July 22, 2018

ON MYTH - Thor Reborn by William Gilmer

Thor is one of the most recognizable mythological figures we have today. The Nordic god of thunder captivates us with a simple mentality and a drive to do what is right. While Thor has never really left our collective consciousness, he has enjoyed a revival thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2011 Thor has appeared in numerous movies which have sold billions of dollars in ticket sales worldwide. It’s safe to say that Thor is enjoying a popularity he hasn’t seen since the days of old.

As a new generation gets introduced to the son of Odin, it may be worthwhile to look at the differences between the classic god and the current movie superstar. My intention is not to show that the Marvel movies “got it wrong”, or isn’t “doing justice” to the traditional myths. All gods and mythologies change and evolve over time as they are exposed to new people and cultures. If the decision had been made to keep Thor mythologically accurate, he would have been denied the opportunity to grow with the times, to be reborn. The only gods that truly die are the ones that are forgotten.

Thor the Red
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, who sports his trademark long blonde locks and short stubble beard. Blonde is a good look for the god of thunder, but the color was uncommon in Nordic culture, and Thor, believe it or not, was almost exclusively depicted with red hair.

Thor by Max Friedrich Koch
Hair was a big deal in Viking culture. They were meticulous about the cleanliness and appearance of not only their hair, but their beards as well. The popular idea of Vikings is that they were brutish and primitive, the reality is that Vikings were more concerned with personal grooming than most other cultures at the time. Combs and nail care tools were prized personal possessions, and are frequently found buried with the dead.
Hemsworth’s Thor is rarely, if ever, shown on screen looking sloppy or unkempt, but the decision to go with very short facial hair is a change for Thor, who would have classically worn a much longer beard.
Family Issues
Loki Talks to the Rhinemaidens 
by Arthur Rackham

One of the most popular fan favorite characters of the Thor franchise is his “brother” Loki. While the films do mention that Thor and Loki are not true brothers, their relationship is far closer in the movies than what was described in the traditional myths.  Very little is said about Loki’s parentage, but it’s generally accepted that he is the son of Farbauti and Laufey and that he had legitimate siblings (Helbindi and Byleistr). The only relation Loki has to Thor is an oath the god of mischief swore to Odin (Thor’s father) acknowledging him as the ruler of the gods. Loki went on to have many children of his own, the most interesting of which is probably Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse that Loki gave birth to after shapeshifting into a mare.

Odin Rides Sleipnir - Artist Unknown

Odin is another member of Thor’s family that differs from the original sources. The movies show Odin as a calm pacifist, but when we look at the old stories, we see that Odin was a war mongering madman. Odin traded his eye for more power and used it to dominate other realms on the battlefield. He was the leader of the Wild Hunt (in German versions the prey was often a young woman) and slaughtered the ancient being Ymir (Odin’s father/mother) to create the world from its body.
Jörmungandr & Hel by Gezücht

There are also significant differences with the goddess Hel (Hela in the movies). In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor is introduced to his sister Hela who wants to continue her mission to take over all of the other realms. The movie version of Hel embodies many of the traits we find in the mythological Odin. Hel, the “real” goddess, is very different than her big screen counterpart.
Rather than being a daughter of Odin and sister to Thor (as described in the movies), Hel was one of the three children born from the union of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. Due to the troublesome nature of their parents, the other gods worried about what these children would grow up to be. Because of their fears, Odin ordered all three to be banished. Hel was sent to rule over one of the realms of the afterlife (named Hel in her honor), where she was charged with tending to those who died from old age and disease.
Far from her violent and power hungry movie persona, Hel was usually gloomy and downcast. She was never really considered an enemy of the gods. While she did offer assistance (kind of) in the gods attempt to resurrect Baldr from the dead, she was generally indifferent to their affairs.

Godly Gear
Thor's Fight with the Giants by Mårten Eskil Winge

One of Thor’s most recognizable symbols is his hammer Mjölnir. Mjölnir was more than just a hammer, it was an icon of the people. In Scandinavian and other European cultures, this symbol was as common as the crucifix is today. Small pendants worn around the neck and engravings of Mjölnir above doorways were used to bring good luck and the favor of the divine. Even when Christianity became popular in the region, Mjölnir remained a regular emblem for the people. The two symbols were so widely used that molds have been found that could be used to cast either shape. Mjölnir is still an important symbol used by various Neopagan religions and was recently added to the list of United States Department of Veterans Affairs emblems for headstones and markers.
As far as Mjölnir’s treatment on the big screen, there are some inconsistencies. The movies claim that Mjölnir was forged in space by the heat of a dying star, not exactly how The Prose Edda (a book of Norse mythology dating back to 1220 AD) describes it. Thor’s mighty hammer was, according to the text, made by two dwarfs (Sindri and Brokkr) as part of a bet with Loki. Due to Loki’s interference during the forging, the handle was made too short, causing Mjölnir to only be wielded one-handed. Unlike the movies, Thor never used his hammer to fly, preferring instead a chariot pulled by his two goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr.
Mjölnir was not Thor’s only piece of equipment; Megingjörð (power belt) and Járngreipr (iron gloves) were used to double his already amazing strength and allowed him to wield Mjölnir.
The cinematic (or comic book) version of Thor is further proof that our gods are beside us, changing as we do. This new iteration of Thor has some definite differences than his predecessor, but those changes have landed him in a position to capture our imaginations all over again, and personally, I couldn’t be happier for it.
William Gilmer is a writer and poet living in Michigan where Fall never lasts long enough. Over two dozen of his pieces have been published both online and in print. Keep an eye out for his monthly articles in Enchanted Conversation Magazine, and if there isn’t enough going on in your feed, follow him on Twitter @willwritethings
Cover: Amanda Bergloff

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Guy S. Ricketts said...

My interest in Thor goes back to the comic books in the 1970s. I loved his boldness, his refusal to back down from any foe, and his unique way of speaking. This led me to seek out the original stories of Thor in literature, at my local library. These stories, combined with art by Lorenz Frolich, really captured my imagination.
I really enjoyed this article, as it both taught me further background on Thor and the gods, but also reminded me of aspects I had forgotten about this legend.
Thanks for a very enlightening article, and for reigniting my interest in these Norse legends, William.

AMOffenwanger said...

That is fascinating - thank you for all that info. I had no idea.
I found it particularly interesting what you're saying about Hel - that that's where the word "hell" comes from, from example. As for her being the daughter of Loki, I'm sitting here snickering, picturing how that would play out with the movie characters...