Who Shall Wield The Hammer? Marvel's Thor Versus the Thor of Myth
If you have any familiarity with Marvel comic books, Marvel movies, and Marvel cartoons, you’re probably familiar with Thor. You know the Mighty Thor; imposing, hammer swinging, beardless, blond-haired, talks with sort of a fake Shakespearean accent and says “I say thee nay!” a lot. Thor is …
Wait a minute, Shakespeare? Beardless? Isn’t Thor a Norse god?
Why, yes he is. But you can’t blame the Marvel Thor’s creators (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Larry Lieber) for sticking to what they know. Stan had a flair for Shakespearean melodrama—he could make a teenager worrying over paying his aunt’s bills read like King Lear. Jack Kirby had a flair for creating dynamic science fiction heroes and worlds that look like a travelogue from places only he could see.
To make Stan’s idea of a “super god” trump the existing super men, certain liberties had to be taken.
The Norse version of Thor and the Marvel version have some major similarities, of course. They’re both storm gods, they’re both sons of Odin, they both come from Asgard, they both have a hammer with a short handle called Mjölnir that always returns when thrown, they can call lightning, and they’re both pretty good in a scrap.
But the Norse Thor would never get the corny Marvel nickname “Goldilocks,” because he had red hair and was bearded. Shakespearean or even highfalutin’ dialogue is also right out. He’s a full time God, not bound to a human alter ego. He spent most of his time getting in scraps with giants, testing his strength in various ways, and dealing with godly illusions and trickery instead of fighting the Wrecking Crew and the Absorbing Man.
The Norse tales of Thor that we have come from the Poetic and Prose Eddas, collections of Norse poems and tales that were recorded in the 13th century. Let’s get to know the Norse Thor a little better, then:
The Norse Thor doesn’t fly by throwing his hammer and holding on real tight. He rides in a chariot driven by two magic goats. He can also kill these goats, make a feast of them, and resurrect them the next morning with his hammer. Actually, the comic book Thor has these goats, but I’ve never seen him eat them, unless there’s a really weird Tales of Asgard back-up story I don’t know about. The sound of the goats’ hooves as he rides is thunder.
Why is the Norse Thor so strong? Magic girdle. Megingjörd doubles his already incredible godly strength. The Marvel Thor has this too, although to avoid confusion with slimming underwear it’s referred to in the more modern sense as a belt. Norse Thor also wears a pair of iron gauntlets called Járngreipr to better control Mjölnir and to kill giants. The Marvel Thor’s powers generally run more to the science fiction end of the spectrum, with Mjölnir opening dimensional portals, flying faster than light, and summoning an immense energy blast called the “God Blast.”
Forget Jane Foster. The Norse Thor was married to Sif, who is no raven-haired beauty like in the comics and movie. In fact, her blond hair plays a large role in a story in the Eddas. When Loki shaves off Sif’s renowned lovely locks and incurs Thor’s wrath as a result, he gets replacement hair made from actual gold from a band of dwarves. In addition to Sif’s replacement hair, the dwarves also forge Odin’s spear Gungnir and a collapsible ship for the god Frey. Loki, never one to keep his mouth shut while he’s ahead, then dares another set of dwarves to do better, which leads them to create more mystical knickknacks: a golden-bristled boar that can run faster than a horse and a gold ring that makes other gold rings. Most importantly, it leads to Mjölnir, despite Loki’s attempt to sabotage their work by disguising himself as a fly and biting the eyes of the dwarf working the forge bellows. All Loki achieved was to give Mjölnir a short handle (war hammers are supposed to be two-handed). Mjölnir is made of iron, by the way–Marvel made up “Uru metal.” And Loki got his just deserts: after losing the dare, he got his mouth sewn shut with wire, but kept what he had staked originally (his head).
Despite being married to Sif, Norse Thor was also getting a little action on the side with his giant mistress Járnsaxa, and they had a kid named Magni. Magni came in handy when he helped lift a giant named Hrungnir off his daddy when the giant fell on Thor in a fight. The Norse Thor has part of a whetstone stuck in his head from that same fight.
The Thor and Loki of mythology aren’t always bitter enemies as they usually are in the comics, though. Sometimes they travel around together and have adventures. Sometimes Loki helps Thor, although his help can be a bit dubious even then.
Like the time Loki helped Thor to crossdress. After a giant stole Mjölnir and demanded the goddess Freyja as ransom for it, Loki helped Thor to pretend to be the goddess to get his stolen hammer back. Loki himself dressed as a bridesmaid. This story ends with Thor brutally killing his giant suitor and the other giant guests in the wedding hall, of course, but not before a slightly more warped version of the “What Big Eyes You Have” scenes of “Little Red Riding Hood,” with Loki offering up some desperate explanations for why the giant’s blushing bride ate an entire ox or has fiery red eyes. Let’s be honest, though: this is not much weirder than the extended Marvel storyline where Thor turned into a frog.
And, amazingly, Marvel actually tackled a version of the wedding story in the obscure Marvel Superheroes book in the 1990s, which served as a castoff for inventories and oddities like the first appearance of Squirrel Girl.
Unlike his nice and noble comic book version, the Norse Thor is often a bit of a jerk. There’s one story where he spends a lot of time ineffectually smacking a huge giant with his hammer because its snoring annoys him. He’s not just a dumb jerk, though. Once, Thor met a dwarf determined to marry Thor’s daughter against her father’s wishes (never mind the wisdom of forcing yourself as a son-in-law on a guy known for killing things with a hammer). Thor delays him with an ancient version of a trivia contest until the sun comes up and turns the dwarf to stone.
He also is in no way humble like the Marvel Thor, who (for reasons of not getting Marvel comics boycotted by churches) has sometimes admitted that he is not a true capital G god and that there is a creator that created even Odin. That’s a big contrast to the beliefs of Thor’s followers, bedeviled by Christian missionaries, who were recorded as claiming that Thor had defeated Jesus Christ in single combat. Many of Thor’s followers took to wearing hammer amulets as a symbol of defiance of Christianity.
There’s archeological evidence that Norse Thor’s symbol is the Swastika. This was decided hundreds of years before the Nazis perverted it, of course. That’s not exactly something that would have went over well in 1960s Marvel comics.
Norse Thor is a huge glutton and drunk. It’s no big deal for him to eat a whole ox or two or have adventures that center around ale. Marvel seems to have offloaded some of these qualities onto Thor companion Volstagg.
Both Thors are fated to die in battle with the Midgard serpent, Jormungand, but as far as I know only the Norse Thor nearly caught it once while fishing with the head of an ox as bait.
In contrast, Marvel Thor broke nearly all of Jormungand’s teeth in a comic book story told entirely in splash pages. That’s pretty much a wash.
And finally, Norse Thor is a sex god, in ways not even Chris Hemsworth can hope for. Being a god of storms and thus life-giving rain, it makes a lot of sense that he would take on a fertility role. And I can’t wink, wink, nod, nod enough to do the obvious hammer metaphors justice.
Some of this might sound a little silly, but that’s because we’re so far removed from the metaphor and spirituality, the sacred essence, of the stories and symbols. I’ve seen several other comic book adaptations of Thor where he is portrayed as an arrogant, warlike, red-bearded Norseman and they just don’t work. I think Marvel has done Thor a huge service in keeping his essence alive and relevant to our modern consciousness, our modern myth, because they’ve recast him as a new and prevailing heroic myth. The superhero.
How many other ancient gods feel as vital, as alive as Thor does thanks to Marvel? How many get blockbuster summer movies?
Though his form may be different, and may continue to change in the future, as long as we still need to dream about heroes, Thor will continue to bring the thunder give evil a firm “nay.”