The House of Eddas: Thor Helps to Create Humanity in Journey Into Mystery #103

Journey_into_Mystery_Vol_1_103While Journey Into Mystery’s back-up stories had introduced more mythological figures to play with, the main stories were, at this point, still using a very limited cast of Asgardians: Thor, Odin and Loki, plus some extras (if you’re feeling generous you could maybe count Heimdall as a significant character, although his main role was simply to fail at preventing Loki’s escape from prison).

That changed with issue #103, which introduces two more Asgardians into the Marvel Universe. Which ones, you might ask? Well… let’s just say you won’t be recognising them from anything Snorri wrote.

In this issue, Odin remains vexed by his failure break Thor’s interest in the unworthy mortal Jane. Loki takes the opportunity to suggest pairing Thor up with someone “more beautiful, more desirable”: the Enchantress.

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The Enchantress, who is introduced as being as cruel as she is beautiful, agrees to the plan. She travels to Earth in the guise of a mortal woman, and all men swoon over her – all men, that is, except for Dr. Blake, Thor’s alter ego. Although the Enchantress manages to lure Blake into a compromising position in front of Jane, he doesn’t fall for her attractions.

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And so Enchantress recruits help in the form of another Asgardian: the Executioner, a “demi-god with the heart of a serpent, the power of a Goliath, and the eyes of a hunting falcon”.

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Neither the Enchantress nor the Executioner has any particular basis in Norse mythology. Instead, these two are stock fantasy figures whose stereotyped roles are suggested by their generic names (note that this isn’t even the first time Thor’s gone up against a villain called the Executioner: that was also the nickname of the communist dictator he fought back in issue #84).

The “Tales of Asgard” back-up stories were riffing freely on Norse myths, but the main features seem to have been reluctant to draw from that well, instead treating Asgard as a freeform fantasyland where new gods and demigods could be added as needed. (And strictly speaking, the concept of a demigod is classical, being derived from the Greek hemitheoi and Latin semideus).

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The Executioner’s mission is simply to do away with Jane, and so he cuts through time and space with his axe, sending the unfortunate nurse to limbo. The limbo in question is described as a “land of mist” – perhaps coincidentally, this is a reasonable translation of the Norse Niflheim.

The ensuing battle between Thor and the Executioner is framed more as pulp science fiction than as anything mythological (“I can still cut through sub-space itself, putting even you in another universe from which you shall never escape!”)

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The fight ends with Thor striking a bargain with the executioner: he will hand over his hammer in exchange for Jane’s freedom. The trade is carried out but, oops, the Executioner is unworthy to actually lift the hammer he’s obtained.ThorEnchant6

The Enchantress, displeased, intervenes to turn her ally’s limbs into wood and stone, before Thor sends both villains back to Asgard.

Which is appropriate, as back to Asgard is just where we’ll be going…

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This month’s back-up story is “Thor’ Mission to Mirmir!” and it opens in an unfamiliar setting: the land of the dwarfs. We are told that this in this land “are forged all the enchanted weapons of Asgard” while Thor visits the dwarf king, Sindri, for a bespoke piece of equipment: a tiny sail-ship with the power to grow into a full-sized, flying vessel.

In Norse mythology, the land of the dwarfs was called Svartalfheim, and its inhabitants were indeed credited with the creation of at least some of the gods’ weapons. The Prose Edda describes how the dwarves of Svartalfheim created Odin’s spear; the ship Skidbladner; Sif’s replacement hair (after the incident mentioned in the previous post); a gold-bristled boar named Gullinbursti, which came to pull Frey’s chariot; a gold ring that generates other gold rings; and Thor’s famous hammer. These last three items are credited specifically to the dwarf brothers Sindri and Brokkr. whose names mean “spark-sprayer” and “metalworker”. Elsewhere in the Prose Edda we find that “Sindri” is also the name of a hall that will exist after the battle of Ragnarok. Why Sindri was deemed significant enough to have a hall named in his honour is unclear – but this may perhaps be why Marvel promoted him from humble blacksmith to dwarf-king.

The comic’s flying, size-changing ship is clearly based on Skidbladner, the ship made by the dwarves for Frey which had remarkable properties:

“Skidbladner would always have fair wind as soon as the sails were hoisted, no matter where its owner desired to go; besides. The ship could be folded together like a napkin and be carried in [Frey’s] pocket if he desired” says the Prose Edda. I can find no mythological reference to the ship flying.

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It turns out that Thor has been sent by Odin on a mission to the land of King Mirmir. Once he arrives he tackles two foes: first the dragon Skord, then “Gullen, mightiest of the boar gods”.

