Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Day of Thunder and Lightning

Why is Wednesday spelled so funny?

Most people seem surprised to learn that it is named after a once popular Norse (Northern Germanic-Scandinavian) god named Odin, sometimes Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, etc. His Old English or Anglo-Saxon name, Woden, was most ungracefully brought into the English version of the days of the week as Wednesday, which we happily pronounce as if it was spelled Wensday.

Odin is a marvelous if not always charming mythological character who plucked out one of his eyes and also hung himself in exchange for secret knowledge, had two ravens, memory and thought, sitting on his shoulders, was creator and master of runes and a great wanderer of midgard – or “middle earth”. Sounds a little like a certain fictional wizard of whom many of us are more than a little fond. Not surprising, as Norse mythology was a major, if not the major, source for Tolkien in writing the Lord of the Rings, right down to the names of Gandalf, the dwarves, Mirkwood and many others.

Given the precedence our culture seems to give to things Greek and Roman, you would think we would name the days of the week after their gods, as we have the planets (most of the traditional planets are named for the Roman or Greek gods and titans). But with day names our Teutonic heritage won out, and this honor is given to Odin and some of his children. This includes the Norse god of war, Tiu or Tyr, from who we derive Tuesday, and Frigg, Odin’s wife, a goddess of marriage, from whose name comes Friday. Odin and Frigg were the parents of many of the other gods.

And, of course, today is Thor’s Day or Thursday (from the Norman Thur). Let’s give Thor special attention, as he has bulled his way into our culture in several other ways besides being a day name.

Thor, god of thunder, would probably not be amused by Marvel Comic’s original vision of him as a tall body builder looking fellow with long silky golden locks, more resembling a modern professional wrestler than a deity. The Thor of olden days was much stockier and had a big red beard. In other words, he looked like the Vikings who worshipped him. Actually, Marvel has in a way conceded its mistake in more recent days by relegating the blonde Thor to a “clone” of the god, and making the real Thor much more Vikingly. Supposedly, a movie is being produced, and it’s a good bet they go with the more attractive blond look.

Although comic books are most often for children and collectors, we should not laugh at their place in our society. The soft cover paper versions of these characters may have played themselves out to some degree, after decades of success, but millions still sell, sometimes in more permanent book form collections, and may more likely be purchased by adult collectors than kids. But the movies, television shows and video games have made many millions, maybe billions out of Marvel’s host of super heroes, and are popular throughout the world. And what are super heroes, if not modern versions of the classic gods and heroes?

Wouldn’t you bet that ten times as many kids, anywhere on earth, know who Spider-Man is and don't know who, say, Donald Rumsfeld is, and many more have even read about Thor, who is not so popular as Spidey, than have read The Three Musketeers, Shakespeare or even the Bible.

Thor has also come down to us in a softer, more magical and familiar form who we call Santa Claus (and no, I’m not trying to make this an All-Santa, all the time blog – it was just one other posting). Although the Santa we are used to is a composite character, this isn’t stretching at all. Consider these overwhelming facts.

Let’s start generally and get more specific. Santa and Thor are both are both big bellied, bearded Northerners who wear hats; Thor preferring a helmet and Santa a cap. Santa wears a belt, Thor a magic girdle. It gets better.

Some of Thor’s other names are Donar, Thunor or Donder. That last one probably sounds familiar and it should. We’ve all grown up hearing about Santa’s reindeer Donder. Could it be just a coincidence? Its not at all, because hooked up next to Donder is Blitzen, their names meaning thunder and lightning, one Thor’s name and the other a related attribute. So not only is a day of the week named for him, but so are two of Santa’s reindeer as related in A Visit From Saint Nick a/k/a The Night Before Christmas. The author of the poem didn’t call the reindeer Thor, because he used the familiar Dutch versions Dunder and Blitzem in the original version of the poem before publisher’s made their own revisions.

Ah, but Santa flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by Donder and Blitzen and the other magical four legged horned reindeer. Can we say that about Thor? Pretty much yes, except they weren't reindeer, they were goats. That’s plenty close enough. But it's not all. The modern version of Santa Claus probably starts with Washington Irving's Knickerbocker Tales. He correctly put Santa in a wagon, which was soon after changed to a sleigh by others.

What about Santa’s toys made by magical elves. Piece of cake. Thor carries around a magic hammer, Mjolnir, made by magical dwarves. Dwarves? Elves? Who cares? Magical little folk who peopled Norse mythology.

Now maybe it would be more convincing if Thor ever had an experience with, say, a magic sack like Santa carries his toys in, or something like that. In fact, he did that too, though never pictured with it now in modern renditions. In the relatively few stories we have of this mighty god, he is involved with a sack in one story and a box of provisions he carries on his back in another.

You might point out that Santa Claus is a jolly fellow and that Thor was a pretty serious guy, if not in serious need of anger management. That is true, but St. Nick’s jolliness is a 19th century American creation, and the older Santa or Sinter Klaas, as the Dutch called him, was quite dour.

Thor was a god beloved by the common people, and Scandinavians still name their children after him. He was possessed of immense strength, and was virtually unstoppable, just like the Greek Hercules. And also like Hercules, Thor found himself on many a risky adventure. He could not easily be defeated, although he was twice of note. Once he wrestled an old servant woman named Elli, and despite his divine gifts, was unable to defeat her. In fact, she brought him to one knee, a humiliating loss to the great killer of giants. Unbeknownst to Thor, Elli was old age personified, and even the most powerful of the great gods could not defeat her.

His other defeat, really a fatal draw, was far more consequential. It was at Ragnorak, the Norse Judgment Day, where he met in furious battle with his greatest nemesis, the Midgard serpent, a titanic and devilish creature which encircled the earth. It was their third contest and third draw, the god and the enormous worm both perishing in the end.

Thor’s other consistent nemesis and occasional companion was Loki, a figure part trickster, part devil. Although sometimes the other gods punished Loki horribly for his misdeeds, they often showed great restraint with him, particularly Thor. Bad idea. Loki, his demon children and their allies the fire beings, eventually destroyed these mortal gods and middle earth in the last great battle.

Poor dead god of thunder. At least his two boys, Magni and Modi (strength and anger) survived to carry on in the new world -- the one you and I exist in. We can imagine that it was these children who made sure that we probably all say their father’s name at least once a week if not more, just as we would this morning if someone asks us what day it is. Just tell them it’s Thor’s Day, and we are all the richer for it.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .