Thor and Loki in Modern Media, Part 1: Brother Bonds

Chances are if you know any Norse gods by name, Thor and Loki are among them. Along with Odin, they are the stars of the Norse pantheon, appearing frequently in modern movies and novels. Sometimes they feature separately, but I find Thor and Loki most fascinating when they appear together. They’re such a study in opposites. Thor has some nuance but is mostly a predictable muscle god, while Loki is a slippery shapeshifter who defies morals as easily as labels. The popularity of this duo means they have been used in stories around the world. I’d like to look at four of those stories and how they compare to the original mythology. I want to discuss the interpretations of Thor and Loki in a bit more detail, so I’ll break things up into two parts, starting with stories that show the pair as brothers.

Background Mythology

Thor: The iconic god of thunder. His name was literally synonymous with “thunder,” just as “Mjöllnir,” his mighty hammer, meant “lightning.”1 With his hammer and his belt of strength, few could challenge him as he drove his goat-drawn chariot across the sky slaying giants. Yes, Thor rode with goats. He also ate them and then revived them with his hammer on occasion. Though he is a war god, his specific role was defender of mortals. This is why he also blessed marriages, casting out malevolent influences to protect new couples. He even functioned as an agricultural god by controlling weather to ensure good harvest with the balance of rain and sun. Pictured as the ideal warrior, he was a towering, muscular man with red hair.2 The son of Odin and the earth giantess Jord, he was married to the golden-haired goddess Sif. Together they raised two sons, Modi and Magni; one daughter, Thurd; and a stepson, Ullr. Modi and Magni are among the few gods who survive the final battle of Ragnarok,3 unlike Thor himself.

Thor’s battle with the Ettins, featuring his hammer and his goats. Painting by Mårten Eskil Winge / Public domain

Not all Norse gods have clear evidence of worship linked to them, but Thor does. His record goes back to the Bronze Age and continued right up into the introduction of Christianity.4 Opponents of the new religion even wore tiny replicas of Thor’s hammer as a symbol of resistance. This in sharp contrast to Loki. There is no definite evidence that anyone ever actively worshiped him.5 It’s ironic considering how popular the trickster god is with modern audiences.

Loki: Even calling him a god is problematic. His father, Farbauti, was a giant, and no record confirms whether his mother Laufey/Nal was “a goddess, a giantess, or something else entirely.”6 Many gods had giant parentage. Heimdall had nine giantess mothers,7 Odin had one, and Thor was the grandson and son of giantesses.8 Yet because linage was reckoned paternally,9 Loki is technically a giant. What kind of giant is unclear. He is linked to air,10 to knots and spiders,11 but as a shapeshifter, he can make his way in almost any element. Few details about his appearance survive. Often he is pictured as thin, probably taking after his mother whose nickname “Nal” means “needle,” and he was “fair and beautiful of face.”12 He also has two brothers, Byleist and Helblindi, who are never described in detail.

Loki and Idun (with apples and yes, pronounced EE-dun) by John Bauer, for Our Fathers’ Godsaga by Viktor Rydberg, John Bauer / Public domain

The rest of Loki’s family mainly appear during the events surrounding Ragnarok, the battle that destroys the gods. Through most of mythic history, Loki is tolerated in Asgard because his tricks fix as many problems as they create. That changes when he causes the death of the god Baldur. Then his sons by the goddess Sigyn are killed. Vali was transformed into a wolf that killed his brother, Narfi, whose entrails were used to bind Loki to a rock in a cave with a serpent constantly dripping venom on him.13 Small wonder he turns against the gods when freed, along with his children by the giantess Angrboda: Hel or Hela, goddess of the underworld, Fenrir the devouring wolf, and Jormungand, the serpent that circles our world of Midgard. Sleipnir, the eight-legged stallion Loki gave birth to as mare, presumably fights with the gods since he was gifted to Odin.14 Very likely none of Loki’s family survive Ragnarok, except maybe Hel since her main role was claiming Baldur when he died.

