Fact, Fiction, and Faith: Thor in Viking and Modern Culture

So today, in honor of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” coming out in the US and in honor of C2E2 Comic Convention which I went to last week as Lady Thor, I wanted to write a little bit about Thor, the God of Thunder.  Now most of us know about the new Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise and thus have been introduced to the Superhero Character “Thor.” For those of you who read the comics before they became big blockbuster movies, then good for you.  I will preface right now that I have not read any of the comic series, I have merely watched the Marvel movies. So I’ll be coming at this from the prospective of a historian and of a fan of the movies.  Today I would like to take a little look at Thor in the sagas, in Viking Culture, and in current Marvel Universe, and to examine what elements of “Thor” as a character have stayed consistent through the ages. Since Marvel Thor, and some of the other characters associated with him, are based on the gods of Norse Mythology, I think it only fitting that I discuss the two together on this blog.

Superhero? Or a god?

two thors

The image on the left is a Viking image of Thor. Kinda disappointing compared that hansom guy on the right.  

Now, as a start, I have always found it a little odd that Norse Mythology has been turned into a superhero series. I mean, it is an actual religion. I have never seen a comic done about any other ancient or modern religion. It would sort of be like making a comic series about the Hindu gods, or about Jesus.  I am making these references not to offend anyone, I am simply saying that when you look at it from that prospective, it seems a little weird to make a comic about a set of gods that some people believe.  Now, some may say I’m taking this too seriously, but I wanted to put it out there.  Even for those who do not worship the old gods as their faith, there are still many others who are Scandinavian and for whom Norse Mythology is part of their cultural heritage. I count myself in this second category.

But to be clear, I am personally not offended by the idea of Thor as a Superhero. One of the things I find very interesting about Thor in the Marvel movies is that in some respects he acts a lot like Thor in the original Norse Mythology. Both characters are a little over-bold, loud, and prone to fighting. But both characters also fight for good, protect the Earth, and carry the hammer Mjolnir.  Of course, Marvel makes Thor their own character, so while Thor the superhero has some tangential link to the older god of Norse culture, there are some differences. And those differences aren’t bad. But since Thor the superhero is an American cultural icon, perhaps we should look at the difference between Thor the superhero and Thor the Norse god in order to better understand the original culture and faith which inspired the current comic series.

From what I’ve read of the Eddas, it seems that Thor is at once a heroic and comical character. Now this may sound a little strange, but if you think about it, so is Marvel Thor.  Thor isn’t comical in the sense that he’s stupid. You don’t think any less of him because he sometimes gets hit by a car or smashes a coffee cup. He’s funny because he’s a little bit too war-like and manly for his own good. Similarly, Thor in the mythology gets himself into sticky or comical situations partially because he just doesn’t think things through, and I think we all know someone like that.

My favorite story about Thor involves the time that Thor goes to the giant realm, and the giants decide to play a game with Thor. Thor often fights and kills giants so this sort of trickery is nothing new. But the king of the giants gives Thor three tests to prove that he is actually as strong as he claims. This provocation, of course, angers Thor, and so he agrees to the three tests. The first is to drain the giant’s drinking horn in one drop. Any giant could do it easily, the king tells Thor.  But just as Thor finished drinking, the horn would fill back up. After a time the giant took pity on him and gave him another test. In the second test Thor had to wrestling the giant’s old nursemaid, but despite his best efforts he could not. So, finally, the giant told him to go and lift the giant’s cat, since Thor was clearly too weak to do anything else. Thor tried to lift the cat around the middle, but as much as he tried to pull on the cat, it would not lift off the ground. At last, the giant revealed that he had tricked Thor on purpose, and that he was actually quite impressed with him. On the first test, the end of the drinking horn was in the ocean, that’s why it could never be finished. The old nursemaid was Old Age, which can never be beaten. The cat was actually the Midgard Serpent.

In that story, Thor is embarrassed and humiliated because he let his pride get to him. He had to prove himself as the best and strongest fighter. But even in his humiliation, he also proves that he is a formidable warrior, because he almost beat the tests despite the fact that they were rigged against him. So in one sense, it’s really comical to think of Thor struggling to lift a cat. On the other hand, it’s terrifying and impressive that he could actually lift the Midgard Serpent!

Of course, the Eddas are just one version of what must have been innumerable stories about the gods. There is so much that we don’t know about Norse Mythology and their religion, but what we have from written sources gives some indication about how Thor was viewed by Viking culture. Historians speculate that Thor was most revered by the regular freemen – the farmers, fishermen, and traders – rather than by the nobility. His popularity can be seen in many ancient place names in Scandinavia and Germany. Thor was considered a protector god who fought for the average man and kept away evil creatures. In fact, there is speculation that local people started wearing Thor’s hammer more after Christianity began to become popular in Scandinavia, because they wanted to protect themselves from the new faith and to show their allegiance to the old gods. However, archaeological evidence of Scandinavians wearing hammer pendants predates the conversion period in the tenth and eleventh centuries, so to some extent it’s hard to determine if they used the pendant deliberately to protest against Christianity. But this “battle” between Christianity and Paganism was sometimes referred to as a literal battle between Jesus and Thor.  For instance, in Njal’s Saga, an old woman taunts a priest by saying that Jesus refused to fight a duel with Thor. From that and other evidence, it seems that Thor became the champion of the common people’s culture against the new and invading force of Christianity, just as he protected them from evil men and frost giants.

