In just a few weeks, Hollywood will release the latest in its parade of superhero films, Thor. As the trailer suggests, there is a returning thunder hammer, a Loki trickster figure and, in the Marvel superhero universe, references to other superheroes and Stan Lee. Whether a blockbuster or bomb in ticket sales is yet to be seen, but his appearance this spring may offer some synchronous and mythological meanings to ponder beyond the big screen.
Western (mostly Scandinavian) mythological tradition sets the thunder god as a metaphor for several abstract forces, but foremostly Order, moral virtue, and fertility. Thor’s hammer (arguably a male lightning bolt which strikes the fertile earth and returns to the heavens) becomes a tool to enforce Order in Asgard and Midgard (the realm of humans). The ancient Thor—the center of the Nordic pantheon—wore a golden crown of stars signifying his place in the heavens, his power in the creation of storms (and also, hence, rain) which would fertilize the earth. The goddess of fertility, Sif, is his legendary wife (and linguistically, Sif is a form of sibba, the etymological root of sibling or family). It is a short step, then, to see Thor as progenitor defender of female fertility and virtue, both agricultural and human.
In the ancient myths, largely told in the Nordic Eddur, Thor defends Sif and other women (representing that fertility, light, and summer) from giants which represent destruction, darkness, and frost/winter. Through the stories, we see Thor fighting giants of mountains (rock slides), of rivers (floods), and frost (harvest killers). Historicists might see the ancients grappling with the chaotic and unpredictable forces of nature and giving them corporeal form so that they might be fought. The upcoming film similarly will employ the frost giants and Marvel’s own creation, the abstract Destroyer, for this purpose.
It is fitting and expected, then, that after countless battles with minor natural disasters, Thor should have an arch-enemy: mythologically this is Jormungand, the world serpent; in the Marvel universe, the Destroyer. Jormungand survives in the stories of the Scandinavians, but not the mainland Germanic peoples. This is because he is an undersea serpent, a chaos dragon who swallows his own tale. Banished there by Odin, his thrashings cause great waves, storms, devastation. He is the ur-Dragon (the primal spirit force), and thus he is present at the beginning of the world, and Thor’s final battle with him will spell Ragnarok, the Nordic Armageddon, for when he surfaces he will poison the sky; and Thor’s slaying of him will also mean his own death.
The structuralist division between Order and Chaos is easy enough to understand. St. George slays dragons and so do countless other heroes. Over the course of time, the god Thor will diminish to a hero tale where Beowulf slays a dragon (which also kills him) and Siegfried slays a dragon (which will fatalistically initiate events leading to his death). For the West, because mythologically it finds no way to escape, the final destruction of the Chaos principle by the hero of Order yields the destruction of both and the end of the world.
My sense of this suggests another reading, however, and that is the significance of the Ouroboros tradition within Jormungand. The Norse say little about it, but the symbolism of Ouroboros (the serpent devouring its own tail) is difficult to ignore. It is a globally prevalent image, finding its way into the mythologies of India, Mexico, Greece, Haiti, and Egypt, into theosophy, freemasonry, and alchemy. And so its initial meanings—nature/chaos/evil untamed—in opposition to mankind’s desire to restrict or tame it, bears complex meaning.
Western myths at their simplest retain the oppositions (good must defeat evil), but the Ouroboros suggests a cycle in its ringed pattern, a dynamic but repeating movement from chaos to order (the expectation of the snake and ring) and back to chaos (the violence and senselessness of its own self-consumption), a natural order. To disentangle this pattern, as Thor surely does, spews poison and the end of the time, as surely it must. Thus are life and death, order and chaos, fertility and barrenness, ultimately undone.
“Studying myth,” says Michael Kelsey of Nanzan University in Japan, “is comparable to looking at the surface of a pond after a stone has been thrown into the water. One is confronted with an ever-increasing set of ripples, each of which has its own peculiar existence but which, taken as a whole, will alter the pattern of water to create a new totality.” Perhaps the Japanese professor’s water metaphor applied to a mythological chaos-water serpent is unfortunate today.
