Tag Archives: Norse mythology

A Sense Of Story

In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.

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The Ascension by Benjamin West, 1801

Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.

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Gods of Olympus (1534-1535) by Giulio Romano

I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.

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The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.

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Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman by Peter Paul Rubens

We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.

Thor: Ragnarok – What I Missed (Part 2)

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Something occurred to me after I started writing last week’s post. The fact that I need a second week shows me that the movie had a lot of substance. The right concepts and plot elements were there, but as I wrote last week, I feel that they were covered up (to an extent) by the humor. I realize this is a matter of personal taste, so I won’t belabor the point. Thor: Ragnarok was obviously well-received by fans and critics alike, and I do intend to watch it again.

From this point on, there might be some spoilers for anyone who has not yet seen this film.

Now for the picky part of my critique, which I readily admit arises from my own unrealistic expectations. This is what I missed. First, as I’ve already alluded, I would have liked to see more emphasis placed on the mythological concepts and imagery. The Valkyrie flashback with the winged horses was brief enough that it teased that desire in me, and I had hoped to see more of that kind of scene.

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Secondly, when I heard that the Hulk would be given more dialogue, I envisioned a more nuanced psychological  and emotional study of this character.

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I have posted before that he represents an outsized version of what resides in all of us, and this could have created all kinds of possibilities for his character development.

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I had also hoped the script would show a gradual evolution of his ability to speak coherently. The dramatic potential of such an approach is huge since it would provide a window into the soul of this creature.

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That said, there were still some great ideas which were well executed. I liked every scene with Fenris the wolf, another character lifted out of The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson. The only problem with his battle with the Hulk is that it was a little difficult to tell how it was resolved.

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The evolution of Heimdall’s character was well done if not entirely consistent with his vocal style from previous movies. It was interesting to see him playing a different role in the story, and I’m glad they didn’t kill him off.

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The climactic battle was typically spectacular for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ll reserve judgment on turning Thor into the new Odin. That will be depend on how it is approached in future efforts.

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I particularly liked the scene showing the destruction of Asgard by Surtur. It was appropriately epic.

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I liked the redemption themes as well: the relationship of Thor and Loki…

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… the moral awakening of Skurge …

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… the reunion of Odin and his two sons, and the persuasion of Valkyrie as played by Tessa Thompson.  I especially liked the story arc of Valkyrie’s fall, degradation, and ultimate restoration to her former glory. It was a unique treatment of yet another character from Norse mythology.

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And that might be as good a place to end as any.

Modern Pantheon: A Commandment Of Sorts

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Before you go to see Thor: Ragnarok, the next addition to the Disney Marvel Universe…

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… read The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson.

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Ah-ah… no backtalk…

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Just do it.

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Semi-seriously, watching some of the trailer material reminded me of The Prose Edda. If you want to know more of the original Norse mythology (including Asgard and Ragnarok), if you want to become more familiar with Thor, Loki, Hel, and other members of the Norse pantheon, it might be helpful to struggle through the abstractions of this older document. It’s actually fairly easy to read, considering its age.

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Don’t expect the immediate gratification of a Marvel Studios movie or a Marvel comic, but the book could put you in a more receptive mood to appreciate the liberties which are sure to be taken by the movie. Reinvention can be more fun when compared to the original.

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Photo Credits: Disney Marvel.

Mythological Beasts And Spirits: Sea Serpent

In an earlier post from this category of Mythological Beasts and Spirits, I mentioned that the Lindorm was sometimes described as a sea serpent, sometimes not. Sea serpents appear in multiple myths and legends. The Midgard Serpent in Norse mythology might be regarded as a sea serpent since Thor went fishing for it in one account within The Prose Edda. This concept for a monster is evidently very resonant in the human mind, and I wanted to develop it for my fabricated myth, The Fear of a Farmer.

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From The Fear of a Farmer (Copyright: 2017 Robert Lambert Jones III).

The following image is apparently taken from a book, and its caption indicates that this sketch by W. D. Munro was of an alleged sea serpent that washed ashore in Hungary Bay, Bermuda, in 1860. From the appearance of the creature, it is obviously an oarfish.