To some degree, Marvel Thor has continued this legacy. He blunders into fights because he wants to prove himself. He is loud and boisterous. And he fights giants and the Hulk with his hammer. But when I was rewatching the Avengers the other night, I was struck by a line that Thor says to Loki after Thor captures him in the beginning of the movie. Thor says that he is in charge of protecting Earth and that Loki does not understand how to properly rule humans.  His words in that scene struck me as being very characteristic of the god the Vikings worshiped for hundreds of years. Thor looks out for the welfare of humans when all other creatures in the many realms want to destroy them.  For a set of movies that I was perfectly inclined to enjoy for entertainment’s sake and not for accuracy, this scene really interested me.

Now, that being said, there are some aspects of Marvel Thor that are not drawn from Norse Mythology and that I feel it necessary to mention here. One important difference is Thor’s relationship with Mjolnir. To my knowledge there is no magic on Mjolnir which dictates that “whoever is worthy shall possess the power of Thor.” In the mythology, the hammer is powerful on its own, and sometimes it is stolen by other powerful creatures. But that creature never gets to take the name of Thor or replace him as god of thunder. In Norse Myth and culture the hammer and Thor are synonymous, just as other magical weapons and artifacts are possessed only by one god or goddess. For instance, Odin has the spear Gungnir and Freya has the necklace Brisingamen.  I think Marvel took this idea of Mjolnir’s power and ran with it, as in the newest Lady Thor comics. In a sense, Mjolnir gives the writers of the comics and movies a nice plot device to add tension, add humor, and in the case of the newest comics, even change some of the fundamental elements of “Thor” as a character. Now, in case you’re wondering if Thor could change gender, only Loki could do that. That’s not to say that I don’t approve of the comics gender-bending Thor to perhaps inspire young women to be badass, but strictly speaking Thor never changed gender and never willingly gave his powers to another being. Mjolnir is only for Thor.

Another little deviation from the mythology is that Loki is Thor’s adopted brother. I like the adopted joke in the “Avengers” movie as much as anyone, but honestly Loki is never called Thor’s brother in the mythology, adopted or otherwise. Loki is simply a trickster god who messes with ALL of the gods, not just Thor and Odin. Thor just happens to be one of the most powerful gods, so Thor is against Loki and often fights his children (the Midgard Serpent being one of these.  Yes, it’s weird). However, I like the character dynamics of Thor and Loki as brothers in the Marvel franchise, and I think the writers make their relationship very compelling. But it is Marvel writers who created that idea.

So, when comparing Thor in the mythology and Thor in Marvel, it’s probably best to look at the two characters as one influencing another. Thor for the Marvel comics and movies is a fictional character just as Black Widow and Iron Man are completely fictional. It just so happens that the writers for Marvel drew a lot of inspiration from Norse Mythology. So while there are comparisons between the two characters, that’s only because the Marvel writers made it that way.  The Thor of Norse Mythology has much older roots in history and culture which can still be felt today. I find it interesting to look at both characters together, but also to accept that they are also completely separate entities locked within completely different fictional and historical settings.

-Valkyrie

As a bonus, here are some fun facts about Mythology Thor:

  • Thor rides a chariot pulled by goats.
  • Thor also possesses a belt named Megingjörð and an iron glove named Járngreipr, which he uses to lift Mjolnir.
  • Mjolnir was created when Loki made a bet with some dwaves, and its handle is extra short because Loki made the dwarves mess up when they were making it.
  • Thor is described as having red hair.
  • Thor has many brothers, and Loki is never considered one of them.
  • In modern Norwegian, Thor is written as Tor, and the word for thunder is torden. Thursday is Torsdag, or Thor’s day. This is also where we get the English word “Thursday.”
  • At Ragnarok, the end of days, Thor kills the Midgard Serpent just as it also kills him. For prospective, Odin is merely eaten by Fernir the Wolf. Thor actually kills the thing that kills him.
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5 thoughts on “Fact, Fiction, and Faith: Thor in Viking and Modern Culture

  1. Thanks for this! I didn’t know anything about Marvel’s Thor, but from the picture I can tell he needs a bigger beard! 😉

    Oh, and I didn’t realize you’re Scandinavian. Hvor kommer du fra?

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m planning to do one on Marvel Loki in the near future.
      Jeg er amerikansk, men min familie kommer fra Norge. (I’m still learning Norwegian so sorry for any errors). I’m one of the few members of my family in America so I’m still very close to my aunts and cousins there.

      Like

  2. Så fint! Jeg har bodd her i ett år no og skal flytte tilbake til Tyskland snart. Har du noen gang tenkt deg å komme til denne delen av “den gamle verden” for å studere eller lære deg språket? (The fact that I’m writing Norwegian with you is a dead giveaway I’m not from the country myself, by the way. On Does Not Simply use Scandinavian when communicating with the locals.)

    Like

  3. Pingback: Thor: God or Superhero? – Modern Day Vikings

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