Medieval Thor vs. Marvel Thor (Comics vs. Sagas)

who was thor from the viking age

Comparing the Real Thor from the Middle Ages to the Modern Fantasy Thor in Comic Books and Movies…

The Rebirth of an Old Norse God!

What was the real Thor from the Viking Age really like?

Is the Thor in movies realistic?

To Valhalla! Odin and the Valkyries Believe in You!
marvel thor compared to the real thor from medieval times
1962: one of the first appearances of Thor in comic books

The Aesir gods, or the “men of Asia,” according to Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) are descendants of warriors from Hellenic Greece who around 1200 BC settled the far north after the Trojan War, and the name Thor is a corruption of the name Hector.[1] Whether or not this is true, Snorri Sturluson was trying to justify his writing of pagan gods in a Christian culture by stating Norse paganism was a corruption of ancient Greek mythology.[2] But who was the god Scandinavians called Thor, really? And how does this medieval god compare to the modern superhero? To answer these questions we will analyse the work of Martin Arnold in his book Thor: Myth to Marvel. Then, to see how Thor was represented by contemporary medieval pagans we will analyse “The Saga of the People of Eyri.” After an analysis of the medieval Thor, it will then be possible to spot his differences from and his similarities to the modern Thor depicted in today’s popular culture, namely his first comic book appearances and the latest Marvel movie from 2017, Thor: Ragnarok.

So who was the real Thor? According to Arnold, Thor is the eldest son of Odin and Odin is the chief of the Norse gods.[3] Thor has a half-brother named Baldur who was killed by Loki.[4] Thor’s mother is the giantess Jorth, and his wife is the goddess Sif who gave him his step-son Ull.[5] Thor’s own sons are Magni and Modi, and he has a daughter named Thrud.[6] Scholars argue over whether some of these offspring are Sif’s or products of Thor’s other lover, the giantess Jarnsaxa.[7]

Magni and Modi, Thor’s sons, according to the eddic lay “Vafthrudnir’s Sayings,” will inherit Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, upon their father’s death.[8] They will be part of the few who survive Ragnarok.[9] Unlike mere humans, Thor’s sons help him in battle at the early age of three years old, like in their battle with Hrungir for instance.[10]

That is Thor’s family, but what did he look like and what did he do? Arnold tells us that Thor has “fiery eyes and a great red beard” which is why his devotees sometimes invoke him under the name Redbeard.[11] His realm is called The Mighty Fields (Thrudvangar) or The Mighty Abode (Thrudheim), and his great hall is called Flashing of Light (Bilskirnir) and has 540 apartments.[12]

Surmounting the skies in his chariot drawn by his two he-goats Teeth-barer (Tanngrisnir) and Teeth-grinder (Tanngnjost), Thor, or the charioteer Driving-Thor (Oku-Thor), armed with his famous girdle of strength, iron gauntlets and, of course, Mjolnir his hammer, is the slayer of giants and troll-wives.[13] Like the Greek god Zues, Thor is a controller of rain, thunder and lightning, always busy protecting the domain of the gods, which is the most important mission of all missions.[14] Either by straightforward assault or contest, he is the giant-killer and the crosser of rivers, the bold hero who does not fear to enter Giantland.[15] When he is not defending the gods he is sitting in judgment beneath the Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree that symbolizes Norse cosmology as an axis mundi.[16]

Among the gods and the giants themselves, Thor is well established as the killer of giants, for in the “Gylfaginning” he returns from a troll-killing campaign to Asgard to kill a giant stonemason who the gods tricked into building a wall for them.[17] This tale is also known as “The Master Builder Tale.” But let us not forget that his mother is a giantess and his wife is also sometimes referred to as a giantess, so it is possible for Thor to make peace with some giants and he does not slaughter them all whenever he sees them.

The tale of how Thor got his giant-killing hammer is told in Snorri’s “Skáldskaparmál.” The hammer is made by dwarves who wish to win a bet against Loki and with their skill they make the hammer magically return to the hand of the owner when thrown, and the gods agree that the protector of their world, Thor, is the best suited to be its owner.[18] One caveat, however, is that, due to an annoying fly that pesters the dwarves at their forge, the hammer has a short shaft, although a different account explains that the hammer’s shaft is short because it was broken in a battle between gods and men.[19] The word Mjolnir, the hammer’s name, may be a corruption of the Old Slavic word mluniji or the Russian word molnija which both mean lightning.[20]

the real thor from the middle ages
The red-haired charioteer hight Thor

Now that we know who Thor was, what he looked like and what he did, let us turn to “The Saga of the People of Eyri” to capture a view of how he might have been presented in medieval Norse customs and material culture. While analysing this medieval saga, however, we should constantly keep in mind that it was recorded by an anonymous Icelandic Christian in the mid-13th century and therefore might not show pagan Norse custom exactly how it existed in the Viking Age.

