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