In Media

Spoiler Alert: To discuss how Thor and Loki are portrayed in these books and movies, I will have to touch on important reveals and other spoiler-ish content. If you want to avoid the spoilers, stick with the first paragraph of each, where I’ll try to stay fairly general.

U.S./International:* Marvel Thor Trilogy

*I’m focusing on the main trilogy of Thor films because trying to evaluate every Thor comic from 1962 to the present is beyond me. Fans of the comics, feel free to tell me how they differ. Also, while both movies and comics are mostly American works, each director of the films has a different nationality—British, America, and New Zealander—that I think adds a touch of internationality to their portrayal.

When I saw the first Thor film, I found it slightly jarring. I’m more used to the traditional Norse mythology, and while Marvel’s vision of Asgard is based on those myths, it reinterprets them a lot. It’s hard to say whether the Asgardians are gods or aliens. Thor, explaining his cosmos to Jane, says, “Your ancestors called it magic, and you call it science,”15 implying the gods are simply advanced beings inhabiting a demi-planet in another dimension and mistaken for deities by humans. Yet Hela outright calls Thor a “god” in Thor: Ragnarok.16 There’s also a scene where Dr. Eric Selvig looks at a book of myths with pictures of Thor and Loki as they appear in the movie.17 This doesn’t make sense given that Thor has only just been banished to Earth and Loki has only just become an open trickster, unless Asgardians also time-travel.

Marvel’s biggest departure from mythology is making Thor and Loki brothers. Adoptive brothers, as Loki discovers he is actually a small frost giant. The original Loki swore a blood-brother oath not with Thor but with Odin,18 and he likely knew what his parentage as well as anyone. For Marvel’s Loki, the revelation of his heritage fills him with a sense of betrayal as he asks over and over why this was kept from him. His conflicting emotions drive him to far more than mischief. Yet he doesn’t side with the giants as mythical Loki did, attempting to annihilate all frost giants supposedly to win approval from Odin, though I suspect he also wanted to erase any reminder of his difference. And in Thor: Ragnarok, he fights alongside Thor against Hela, no longer his daughter but Thor’s older, denied sister.

Thor, meanwhile, is still a mighty warrior, but he is not as harsh as his mythical counterpart. He attacks the frost giants out of arrogant inexperience, becoming more compassionate toward them than Loki after living on Earth among humans. This Thor is Odin’s only son by blood and therefore his heir, something mythical Odin would never have tolerated. Odin had plenty of children as Allfather, and his most direct successor appears to be Vidar, who survives Ragnarok and avenges Odin’s death.19 By contrast, Thor and Odin were often at odds. One tale tells of Thor hurling curses to counter every blessing Odin offers a hero. Norwegian settlers in Iceland also took Thor as their principle deity specifically to scorn their previous Odin-loving king.20 Yet Marvel’s Thor looks up to his father and strives to become him to such an extent that losing an eye only feels like another step in his evolution into king of Asgard.

The powers of Marvel’s god-brothers also align well with mythology. In addition to his traditional shapeshifting, Loki can project illusions and, in the first film, create ice as a frost giant. His main power is his mind and his words, typical of Loki. One amusing semi-inaccuracy is that Loki is the son of Laufrey,21 the frost giant king in this case but his mysterious mother in mythology. Similarly, Sif becomes neither Thor’s wife nor a blonde damsel but a black-haired warrior who is stuck in Thor’s friend zone, and Thor is no longer the son of a giantess but of Odin’s traditional wife, Frigga. A noteworthy mythological accuracy is Thor’s ability to call Mjöllnir back to his hand since its creators assured him “it would never fly so far that it did not return to his hand.”22 This detail is surprisingly uncommon in other Thor media, which just makes the scenes of Thor smashing to Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” that much more epic.

