Oh, My Pop Culture Deities: It’s Tough to Be a God

You’d think that a comic based on an actual god figure from real-world mythology would be rife with potential for this column, but most of the time The Mighty Thor, which stars the new Jane Foster iteration of the character, doesn’t actually deal with much that could be considered theological in nature. However, the last three or so months’ worth of issues (#15-17, to be specific) have featured a very interesting conflict that gets at a meaty question. What does it mean to be a god? More specifically, does ultimate cosmic power come with a responsibility to one’s worshippers? How ought gods prove their power to their followers? This conflict is addressed through a competition that is both fascinating and horrifying.

(via the Marvel wikia)

Spoilers for the aforementioned issues below the jump.

The Mighty Thor has lately been focusing on a war Malekith (whom you may remember as the villain in Thor: The Dark World) has instigated between the Nine Realms. In issue #15, Asgard is attacked by the Shi’ar race, and Thor is kidnapped and taken to the palace of the Shi’ar’s gods, Sharra and K’ythri. As we progress into the next issue, we learn more about why. After being taunted by Loki, who pointed out that Thor has a much larger audience these days than either of them, the Shi’ar gods have brought Thor to their turf in order to challenge her to a competition of godliness. Proctored by a lesser god of documentation, this challenge of the gods will test powers such as cosmic manipulation, genesis abilities, plague-calling, the summoning of natural disasters and rains of fire and brimstone, and, of course, the inspiration of faith-based infanticide. You know, god stuff. Whoever proves more successful at both performing these tasks and garnering prayers as a result will be the ultimate winner.

I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?? (via Zona Negativa)

Sharra and K’ythri jump right in with the natural disasters, and summon a giant wave that immediately threatens to destroy a city on their own homeworld. While millions will die, the billions on the rest of the planet they’ve targeted will, they know, pray to their gods both in thankfulness for their lives and for comfort in their grief: a net win for the Shi’ar duo. However, Thor immediately springs into action and uses Mjolnir to calm the wave and save the city. The prayers the Shi’ar gods expected to receive immediately turn to prayers of joy and gratitude directed at Thor, making their first round a loss. They head into the other rounds, and while Thor is able to best them at some, she certainly can’t create a new race of creatures from the air, or call down a plague, and her compassion for and desire to protect the innocents that Sharra and K’ythri have no issue drawing into their challenge often gets in the way of her winning. As the casualties mount on the Shi’ar side of the battle, Thor’s temper is pushed to the breaking point, but Earth itself is being held hostage dependent on her adherence to the rules of the challenge, and so her hands are tied to the competition.

The aloof, amoral, and cruel pair of deities seem like a different kind of creature entirely than Thor—while both ostensibly superhuman, the Shi’ar gods are glowing blue humanoids clothed in white light, while (Jane-ness aside) Thor herself feels more, well, human. She has the physical shape and appearance of a human—it’s her abilities that reveal her godliness. However, both Thor and the Shi’ar deities lay claim to a legacy of being worshipped based on their superiority to those by whom they are revered, and in such, we call them both gods.

Through the lens of a Western, Christian-inspired worldview, it seems obvious to us that, regardless of what happens in the challenge, Thor is ultimately the better god. She has compassion for the lowly, she stands up to the oppressors of the weak, and she will take the L if it means saving someone who can’t protect themselves. This model for deity is appealing to us, probably in part because it’s the model that we’re most familiar with.  However, it’s certainly not a model that humanity has always followed. Just to look at the actual Norse pantheon is to see figures whose behavior is nothing the “enlightened” modern person would laud, and cultures all over the world and throughout history have prayed to figures for whom their respect came from fear rather than love, and whom they worshipped for reasons other than their kindness or compassion. Zeus was a serial rapist; Athena cursed Medusa and Arachne out of pride; Set murdered Osiris and scattered pieces of his corpse along the Nile; the God of the Old Testament sent bears after children, and there was, you know, the whole Book of Job; the list goes on.