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The following illustration is by Tamplier Painter and takes an approach common to modern fantasy art: the employment of frills and fins. The profile of the head resembles that of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

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Older illustrations often did little more than depict sea serpents as over-sized snakes with minimal embellishment.

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For the picture at the top of this post, I chose to use a similar approach by eliminating fins and other appendages. That made coming up with an interesting head shape important. You’ll be the judge as to whether or not I succeeded. I combined the features of a T. rex (mainly the line of the upper jaw), an alligator (eyes,  snout, and hinge of lower jaw), certain snakes ( body and enlarged ear opening), and some lizards (dewlap or throat pouch). To these, I added a bulging pate and rather prominent ridges above the eyes, ears, and nostrils. I’m a biologist as well as a monster aficionado from way back, so this was a fun project for my inner ten-year-old. Below is the initial profile of the head on which I have based all of my other drawings of the sea serpent in my story.

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From The Fear of a Farmer (Copyright: 2017 Robert Lambert Jones III).

I’ll end this with a painting by Edward Burne-Jones depicting a story from Greek mythology. It shows Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus, the sea serpent to which she was being sacrificed… by her parents!

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The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones

Next week, I will cover one more creature whose description defies illustration. Nonetheless, that has not dissuaded some artists (or me) from trying.

Mythological Beasts and Spirits: Valkyries

Norse mythology strikes me as being visually literal. What I mean by this is that spirits and creatures look like humans and animals – sometimes exaggerated in size, sometimes not – but they typically are not hybrids or chimeras of different species. Serpents look like serpents, gods like men, goddesses like women, etc. Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, is an exception to this rule due to his eight legs, but I think it largely holds true. Of course, the gods are able to change form, sometimes into those of animals, but they tend to look like ordinary animals, albeit sometimes exaggerated in size.

So what does this have to do with Valkyries? Well, they look like women – fierce, war-like women, but women, nonetheless. I wanted to illustrate a Valkyrie named Anni for my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer, but I didn’t have enough confidence in my artistic ability to make her look sufficiently impressive, so I added wings. In this sense, she looks a bit like the stereotypical imagery from a Wagnerian opera.

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From The Fear of a Farmer (Copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

So what are Valkyries? That’s a good question. I can tell you what they do in Norse mythology, but it’s a bit harder to explain what they are with complete clarity. Much of what we know of them comes from The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson and other works such as The Saga of the Volsungs.

Valkyries are females who fly over battlefields to choose the best of the slain for entrance into Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Are they otherwise normal women who aspire to or are chosen for this calling, or are they spirits who can take on physical form? One scholarly opinion I read favors the former, but I don’t know the overall consensus since it is outside my field of expertise (molecular biology). Either way, they are a blend of the natural and the supernatural. This is often the case with Norse mythology and Greek mythology. Valkyries could interact with the living and even marry them. In The Saga of the Volsungs, a Valkyrie named Brynhild is betrothed to Sigurd, the main hero.

Valkyries are not normally portrayed with wings, so portraying them impressively is all about presentation. By this, I mean picture composition. I have chosen some examples which for various reasons have impressed me. Valkyries are often shown as wearing armor and/or riding horses, but there are some other tricks that can be used as well.

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Valkyrie Maiden by Howard David Johnson.

Okay, this might be cheating a little. The Valkyrie doesn’t have wings, but her horse does. Of course, I’m no purist in creative matters like this. Based on the kinds of stories I like to write, I think it’s cool when artists and writers borrow different elements from different mythologies. Pegasus quickly comes to mind from Greek mythology.

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Ride of the Valkyries by Jose Luis Munoz.

In this example, the expressions, postures, and poses of the Valkyries and their horses make for an interesting composition which is heightened by the artistic style and choice of color. This really drew my eye.

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Ride of the Valkyries by Hermann Hendrich.

Here is a more abstract approach which blends them with elements of nature – in this case, clouds. Note how the sense of scale, the dark birds, and the windblown trees accentuate the effect.

In the next two examples, we again see interesting and dynamic poses combined with a sense of context as Valkyries are shown riding in the air. Winged helmets serve as further suggestions of their power of flight. For reasons of personal taste, I especially liked the second of these. Look at the eyes of the horse on the left.

