By now you’ve probably heard about Marvel’s Thor and Loki: The burly, blonde, hammer wielding thunder god who joins the Avengers, and his estranged adopted brother with a penchant for sorcery and world domination. They’ve been all over the mainstream media lately, from blockbuster movies to tumblr fan sites. What you may not know is that Thor and Loki actually have a much more ancient fan base: Germanic and Scandinavian tribes–also known as the Vikings. The purpose of today’s entry is to shed some light on the original personalities of these two Norse gods, and maybe see what Marvel got right, and what they pulled out of left field.
First, a history lesson: about 2000 years ago in southern Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was looking to expand its territory. Soldiers and colonists pushed into the lands of present-day Germany and Poland and met the natives. This is when we get the first records of a pagan deity named Donner–the old German word for “thunder.” Donner eventually got his own day of the week: Donnerstag (which literally translates as “Thunder’s Day”). Naturally, the Holy Roman Empire couldn’t have pagan heathens living in their lands, and quickly imposed the Christian religion. However, some Germanic tribes were unwilling to give up their culture, and fled to present day Scandinavia, taking their Gods with them. This is how an entire religion managed to travel halfway across a continent.
This move also gave way to the Viking age, and a change in the German language. Donner’s named changed to Thórr, giving name to modern English’s Thursday (literally “Thor’s Day”)–the same day of the week as Donnerstag. A little more about Thor: Thor is one of the sons of Odin, who is the King of the Norse Pantheon. While Odin is the herald to all the nobility on Earth, Thor watches over its peasantry and merchants, and is often prayed to in order to invoke his powers of fertility and his ability to bring rain. First and foremost though, Thor is the God of Thunder, and he is able to conduct lightning through his giant hammer, Mjolnir (pronounced mee-OAL-neer). He very rarely parts with it, and is often depicted using it in battle, or with it strapped to his belt as he drinks with his warrior friends–two of his favorite activities. When the Romans eventually reached Scandinavia with their darned Christianity, those who were still loyal to Thor would surreptitiously wear wooden carvings of Mjolnir around their necks, as a last rebellion.
Now we’re on to Loki, an extremely complex character. Whether Loki is a God or a Jotunn (frost giant) is often a source of contention. He is said to be the son of Laufey, the fallen King of the frost giants, who once waged war against Asgard (the realm Odin and Thor hail from). While Marvel tells a story in which Loki grew up as Thor’s only brother in the palaces of Asgard, in original mythology, Loki was rarely associated with Thor or Odin. In fact, his hair isn’t even black–it was usually portrayed as red (fangirls, we’ve been lied to). However, as the God of Mischief, Loki did get into trouble quite often. In fact, he’s the reason we consider the number 13 to be unlucky today. The story goes like this: One day 12 Gods were having a party, which they had decided not to invite Loki to because, well, he’d cause trouble. Loki, miffed that he wasn’t invited, showed up anyway, making him the 13th guest. During the party, Loki challenged Hoder, who was blind, to an archery contest. When Hoder took his shot at what Loki told him was the “target,” he accidently hit and killed Baldir, the God of joy, which ushered in a time of darkness and mourning throughout the world. As in the comics, Loki was no sweetheart.
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