Oh, My Pop Culture Pantheon: Differences between Marvel’s Thor and Norse Mythology

I’ve been reading Marvel’s Thor comics since long before the movie came out. I think I was immediately captured by Thor’s and Loki’s stories since I viewed them as an opportunity to learn more about Norse mythology. After reading the comics for a few years and then finally seeing the first live-action film, I started picking up books on actual Norse mythology and even read the Edda at one point.

It was then that I realized that my original assumption—that I could learn about Norse mythology through Marvel’s Thor—was not the best assumption to make. There are still many things about the comics that are in line with actual mythology, and before studying the Edda I did know that there would be some differences between the two narratives. After all, I didn’t think it was quite a big deal that Marvel made Thor blond instead of redheaded.

Comics-Thor-Marvel-Comics-Avengers-Fresh-New-Hd-Wallpaper--However, it didn’t occur to me before reading the Edda just how vastly different they would both be. Marvel even went so far as to change Asgardian culture to reflect beauty standards today, with very little regard to actual Norse ideals, especially when it comes to gender roles.

Before we get into this, I should point out that reading about Norse mythology and the Edda by no means makes me an expert on the subject. So please feel free to correct me if I get anything wrong.

The cultural change I mentioned earlier can best be reflected in Thor’s character, specifically in his physical appearance. In Marvel, Thor is often a clean-shaven blond with blue eyes. In the real mythology, he’s a redhead, with eyes like thunder, and a huge beard. This might seem like nitpicking—after all, a beard can’t be that important, right?—but it’s actually a emblematic trait of Thor’s character. Asgardian society was very gender-oriented in the original mythology. Men were expected to be masculine, and one sign of masculinity was having a beard. The original Thor was a representation of masculine ideals. As such, he would never willingly be clean-shaven, because that would be against his own ideals and self-identity.

At one point in mythology, Thor loses his hammer, and in order to get it back, Loki suggests that Thor shave and dress himself up as a potential bride for the giant who stole it as a means of infiltration. As you can probably imagine, Thor does not take this suggestion lightly. He flips out and worries that all the other gods will think him weak and womanly.

If he thought shaving and putting on a dress made him womanly, just imagine how he'd react to this.

If he thought shaving and putting on a dress made him womanly, just imagine how he’d react to this.

Furthermore, though Thor is still a hero in Norse mythology who glorified himself in battle—which doesn’t seem that different from Marvel’s Thor—he, and even the Odin of mythology, gloried in battle almost to the point of villainy. While Thor did heroic acts and was a “defender of gods and men”, he was all about the battle. In the live-action movies, and even in some of the comics, we see Odin get on Thor’s case, going so far as to banish him in some instances, for his violent tendencies. This is a huge change from the original mythology.

In the comics, Odin is a wise leader who’s worried about justice and maintaining peace. Despite being a horrible father, he is a fair and kind ruler in many instances. The Odin of mythology didn’t care about any of those things. He was a warrior god who wanted to partake in battle, to the point of actually starting fights himself. He was someone to be feared. Barring that, he also broke a stereotypical gender role which the Norse people would not have necessarily approved of. He did this by trading his one eye for magical powers, which made him a seidrmann, which is an Old Norse term that’s very similar to our concept of a sorcerer. In Norse society, though practitioners of seidr could be people of all genders, they were more widely female, and male practitioners were stigmatized. They were seen as bringing upon themselves a societal taboo called ergi. Ergi was an insult for men that denoted effeminacy. This was such an insult that a man accused of ergi could actually be outlawed by the rest of society if he could not prove his manliness.

Both the other characters and the narrator make jabs at him for this as well.

Both the other characters and the narrator make jabs at him for this as well.

It is true, however, that the Marvel comics still portray Asgardian culture as very gender-oriented—Sif doesn’t fit in because she acts manly, and Loki, a practitioner of seidr, is a societal outcast because he’s not as physically strong as the other men around him. In some ways, both these characters are a perfect example of how patriarchy and gender roles hurt both men and women, but that is a post for another time. But the Marvel comics don’t portray these gender views and stigmatization in the same way as the mythology does. First of all, unlike actual mythology, though Marvel’s Odin also trades his eye, he doesn’t do it for magic. He does it for a vague deus-ex-machina power called the Odinforce. In this regard, he never brings ergi upon himself, and therefore is not seen as effeminate. Loki, on the other hand, is socially stigmatized for being more womanly, because he was better with magic than with a sword. However, that social stigmatization never actually progresses beyond insults and microagressions. He is never challenged to prove his manliness, and as a result, his prowess with magic is never the reason Odin banishes him from Asgard. Instead, Loki’s banishments are brought about by his villainous actions, which is the main reason for the other Asgardians’ dislike and distrust of his character.

However, in the comics, Loki’s role as a seidrmann is still one of the initial reasons he is ostracized by society, and his jealousy over Thor is one of his driving motivations to villainy. Furthermore, Sif, despite refusing to live a traditional female lifestyle, as she does in the original mythology, eventually gains acceptance from her peers around her. She proves to other Asgardians that a “mere maid” can be a fierce warrior. Loki never gains any kind of acceptance for his spells and sorcery. It is seen as a womanly, or rather cowardly, way to fight. This is also a huge difference between the original mythology and the comics—in the original mythology, Loki is not a villain. He is simply a trickster.

While I think it’s safe to say that Marvel’s intention was never to portray Norse mythology accurately, some of the changes it made to the original narrative widely alter intrinsic parts of the characters being used. In some ways, I’d say this is a good thing—especially the recent changing of Thor’s gender—if only because it opens more doors to talk about gender roles and how society thinks it’s acceptable to treat people who break them. These were also changes that needed to be made, since the original mythology doesn’t have clear cut villains and heroes. In mythology, Odin is kind of evil, and Loki just likes to play pranks. As such, Marvel had to alter their characterization and invent other characters—Amora, the Warriors Three, etc.—who also nicely fit what we consider heroes or villians.

The biggest problem with doing this is that this religion is still alive today. There are still practitioners of Germanic Neopaganism, and Marvel’s interpretation of Thor could be seen as an appropriation of their religion. I personally don’t know anyone who follows this faith, and the few of them I found online when the first live-action movie premiered seemed really okay with Marvel’s portrayal. As I know very little about Germanic Neopaganism other than what I just read on Wikipedia, I’m going to have to take their word for it. So if any of you either practice Germanic Neopaganism or know someone who does, please feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

6 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Pantheon: Differences between Marvel’s Thor and Norse Mythology

  1. my brother converted to Odinism in prison. he loves Marvel’s Thor. the specifics don’t really matter to him, as these are all just stories anyway, and who is he to stop people from telling new stories? he’s really just happy to see one of his gods get such positive mainstream exposure.

  2. Generally – although I’m not sure this is fair – I’m less concerned about appropriation from European cultures. There’s so much less baggage, I’m not worried in the same way. Especially here where, I believe, most Germanic neopagans are themselves appropriating old traditions to form new beliefs, rather than serving as the heirs of a long cultural history. They can own their own beliefs too, of course, but Marvel’s not appropriating from them, but from older lines

  3. I’m a Norse Pagan and I am fine for the most part with how Marvel portrays my deities. The only issue I have is Marvel making Loki an evil villain (Snorri Sturluson did the same thing to Loki that Marvel did, so there’s that) when he is just a trickster.

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