The “Truth” About Thor and Loki

How does Marvel's version of the characters stack up against Norse mythology?

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Jay Maidment / Marvel

Thor is a special kind of superhero — and not just because of that hammer. While most of the mighty crime-fighters in Marvel’s stable are creations from the minds of people like Stan Lee, Thor is an adaptation of a character from Norse mythology (adapted for comics by people like Stan Lee).

But though Thor and his family members have ancient origins, not everything about the characters as they appear in movies like Thor: The Dark World (Nov. 8) is the same as it’s always been…


In the movie: Chris Hemsworth

In mythology  Like the superhero version, this Thor is the god of thunder and carries a magical hammer, which has awesome strength and flies back to after being thrown. Unlike his comic-book and movie counterpart, Thor has a big beard and travels in a cart drawn by goats. He’s also married to Sif — played in the movie by Jaimie Alexander — rather than being enamored of a human being.


In the movie: Tom Hiddleston

In mythology: Like Hiddleston’s version of the character, the mythological Loki is a complicated guy, whose allegiances are hard to pin down — but the similarities are pretty limited after that. The Norse version of Loki is not Thor’s adopted brother. Also, while in early stages of Loki’s story he’s more mischievous than straight-up bad, his transition from puckish to evil takes place over time.

(MORERichard Corliss reviews the new Thor movie)


In the movie: Anthony Hopkins

In mythology: As in the movie, Odin is top banana in the Norse-god homeworld of Asgard. In mythology, however, the god is a bit more complex than Marvel’s throne-sitting deity. Odin gives humans their souls and often spends time among them, wandering around disguised as a wizened old man and, though he’s also a warrior, whenever Odin speaks — after obtaining the magical mead of poetry — it’s always in verse.


In the movie: Rene Russo

In mythology: As in the movie, she’s Odin’s wife and practices magic — but in mythology she’s not Thor’s mother. (A giantess has that honor.)


In the movie: Idris Elba

In mythology: As in the movie, he is the watchman and guards Bifrost, the rainbow bridge to Asgard. This character is probably the closest match between Marvel and myth… but that’s because relatively little is known about the mythology of Heimdall.

(MOREBrush Up on the Greek Myth That Arcade Fire Is Singing About)


Another thing about Loki, he shape shifted into women, a lot and once even gave birth as a female horse to an 8 legged colt which he gave to his father as a gift. I can see why Marvel decided not to include this story, but it's interesting nonetheless.


"whenever Odin speaks — after obtaining the magical mead of poetry — it’s always in verse."

With respect, this is BS. Odin may speak in verse in the English translations of piece you read (which is a reflection of the translator's quirks), but it doesn't hold true in the Old Norse and Icelandic originals. The Havamal, for one, is mostly in prose format.


Forgot another thing about Thor: he has red hair. Also the ability to appear instantly wherever his name is spoken, which seems like it would obviate a lot of the plot of the second film.


One of the great problems with the norse myth is that there's effectively no canon. people make pronouncements about 'how it was', but everything we know is pieced together from partial sources -- and the most complete of those sources were compiled by people two generations Christian. 

There's a good likelihood that there wasn't in fact one single pantheon, but rather an array of cults that were honored by different tribes, clans or classes. 

Loki's always been one of the more fascinating characters in the complex for the reason that he functions as a reminder of broken promises. The Eddas all agree that he's in some voluntary filial relation with Odin ('blood brothers', you might say), though some sources hint at him being one of the original three creators of mankind (in the person of 'Lodurr'). Over time he's called on to do all manner of dirty business for the Aesir -- to do double-dealing in their name, and in turn to be dealt-double by them. At each point it's possible to adjudicate him as being in the wrong, but prior to the incitement to murder of Baldur, pretty much all of it is part of his more or less official role as Asgard's "cleaner" or "fixer."  


One fascinating tale preserves what might have once been another aspect of the figure that became 'Loki.' A peasant fisherman is extorted into making a deal with the sea-giant Skrymsli that requires him to turn over his first-born child. One by one he asks Thor (protector of the hearth), Heimdallr (protector of the doorway), and Odin (the great chieftain) to help him; one by one they're able to help once, but no more. At wit's end, he appeals to Loki -- and only Loki is able to permanently address the issue by tricking and killing the sea-giant. (I'm familiar with this tale as "Skrymsli and the Peasan't Child.") 


@ericscoles According to Hyde, in "Trickster Makes This World", Loki wasn't the "God of Lies" until the 13th century, and that monicker came from a Christian. 

I'm glad that someone remembers the story of Loki and the Giant. I included it in my story "I Bring the Fire", because it shows a completely different side of him--at least compared to the Marvel version.

There's a lot of energy put into pronouncing Loki the villain in Norse Myths, and into declaring that Asgard fell because he "allowed" Loki in. But I always thought the lesson of the Norse myths was if you kill a man's wife (Angrbooda), banish, imprison, or kill his children, you'll turn even a clown into the man who burns the world down.


@ericscolesInteresting that the fisherman forgets about Frigga, who watches over family, home, and children...especially considering how She reacted to Baldur's impending doom.


@SalingersGhost if we take the eddas literally, Vidar is one of the most important figures in the pantheon -- since it's he and Thor's sons who rebuild the world after Ragnorak. But IIRC we know of him entirely from single mentions in two sources: once in Lokasenna, and once from the Younger Edda (which is a secondary source, after all).