Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Thor as Woman: Gender and gods?

Marvel Comics have announced, to much chatter, that they are going to recast the god Thor as a woman. They have stressed that the new Thor will not be a "She-Thor," or a "Thorita," but Thor him- or rather her-self.

Reactions have so far been mixed. I began to wonder: is gender such an important, indeed essential part of a god or goddess? Let us try some thought experiments. The goddess Aphrodite, for example, is the goddess of generation, passionate love, the sea. She is invoked in those aspects. Lucretius (who doesn't believe in her) calls upon her at the beginning of his De Rerum Natura  as the "alma" - nourishing - mother. It is important that she is a mother, as the things that flow from that are feminine. If you replaced it with Pater Aphroditus, you would have an entirely different set of affairs.

Some gods are resolutely tied up with gender. Juno is the goddess of child-birth, for example; it would seem contrary to endow a male god with her attributes. Others are ambiguous. Dionysus is a god who has long hair like a woman, and who hangs around with women. He is a feminine man: not, importantly, a masculine woman. Artemis, though very definitely feminine, does things that are largely considered male - hunting; she would not be the same if she were a man who did things considered to be feminine. Athena has the attributes of a warrior, and of wisdom. Compare her to Ares - he is just war, pure and simple

Thor is an elemental god, a god of thunder and lightning, and a smith god. He has aspects of Zeus and of Hephaestus; Tacitus thought of him as Hercules. What happens if you switch genders with these gods and all the stories that are told about them? The scene in the Iliad, where Thetis supplicates Zeus, works because Thetis is a mother concerned about her son; switch Zeus into a mother too, and the dynamic shifts. Thor as woman suddenly has a whole new set of attributes, relationships with her wives, her brothers, her father Odin.

There is a lot to be said for playing with mythology. It is there to be tinkered with, there to be recast in different forms, and to have variegated lights thrown on it. That is why it is still alive, and why it still speaks to us, and why we always return to it. There is no reason why Marvel should not introduce a female aspect of Thor.  But to say that Thor is a woman is to displace something fundamental about myth and its sources: in fact to disregard them entirely, for the sake of a marketing exercise.  The power of myth lies in certain unchanging elements: to change those is to deflate it entirely.

1 comment:

  1. As I've said elsewhere, I do see why Marvel have done this, having seen the reasoning behind the storyline. If you take this purely in terms of the Marvel-created universe, then it sort-of works. However, the wider point you make about the power of myth being tied up with its fundamental and unchanging elements - the USP of each god, if you like - is a very valid one. I am not comfortable with Thor being changed to a woman on those grounds, because he IS that elemental masculine archetype. Marvel Universe is a very different place, though - with its own tropes and rules, and I'm happy to respect that as long as I'm also allowed to speak from the 'pure' mythologist's point of view! I think I've meddled with enough myths to be qualified to do that.