Time for another look at the often fraught relationship between Marvel’s Thor comics and Norse mythology…
The issue opens with a story about Thor in his more conventionally superheroic incarnation. “The Cobrta and Mr. Hyde!” open with the god of thunder hanging out alongside his fellow Avengers (who are bored because there’s nothing to do) before setting off on his own.
He runs into his previously-established, non-mythological foes the Cobra and Mr. Hyde who have been tailing him with the aid of Hyde’s latest invention: a “time reversal ray” that projects images of the target’s history. Using it, they find that Thor entered the office of Dr. Blake – but they don’t see enough to realise that the two are the same person.
There’s also a subplot with Thor angsting over his forbidden love for Jane Foster; at one point he considers abandoning his hammer altogether so that he can lead a quiet mortal life. But naturally, duty calls when the two villains team up on him. The story ends on a cliffhanger to be resolved in the next issue.
Moving on to the backup feature, “Tales of Asgard”, we find another story staring the gods’ watchman: “When Heimdall Failed!” Once again, the section is telling an original story about a secondary Asgardian character rather than making any pretence to adapt the Norse myths directly – yet it still turns out to have more mythological content than the issue’s main story.
The main antagonists this month are the rulers of the Storm Giants, King Brimer and Queen Nedra. The Storm Giants had by this point been established as stock villains, but we’d never before met their monarchs. So, let’s take a closer look at the two personages…
Brimer or Brimir is a name that can be found in the Poetic Edda’s Voluspa, which describes the gods arranging to form dwarfs from Brimir’s blood (I’m quoting from Andy Orchard’s translation):
Then all the powers went to their thrones of destiny,
High-holy gods, and deliberated this:
Who should shape the troop of dwarfs,
From Brimir’s blood, from Bláin’s limbs.
This reference to dwarfs being created from the blood of Brimir and the limbs of Bláin is quoted in the Prose Edda, shortly after the text describes the dwarfs having originated in the maggots that infested the corpse of the slain giant Ymir. The implication, then, is that both Brimir and Bláin are alternative names for Ymir.
Incidentally, the Voluspa also mentions “the beer-hall of a giant, the one called Brimir”. The idea that the primordial being Ymir owns a drinking-hall may seem quaint to modern readers, but it could well have been a significant aspect of Norse belief in the afterlife: the Prose Edda specifically mentions a drinking-hall named Brimir as a place that might be visited after the world ends with Ragnarok. Despite all of this, Marvel’s Brimer is clearly a different character to Ymir, and the present comic gives no indication that he is the owner of a celestial boozer. As for Queen Nedra, she appears to be an original creation.
In Marvel’s story the two giants hope to launch an invasion of Asgard, but Brimer despairs of finding a way to bypass Heimdall. “You forget the air creatures – the ones we call Vanna!” says Nedra. “Watch – I shall summon one! The Vanna shall do our bidding!”
These “Vanna” are clearly derived from the mythological Vanir, a tribe of deities who warred with the Aesir. Their home is Vanaheim, sometimes spelled Vannaheim – I suspect that the term “Vanna” used by Marvel is reverse-engineered from the latter spelling. The Poetic Edda contains a few fragmentary references to the Vanir and their conflict with the Aesir, which are pulled together into a more coherent narrative by the Prose Edda.
According to myth, the conflict between the Aesir and Vanir ended when the Vanir gave one of their number, Njord, as a hostage. Njord then married the giantess Skadi and became the father of Frey and Freyja, two deities who are referred to as both Aesir and Vanir in Norse texts. A widespread theory holds that the Aesir and Vanir were originally worshipped by two separate cultures, and the mythological war derives from a memory of a conflict and eventual absorption that took place historically.
Whatever their origin, the Vanir are not described as looking any different from the Aesirr in Nose texts. Marvel’s depiction of this “Vanna” as a tiny winged fairy prone to committing mischief for a summoner derives from popular images of Puck, Ariel and countless fairy tale figures.
The Vanna successfully sneaks past Heimdall and gets an eyeful of Asgard. In the process, the reader gets an intriguing look at some sort of wooden army tank – I must admit, the gods’ technology level isn’t something I’d thought about before this point. Did Asgard have an industrial revolution, I wonder?
The story ends with the Vanna being caught by Odin, who forgives the contrite Heimdall: after all, he at least sensed that something was amiss, which was good enough.