How Pop Culture Revived Norse Mythology

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor-The Dark World (2013)
Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor-The Dark World (2013) | © Jay Maidment/2013 - Marvel Studios, Courtesy of IMDB

It all started with a comic book. Thor, the Old Norse god of thunder, first appeared in a Marvel comic created by the legendary Stan Lee during the Silver Age of comic books. Sixty-six years later, not only is Thor a recognisable superhero like Spider-Man, but the whole Norse pantheon has proven to be an endless source of inspiration for movies, TV shows and books. Here’s how some of its main players have evolved thanks to pop culture – and what their original forms were in the Old Norse manuscripts.

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In Old Norse mythology: Odin, Thor’s father, is also called “all-father”; the oldest of the gods and creator of life. Blind on one eye (he traded it for infinite wisdom), Odin rules from Asgard, the realm of the gods. He is accompanied by his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who travel the world and tell him everything. The patron god of war, Odin rejoices at the valiant deaths of warriors who he then accepts into Valhalla, the afterlife for the brave. He is ruthless and blood-thirsty, but he is not unfair.

In pop culture: Odin’s first appearance was also in the same Marvel issue as Thor in 1962 and has been a recurring character ever since. In one of the latest series, he was actually depicted as part of an ancient Avengers team (like his son is part of the current one). In the Marvel cinematic universe, Odin has been portrayed in the big screen by Anthony Hopkins, while many of the character’s morally grey aspects have been hushed up. A far more interesting portrayal of Odin can be found in Starz’s American Gods, with Ian McShane as the enigmatic Mr Wednesday (Wednesday is the day traditionally dedicated to Odin).

Ian McShane as Odin in American Gods


In Old Norse mythology: Tall, strong and red-bearded, the god of thunder may not be as smart as his father (or Loki), but he has a good heart. His power is amplified by his belt called Megingjord and he wields Mjollnir, the magical hammer that can change the size and always comes back to him. He is married to golden-haired Sif and is the defender of both Asgard, the realm of the gods, and Midgard, the realm of men.

In pop culture: After his Marvel debut in 1962, he was included in the first issue of Avengers in 1963 as a founding member of the superhero team. Since then, he has appeared in countless comic books, animated series and video games but the success of the character came with Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of Asgardian (2011) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor-The Dark World (2013)


In Old Norse mythology: Freya, alongside her twin brother Frey, is part of the Vanir – a race of nature gods who, after fighting with the gods of Asgard, were sent to live among them as part of a truce. Freya was the goddess of love and the most beautiful of them all. Everyone always wanted to either marry her or steal her (or both). She had a flying chariot that was carried by cats and a soft spot for the good life – Loki once accused her of having flings with various gods. Freya is often thought to also be Frigg, Odin’s wife and the queen of the gods.

In pop culture: Frigga first appeared in the Marvel comics as Thor’s mother (and Loki’s adoptive mother) in 1963, whereas a separate character named Freya made a short appearance in 1993. After 2011, both characters were more or less considered the same person. Actress Rene Russo was cast as Frigga in the first two Thor movies.

Rene Russo as Frigga in Thor-The Dark World (2013)


In Old Norse mythology: Depending on which manuscript/branch of Norse mythology you read, you’ll probably encounter a different side of Loki. Nobody seems to agree exactly what his relationship with Odin is (some say blood brothers), but the general consensus is that Loki’s father was a giant. Although he lives in Asgard with the other gods, Loki never seems to feel like an equal – it’s always uncertain which side of an argument he’s going to land on. A cunning shape-shifter with flying shoes, Loki loves playing pranks on Thor and is aptly named “The Trickster”.

In pop culture: Marvel’s version of Loki first appeared in the 1962 issue, as Thor’s step-brother and often his arch-enemy – he’s actually ranked as one of the greatest comic book villains of all time. In the MCU, Tom Hiddleston first portrayed Loki in 2011 and has delivered a wickedly flamboyant performance ever since. But outside Marvel, Loki can also be found as a recurring character in CW’s Supernatural, portrayed by Richard Speight Jr. Although this version of Loki is less glamorous and more gritty, it’s stays true to the Trickster spirit of the Norse myths.

Richard Speight Jr. as Loki in CW’s Supernatural


In Old Norse mythology: Hel is Loki’s illegitimate daughter with a giantess, and one of the reasons Loki has also been called “Father of Monsters”. Half beautiful girl and half rotting corpse, she is given control of the realm of the dead (who weren’t accepted in Valhalla) by Odin. That realm was named Hel, after her – and it is believed that the Christian “hell” comes from a later alteration of that same word.

In pop culture: In the Marvel comics, the character is actually called Hela – and first appeared in the 1964 issue as the daughter of Loki, following the original story closely. But in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), the character portrayed by Cate Blanchett is actually Odin’s first-born child, battling with Thor over the control of Asgard. Although pop culture doesn’t always follow the original mythology it keeps the myths from being forgotten.

Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor-Ragnarok (2017)If you’d like to learn more about the Old Norse gods and pantheon, Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology is a great introductory read.

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