Thor and Loki in a World of Chaos

Madelyn Campbell

By: Madelyn Campbell

Delivered at: Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church, Burke, VA

On: February 23rd, 2014

This sermon is the result of a church auction. Sort of. I’d offered a sermon on the biblical passage of your choice in the auction, and someone bought that sermon, but then someone else came to me and asked me to preach another sermon for a generous donation to the church. Tricky. Oh, and the sermon he wanted? Not a biblical sermon. Very tricky. He had me. Of course, I can tie most things back to the Bible. I’m fairly tricky myself. So that’s how, today I happen to be preaching about Thor and Loki.

If you’re a fan of Stan Lee, Marvel Comics, and the Avengers movie franchise, you know a little bit about Thor and Loki already. Marvel Comics has done a pretty good job of preserving the most important elements of the mythology, so it’s not a bad start. And when we’re talking about Norse mythology, knowing where to start can be a tricky thing.

That’s because we know a fair bit about Norse mythology, thanks to Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic Christian of the late 12th and early 13th century. I’ve actually been to his house. He preserved the stories, the mythology, through his Christian lens. However we know almost nothing at all about the Norse religion itself - the practices, the rituals, the beliefs. These are lost to us - and they probably were to Snorri, too. So we need to be cautious in drawing parallels between the Norse mythology and Judeo-Christian mythology, because it’s been presented to us in this light. Nevertheless, there are certain universals that we can’t help but notice.

One of those universals is the trickster. I do love Thor. I love Thor as he’s portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the movies…… sorry - I just needed a moment there. I mean, Thor’s a protector. THE protector. The protector of humanity - of the common person. What’s not to love? But I have to tell you…I kinda like the bad boys. I mean, there’s just something about Loki.

Let’s just have a little primer here. I don’t want to turn this into the Sunday morning lecture, but it helps if we’re all on the same page.

There’s Yggdrasil, the world-tree. All the worlds exist on levels of the world-tree. Asgard is where the Aesir - the gods live. Odin is the king of the gods and Thor’s daddy. In the Marvel comics, he’s also Loki’s adopted father, which works out ok, but this is a contemporary midrash - a retelling or reforming of the story. Loki is a demigod. He’s not really one of the Aesir. He lives among them and does things with them, and is related to them, but he isn’t really one of them. Thor is the god of thunder and lightning, and of fishermen and the average person. He is the protector of the gods, and of humanity, who live in Midgard. Us, here.

Loki is the god of fire. He’s also the trickster - a mischief-maker. There are tricksters in other mythologies. In Judaism, Jacob is the trickster - and we are meant to identify with him. In Native American mythology there is Raven. The Ashanti people of Ghana have Anansi, the spider. Tricksters are important. We’ll get to that. Sometimes Loki works with the Aesir, and sometimes he’s against them. Loki is the father of the Midgard Serpent, also known as the World Serpent, and Fenrir the wolf, both of whom fight the gods in Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon. So Loki is the father of the bad guys.

Still, Thor and Loki do a lot of things together, and Loki often helps out the Aesir. It can be good to have a trickster on your side.

In one story, Loki, who is a shape-shifter, turns himself into a mare to lure away a stallion in order to protect the Aesir from a contract that would have cost the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freya. As a result, Loki then gives birth to an eight-legged horse that becomes Odin’s horse.

But sometimes his mischief goes too far, and that can have dire consequences.

Loki represents chaos. Maybe that’s why I’m comfortable with him. Loki reminds us that we’re really not in control. We think we’ve got things covered, and then the unpredictable happens. Loki is the unpredictable.

Baldur was the most beautiful of the Norse gods, and Odin’s son. His mother, Frigg, wanted to make sure that nothing could harm him, so she elicited promises from all things that they would never cause him harm - but she ignored the mistletoe, because she thought that mistletoe was already harmless. Because Baldur was impervious to injury, the other gods made sport out of attacking him with various weapons, knowing that they could do him no harm. Loki fashioned an arrow out of mistletoe, however, and tricked a blind god into shooting it at Baldur’s heart, thus killing him. The Aesir were beside themselves. Since Baldur didn’t die in battle, he didn’t even go to Valhalla. He went instead to Hel, presided over by the goddess Hel, Loki’s daughter.

Loki had no quarrel with Baldur. He was being mischievous, but he went too far. It’s all fun and games until someone goes to Hel. Then we’re reminded that we need protecting from the chaos.

