Marvel’s Loki wins heathens’ hearts even while losing the Norse immortal’s complexity

To modern heathens, Marvel’s characters are not simply 'all-powerful superheroes,' but thriving gods.

Actor Tom Hiddleston, center, stars in the title role of the new Disney+ series, “Loki.” Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

(RNS) — At the 2011 premier of “Thor,” the first in Marvel’s popular ripped-from-a-comic-books movie franchise, Stan Lee told The Washington Post, “I wanted to create the biggest, most powerful superhero of all and I figured who can be bigger than a god?”

But Thor and now Loki, whose story was taken up in the Disney+ spin-off series featuring Tom Hiddleston as the famed god of mischief, don’t owe their imagined existence to Lee (whose most famous creation is Spiderman) or any other comic book artist. They are adaptations of Norse gods who were worshipped throughout Europe at least as long ago as the Roman Empire.

Nor do they only live on in Lee’s mind. Loki, Thor, Odin and others are still a vibrant part of modern heathenry, a group of religions that derive their practice from the ancient Norse ways. To modern heathens, Marvel’s characters are not simply “all-powerful superheroes,” but thriving gods.

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“Our gods are so happy to be recognized (through Marvel),” said Erika Wren, who is a second-generation heathen and a Gythia (priest). “The gods belong to everyone.”

Marvel’s portrayal of the Norse gods is not better or worse, Wren observed, than Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, dating to the 1870s and spanning from the Norse underworld to the gods’ fortress of Valhalla. It is just another cultural interpretation.

Marvel’s latest incarnation is of particular interest to Wren because she is a priest of Loki. “I’ve been worshipping Loki since childhood,” she said.

Heathen religions are polytheistic, but individuals will often devote themselves to a specific deity while still honoring others at appropriate times.

“Every Thursday evening,” Wren explained, “my family celebrates Torsheldg,” a traditional Swedish ritual and meal at which they honor the gods Freya and Thor and the local land spirits. However, before that happens, Wren performs a private ritual to honor Loki.  

“Most people will honor one to two deity personally and then honor others at group events,” says Ryan Denison, the Georgia Steward for the Troth, a national heathen organization.

Denison explains that modern heathens work to reconstruct ancient practices without any single guiding text, instead relying on historical references, archaeology, mythology, Old Norse poetry and personal gnosis, which is the spiritual wisdom gained from direct interaction with the gods. 

Suffice it to say that Marvel takes more license than heathens, but, overall, Denison and Wren do enjoy Marvel’s take, while also pointing out glaring differences. Some heathens, however, are bothered by the loose interpretation of Loki’s divinity.

In the mythology, Loki is a giant who is gifted with the honorary title of god and is Odin’s blood brother. The reason for this, Wren explains, is lost to history, like many details found in the old stories. In Marvel, Loki is a god, Odin’s son and Thor’s brother.

Tom Hiddleston, center, stars in the title role of the new Disney + series, “Loki.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Tom Hiddleston, center, stars in the Disney+ series, “Loki.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Austin “Auz” Lawrence, a Goði (Priest) in Ontario, Canada, said changes made to “kinship relationships” are his main problem with the adaptations, as well as a few important “iconographic details” that Marvel has changed that may cause problems for practicing heathens.

In the mythology, Thor’s wife, Sif, Lawrence explained, has blond hair representing “a new crop of grain.” In the comics, she has black hair. “Barley is not black,” he said pointedly.

While the Marvel franchise could draw more people to the myths, Lawrence worries that the power of the movies and shows will make Marvel’s versions indelible. “If people emotionally connect with the Marvel characters first,” he said, “internalizing their social meanings and personalities as ‘authentic,’ it becomes very hard to unlearn.”

Ray Johnson, a longtime comic book fan, said he noticed the differences between Marvel’s portrayals and the mythology as a child. “I wondered how they could get so much of Thor wrong,” but he said he has become resigned and is enjoying the new show.

Lee first introduced the Norse gods in his Venus comic series in the mid-20th century, and Loki shows up in the sixth issue, published in August 1949. With short orange hair and a pink shirt, this Loki bears no resemblance to the more recognizable version played by Hiddelston, who makes his first appearance in a 1962 issue of the Journey into Mystery comic series.

Lee made Loki a bad guy; he is depicted as Venus’ — and later Thor’s — nemesis. But in the mythology, as Lawrence explains, “there are no clear good guys and bad guys.” They tell “the story of forging and losing friðr, the term for social cohesion.”

In the ancient stories, Loki both helps and hinders the gods. It is Loki who delivers Mjölnir, Thor’s famed hammer, as well as other gods’ most prize possessions. And it is also Loki who performs acts that bring about chaos, including Ragnarök, the final battle.

But Wren said that Marvel is now giving its Loki more complexity than ever before. “U.S. culture is steeped in Christian ideology,” she said, and Loki has been long caught in that narrative, equated to the devil.

This is already evident in Lee’s 1949 comic, in which Loki lives in the “fiery kingdom” of the underworld, filled with “flaming brimstone.” His hair is drawn with two horn-like spikes. When first seeing him, Venus declares, “Loki! The God of Evil!”

Wren believes that the demonization of Loki in American culture partly accounts for the heathen community’s past rejection of the god. As a Lokean, she has personally encountered conflict when sharing her traditions at public events, such as when, in 2014, people avoided her after learning she was devoted to Loki.

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“People don’t see Loki as Loki is. They see Loki as they are,” Wren said, sharing wisdom told to her by an elder. “He is a mirror, and that scares people.”

Whether it is this mirror or the devil narrative, Loki does invoke fear and discomfort for many people. Some heathens go so far as to refuse to say his name. “Is he Voldemort now?” asked Wren, laughing.

However, perceptions are changing among heathens. Wren attributes this to the community’s willingness to engage in conversation and “listen to reason.” In 2019, she was allowed to offer a Loki-focused blót (ritual) and set up a Vé (shrine) at the same festival where she was ignored years before.  

That same year, the Troth “rescinded their ban” on hailing Loki at sponsored events.

Denison believes that the Marvel films and now the new show have contributed to this change of heart. They have also increased, he believes, the public’s interest in Norse mythology and heathenry overall. “Any expression that brings people into a new faith is a good thing.”

“Pop cultural references are fine as long as we know it’s entertainment and not historical or religion based,” Denison said. “We aren’t Marvel worshippers.”

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