The recent news out of Marvel, that the company is about to relaunch Thor as a female character, has caused quite a stir. Graphic novel aficionados have denounced it a publicity stunt and political correctness gone mad. One or two bloggers, however, have argued that it gives a voice to the oppressed (women) in a male-dominated world, where geeks think it’s okay to grope scantily-clad “cosplay” girls — and let’s be honest, in the rest of America this sort of behavior died with the Mad Men era of the 1950s.
According to Marvel, Thor will soon do something that makes him no longer worthy to wield his hammer, Subsequently, a blonde, female warrior — conveniently also known as Thor — will step to take his place.
Despite the controversy, this isn’t a million miles from one ancient myth of the god. In the medieval Icelandic text, the Poetic Edda, there’s a curious tale: Thor loses his hammer, and is forced to disguise himself as a woman as part of a ruse to get it back.
Sometimes seen as a mere comedy, the myth probably tells us that the hammer is identified with Thor’s masculinity, and, more explicitly, with the male genitals, procreation, and so on. The wearing of women’s clothes might represent an ancient shamanic custom.
But, if the Marvel plot does, no doubt unintentionally, have some relationship to Norse mythology, it may not be quite the big “shout out” to women that we imagine.
Women of the Germanic tribes often fought in battle, though as an auxiliary force. Norse myth also supplies the figure of the warrior woman: the Valkyrie, the best-known of which is the rebellious Brynildr. According to myth, she dared to defy the chief god, Odin — rarely a good idea — and was punished by being stripped of her immortality and placed, asleep, in a ring of fire.
The Valkyrie (“Choosers of the Slain”) would descent on the battle to take the dead heroes to Valhalla (“Hall of the Dead”), where the latter would fight and feast in the afterlife until the final, cosmic battle, Ragnarok.
Although the goddess Freya is generally linked to agriculture and fertility, she was also probably one of the chief Valkyrie since, according to the Poetic Edda, “whenever she rides into battle [Freya] takes half of the slain.” Freya might, then, have provided a much better, and richer, model for a female warrior goddess than the god Thor.
Despite grumbling, the image of a female warrior isn’t in itself politically correct. Xena: Warrior Princess has a huge number of fans among comic geeks. And we can just imagine the outrage if the character — formerly played by Lucy Lawless — were replaced by a bearded Xena: Warrior Prince. Gross. And inauthentic.
Marvel’s female Thor may superficially resemble the female warriors of Norse myth. However, what makes the female Thor politically correct is that, rather than trying to figure out what is authentic to both, Marvel has attempted to transpose the image of a well-known character (and ancient deity) onto an unknown and made up figure who cannot absorb the history or mythology of the original. (Why is lady Thor wielding Mjolnir, a phallic symbol?)
By gender-bending Thor, Marvel ignores a more than thousand-year-old myth, archetypes, and history of the warrior woman, even as it displays its ignorance of the mythology it has used to reap hefty profits at the box office. In an odd way, the creation of female Thor is deeply politically incorrect, even if she may turn out to be as rootless and culturally bereft as any Wall Street banker.