This isn’t unique to Norse mythology. If you have your handy Bible app available, go ahead and pull it out now, and turn to Genesis - that will be the first book in the Bible - Genesis chapter 1. You’ll see that in the beginning of God’s creation of the world, the world was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. These are the chaos waters. On the second day, God separates the chaos waters from the heavens, and then on the third day God further separated the dry land from the water. Chaos, in the form of the chaos waters, is a big theme in Hebrew scriptures as well. We are always aware that the chaos waters are there, and we are always aware that God keeps the chaos waters at bay for us. God keeps things in control for us. Chaos is close by.

Chaos has certainly been a feature of my life. I’m chronically disorganized, as anyone who knows me can attest to, but I’ve had my share of chaos in my personal life as well. As a widow and also a bereaved parent, I’ve known much loss and grief, times when everything seemed to be out of control - when there was only chaos.

That’s when I needed Thor. In difficult times, we all need a protector who’s ever-vigilant, ready to put the hammer down, as it were, when things get too out-of-control.

In the final battle, Ragnarok, (which was supposed to be yesterday, but apparently it’s been postponed), Thor will defeat the Midgard serpent, but at the cost of his life. He succumbs to the serpent’s venom in the end. Of course, it’s the final battle, and all the gods, and all humanity, are destroyed, before new gods and a new humanity rise again. Is this sounding a tad familiar? This is very much like the book of Revelation - a cosmic re-ordering.

It’s easy to see how Thor ends up as a superhero in the Marvel pantheon. I mean, he’s everything we want a superhero to be. He’s the protector. He’s big and strong. He serves humanity. Who could resist him?

Very few, as it turns out. He, and Loki, show up in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the operas that glorify Nordic heredity and heroism. During World War II, these operas, so closely identified with Germanic culture, became the butt of one of the best Looney Tunes episodes ever - “What’s Opera, Doc?” You might recall Elmer Fudd singing, “kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit…” This was a direct poke at the Nazis and the elitism that many felt the operas represented. And that’s a danger in superheroes.

We fear the chaos. Fair enough. But then we crave the protection, and in our craving, we are easy prey for protectors who aren’t really the protectors of all humanity. We fall prey to those who hold up Thor and tell us that he protects and represents only a certain ideal. A god for some but not a god for all. Oh my. How big is your God?

Superman of DC Comics fights for truth, justice, and the American Way. I prefer Marvel Comics. Why the American Way? Why not the Canadian way? Or the way of humanity? Last night, during the bronze medal men’s hockey match, one of the NBC announcers said something truly remarkable. He said that Team USA fans needed to think of the dreams of others. Wow. That’s way more Marvel than DC. But that’s not often the messages we send or receive.

Without the reminder that Thor has the common person to protect, we risk hubris. We risk thinking that we’re all that - that we have everything wrapped up and under control. That’s when it turns into the Superman ideal, a super-race where ordinary folks don’t matter. And then where would we be? Well, back in the chaos, I suppose.

Nordic - blonde - or, in Thor’s case, red-bearded, blue-eyed, big and strong, and white - doesn’t have to be the standard. Well, we can hardly blame the ancient Norse for having gods who look Nordic. I do like what the current movie franchise has done with the Aesir, however. Thor is known to have traveled in the East - how far east, the Edda doesn’t say, exactly. Hogun is a character who doesn’t appear in Norse mythology, but who is a companion of Thor’s in the comics. He’s played by a Japanese actor in the films. And Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard, is played by the very much not Nordic black English actor Idris Elba.

Still, we must remain vigilant, like Thor, for what we tend to idealize.

I think Loki keeps Thor honest. I think we need that bit of mischief. There’s some playfulness there. Left to his own devices, unbridled, we get Loki as we see him in the reading this morning - going too far. It’s out of control and bad things happen - and then it’s no accident.

We need both. We need to know that we can go into the world and try things - that we can get into some trouble and have a protector to call upon.

We need to know that when all Hel breaks loose in The Ukraine, or in Syria, or in South Sudan, there will be an end to the chaos.

Whom do you call upon? In Iceland, people wear Thor’s hammer, mjollnir, just as frequently as they wear crosses. Both are reminders of protection.

Where do you put your faith? Are you willing to go out into the mischief of the world, knowing that you can call upon the protection of the Divine? What is your bridge over troubled water?

Is the Divine spark within you a haven for those around you? It takes a lot of us, because Thor is larger than life and we’re mere mortals. I hope you feel safe here. I feel safe, so I’ll tell you a secret. My faith is in God. But I still like Loki.

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