Amongst the mythological stories of Japan, the snake, a daikaijū (giant strange beast) finds its way most often as a symbol of the underearth, of the natural world, of death.
We may find redemption, however, in the idea of the Ouroboros, which might be similarly understood in the Asian Yin and Yang. The Japanese mythological tradition has never hesitated in its syncretism, its open acceptance of multiple truths, seemingly paradoxical to Western thinking. Thus Shinto Japan quickly accepted Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity as well into its understanding of the world. In my train of thinking here, the ambiguity of meaning found from mythological daikaijū is a wisdom which the Scandinavian heroes never understood.
The Raging Deity of Japan, writes Kelsey, is ambiguous intentionally.
“They were capable of raging out of control and killing mortals for no apparent reason, [and] they were also—if dealt with properly—the source of life for both humans and their crops. . . . These deities were forces which enabled mortals to rise to the full limit of their capabilities. Their violence, far from being uncalled for, was actually a necessary part of the human condition for the ancient Japanese.”
And as Scandinavian god-kings devolved into heroes and later into Hollywood stars (without losing much of their archetypal meaning), a similar movement occurs in Japanese legend. Off the shores of Japan lie dragons and other elemental spirits which cause havoc for the islanders. They are fought and slain (though as often vanquished) by the sky gods (the Shinto storm god Susanoo fights the eight-headed sea Orochi, for instance). It isn’t long before such archetypes renew themselves into modern film.
Japan’s daikaijū Gojira (Godzilla) is, however, not born from weather, but from the horror of nuclear power. In 1954, in clear response both to the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident (where a US nuclear test poisoned a Japanese fishing boat crew), the serpent-lizard Godzilla rises from the stormy radioactive seas as the most ominous force of chaos of the 20th century. It is little wonder that the Japanese have found the Ordering harness of nuclear power deeply problematic. The past decades have had numerous critics, including famous film-maker Akira Kurosawa. They have challenged the hubris of containing the wild power which kills, which renders sterile both humans and land, and modern imaginations have made the abstraction corporeal, into a giant, a beast that might be vanquished but never defeated, and one that has populated over 30 movies in the last 60 years.
But I don’t mean this as a mere prophecy against nuclear power. I mean for us also to understand Kelsey’s hypothesis and the meaning of the serpent Ouroboros. Godzilla begins as a demon, a creature which rages across Tokyo with ocean storms and fire; indeed, many broadcasters have remarked that the recent 8.9 earthquake “woke Godzilla.” It seems outrightly tacky, even offensive, to use such a reference when thousands have died and the nuclear danger is, as I write, unresolved. From myth, however, we can sometimes find meaning. Over the course of his legends, the Godzilla myth (like so many myths of the Japanese serpent) has also transformed it from an image of chaotic nature to villain and even to hero. It is, in this sense, that the creature acts as the Yin and Yang, the cyclic concept of life and death, of preservation and destruction, and “if dealt with properly,” potential.
Perhaps unintentionally, Stan Lee’s creation of the Destroyer as the ultimate villain for Thor the movie, fits this concept. An “indestructible” force of hollow armor, the Destroyer acts according to whomever is at the controls, be they the wicked Loki or a fertile Sif. It is not, as I tried to explain to my AP Lit class this past week, that Order and Chaos act as opponents, but that Order and Chaos simply is, a totality, a paradoxical Ouroboros.
Not ironically, the Japanese taught me this on my visit to Hiroshima many years ago. The city has regrown itself to a place of real beauty, yet it has maintained the Atomic Dome and a profound museum to its tragic history. I watched teens sing pop songs to each other beneath the Dome’s fiery orange lights; I saw thousands of paper cranes dangling from the Peace Park trees; and I felt the hand of my high school guide as she showed me the burned out uniform of a 1945 schoolgirl, one which matched her own. I’ve been similarly moved by my students who literally want to travel to Japan and help rebuild with their own hands.
Sorrow and hope live together in our cultural signifiers. We can fight violence and evil, but it will return; and the senselessness of nature’s cruelty vanquishes our human ambition, but it does not defeat it.
Gokouun o inorimasu, tomodachi.