As Seen on TV: Marvel’s Norse Mythology

(Warning: this post contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok)

The life of a graduate student means that sometimes (a lot of the time) you have to place your studying, reading, and researching needs before other fun pastimes. Despite my love of superhero movies, I came to the realization this summer that I was woefully behind the times in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So I only recently watched both Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Thor’s mention of Valhalla in the latest movie reminded me of my trip to Iceland in 2016 questions regarding Norse mythology and burial practices. Iceland was colonized by Norse chieftains who may have left Norway due to overcrowded settlements or a ruthless king, this according to both written record (the Icelandic saga Landnámabók) as well as archaeological evidence. From initial settlement in the 9th century, until a large scale conversion to Christianity in the 11th century, the inhabitants of Iceland were mostly pagan, worshipping the Norse gods of Odin and Thor, and readying the dead for Valhalla. With the Thor franchise, Marvel has reimagined elements of Norse mythology for the 21st century audience. But how closely do these films embrace the archaeological and written origins of Norse mythology?

Thor: God of Thunder 

2_Thors
Can you spot the difference? Thor (or Christ) figurine from Iceland, 10th century (left) and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in the Marvel franchise (right)

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor is the hunky God of Thunder and crown prince of Asgard, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, who frequently saves the world with his superhuman strength and magic hammer, Mjolnir. The antics of his adopted brother Loki serve as the basis for the formation of the Avengers. The comics and movies produced by Marvel obviously base the character of Thor on the god in Norse Mythology of the same name. Thor was the son of Odin and Fyorgyn (the earth goddess) and according to the The Prose Edda, an Icelandic work of Old Norse literature from the 13th century, he was the strongest of all gods and men. As a weather god, of sky and thunder, Thor was also associated with fertility, especially of the earth. This aspect of his godliness is lacking in the Marvel’s depiction of the superhero, presumably because this is a more peaceful aspect of his power and does not in fact come in handy when battling aliens intent on the destruction of Earth.

In the archaeological record, artifacts depicting Thor and/or Mjolnir have been unearthed in Iceland and northern Europe. The image above shows a figurine found in North Iceland in the early 19th century. On the basis of style, it has been dated to about 1000 AD. Since Iceland began a period of Christianization around that time, there is question as to whether the figurine is of Thor or of Jesus – it may be of Thor holding his hammer, Mjolnir, or of Christ holding the cross. It is also entirely possible that it was regarded as both. To aid in the conversion process, Christians often blended current Pagan practices or symbols with Christian teachings.  Though the first generation may have been skeptical, future generations would have decreasing difficulty accepting this figure as Jesus rather than Thor.  And it is probably no accident that even Thor in the Marvel Universe (both comics and films) resembles a blonde Jesus.

Valhalla

Thor_Valhalla_prayer

“Odin, I bid you take your place in the halls of Valhalla…Where the brave shall live forever. Nor shall we mourn but rejoice for those that have died the glorious death.”                                                                    -Thor in Thor: Ragnarok

In the Old Norse, Valhöll, or “the hall of the fallen” is the hall where Odin’s chosen warriors reside upon their death. Here they lived an afterlife fit for a warrior, by day engaging in eternal battle and by night, feasting. Weapons like those depicted below were grave goods, buried with their owners for use in the next life. According to The Prose Edda, men who died in battle were destined for Valhalla, while those who had the misfortune of dying in bed were doomed to an eternity with Hel, the goddess of death. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor recites the prayer above while imprisoned on Sakaar, following his father’s death and subsequent return of his older sister, who happens to be Hela, goddess of death. Odin does not die as a warrior in battle in the film but since he owns the place, Valhalla seems an appropriate afterlife destination. Additionally, in the original Norse Mythology, Hel is actually the daughter of Loki. Marvel’s Hela is based on the the original goddess of death but the Cinematic Universe alters the family dynamics and expands her character. While described as being greedy and cruel in the original Norse literature, she is only mentioned briefly and in passing. Due to this brevity, some scholars believe that she is more a personification of death or the grave than she is a goddess.