Fun fact: Thor’s goats are part of Marvel canon. (via sourcererblog)

In Norse mythology alone, Loki caused Baldr’s death (and a shitload of other nonsense—actually, imagine me waving at Loki like that guy in How to Train Your Dragon and Loki yelling “you just gestured to all of me!”). The female sun and moon move around the sky because when all the male gods wanted to punish them for being so attractive, Odin agreed and set wolves to constantly chase them. Freya, in a move not unique to the Norse pantheon, kicks off a war for totally selfish reasons. Thor himself is a dick who kicks dwarves and is constantly murdering and eating his poor chariot goats.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every god who’s not Jesus was a total asshole. However, I wonder if, as we as a culture moved more and more toward our current Christian-centric view of religion and morality, the idea of gods who were anything but kind and gentle became passé, and it became more important to highlight the Christlike qualities of gods from other pantheons in order to maintain their relevancy. Perhaps this was a reaction to the presumed primitiveness of worshipping a god whom you fear rather than love; in a world where so much around us is explainable by science, it can seem silly to beg a god not to strike you with a plague that you could just go get inoculated against. A god of love, whether that’s Christ or some other deity, has more of a place in a modern Western mindset.

In the end, the message The Mighty Thor appears to be sending is one we’ve heard ad nauseum from another Marvel hero: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Based purely on their abilities, Sharra and K’ythri seem much more to fit the generic idea of a god. However, to paraphrase Disney’s Hercules, another oddly Christian take on pagan mythology, the moral seems to be that a true god isn’t measured by the size of their strength, but by the strength of their heart. Thor is a god whether or not she can defeat the Shi’ar (the arc isn’t over, and the next issue isn’t out until this coming Wednesday) but she’s ultimately superior to the others in the narrative’s eyes because she uses her powers to help those less fortunate and less powerful than herself. Meanwhile, the Shi’ar gods’ godhood is questioned not because of their lack of power, but because of the way they wield it. While it’s satisfying as a reader to see Thor maintain what is pitched as the moral high ground, it doesn’t mesh with the truth of real religious beliefs—or even to the history of the real-world Thor himself—to uphold this dichotomy. By suggesting that there’s only one right way to be a god, the story ends up drawing a value judgment on real religious figures who don’t mesh with the narrow Christian imagining of deity.


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5 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Deities: It’s Tough to Be a God

  1. LONG RANT ON MARVEL COMICS COSMOLOGY. FEEL FREE TO IGNORE.

    Okay so what is a “god” in Marvel comics? The apparent answer to this nowadays (by this I mean it wasn’t retconed for more than a decade by now; also you can find these type of notions as far back as the 80s occasionally) is:

    – Sentient story (there can be something else underneath it but it’s not necessary).

    Yeah… it’s sorta like Gaiman’s general interpretation of gods but in some very key aspects very different. Namely:

    – Not worship that actually matters just story and memory.

    Soooo if god X exists (not entirely clear how new gods pop into existence as obviously not all fiction does this in the Marvel U, but it happens quite regularly) and X’s story tells they’re all powerful, created the universe etc., then X’s all powerful, created the universe etc. even if only one person actually remembers these stories.:
    – As they count as person this means truly destroying an established god is incredibly hard.
    – It also means that gods don’t have to be internally consistent to exist. So yeah… if this hypothetical god X created the universe then they created the universe just like all the others nobody bats an eye. and neither if they have 7 different contradictory stories about how. All are equally true.
    – Furthermore their free will is limited to what’s in sync with the story and they’re rewritable / retellable. It’s also the reason why they repeat patterns over and over, many times against their will. Or change according to people’s perception/memory without meaning to.

    From all of this: What the gods of some particular people are tell much more about the people worshipping them than anything else. Now the Shi’ar are basically space bird Romans.

  2. Also fun fact: Do you recall the lesser god of documentation in this arc? That was one of the few survivors of Gor, the God Butcher, from Jason Aaron’s first arc in “Thor: God of Thunder”, he was also originally the god of bombs and fireballs.

      • Aaron’s Thors appear to be very well planned… but unfortunately move at a glacial speed so when pay-offs and callbacks like this happen most people have long forgotten the setup. *facepalm*

        (The arc before this brought back the League of Realms from his 3rd arc on Thor:GoT; before that Omnipotence city appeared again which was not seen since the 2nd arc of Thor:GoT and so forth.)

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