Norway: Ragnarok

I was thrilled to find Ragnarok, a show using Norse mythology created by the descendants of the Norse themselves. And this high-school drama is certainly full of mythical references. Each episode begins with a description of a mythological concept or character, and the story is set in a small town called Edda after the two main primary sources for the Norse myths. Magne, the teen protagonist who develops the powers of Thor, bears a modern version of the name Magni, one of Thor’s sons.23 His opponents are the Jutuls, a clan of Jötunn or giants who subtly rule Edda through their company, Jutul Industries. What their factories produce, besides toxic waste and uncompensated sick workers, is never specified. They mainly serve as a social and environmental commentary against “giant” companies.

Magne makes an interesting Thor. And he is Thor, not Thor’s son, Wenche the volven/seeress states while stocking supermarket shelves.24 His Thor abilities include sensing changes in the weather–a nice nod to a more obscure part of Thor’s nature–as well as calling down lightning and speaking “the old tongue.” Unlike mythological Thor, he is quiet, socially awkward, and doesn’t even play sports. Suddenly developing super strength, speed, healing, smell and vision astonishes him. Yet even as he discards his glasses with sharper vision, he still dictates his papers and personal notes, suggesting his dyslexia continues. This aspect of his character complicates the stereotype of Thor being brawn without brain. Dyslexia holds Magne back a grade,25 but it proves no barrier to him using both brain and brawn as he seeks expose the Jutuls for environmental harm and the murder of his friend Isolde.

Though it is never directly stated in season 1, there are hints that Magne’s younger brother Laurits is an incarnation of Loki. Having “Thor” and “Loki” as brothers suggests some influence from Marvel, as does Laurits’ black hair (there’s no definite answer on mythological Loki’s hair color). Yet this Loki is confident in his own skin. He is the leader, the “normal” one who teases Magne about being a “weirdo” and turns heads at the school dance decked out in his mother’s old shirt.26 His tricks often have cruel consequences for Magne, like bringing him down from a hike with Isolde just before she is killed by Vidar Jutul.27 Yet Laurits also seems genuinely fond and even protective of Magne. After hearing giantess and school principal Ran speak disparagingly of Magne, Laurits shapeshifts human-style to replace and mock her through a sarcastic speech on Constitution Day.28 It remains to be seen whether his closeness with Magne will continue in season 2, since hints that their mother had a crush on Vidar may mean a reveal that Laurits is half giant.

The Jutul’s have the most direct connection to mythology in the show, having lived continuously since before the last Ragnarok. With the exception of Vidar, named for Odin’s heir, all the Jutuls and their dog have names of mythological giants. The pair currently playing sibling teenagers even have connections to Thor. Saxa may be short for Jarnsaxa, a giantess who was likely Thor’s lover since Magni is identified as her son.29 Both challenge the god/giant division, Jarnsaxa by being the giantess mother of a god and Saxa by arguing that “giants were for a long time seen as gods.”30 Fjor may be based on Fjorgynn, whose name has the same root as the Slavic thunder god Perkunas and the Hindu storm god Parjanya,31 essentially a rival thunder god. Fjor and Magne are rivals in the show, at least for the affections of mortal girl Gry. Yet even knowing he isn’t human, Gry chooses Fjor, and Fjor returns her love by aiding Magne against his fellow giants. It’s a tenuous set-up for season 2, as Magne still seems interested in Gry and Laurits has been trying to court Fjor.

Whew! That was a bit of a deep dive, so here’s a fun music video of Marvel’s Loki to unwind.

I have to admit I have a soft spot for Thor and Loki as brothers. It may not be their technical relationship in mythology, but the dynamic feels right. I’ll share a story to illustrate in Part 2 before looking at a couple modern works that depict them in a more distant light. For now, though, what do you think of the duo as brothers? Have you seen other media that also show them in a similar way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other stories of Thor and Loki!

Sources

1. McCoy, Daniel, “Thor,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, accessed Aug. 26, 2020, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/thor/.

