"Real" Tales Of Asgard
or "Gimme That Old Norse Religion"
by and © Jon B. Cooke
Kirby Collector #14
It took some time for Kirby & Lee to fully exploit the mythologic aspects of
Thor in the pages of Journey Into Mystery. Initially, the god of thunder's chief
concern seemed to be magicians and Communists, but it was the repeated appearance
of his greatest adversary, Loki, that signaled the team's increasing interest
in exploring the Viking myths. Let's examine a few of the Norse myths that Jack
and Stan "Marvelized"; the "true" Tales of Asgard, found in ancients tomes called
the Eddas, dating back to the first millennium. [Most of the following quotes
are from "Gods of the North" by Brian Branston (1956, Vanguard Press) including
his translations of the Prose and Poetic Eddas, and from Nicole Cherry's great
Norse mythology web page.]
In the beginning there was the Ginnun-gagap, the Yawning Gulf. In the Gulf
was a land of fire, Muspellheim, and a land of ice, Niflheim. From the icy waves
rose the first living creature, Ymir the Frost Giant, who "was no god but a
creature of evil." Auoumla, the cow, sustained the Giant, and licked the rocks
of ice to create Buri, a god who "begat a son called Bur who took to wife Bestla
and they had three sons called Odin, Villi and Vi." The boys killed Ymir, and
threw his carcass into the Yawning Gulf and made the earth out of it. From his
blood they created the lakes and seas; the earth was made from his flesh and
the mountain crags from his bones. Towards the center of the earth they built
a fortress encircling the region against their giant enemies; they made it from
the brows of Ymir, and called it Midgard. (The brothers also created humanity
from two logs of driftwood, but that's another story.) So were created the nine
worlds of Norse myth-ology, three of which concern us: the outer world Jotunheim
(Land of the Giants), Mid-gard (the human world), and Asgard, Home of the Gods,
connected to Man by Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge.
Thor, Loki, Sif and Odin © & ™ Marvel Characters, Inc.
Uninked pencils from Thor #147.
Contrary to the interests of comics fans, much of Norse religion lacks a cohesive
continuity. As stated above, there was a void at the beginning of time and suddenly
a giant, divine bovine appeared with no explanation. These tales didn't appeal
to logic; apparently it was also a religion in constant flux. Tyr, the Norse
God of War who demanded sacrifices from his followers, was wildly popular until
Thor - who apparently desired no such bloody compensation - usurped his position
over the years and surpassed even Odin in popularity. What is recounted about
the immortals - at least what would interest a fan of the Kirby & Lee Thor -
is briefly summarized below.
Odin: The chief god of the Norse pantheon, Odin is called Alfadir (All-father),
for he is indeed father of the gods Balder, Hermod, Hod, Thor, and Vidar. Odin
is a god of war and death, but also the god of poetry and wisdom. From his throne
he observes all that happens in the nine worlds; tidings are brought to him
by his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn. He also resides in Valhalla, where slain
warriors are taken. Odin has only one eye, which shines like the sun; his other
eye he traded for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, and gained immense knowledge.
Thor: The son of Odin and Jord, he's one of the most powerful gods,
the Norse god of thunder. He is married to Sif, a fertility goddess, and is
usually portrayed as a large, powerful man with a red beard and eyes of lightning.
Despite his ferocious appearance, he was very popular as the protector of both
gods and humans against the forces of evil. Thursday is named after him. The
Norse believed that during a thunderstorm, Thor rode through the heavens on
his chariot pulled by goats. Thor wears the belt Megingjard which doubles his
already considerable strength. His greatest enemy is Jormungand, the Midgard
Serpent, and his greatest weapon, Mjollnir, the hammer ("that smashes") made
for him by dwarfs. Every time Thor threw Mjollnir, lightning flashed, after
which the hammer returned to his right hand, on which he wore an iron glove.
Mjollnir was greatly feared by the Frost Giants - the enemies of the gods -
for Thor had killed a large number of them.