The saga takes place at the time that Harald Fair-hair was King of Norway (AD 872-930).[21] Hrolf, a chieftain on the island of Moster, “maintained a temple to Thor … and was a great friend of Thor’s. It was because of this that he was known as Thorolf.”[22] Upon learning that King Harald wanted him to submit himself for harboring an outlaw, “Thorolf held a great sacrificial feast during which he consulted his dear friend Thor about whether he should reconcile himself with the king or leave the country and seek another fate.”[23] After receiving an oracle that directed him to Iceland, Thorolf dismantled Thor’s temple and put all the timbers along with the soil beneath “the pedestal on which Thor had been placed” onto a ship, having many friends who had decided to go with him.[24]

making fun of comic book thor
Wouldn’t chainmail look better anyway?

Upon reaching the coast of Iceland, Thorolf cast the “high-seat pillars” overboard, one of which had a carving of Thor on it, deciding he would settle wherever Thor directed the timbers to beach, and as if they were being pushed by the hand of an invisible god the timbers floated into a fjord faster than what might be considered natural.[25] After exploring the fjord, Thorolf and his followers saw the timbers settled on the tip of a headland, and from then on that headland was called Thorsnes.[26] Here, Thorolf established settlements for his followers and built a new temple where the sacrificial blood of animals was offered to the gods.[27]

Now, “all farmers had to pay a toll to the temple” and support the temple keeper (godi).[28] Here, “where Thor had come ashore,” was where all assemblies would be held and the ground was now sacred which meant it was not allowed to be defiled.[29] Thorolf married Unn and had a son dedicated to Thor named Thorstein.[30]

The narrator of the saga describes how Thorolf’s new temple is similar to a Christian church,[31] and this is why it is important to remember who the author was. Whether or not the temple actually resembled a Christian church or not is impossible to know for sure. This comparison nonetheless gives insight into how Thor might have been worshipped. Indeed, Thor might have been worshipped in a similar way as the Greek gods, in the way that he was beseeched for oracles and was offered sacrifices. And since he was the god of rain, thunder and lightning, or in other words the god of weather, it is easy to presume that he was worshipped by farmers in order that they might receive rain for their crops.

Furthermore, something we have to be even more cautious about, in chapter 10 of the saga, a “judgment circle” is described as being a place where men were chosen and sacrificed by breaking their backs over “Thor’s stone” in the center of the circle, and “the stain of blood can still be seen on the stone.”[32] Later in chapter 11, on a nicer note, Thorstein, Thorolf’s son, has a son of his own who is also dedicated to Thor and named Thorgrim.[33]

As we can see from our descriptions of Thor and how he was worshipped as told by “The Saga of the People of Eyri,” this lightning-controlling giant-killer, charioteer and defender of the gods, was a mighty warrior who should not be crossed, albeit if befriended by man he could become a valuable ally against unwanted fate. If a temple were to be built for him today, perhaps we could look to the skies and find him riding his he-goat drawn chariot, waving Mjolnir aloft, driving off on another troll-killing campaign with his great red beard billowing in the wind. But one does not have to worship Thor in order to see him today. The sagas of the Icelanders continue to be a source for wisdom and entertainment, all thanks to the skalds of the Viking Age and the later Christian writers and compilers of the High Middle Ages like Snorri Sturluson.

a dedication to the viking god of thunder
Prithee, Thor, bless my crop fields with rain!

Now, while the “real” medieval Thor is busy defending the realm of the gods, let us shift our focus on the “fake” modern Thor as depicted in popular culture. The Mighty Thor as a superhero was first featured in Marvel Comics’ “Thor the Mighty and the Stone Men from Saturn” from Journey into Mystery #83 in 1962.[34] Ever since, Thor has become more than just an old god worshipped by bygone northern Germanic people. He has become profitable, has been born again as an “appropriation of high culture for low-culture markets,”[35] or in other words he has become accessible to the imagination of children once again, as he surely had been for the imagination of medieval Scandinavian children and farmers. But to the Victorians and prior to World War Two, Thor had merely been a study topic of high-culture poets and scholars such as Longfellow.