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The Ride of the Valkyries by William T. Maud.

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The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909) by John Charles Dollman.

This next one might be my favorite. Has the Valkyrie merely taken off her implements while keeping dutiful watch, or is she awaiting the return of the warrior she loves? I think art is really doing its job when it encourages us to imagine and speculate.

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The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes.

I might as well end with another selection from my copyrighted but currently unpublished story poem, The Fear of a Farmer. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just say it shows a farmer  named Einar being born aloft by Anni, the Valkyrie.

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From The Fear of a Farmer (copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

Another being next week…

Mythological Beasts And Spirits: Norns

Norse mythology seems to have been developed more recently than Greek mythology, and some of its entities apparently reflect this. For example, the Norns bear certain similarities to the three Fates. The Norns are also female spirits, a trio of sisters whose names exhibit wide variations in spelling, depending on the source. I will use the names from the glossary at the back of my copy of the Poetic Edda: Skuld, Urth, and Verthandi. These three were said to determine the fates of gods and men. They spun these fates by Urd, the well of destiny at the base of Yggdrasil, the tree which connects the nine worlds. Those of you who have seen The Avengers: Age of Ultron might recall a scene which alludes to the Norns and Urd without explaining them.

For my story, The Fear of a Farmer (copyrighted but not yet published), I took some artistic license and moved them out to sea. There, they utter false prophecies to dissuade the hero from his appointed task.

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Norns from The Fear of a Farmer (Copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

Here is a portrait of one of the Norns. I wanted to show more facial detail to develop her visual character.

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A Norn from The Fear of a Farmer (copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

After I had done this, I looked up some paintings by more regarded artists. I was interested to compare my black and white renderings to theirs. This one is supposedly titled The Norns and was allegedly done by Arthur Rackham. I can verify neither the title nor the artist. I have my suspicions since the style of this one is so different than that of another one attributed to him.

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Here is an eerie depiction of the Norns over a cradle.

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The Norns (1889) by Johannes Gerts.

The Norns in this picture are shown at the base of Yggdrasil. Well, technically, Yggdrasil was an ash tree, not an oak.

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The Norns Uror, Veroandi, and Skul under the world oak Yggdrasil (1882) by Ludwig Burger.

Another black and white….

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Die Helden Und Gotter Des Nordens, Oder: Das Buch Der Sagen (1832) by Amalia Schoppe.

… and a couple in color.  Both are titled (guess what?) The Norns. I’m fairly confident that the first of these actually is by Arthur Rackham. The second was also attributed to him, but I am not as confident of this. It is, however, an interesting abstraction that plays on the imagination.

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In both of these examples, I like the ethereal use of color. Additionally, the utilization of silhouettes in this last illustration adds to its effectiveness.

One more portrayal…

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The Norns by C. E. Brock.

… and out.

Next week: another mythological being.

 

Ancient To Modern: Borrowed Gods (5)

Heimdall

This is an interesting god conceptually. He is the watchman of the gods in Norse mythology, and he serves as the keeper of the Bifrost (rainbow bridge) at the entrance to Asgard.

Heimdall brings forth the gift of the gods to mankind (1907) by Nils Asplund.
Heimdall brings forth the gift of the gods to mankind (1907) by Nils Asplund.

1895 illustration by Lorenz Frolich showing Heimdall blowing Gjallarhorn.
1895 illustration by Lorenz Frolich showing Heimdall blowing Gjallarhorn.

Here is a somewhat older rendering from Marvel Comics …

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

… and a more recent one.

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

I have lauded the Disney Marvel universe in my series, The Modern Pantheon (see black strip at left), and I mentioned then that I am intrigued to see how they develop his character further (perhaps in Thor: Ragnarok?). He is interpreted interestingly by Idris Elba, as can be seen in Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and (briefly) Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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Disney Marvel's Thor: The Dark World Heimdall (Idris Elba) Ph: Film Frame © 2013 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2013 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Disney Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World
Heimdall (Idris Elba)
Ph: Film Frame
© 2013 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2013 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Next week: back to Olympus (and beyond).