Loki: A son of giants (not a stepson of Odin, as modified by Kirby &
Lee), Loki is connected with fire and magic, and can assume different shapes
(horse, falcon, fly, etc.). Handsome and with a friendly appearance, the God
of Mischief has an evil nature, crafty and malicious. He's directly responsible
for the death of Balder. His wife is Sigyn, who stayed loyal to him, even when
the gods punished him for Balder's murder. He was chained to three large boulders;
one under his shoulders, one under his loins, and one under his knees. A poisonous
snake was placed above his head. The snake's dripping venom was caught by Sigyn
in a bowl, but whenever the bowl is filled to the brim, she has to leave to
empty it. Then the poison that falls on Loki's face makes him twist in pain,
Balder: The god of light and joy (and son of Odin and Frigg), he was
loved by both gods and man, and was considered to be the best of the gods. He
had a good character, and was friendly, wise and eloquent, although he had little
power. He dreamed about his death, so Frigg extracted an oath from every creature,
object and force in nature that they would never harm him. Thinking him invincible,
the gods used Balder as a target for knife-throwing and archery. Jealous Loki
changed his own appearance and asked Frigg if there was anything that could
harm Balder. Suspecting nothing, she answered that there was just one thing:
a small tree called the mistletoe - she thought it was too small to ask for
an oath. Loki tricked Balder's blind twin brother, Hod, into shooting a mistletoe
fig (guided by Loki's aim), and Balder fell dead, pierced through the heart.
Ragnarok: Ragnarok is the Twilight of the Gods, the end of the cosmos,
also called Gotterdammerung. Ragnarok will be preceded by Fimbulvetr, the winter
of winters. Conflicts and feuds will break out, and all morals will disappear;
this is the beginning of the end. The wolf Skoll will devour the sun, and his
brother Hati will eat the moon, plunging the earth into darkness. Earthquakes
will shudder the earth, freeing the terrible wolf Fenrir. The sea will rear
up because Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent, is twisting and writhing in fury,
making his way toward the land. With every breath, Jormungand will stain the
soil and the sky with his poison. The waves caused by the serpent's emerging
will set free the ship Naglfar, and with the giant Hymir as their commander,
the giants sail toward the battlefield. From the realm of the dead a second
ship will set sail, carrying the inhabitants of hell, with Loki as their helmsman.
The fire giants, led by the giant Surt, will leave Muspell in the south to join
against the gods. Surt, carrying a sword that blazes like the sun itself, will
scorch the earth.
Meanwhile, Heimdall will sound his horn, calling Odin's sons and heroes to
the battlefield. From all the corners of the world, gods, giants, dwarves, demons
and elves will ride towards the huge plain of Vigrid ("battle shaker"), where
the last battle will be fought. Odin will head straight for Fenrir, and Thor
will attack Jormungand. Thor will be victorious, but shortly after he will die
from the serpent's poison. Surt will seek out Freyr, who will succumb to the
giant. The one-handed Tyr will fight the monstrous hound Garm and they will
kill each other. Loki and Heimdall, age-old enemies, will meet for a final time,
and neither will survive their encounter. The fight between Odin and Fenrir
will rage for a long time, but finally Fenrir will seize Odin, and swallow him.
Vidar will at once leap towards the wolf, and kill him with his own hands. Then
Surt will fling fire in every direction. The nine worlds will burn, and friends
and foes alike will perish. The earth will sink into the sea.
After the destruction, a new idyllic world will arise from the sea and this
new earth will be filled with abundant life. Some of the gods will survive,
others will be reborn. Wickedness and misery will no longer exist, and gods
and men will live happily ever after.
From these awesome spectacles, Stan and Jack contrived a modern mythology we
still marvel at today. Whatever modifications the team made, the essence seemed
to remain; essentially fatalistic, yet not without hope. Jack would twist the
ending to Ragnarok and create his not-so-happy epilogue, the Fourth World, his
magnum opus. Such is the stuff of legends.
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