I just recently finished reading the Eternals Saga from Marvel’s The Mighty Thor, which originally ran from 1979 through 1980. Comics Recommended gives a good overview of the saga in three parts, but I’m going to say a bit about in here as well. It brings together a lot of the more mythical elements of the comic universe, including the classical gods, the Celestials, and the Eternals. The latter are humans who were granted powers and long lifespans by the Celestials. Some of them are specifically linked to Greco-Roman deities, like Zuras to Zeus, Thena to Athena, and Makkari to Hermes/Mercury. The initial implication seems to be that the myths were based on memories of them, but other Marvel works just flat-out used the original gods as characters.
So, in this storyline, Odin recruits the Olympians to battle the Eternals, and some end up directly battling their counterparts.
It’s confusing, but a good effort to tie together these different aspects of the universe. It also transitions into a tale where Thor meets and converses with Odin’s cast-out eye, which makes the pun of using “eye” instead of “I” in practically every line it has.
I’ve enjoyed classical mythology since my elementary school days, so it’s not surprising I tried to work it into my own fiction. And pretty much everyone who does that is left with the question of how much of the original universe you’re going to use. For instance, if you’re going to mix Greek and Norse mythology in a modern setting, you’re confronted with at least three contrary origins of the world. The idea of Thor as a superhero developed slowly, at first just making him the alter-ego of Dr. Donald Blake, but later adding in many other elements of Norse mythology as well, including Odin as his father and Asgard as sort of a second home. In the early stories, it was never entirely clear whether or not Thor and Blake were the same individual. Eventually, it was revealed that Odin turned Thor into Blake as a medical student in order to teach him humility, and that Blake didn’t exist until this happened. But we’re still left with a Thor who’s somewhat different from the classic character with red hair and a beard. Other characters have also been altered: Loki is Odin’s adopted son instead of his honorary blood brother, Odin doesn’t appear to have any biological children other than Thor himself, Mjolnir doesn’t have a short handle, Sif is a brunette rather than a blonde, etc. In a way, that’s really not a big deal. Mythology rarely stays exactly the same; it changes over time, and we’re often left with multiple versions of the same story. Superhero comics are, in some ways, the new mythology of the twentieth century, so why would the myths be told in exactly the same manner? This did mean leaving out some of the more amusing and/or disturbing elements of classical myth, but I’m sure they wouldn’t have been allowed under the Comics Code Authority anyway. But the eye’s story indicates that there was a time when the gods more closely matched those of the traditional myths, but most of them died at Ragnarok.
It’s well-known that most of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes through Christian sources, and we don’t know exactly how much was changed because of this. The account of Ragnarok bears some resemblance to the Biblical Revelation, and while I don’t know when this interpretation actually began, it seems to have been a popular interpretation that this epic battle had already occurred, and the reborn world was that of Christian theology. As such, Baldur, who died before Ragnarok but came back from the dead to rule after it, would have been viewed as a stand-in for Jesus. The eye’s story in the comic goes along with this, actually showing the burning Asgard as the same as the star leading the wise men to the newborn Christ.
But there had also been other Ragnaroks in the past, and would be more in the future as well. Since the traditional tale of the destruction of the world ends with the birth of a new one, that could be interpreted as a cyclical view of the universe. In the Marvel version of this Ragnarok, however, it’s only Asgard that is destroyed; Midgard remains intact (and we’re given a footnote in every issue that Midgard is the same as Earth, which seems unnecessary).
The survivors create a new Odin, who basically recreates Asgard, only with a more modern look and some differences in its inhabitants.
There’s also a retelling of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with both Siegmund and Siegfried established as incarnations of Thor. After Siegfried and Brunhilda die on a funeral pyre and Odin brings them back to Asgard, he does the bit where he hangs himself on the World Tree, and that’s how he learns of the Celestials’ plan to judge Earth and makes an alliance with the other pantheons of the world. I understand that writer Roy Thomas later did another adaptation of the Ring Cycle for DC.
Getting back to the cyclical Ragnarok, Thomas links it to axial precession. This is a bit complicated to explain, and I’m guessing a lot of people who try to utilize it in their own beliefs don’t understand it either, but it basically has to do with the tilt of the Earth’s access making a full rotation in about 26,000 years. In astrology, this was linked to the twelve constellations of the zodiac, with each of the twelve ages corresponding to whichever one is in the sky at the vernal equinox.
Each age averages around 2160 years, but it’s not entirely clear when one starts and another ends. At present, we’re sort of on the cusp between Pisces and Aquarius, hence the song in Hair about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Thomas utilizes this idea, but the birth of Jesus is generally not thought to correspond to the beginning of a new astrological age, at least as far as I know. It certainly makes it mathematically convenient for one epoch to end right before the calendar switches from BC to AD, though. It is a little tricky incorporating popular religions of the time in with ones that are largely obsolete; yes, there are still people who worship Odin and Zeus, but they’re nowhere near as influential in society as Christians. I actually found the way that the comic ties in Jesus was fairly elegant, because it acknowledges his importance in the cosmic order without actually promoting his worship. And of course the Marvel version of Thor was the brainchild of a Jewish writer and artist anyway. I know there was some controversy over Thor defeating Shiva in battle later on in the story, and I believe it was eventually retconned into Indra disguised as Shiva.
I’m also reminded of how Rick Riordan tries to confront such issues. He has Chiron say in the first Percy Jackson book that the Olympians are physical entities, and he doesn’t know whether God exists in the metaphysical sense. And in The Sword of Summer, there’s a mention of Jesus not accepting a challenge from Thor.
Maybe that’s due to man-made global warming more than Thor, especially as I’ve seen Norse frost giants interpreted as glaciers.
Speaking of which, Jeff Rester’s “As the Rainbow Follows the Rain” brings Ragnarok (called the Great Sundering) into the Oz universe, and Joe Bongiorno places it on his Royal Timeline around the birth of Christ. It also appears to be when fairyland was officially separated from the Great Outside World. I know a few stories that bring Greek mythology into Oz, and one by Marcus Mebes that uses Krishna, but I don’t know of the Norse pantheon having the same connection outside that one tale.
I know the next Marvel Thor movie, slated for release in November, has the subtitle Ragnarok, so we’ll have to see if it does anything with the concept of Asgard being cyclical. As I wrote in my review of Doctor Strange, it’s weird that we went from Loki impersonating Odin to his teaming up with Thor to FIND Odin with no indication as to how this happened. Hopefully the film will explain that. I understand Hela will be a major villain, although the Marvel version of Hela doesn’t have the body split down the middle of the mythological figure. She apparently is the daughter of Loki, but an earlier incarnation of him.
Perhaps the challenge of Thor to Jesus is a reference to the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Challenge of Thor.”
I just looked up the poem, and that might well be an intentional Longfellow reference on Riordan’s part.
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