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Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

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Phew, I managed to throw together a pic for Earth day! Would have liked to put some more time and details into it, but I put this off as a reward to myself after meeting my minimum translation goal for the day–will probably try to get another page or two done as well.

Jörð, or “Earth,” giantess, mistress of the All-father, and mother of Þórr, with her son, probably dropping him off at school or something. As fun as it was to portray her like this, she wouldn’t necessarily have looked extraordinary to the gods (except that she might have been insanely beautiful… but hey, no reason this fecund form couldn’t be beautiful too), as whether or not the giants were portrayed as monstrous depends on the role they play in the particular story they show up in (in the Old Norse texts they are apparently not necessarily associated with gigantic size). Jörð seems to have been won over fairly thoroughly to the side of the gods (whether by seduction, force, or magic, we don’t know, but see the poem Skirnir’s Journey to see Frey’s shoe-boy attempt all three), as Snorri tells us in Prose Edda that she is numbered among them. I’m afraid she doesn’t really show up much in the myths, and for fertility deities you have to go to the wonder twins Freyr and Freyja… and, incidentally, Jörð’s son with his association with fertility through (presumably) the weather. 

Would love to go into some sort of eco-critical perspective on the relationship of the Vikings to the natural environment and how can be tied in to the relationship between the gods and the giants and gender and all that, but I should get back to work.

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IMG_2353I’m still ashamed that I never got around to writing a blog post about the first Thor movie–but now the second one is out, and I’ve got stuff to say! First, let me get my griping about pronunciation out of the way. The Shakespearean language bothered me, as it always did in the comic books as well (which I never read much, since I was more of a X-Men and Spiderman fan as a kid), but I figure this is a product of the awkwardly archaized English of the saga and Edda translations available in the first half of the twentieth century (incidentally, these are the versions that are in public domain now–you can find some on Northvegr). If you encountered the Norse gods in those versions, then of course you think they speak like they belong in a poor Shakespeare knock-off. But what really bothered me was the pronunciation of the names– “YOTE-un-hime” for “Jotunheim”, which should be “Jötunheim,” which is more like “YUTunhaim” (or “Jötunheimr”/”YUTunhaimur” if you want the nominative form that you would see in a Norse or Icelandic dictionary). OK, OK, I’m really not giving especially accurate guidance here, but it’s a bit more in the right ballpark–the beginning of the New Introduction to Old Norse has a great section on pronunciation in both Old Norse (which is reconstructed–meaning, it’s an educated and scientific guess) and modern Icelandic (which is the pronunciation I’ve usually found used in academia when we read portions of the sagas aloud). A New Introduction used to be available for free online as a PDF, but that does not seem to be the case anymore–I guess they came out with a new edition and want folks to actually buy it. The wikipedia article on the Icelandic alphabet can also give you some pronunciation tips.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I realize American audiences are not familiar with the o-umlaut, but the sounds aren’t difficult, and I feel like a proper name ought to stick at least somewhat to the original (and the fact that they used the German pronunciation of “-ei” instead of the Scandinavian is unforgivable. >:[ )  Also unforgivable–Laufey is Loki’s (goddess) mother in the myths, but becomes his giant father in the first movie (his giant father is Fárbauti in the myths), and Loki is bloodbrother to Odin, rather than adopted brother of Thor. Look, it just gets silly after a while… But I will get into Loki’s family and relationships another time. It’s complicated.

OK, that’s off my chest. Whew. Let me also confess that I just didn’t like the first movie as much. The romance, which is apparently supposed to be central to Thor’s redemption, just does not feel convincing, and the final fight felt pretty lame to me too. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character) seemed to be in the movie primarily to make Thor look good (by falling for him and going wide-eyed in anticipation at appropriate moments)–but OK, I’ve seen several blog posts that argue that the movie actually passes the Bechdel test, so I’m willing to step back and let people make up their own mind about that. I’m still skeptical, but it seemed like they made a decent case (alas, not sure exactly which blog post it was that started it for me…).

The new movie is more of an unabashed space-fantasy, which I think is more fun. Well, OK, I think the first movie would have been a lot more interesting (maybe not necessarily better) if they had taken out all the space-stuff (that legitimates Thor’s story) until that moment at the end (spoiler alert) when he gets his hammer back and Jane et al. all see that he WAS telling the truth and is a super-being from space. But for Dark World, I really enjoyed just sitting back and watching the spaceships and stuff zoom around. Pretty fun. I like space stuff. Also, there are a few fun twists (at least one that really got me), and the dynamic between Thor and Loki is really played up a lot more, I assume partly in response to reception of the two characters among the fans and partly as a result of the ways the actors have filled out these roles so well. And I really like how the Thor franchise doesn’t take itself too seriously (not all the time anyway)–I really enjoy the humor at times.

IMG_2273Still have some issues though, so I will hit them one by one here. Spoiler alert, but oh well, you probably new that.

The Vanir are Asian? Kinda but not really, according to Snorri Sturluson, who derived the name Æsir (whom Odin and Thor belong to) from “Asians” (for him, that would be Asia Minor–he was interested in convincing us that the gods were originally Trojans). The Vanir are another group of the gods who joined the Æsir (after fighting with them), and Snorri’s etymology is BS but interesting in terms of how he worked it into his grand narrative deriving Norse poetics from Classical poetics. Once version of the truce that brought them together also covers the origin of poetry, but that is a tale for another day…