2. Gaiman, Neil, Norse Mythology (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2017), 23.

3. McCoy, “Thor.”

4. McCoy, “Thor.”

5. Seigfried, Karl E. H., “Questioning Loki, Part One,” The Norse Mythology Blog, posted Jan. 5, 2013, accessed Sep. 6, 2020, https://www.norsemyth.org/2013/01/questioning-loki-part-one.html

6. McCoy, Daniel, “Loki,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, accessed Aug. 26, 2020, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/loki/.

7. McGrath, Sheena, “Heimdall v. Loki,” We Are Star Stuff, posted Apr. 17, 2014, accessed Sep. 6, 2020, https://earthandstarryheaven.com/2015/04/17/heimdall-v-loki/.

8. McCoy, “Thor.”

9. Seigfried.

10. McGrath, Sheena, “Blood-Brothers: Loki and Odin,” We Are Star Stuff, posted Apr. 4, 2015, accessed Sep. 6, 2020, https://earthandstarryheaven.com/2015/04/04/loki-and-odin/.

11. McCoy, “Loki.”

12. Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda, trans. Jesse L Byock (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 32, https://is.cuni.cz/studium/eng/predmety/index.php?do=download&did=62028&kod=ARL100252.

13. Gaiman, 262-263.

14. Gaiman, 88.

15. Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Burbank, Marvel Studios, 2011.

16. Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, Burbank, Marvel Studios, 2017.

17. Thor.

18. McGrath, “Blood-Brothers.”

19. McCoy, Daniel, “Vidar,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, accessed Sep. 27, 2020, https://norse-mythology.org/vidar/.

20. McCoy, “Thor.”

21. Thor.

22. Sturluson, 68.

23. “Magne,” Behind the Name, last modified July 27, 2015, accessed Sep. 10, 2020, https://www.behindthename.com/name/magne.

24. Ragnarok, “Ginnugagap,” season 1 episode 4, directed by Jannik Johansen, written by Simen Alsvik, Emilie Lebech Kaae, Christian Gamst Miller-Harris, and Adam Price, SAM Productions, Jan. 31, 2020.

25. Ragnarok, “New Boy,” season 1 episode 1, directed by Mogens Hagedorn, written by Simen Alsvik, Emilie Lebech Kaae, and Adam Price, SAM Productions, Jan. 31, 2020.

26. Ragnarok, “541 Meters,” season 1 episode 2, directed by Mogens Hagedorn, written by Simen Alsvik, Emilie Lebech Kaae, and Adam Price, SAM Productions, Jan. 31, 2020.

27. Ragnarok, “New Boy.”

28. Ragnarok, “Yes, We Love This Country,” season 1 episode 6, directed by Jannik Johansen, written by Simen Alsvik, Jacob Katz Hansen, Emilie Lebech Kaae, and Adam Price, SAM Productions, Jan. 31, 2020.

29. Sturluson, 58.

30. Ragnarok, “Ginnugagap.”

31. McCoy, Daniel, “Fjorgynn and Fjorgyn,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, accessed Sep. 23, 2020, https://norse-mythology.org/fjorgynn-fjorgyn/.

30 thoughts on “Thor and Loki in Modern Media, Part 1: Brother Bonds

    1. Yep, that’s how I look at them now! I actually like Marvel Thor more than mythical Thor. I mean, during the funeral for Balder, a dwarf tries to run past, and Thor just kicks him into the pyre. 😧 Of course, practically all the Norse gods seemed to have it in for dwarves.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. This is a great post. I have been across Norse mythology for as long as I can remember. Yes, I did love the Marvel asgardian comic universe as a teenager, but I am not a big fan of its portrayal in the Marvel film universe, apart form the stand alone Thor movies.

    Yes, I agree, the Thor and Loki dynamic as brothers is awesome, but I suspect that, it might be in part because of the actors themselves. Sometime, the casting of characters is more than right.

    I have been in two minds re watching Ragnarok, but you have almost convinced me to have a look.

    One of the great renderings of bringing the Norse approach to life including its mythology are the works by JRR Tolkien as he was an expert on Norse literature after all! Bring on Thor and his hammer, and Loki too. They are as relevant today “as they ever was” (Talking Heads, I think).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m curious how the comics compare to the movies. Would you say they’re closer to mythology or just a different vibe?

