Ragnarok and the source of Norse myth

Tessa Thompson as one of the Valkyries.
Tessa Thompson as one of the Valkyries.
Image: Marvel Entertainment/Disney.
Anyone who went to the movies this weekend may have run home to a dictionary to find the definition of Ragnarok.

     Already a critically acclaimed blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok took in more than $121 million by the end of opening weekend in the U.S.
     But the film's story differs from the traditional mythology upon which it is based. In his book, Norse Mythology (W. W. Norton & Co.; 2017), writer Neil Gaiman explains, "Thor was just as strong as the Mighty Thor in the comics, his hammer as powerful, but he was . . . well, honestly, not the brightest of the gods; and Loki was not evil, although he was certainly not a force for good. Loki was . . . complicated."       Here is the rundown of the myth (along with a couple of spoilers for the movie), and sources for further study:

Thor: The god of thunder, for whom Thursday is named. In the movie, the character (portrayed by Chris Hemsworth) brags of his great strength -- a hallmark. The Encyclopedia Britannica account describes Thor as a foe to a race of giants but benevolent toward humans. He’s generally depicted just as he is seen in the comic books and movies -- barrel-chested with blond or red hair. In Iceland, where Thor was worshiped, some names in the country are linked to Thor, according to a 2015 story in The Guardian, Back for Thor, How Iceland is Reconnecting with its pagan past.  
      Thor's hammer Mjollnir (the lightning maker) was forged by dwarfs. When Thor throws the hammer, it never misses the target and always returns to his hand, Gaiman writes. But unlike a scene in the movie -- in which Hela stops the hammer and smashes it to pieces -- the hammer of mythology is indestructible.

Odin: He is called the all-father. In the movie, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wears an eye patch. That is in line with the myth. In his book, Gaiman describes how Odin asked for a drink from the well of wisdom. Mimir, keeper of the well, said yes, but wanted a terrible price -- Odin had to put one of his eyes in the pool. Odin did so and drank from the well.
    “Wisdom flooded into him,” Gaiman writes. “He saw farther and more clearly with his one eye than he ever had with two.”  (In the movie, Hopkins delivers a similar line when Thor loses an eye.)

Asgard: In her classic book, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (Penguin; 1940), Edith Hamilton describes Asgard as the home of the gods. But Asgard sounds more like an Icelandic winter than Paradise Island. “No radiancy of joy is in it,” Hamilton writes, “no assurance of bliss. It is a grave or solemn place, over which hangs the threat of inevitable doom.”

Ragnarok: The idea of a day of judgment or an end for humanity is common to religions. But in many stories, the soul has a place to go -- a possibility of afterlife. In Norse mythology, Ragnorok is the “day of doom,” according to Hamilton, “when heaven and earth would be destroyed.”
     The movie is different in this respect. Odin says that Asgard is a place, and that the inhabitants of Asgard will be fine if they move elsewhere.

Hela: Hela (Cate Blanchett) is the goddess of death. In Norse mythology, Hel  (without the a) was originally the world of the dead, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. It later was used to mean the goddess of death. Her kingdom is Niflheim, the World of Darkness. In mythology, Hel was a child of the god Loki – another area where the movie and myth differ. In the flick, Hela identifies herself as the elder sister of Thor and Loki.

Loki: In the movie, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is Thor’s adopted brother. But in mythology, he is described as Odin’s brother. “The other gods do not know when Loki came to Asgard, or how. He is Thor’s friend and Thor’s betrayer,” Gaiman writes. “He is tolerated by the gods, perhaps because his stratagems and plans save them as often as they get them into trouble. Loki makes the world more interesting but less safe. He is the father of monsters, the author of woes, the sly god.”

Heimdall: Another god, Heimdall (Idris Elba), is identified in Hamilton's book  as the “warder of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge which led to Asgard.”  Gaiman describes Heimdall as watchman of the gods, who "saw everything approaching Asgard and who missed nothing." Odin gives Heimdall the “Gjallerhorn,” basically, a loud horn. Heimdall is only to blow it once, at Ragnarok.
     In Thor movies, Heimdall protects the Bifrost and has psychic ability. In this flick, his job description has expanded. He is the watchman of the inhabitants of Asgard, shepherding them to safety during the attack.

Valkyries: In the film, one of the Valkyries (portrayed by Tessa Thompson) makes an appearance. As described by Hamilton, the Valkyries spent half of their time as waitresses and the other half as SEAL Team 6. “They waited on the table in Asgard and kept the drinking horns full,” Hamilton writes, “but their chief task was to go to the battlefield and decide at Odin’s bidding who should win and who should die, and carry the brave dead to Odin.” The first part of the word -- val --means “slain.” The place where the slain were taken was the Hall of the Slain, Valhalla. Anyone doomed to die in battle would see the maidens “riding their steeds in shining armor … with their white hands beckoning,” Hamilton recounts.

  To know more:


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