Since The Mighty Thor’s debut in 1962, Marvel Comics has published over 600 issues of The Mighty Thor comic, which is a body of work larger than all of the surviving medieval eddas featuring Thor put together.[36] One reason why The Mighty Thor had become such a popular superhero for Americans in the 1960s, besides the fact that 15 million of them were of Scandinavian descent,[37] is because of the parallel popularity of the so-called Vinland Sagas, or “The Saga of the Greenlanders” and “Eirik the Red’s Saga,” two medieval tales that suggest it was actually Vikings who discovered America in ca. AD 1000. These sagas had been known to Americans since the 18th century, and had captured the attention of famous people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.[38] And in the 1960s, right around when The Mighty Thor’s debut comic hit the market, a Viking settlement was discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, proving once and for all that the Norsemen had actually been to the Americas long before Columbus.[39]

But “Thor the Mighty and the Stone Men from Saturn” was not the first time Norse mythology appeared in American comic books. The first American comic to feature Norse mythology was “The Villain from Valhalla” featured in Adventure Comics #75 in 1942.[40] And Thor was not the only old god to be turned into a superhero in the mid-20th century. Hercules had been a superhero as early as 1941 with DC Comics, until he was transferred to Marvel Comics in 1965 to become The Mighty Thor’s new rival.[41]

the first appearances of Thor in American comic books
Thor and Odin featured in the comic Boy Commandos in 1944

Of the superhero Thor, we’re told he “needed little by the way of superpowers to be invented for him”[42] because, as the god of rain and thunder, wielding Mjolnir his magical hammer, he always had been a perfect superhero from the get-go. Indeed, this Thor featured in Journey into Mystery #83 is clearly inspired by the eddas by the facts that he has a wife named Sif in Asgard, has an affair with a different woman, has conflict with Loki and has other such similarities to the medieval Norse god.[43]

Deviations, of course, are rampant too. Right away on the comic’s cover we see Thor as a blonde man, but the real Thor was red-haired. This nitpick, though, means nothing when we consider the fact that he is standing before a modern city. Interestingly, the cover also says “The most exciting super hero off all time.” This lavish description should be expected, for Jón Helgason, a renowned Icelandic scholar, points out that Snorri Sturluson himself called Thor “the strongest of all the gods and men.”[44] With this said, though, The Mighty Thor is still undoubtedly more related to his comic book friends than he is to the Norse gods. This is because, like Superman and The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor has a split persona, being Dr. Don Blake, an ordinary man who discovered Mjolnir and transformed into Thor. Or, more precisely, “Blake … had always been Thor but was ignorant of this fact.”[45] This has been The Mighty Thor from the 1960s, but what about the Thor we see in today’s popular culture? Is he more similar to the medieval Norse god than Dr. Don Blake?

thor ragnarok movie analyzed by medieval studies student
Both the ancient Greeks and the medieval Vikings relied on the spear and shield.

To answer this question, let us analyse Thor’s most recent popular depiction, Marvel’s film titled Thor: Ragnarok (2017). In this movie, Thor is played by the blonde Chris Hemsworth and flies by the power of Mjolnir, so already we do not get to see the red-bearded charioteer of Norse mythology but rather a superhero more similar to The Mighty Thor from 1962. Speaking of Mjolnir, though, it is accurate to see it return to Thor’s hand when thrown. The subtitle Ragnarok, too, comes from Norse mythology, and is better known by modern scholars as the end of the world, similar to but not quite the same as the Christian apocalypse. More similarities between the film and Norse mythology are references to Hela (although she was not actually Thor’s sister in Norse mythology), Odin, Heimdall, Loki (although him and Thor were not actually brothers in Norse mythology) Bifrost Bridge, the Nine Realms (Asgard and Midgard being two of them), Valkyries (namely Brunnhilde or Scrapper 142), Fenrir the monstrous wolf (albeit the wolf was actually the offspring of Loki and a giantess in Norse mythology) and perhaps the most comical reference is the fact that Thor prefers beer over tea because the sagas often feature Norsemen drinking a lot of alcohol.