Ancient To Modern: Borrowed Gods (4)

Loki

In Norse mythology, Loki is a shape-shifter (hence, a trickster) who is ascribed various powers in different versions or accounts. He is sometimes described as helping the other members of the Norse Pantheon and sometimes as working against them. This diversity makes him nuanced and interesting. In the original myths, he is completely unrelated to Odin, Freya, and Thor.

Loki shown in an 18th Century Icelandic manuscript.
Loki shown in an 18th Century Icelandic manuscript.

The punishment of Loki by Louis Huard (1813-1874).
The punishment of Loki by Louis Huard (1813-1874).

Loki and Sigyn (1863) by Marten Eskil Winge.
Loki and Sigyn (1863) by Marten Eskil Winge.

This Norse god has been skillfully re-written in Marvel Comics. In their version, he is the adopted son of Odin and Frigga (Freya) and the envious stepbrother of Thor.

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

This unavoidably sets him at odds with the Avengers (get a load of the old Iron Man).

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

The imagery for this character has been  effectively re-invented in the comics. Below is a later version.

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Disney Marvel also got Loki’s imagery right, and Tom Hiddleston excellently portrays him in the movies. In my opinion, he has become one of the best villains in cinematic history.

From The Avengers (2012), directed by Joss Whedon.
From The Avengers (2012), directed by Joss Whedon.

From Thor: The Dark World (
“Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World” (2013, directed by Alan Taylor)
Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
Ph: Film Frame
© 2013 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2013 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

We’ll look at one more Norse god next week and then move back to the Greek pantheon.

 

Ancient To Modern: Borrowed Gods (3)

Thor

He is the god of thunder, lightning, and strength, etc. Odin and Freya are his parents. His attributes make for some impressive imagery. As examples, consider the following paintings.

Thor's Battle Against the Jotnar (1872) by Marten Eskil Winge
Thor’s Battle Against the Jotnar (1872) by Marten Eskil Winge

Thor and the Midgard Serpent (1905) by Emil Doepler
Thor and the Midgard Serpent (1905) by Emil Doepler

Thor is only one of the Norse gods which Marvel Comics has borrowed. He first landed in August of 1962.

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As is often the case, the artwork grew more sophisticated over the years. I must confess, however, that I have developed a real appreciation and enjoyment of the artwork of the Silver Age of Comics. It is the style I grew up with.

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

How can I resist showing this representation by Alex Ross?

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The Disney Marvel franchise has produced some interesting refinements for application to the big screen. In so doing, they have produced some truly iconic imagery for their characters, including Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth). Some fans have complained that the movies have changed the way that these characters are drawn and described in the comics. One additional thing that I like about the Thor movies I have seen is how they mix Norse mythology with science fiction.

Picture credit: Disney Marvel
Picture credit: Disney Marvel

One of my favorite visual sequences was of Thor summoning lightning from atop the Chrysler Building in New York during the great battle with alien invaders in the first Avengers movie. That’s all for now. Next time, another week, another god.

Graphic Mythology: Invasion

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. One of my uncles (Bud on my mother’s side) was actually there and survived to tell about it. That same month, American comic books were invaded by the gods (well, a demigod, anyway) when Wonder Woman debuted in an issue whose company would eventually merge with another to form DC.

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I must be out of my mind. One mistake, one vital piece of information missing, and veteran comic book fans will eat me alive. Cries of “Charlatan!” will resound through the blogosphere. Sins of omission will go unforgiven. To my future detractors, I resign myself to my fate and offer this acknowledgement of my inferiority: do your worst.

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Similar invasions have occurred since then. Thor first appeared with Marvel in August of 1962, and other gods have entered the graphic atmosphere like an ongoing meteor storm. Many of these gods are technologically or “scientifically” explained, but the best examples hark back to the roles played by gods in Greek and Norse mythology (hopefully minus some notorious examples of very bad behavior). I will make no effort at doing a comprehensive job of this. I have simply found that certain characters in certain comics have grabbed my attention, and I would like to put my own spin on them. Remember, you have entered MY universe. More next week.