Minorities and Others. To continue on the above topic, race is a pretty interesting topic to get into w/ these movies. OK, you might say that race is not at all prominent as an “issue” here, so why bother stirring it up? But it is precisely the unintentional, taken-for-granted ways that race manifests itself in this movie that are telling (and interesting). There was a huge furor online (much of it blatantly racist, and much of the rest racist at the same time that its purveyors protested “I’m not racist, but…”) when it was revealed that Heimdall would be black in the movie version of the comics. Never mind that these are aliens anyway, and that they may as well be green (like the Æsir in StarGate… which I still haven’t watched). Personally, I am more troubled by the way in which the overwhelming whiteness of these “aliens” (especially those ruling the 9 worlds) serves as an “as above, so below” justification for the situation here on earth the last 500 or so years, the imperialist and colonial programs of the West now written in the heavens and in the primordial past. As was pointed out by Karl Siegfried at the conference we met at, even Idris Elba’s version of Heimdallr becomes a liminal figure, a bodyguard who protects those on the inside from those on the outside, without being on the inside himself. With this new movie, we realize that the token Asian of the first movie is not really “from” the ruling community of the gods, but from the Vanir. I would assume that this also means that Elba’s character is from another community, although I believe I did see a token black person or two in the background among the other guards. The “earthly” varieties of “race” or ethnicity then, based on skin color and accent, stand in as “model minorities” (peripheral and not in charge, but apparently not bothered by that), while the monsters, whether the primordial Dark Elves or the barbaric looking figures with horns and stuff in the opening battle in Vanaheim, or the giants, stand in for the threatening aspect of the ethnic/racial Other (maybe not too different than in the Norse myths themselves–despite the name, the “giants” of the early texts are not necessarily gigantic, and whether they appear “normal” or “monstrous” will depend to a degree on just how much their Otherness needs to be emphasized in that particular story). The correlation between the celestial world order and that on earth becomes a bit eery and disturbing when we have Odin talking about Asgard’s peacekeeping role across the 9 worlds and the need to show these worlds that they are “strong.” The politics of power don’t differ too much across the 9 worlds, I guess. Anyway, this is not to make any of these actors feel bad for playing these roles, or to say that there is some nefarious purpose behind it all–but all this is still there, it is part of the movie, and it is better to be able to see these things (and to try to subvert them rather than reinforce them) than to be blind to them.

The Dark Elves. Not going to say much here, except that we really hardly know ANYTHING about the elves in Norse mythology, and the “dark elf/light elf” division may be an invention of Snorri, that incurable systematizer. I like the suggestion that “dark elf” or “black elf” is just a kenning for “dwarf.”

Women and power. So, Jane is great, and I appreciate that they’ve tried to portray her as a genuine scientist who really is interested in SCIENCE and not just muscles–but it seems to me that her thunder (haha) is really stolen by Thor’s arrival as one of those who really “possesses” the tech and science she is trying to just get a glimpse of. I mean, how can she ever pass the Bechdel test now if the subject she is a specialist in (SCIENCE… OK, more specific than that…) is now meaningful in the narrative only in so far as it relates to the main male character? OK, her tech is what finally defeats the bad guy, but that was just too silly for me (I mean, human home-grown tech… which her male colleague built, now that I think about it–against super-being apocalyptic tech. Not going to work). And one thing that I noticed here, and then saw paralleled in the X-men material (thinking of Jean Grey as Phoenix here)–power in these cases (the Aether for Jane) is something that possesses these women, rather than something that they possess, as is the case w/ their male counterparts. Haven’t thought further on this, but I’m curious how many other parallels there are in the comics world… Also, Jane’s impotence is really highlighted a LOT. Not just in her possession by this power, or in her out-of-placeness in Asgard (which is more of a legitimate plot-point that could have been explored more), but in the silliness of her physical violence–hitting Thor when he comes back after ages is kinda funny, sure, and we all laughed when she hit Loki, but the latter case really turns ridiculous when we really look and see her hit this man and say “That’s for New York.” Maybe it’s just me (and sure, we have Sif in this movie too, and she’s pretty bad-ass), but taken with the rest it just felt like a picture of the helpless woman juxtaposed with the competent male. And Sif or not, that is really the central relational image in this film (and of course, Sif’s place in the story is defined largely by the fact that she does NOT have the relationship with Thor that the weaker Jane has).

The Aether. OK, just going to point out that it isn’t really a Norse thing, but that’s fine. I didn’t really find it all that compelling (or well explained) a novum (or plot device) in this movie though.

Pectoral and boob plates. Yeah, just silly (always is–even if its Batman). Armor does not need to articulate that which it protects (and any articulation would just weaken it). That said, it’s nice that they don’t go for gratuitous chain-mail bikinis and the like, and really, the armor in this film is a step up from the stereotypically exploitive fantasy armor. Also check out this blog.

Mayans and Stonehenge and Ancient Conspiracies. OK, I just hate that stuff. Too many people buy into it. For a book that discusses WHY people buy into ridiculous conspiracies, ancient or otherwise, there is a handy chapter in this book (which I hope to review soon). At least it wasn’t a prominent theme in this movie.

The sneak-peak at the end. OK, who’s excited for a Infinity Gauntlet movie crossover?? ME!!!!!! I hope this means they are bringing back Silver Surfer. Honestly, I don’t know how they will do it though. The Marvel movie franchise may be big, but not THAT big. Still, I’ve been excited about this ever since the Thanos appearance at the end of the first Avengers movie. I haven’t kept up with comics for 20 years though, so who knows, maybe that whole storyline has been redone since “my time”…

I think I am missing some things, but oh well. Also check out Karl Siegfried’s interview about the movie at his blog. Karl’s interview is a lot more thorough and systematic in dealing with the connections between the “old” myths and their appropriation in the movies and comics.

And since it is that time of year, here is my pic of Thor and Loki from Christmas a couple years ago. Now available as greeting cards and posters on Redbubble, as well as on DeviantArt (where you can also get it on a mug!). The pen brush sketches from above are also on my DA acct, as well as on my tumblr.

Thor Santa Loki Rudolph God Jul_edited-1

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