Speaking of comedy and now moving to inaccuracies, it is useful to point out that Thor screams “Oh, my God!” while watching someone strapped in a chair beside him die, and later when Hulk is transforming into Bruce Banner Thor says “Oh, Jeez.” This is comical because, although Thor picked up this slang on Earth in the Marvel Universe, if Thor was real he would probably never say these things because we should expect him to strongly dislike Jesus Christ. After all, in real life Thor’s devotees were all converted to Christianity and so Jesus Christ is his villain so to speak.

medieval misconceptions in Thor movie
Marvel Odin influenced by Greek culture

Moving forward, it is easy to notice that the architecture in Asgard is similar in design to ancient Greek architecture. Perhaps this is a reference to Snorri Sturluson’s theory about Norse paganism being a corruption of Greek mythology, especially as we get to see Odin enjoying a tragic play in theater. Either way, Greek material culture makes many appearances throughout the film, from Hulk’s Spartan helmet in the arena to the Hoplite-like warriors using spears and shields. This, however, could also be a reference to the many Viking themed plays and operas of the 19th and 20th centuries which also showed Viking costumes inspired by the ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greek influence on modern conceptions of Norse mythology
The Hulk’s helmet vs. Spartan helmet

Nowhere can we see if all the futuristic technology in Asgard is a reference to something real or not, though, except from one obscure source that is worth mentioning for interest’s sake. It is possible that all the futuristic technology enjoyed by the Asgardians is a reference to Karl-Maria Wiligut (1866-1946). Wiligut, a onetime psychiatric patient who claimed he was of direct descent from Thor, was also known as the Rasputin of Himmler, and he was responsible for designing the SS symbol (aka the dual thunderbolt symbol which is actually made of Norse runes) for the elite Nazis.[46] Near the end of World War Two, Wiligut’s scholarship inspired the Nazis to look into building a “gigantic Mjolnir that would emit electrical charges and render the Allies’ communications systems, radar and tank ignitions unworkable.”[47] Wiligut believed that Mjolnir was real and that its power was not based on natural lightning but rather a lost understanding of electricity enjoyed by the Aesir gods.[48] It is hard to assume that the filmmakers were thinking of this when they decided to make the Asgardians the beneficiaries of advanced technology, but it is fun to think about nonetheless.

Marvel's Thor Ragnarok film and it's ancient Greek influence
An old illustration of a Scandinavian warrior compared to an old illustration of a Greek hoplite

Over all, the most popular depictions of Thor in today’s media, as they were in the comics from the mid-20th century, are inspired by Norse mythology but lack many of the accurate details once enjoyed by our medieval counterparts. Perhaps one day the “true” red-bearded charioteer will make his reappearance and fly across our television screens and the death-knell of his hammer will fill the skies above our houses with electric bursts once again. Until then, all we can do is close our eyes and pray that Thor will give our crops rain and that he will continue to defend the realm of the gods against the giants with his mighty hammer! Thanks for reading!

Citations

[1]Arnold, Martin. Thor: Myth to Marvel. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), 3.

[2] Arnold, 3

[3] Arnold, 9

[4] Arnold, 9

[5] Arnold, 9

[6] Arnold, 10

[7] Arnold, 10

[8] Arnold, 11

[9] Arnold, 11

[10] Arnold, 11

[11] Arnold, 11

[12] Arnold, 11

[13] Arnold, 11

[14] Arnold, 11-12

[15] Arnold, 12

[16] Arnold, 12

[17] Arnold, 12-13

[18] Arnold, 14-15

[19] Arnold, 15

[20] Arnold, 15

[21] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. 5. (Iceland: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 131.

[22] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 132.

[23] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 133.

[24] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 133.

[25] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 133.

[26] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 133.

[27] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 133-134.

[28] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 134.

[29] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 134.

[30] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 135.

[31] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 133.

[32] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 138.

[33] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 138.

[34] Arnold, 156.

[35] Arnold, 158.

[36] Arnold, 137.

[37] Arnold, 137.

[38] Arnold, 138.

[39] Arnold, 138.

[40] Helgason, Jón Karl. Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas. Reaktion Books, 2017. 22.

[41] Arnold, 156.

[42] Arnold, 156.

[43] Arnold, 157.

[44] Helgason, 20.

[45] Arnold, 157.

[46] Arnold, 134.

[47] Arnold, 135.

[48] Arnold, 135.

Works Cited

Arnold, Martin. Thor: Myth to Marvel. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011)

Helgason, Jón Karl. Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas. (Reaktion Books, 2017)

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. 5. (Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997)

Thor: Ragnarok. Dir. Taika Waititi. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017. Film.

One last thing!

If you wish movies would show the medieval times more accurately, don’t worry. The Knight of Hope will save us! See for yourself! Thor would be proud.

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