “Journey Into Mystery” #118 [1965]. The story goes that Odin knew a great enemy would one day come to Earth. Odin had the Destroyer created and hidden in the Temple of Darkness. The enemy would come to the Temple and wake the Destroyer who would destroy the first thing he saw. To my knowledge there is no Norse myth like that—and yet, there should be, because as far as I’m concerned it’s worthy of being there.

Marcus said...

FENRISULFR, re Kirby creation The Destroyer: "To my knowledge there is no Norse myth like that—and yet, there should be, because as far as I’m concerned it’s worthy of being there."

Excellent point! I totally agree.

Kirby did indeed have an "instinctive grasp of the mythical." Fact is, virtually every time a myth was told, the poet added some spin. I read someplace that Kirby had one book of Viking myths that he drew from, especially for Tales of Asgard." But it's clear that he gave his own imagination free reign, and hence Kirby enriched the Norse myths. His Thor is now as real to our culture as the Thor of the eddas and the sagas. Kirby imagined a handsome, clean-shaven Thor largely because that was the image that spoke to him in 1962. If he was creating Thor in 2017, he probably would imagine him differently.
The Marvel Comics Thor is a mix of the existing variations of the Norse myths spanning over a millennium, and the imagination of Jack Kirby -- a mythologist in his own right.
Hail Thor!
Hail Kirby!

Boss Mama Gipsie said...

Vikings sailed with special herbs for keeping their hair as blonde as possible - something archaeologists have been finding evidence of lately- that and an assortment of grooming devices that predate razors and tweezers. Thor did try and pass for Freya once to get Mjolner back and she had curls of gold. I would say a blonde with red beard (I have a cousin who is such). As for youthfulness, we must not forget the effect of the apples of Iddun now... health, youth and beauty.

peterparker - Servant of BHAGWAN PARASHURAMA said...

@be_slayed: i think indra is not thor's indian vedic lord. It could be brihaspati achrarya, which gets translated to a big lord. Briha means big and pati mean lord. Indra had a teacher by this name. It could be possible that Indo-aryan had an Indo-European person as a teacher, who guided him. Besides, thursday or thor's day in India is known as Brihaspati var or the day of the big lord. I think the original thor was that big lord.

But yes, I fully agree, thor, the original one was not blonde and red haired. It could be possible that Thor has been christianized fully, or nordics of todays have painted thor like him. Original Thor was a person with Indo-European ancestry.

On that red head, sometimes, a person who is very angry is also labelled as red-head, hot headed person.

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