As noted above, the Prose Edda states that one of the gifts made by Sindri and Brokkr was Frey’s magical, chariot-pulling boar Gullinbursti – the obvious basis for Marvel’s Gullen. The comic takes quite a bit of artistic license by turning this animal not only into a semi-anthropomorphised villain but also, apparently, one member of an entire race of boar gods. How many other boar gods are there, and who worships them – Spider-Ham?

As for Skord, well, although Norse mythological texts mention a number of dragons or serpents, none is called Skord. As with the dragon Ulfrin in issue #101, we see Marvel’s curious practice of making up a name when there were plenty to choose from in the source material.

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Finally, Thor meets King Mirmir. In the Norse myths, Mirmir (also Mimir, Mimer or Mime) is not a king but rather a god, who presides over a well at the base of the world-tree Yggdrasil. The Prose Edda introduces him thus:

But under the second root, which extends to the frost-giants, is the well of Mimer, wherein knowledge and wisdom are concealed. The owner of the well hight Mimer. He is full of wisdom, fo he drinks from the well with the Gjaller-horn. Alfather [Odin] once came there and asked for a drink from the well, but he did not get it before he left on of his eyes as a pledge.

This story ha already been ignored by Marvel, which at this point depicted Odin with two eyes. Mimir also has a part to play in the Ragnarok narrative, with Odin asking him for advice prior to the conflict.

More details about Mimir can be found in the Ynglinga Saga. This text describes how Mimir was decapitated, with his severed head being revived by Odin:

The people of Asaland sent a man called Hone, whom they thought well suited to be a chief, as he was a stout and very handsome man; and with him they sent a man of great understanding called Mime. On the other side, the Vanaland people sent the wisest man in their community, who was called Kvase. Now, when Hone came to Vanaheim he was immediately made a chief, and Mime came to him with good counsel on all occasions. But when Hone stood in the Things or other meetings, if Mime was not near him, and any difficult matter was laid before him, he always answered in one way — “Now let others give their advice”; so that the Vanaland people got a suspicion that the Asaland people had deceived them in the exchange of men. They took Mime, therefore, and beheaded him, and sent his head to the Asaland people. Odin took the head, smeared it with herbs so that it should not rot, and sang incantations over it. Thereby he gave it the power that it spoke to him, and discovered to him many secrets.

A later passage tells us that “Odin carried with him Mime’s head, which told him all the news of other countries”. The Marvel story evidently takes place before all of this, given Mirmir’s full-bodied appearance.

ThorEnchant11“It is you! Does that mean my moment is at hand?” asks Mirmir. “Yes!” replies Thor. “Noble Odin has sent you this message – you must do what you are pledged to do!”

Thor presents Mirmir with a branch from Yggdrasil (well, it’s described as a branch in the dialogue, but it looks more like a twig). The king dips it into an enchanted fountain – obviously meant to be the mythic well of wisdom – and causes the waters to spill into Misgard. The magic fluid lands on a pair of trees planted by Odin, and transforms them into a man and a woman: Aske and Embla, “destined to start a new race in the image of the immortals of Asgard”.

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In the Prose Edda, the first humans Aske (or Ask) and Embla were indeed created from trees, although similarities to Marvel’s version of the narrative end there:

As Bor’s sons [Odin, Vili and Ve] went along the sea-strand, they found two trees. These trees they took up and made men of them. The first gave them spirit and life; the second endowed them with reason and power of motion; and the third gave them form, speech, hearing and eyesight. They gave them clothes and names; the man they called Ask, and the woman Embla. From them all mankind is descended, and a dwelling place was given them under Midgard.

In one of my earlier posts I wondered if Lee and Kirby were downplaying Odin’s role in the shaping of Earth and humanity so as to avoid boxing the Marvel Universe into a creationist cosmology. Well, that doesn’t seem to have been much of a concern here, as the reader is shown point-blank Mirmir and Thor (with some backstory aid by Odin in planting the trees) creating the first humans. Darwin was wrong in the MU: Mr. Fantastic, Spider-Man, Bruce Banner and the rest were all descended from Aske and Embla.

Well, perhaps. An editor’s note admits that this is only a “freely translated” rendition of “the Norse legends which deal with the birth of mankind and the days before the beginning of time”. This disclaimer is unusual: perhaps Stan the Man was making an effort to avoid literal interpretations after all.

This story marks a conclusion to Marvel’s rather rough-and-ready adaptation of the Norse creation myth, and it ends with the promise that the next issue will start a new back-up series, focusing on biographies of specific Asgardians.

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