      That is true. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston play off each other really well. Their mythological counterparts were also a great comedic team (like when Loki helps Thor retrieve his hammer), but it’s true, they lack the underlying affection of the movie brothers.

      I liked the show Ragnarok, but I can understand why some have been uncomfortable with the way certain topics were handled. Especially with its environmental message, it’s heavy-handed while also being really vague. Still, the mythology side only gets more interesting the more I investigate. At least it’s only 6 episodes, so it’s not much of a time investment to check out. 😅

      Yes! The more I read about Norse mythology, the more I see where Tolkien got some his iconic characters and concepts. I was looking through a copy of the Prose Edda and noticed a list of dwarf names that included several used in The Hobbit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What captivated me with the comics is the Norse gods living in an advanced civilisation. So, in some ways the movies reflected this – but also missed out many things. The Rainbow Bridge in the movies is awesome and, in my view, they certainly had that right. It’s the same with the constant changing in appearance of the characters, which is more in keeping with the cartoons. So, the comics, cartoons and the movies are a different vibe to the mythology.

        There’s a beautiful story re Tolkien and CS Lewis. Here we have two great friends who grew apart in later years. When CS Lewis passed away, Tolkien in a letter to his daughter said “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man my age — like an old tree losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

        Boy, oh boy – they knew how to write.

        So, I’m looking forward to Part 2 of your post 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m glad to hear the Rainbow Bridge was similar in the comics! It was one of the better parts of the movies.

          Wow, that is a powerful quote. Their friendship and their writings were both amazing works of art.

          Thanks! Part 2 should be coming up soon. 😄

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yeah, I enjoy this kind of “research.” 😉 I have seen some complaints about Ragnarok that make fair points, but overall I think it’s fun and the choices with Fjor really surprised me in a good way. If you’re interested, I think it’s still on Netflix and the first season is only 6 episodes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thor is the greatest of all thunder gods!!! I agree the dynamic between him and Loki, from their shared myths to modern media portrayals, is what really makes Thor stand out as a deity/hero. The chemistry just works, they enliven the scenery like a comedy duo dropped into a high fantasy epic.

    Question though, I see that the reference to Mjölnir as meaning “lightning” comes from Turville-Petre, do you know the argument for that? I was under the impression that Mjölnir is derived from the Proto-Germanic meaning of “to crush/grind”. The cognate in Welsh, mellt, does mean lightning, while the Irish cognate, melt, means to crush or grind. Maybe Mjöllnir might be a byname in stilted language for thunderbolts?

    Also, there is a slim bit of evidence for Loki worship. A certain 7th c German brooch dubbed the Nordendorf fibula might invoke Loki, along with Wodan and Wigiþonar (Thor). There is so more stuff too but that’s the most interesting.

    Always fun to read your work, looking forward to more, please forgive me for taking so long to sit down and enjoy your blog! Now let’s listen to some music ——>

    (Make sure volume is comfortable)

    Like

    1. Ah, good point about Mjölnir. I wasn’t able to access the source sited myself, but it looks like both translations have merit. A Wikipedia entry claims it comes from “Old Norse: Mjǫllnir – ‘Lightning’ or ‘That which smashes’.” Daniel McCoy explains his interpretation more on another page, saying this:

      “While the etymology of Mjöllnir is uncertain, most scholars trace the name back to an Indo-European root that is attested in the Old Slavic word mlunuji, Russian molnija, and Welsh mellt, all of which mean “lightning.” It may also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, “new snow,” and mjalli, “white,” the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity.”

      Personally, I think that it’s probably a case of mythology influencing etymology. It’s the same thing with Thor. His name means “thunder” in Old Norse (Þórr), but which came first, the thunder god or the word for thunder? Or maybe that just seemed the most logical name, like people who name their dog “dog.” Anyway, because Mjöllnir functioned as lightning and Thor’s arrival was associated with thunder, I think that’s why their names are so strongly tied to the concepts.