Icelandic weapons
Weapons as grave goods (axes, sword hilt, arrow heads, bronze scabbard chapes) Iceland, 10th century or earlier
Icelandic burial
Grave of a man with sword and horse (not pictured), Iceland

Whether destined for Valhalla or Hel, warrior or not, men were most likely still accompanied to the grave with items of their social standing. Along with weapons, fine clothes, jewelry, and sometimes animals like dogs and horses were grave goods, believed to serve the owner of the grave in the next life. In some rare cases, whole ships were buried. Icelandic grave goods are similar to those in Norway, though often less lavish. Men buried with their swords and trusty steed were surely bound for Valhalla, but there is no mention in Norse Mythology of the fate of the women and children. Women were buried with grave goods, usually jewelry and cooking accoutrements and sometimes knives. Presumably these grave goods would equip them to perform womanly duties in the afterlife but where that was supposed to occur remains somewhat of a mystery.  Children are occasionally found in the pagan archaeological record but are not mentioned in sources that discuss the afterlife in Norse mythology.

Norse grave goods
Assortment of grave goods from a boat burial, National Museum of Iceland

Valkyrie

“My God, you’re a Valkyrie. I used to want to be a Valkyrie when I was younger, until I found out that you were all women. There’s nothing wrong with women, of course. I love women. Sometimes a little too much. Not in a creepy way, just more of a respectful appreciation. I think it’s great that there is an elite force of women warriors. It’s about time.”                                                                                 -Thor in Thor: Ragnarok

Valkyrie in Thor Ragnarok

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Thor so succinctly, and awkwardly, puts it, the Valkyrie are an elite force of women warriors who are sworn to protect Asgard. In Norse mythology,  their relation to the battlefield is slightly different. In Old Norse, valkyrja (plural valkyrjurx) translates to “choosers of the fallen” – they are maidens who bear fallen warriors to Valhalla. “Choosers of the fallen”, however, may mean that the Valkyrie play some role in battle, perhaps protecting those they deem worthy.

New bioarchaeological analysis, actually reanalysis, lends evidence to Marvel’s depiction of the Valkyrie, of women as warriors in the past. Last year, a team of researchers confirmed that a long debated Viking warrior grave was indeed that of a woman. Located in Eastern Central Sweden, this grave (see the illustration below) is one of almost 3,000 in a larger burial ground that surrounded Birka, a key center of trade during the 8th-10th centuries. The grave goods included many weapons: a sword, axe, spear, arrows, battle knife, and two shields, in addition to two horses, a mare and a stallion. With such a prestigious assortment, the inhabitant was originally thought to be male, but ancient DNA extracted from the left canine and the left humerus confirmed the presence of two X chromosomes. While the research team cautioned against sweeping generalizations, based on the grave goods, the findings suggest the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior. After all, female Viking warriors were indeed part of society in Northern Europe at the time, shield-maidens appear in sagas of Scandinavian folklore and mythology in the 8th-10th centuries. Some scholars also posit that shield-maidens were the inspiration for the Valkyrie.

Female Viking warrior grave

Ultimately, the Marvel Universe stays true to key characteristics of both people and places in Norse mythology. It obviously never claims to be historically or archaeologically accurate but draws on both (either intentionally of unintentionally) to create a dynamic world of Asgard and its inhabitants that serves as the backdrop for Thor as a superhero and member of the Avengers. And if the continued success of the franchise is any indication, we will be enjoying Marvel’s version of Norse mythology for quite some time.

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References

Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/.

Ellis, Hilda Roderick (1968). The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Greenwood Press Publisher.

Hedenstierna‐Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå. “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics.” American journal of physical anthropology 164, no. 4 (2017): 853-860.

National Museum of Iceland: Making of a Nation Exhibit

Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel Studios. Release date 10 October 2017

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