      Interesting, I hadn’t heard about the Nordendorf fibula. Seigfried goes over several other images that have been interpreted as Loki, such as a carved hearthstone with vertical lines on the mouth and a bound figure on a 10th century cross. He believes the hearthstone carving is simply snarling and he generally argues that most images and passages that definitely portray Loki are after Christianity became dominant. The brooch sounds like it pre-dates Alamannic Christianizing, so that argument doesn’t apply there. Still, it’s hard to say anything for sure.

      I find it amusing how nebulous Loki is even in history, but your comment made me realize my statement was more absolute than is strictly accurate. I’ll update it to “no definite evidence.” Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Ceridwen, it’s so great to chat with you again!

        I see, so McCoy’s argument is that Mjölnir might be analogous to Slavic mlunuji. The Slavic root (melti) also means to grind or crush as well, from PIE ‘melh’, that is what McCoy is referring to with “an Indo-European root” for the both of them. I think he should have been more clear, it sounds like he saying absolutely that Mjölnir means lightning. Although I’m one to talk about writing with clarity… Ha!

        Lol I also see you used the same “comedic duo” in another comment. Well great minds!

        Loki is a wily trout alright, lol! You know as far as I know there is no evidence of worship for Heimdallr as well?
        Take care!

        For fun, here’s the same song but nightcore (I’m embarrassed I know what nightcore is…) —>

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s great chatting with you too! I enjoy getting a more in-depth look into linguistics through your comments.

          Yes, it would have been helpful if McCoy had mentioned the other connotation. Many words have more than one meaning and knowing all of them is necessary to fully grasp the personality of that word. Grinding and crushing were Mjölnir’s main use, so it makes sense that the name/word would be connected to that concept.

          Yeah, Loki’s not alone in being a “god” without clear evidence of worship. From what I’ve read, Bragi and possibly Sif are also in that camp. It makes me wonder about how exactly the concept we translate as “gods” worked for the Norse. Of course, lack of evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Maybe Loki worship used changeable and impermanent objects as befitting the master shapeshifter. 🙂

          Thanks for the music! That’s an interesting setting for the piece.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating post! I wonder why Marvel twists around the mythological facts, that certainly bothers to me to some extent. However you make a good point about how Thor and Loki have a great dynamic with one another as “brothers.” And the music video at the end is perfect!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, I was a bit uncomfortable with Marvel’s adjustments at first too. I can enjoy them better treating them as separate works loosely inspired by mythology, much like Star Wars is loosely inspired by various legends.

      The thing that still bothers me is that scene in Thor where they paste the movie characters into a mythology book. It feels like they’re trying to claim a mythical basis they don’t have when they would do better just telling their own story. Maybe that’s why I like Thor: Ragnarok best of the trilogy. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, well put — loosely inspired. I agree, it almost feels disrespectful that they try to twist around classic mythology! Why not just embrace the fact that they are taking something and making it into their own new story, instead of claiming to be the same thing! Yes, exactly, they do better when know their place 😛☺️

        Liked by 1 person

  4. While I haven’t watched the Ragnarok series, I get the impression that it owes more to Marvel Comics than just Thor and Loki being brothers. In the earliest Thor comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Thor’s alter-ego is a medical doctor with a bad leg, so he’s also sort of a weak nerd in contrast with his super-powerful godly form.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, interesting! I do think I’ve seen notes about Marvel being a big influence on the series. It’s nice to know that the comics also played against the tendency to stereotype Thor as all brawn and no brain. I’m curious. In the comics, did Thor’s powers come back all at once with his memory of his godly self, or did they come back bits at a time with him totally bewildered?

      Like

      1. I’m not totally sure, as I haven’t read all of the relevant comics. The earliest ones aren’t even clear on whether Blake and Thor even have the same personality, but later on it’s established that Blake was always Thor, sent to Earth without his memories to teach him humility or something.

        Liked by 1 person

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