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Mythology Before Marvel Comics

David Cowles

Jan 15, 2024

“Sturluson searched for the universal patterns that connect all times, all places, and all scales…and, Glory be to God, he found them.”

Most of what we know about Norse Mythology comes from Wagner (The Ring), Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), and Marvel Comics. Behind these secondary sources stand the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The former is a collection of poems, some dating back to the 9th century CE; the latter is the work of a single man, Snorri Sturluson of Iceland (c. 1220 CE).

Sturluson’s singular contribution was to organize varied material from the Poetic Edda into a quasi-coherent narrative, but what makes the Prose Edda so important, and therefore our focus, is the revolutionary structure Sturluson imposes on that narrative.

Mythic thinking yearns to express itself in narrative. True to form, Sturluson sews together countless short stories into one overarching tale. It is no exaggeration to describe the Prose Edda as the first Autobiography of Everything, anticipating by 700 years the work of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. 

Sturluson began by situating Norse mythology in the context of Jewish proto-history: 

“Almighty God created heaven and earth and all things in them, and lastly, two humans from whom generations are descended, Adam and Eve…After Noah’s flood, there lived eight people who inhabited the world, and from them generations have descended…

“(But) it happened just as before that…the vast majority of mankind…neglected obedience to God and…refused (even) to mention the name of God. But who was there then to tell their children of the mysteries of God?

“(God) gave them a portion of wisdom so that they could understand all earthly things…what it could mean that earth and animals and birds had common characteristics in some things…They reasoned that the earth was alive. It fed all creatures and took possession of everything that died…From such things, they thought it likely that there must be some controller of the heavenly bodies who must be regulating their courses according to his will…”  

But at the same time, Sturluson also situated his Nordic narrative in the context of Hellenistic proto-history:

“Near the middle of the world was…Troy. We call the land there Turkey…Twelve kingdoms were there and one high king…He was married to the daughter of the high king, Priam…They had a son; he was called Tror; we call him Thor…When he was ten…he was as beautiful to look at when he came among other people as when ivory is inlaid in oak. His hair is more beautiful than gold. When he was twelve, he had reached his full strength…

“Then he traveled through many countries, explored all quarters of the world, and defeated unaided all the berserks and giants, one of the greatest dragons, and many wild animals. In the northern part of the world, he came across a prophetess called Sibyl, whom we call Sif, and married her.” 

Eighteen generations later, a descendant of Thor and Sif was born: 

“A son whose name is Woden; it is him we call Odin. He was an outstanding person for wisdom and all sorts of accomplishments. His wife was called Frigida, whom we call Frigg. Odin had the gift of prophesy and so did his wife, and from this science he discovered that his name would be remembered in the northern part of the world and honored above all kings. For this reason, he became eager to set off from Turkey and took with him a very great following…” 

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Note that 18 generations earlier, Thor had earlier left Turkey (Troy) and migrated to “the northern part of the world”; now Thor’s descendant, Odin, sets out again on the same journey. This will not be the last time that the narrative recapitulates itself. Mythic space is fractal space. Scale replaces extension (spacetime). Patterns repeat: the Israelites spent 40 years in the Wilderness; Jesus spent 40 days in the desert.

Sturluson sees Troy as the cradle of civilization and is eager to associate it with Scandinavia. In this, he is following Virgil, whose Aeneid connects Troy with the founding of Rome. In fact, Troy is the prototype of all cities. It is the City of Cain (Enoch), it is Pound’s “city of patterned streets” (Ecbatana), it is Joyce’s omphalos (Dublin), it is at “the middle of the world” (Midgard).

“After that, he (Odin) proceeded north to where he was faced by the sea, the one which they thought encircled all lands, and set his son over the realm which is now called Norway…their language, that of the men of Asia, became the mother tongue over all these lands.”

When Gylfi (King of Sweden) entered what appeared to be Val-hall (Valhalla), “He saw three thrones, one above the other, and there were three men, one sitting in each…the one that sat in the lowest throne was king and was called High; next to him the one called Just-as-high, and the one sitting at the top was called Third.”

The structure of divinity in the Prose Edda parallels, of course, the Christian doctrine of Trinity. As we shall see, there is one God (‘All-father’), but High, Just-as-High, and Third represent different faces or personae of this one God. It is impossible not to see parallels with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Gyfli is invited to ask any questions he wishes; what follows reads something like the 1950s RCC Baltimore Catechism

Q: Who is the highest and most ancient of all gods?

A: He is called All-father in our language…


Q: Where is this god, what power has he, and what great works has he performed?

A: He lives throughout all ages, rules all his kingdom, and governs all things great and small…He made heaven and earth, the skies and everything in them…But his greatest work is that he made man and gave him a soul that shall live and never perish, though the body decay to dust or burn to ashes.

Q: What was he doing before heaven and earth were made?

A: Then he was among the frost-giants.

This seems odd. Before heaven and earth were made, there were ‘frost giants’? Yes! In Norse mythology, the concepts of ‘creation’ and ‘heaven and earth’ are quite different from what we’re used to in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The ‘created’ universe as we know it, ‘heaven and earth’, is embedded in a much broader reality (a sort of Norse ‘multiverse’). 

Q: What was the beginning? And how did things start? And what was there before?

A: It was at the beginning of time, when nothing was; sand was not, nor sea, nor cool waves. Earth did not exist, nor heaven on high. The mighty gap (Ginnungagap) was, but no growth.

Q: What were things like before generations came to be and the human race was multiplied?

In answer to this question, High, Just-as-High and Third begin to set out the fundamental doctrines of Norse cosmology. The primal (‘uncreated’) cosmos consisted of a region of great heat (Muspell) and a region of great cold (Niflheim) with a chasm (Ginnungagap) between them (“the mighty gap”, above). Sparks from Muspell and icy rime from Niflheim spilled over into the ‘gap’ and formed a vapor.

Again, it is impossible not to see parallels with the ‘something from nothing’ cosmologies of the 20/21st centuries. Can you say “Negative Vacuum Pressure”?

A:…There was a quickening from these flowing drops due to the power of the source of the heat, and it became the form of a man, and he was given the name Ymir…and from him are descended the generations of frost giants…”

Ymir lived on four rivers of milk that came from a cow (Audhumla) who fed herself by licking the salty rime stones found in Ginnungagap. As she licked the stones, sculptor-like, she began to uncover a human form latent in the rime-stones.

Soon, “…there was a complete man. His name was Buri…He begot a son called Bor…(and Bor) had three sons. One was called Odin, the second Vili, the third Ve…And it is my belief that this Odin and his brothers must be the rulers of heaven and earth…”

So this Odin…he was the son of Bor, the brother of Vili and Ve, and the grandson of Buri, who was ‘licked’ into existence by a cow. Ok, I guess, but he is also the son of Thor and Sif (above). Norse Mythology requires a level of neuroplasticity that most of us have not experienced since kindergarten. 

As such, it would be easy to dismiss all this as, quite literally, ‘child’s play’…but that would be a serious mistake. It is just such neuroplasticity that Jesus, time and again, says is necessary for one to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (e.g., Mt. 18:3).

We left to wonder: Are High, Just-as-High, and Third actually Odin, Vili and Ve? But we’re not done yet! Bor’s sons (Odin, Vili and Ve) killed the giant Ymir. And…they drowned all the race of frost giants, except that one escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir. He went up on to his ark with his wife and was preserved there, and from them are descended the families of frost-giants…”

“They (Bor’s sons) took Ymir and transported him to the middle of Ginnungagap, and out of him made the earth; out of his blood came the sea and the lakes. The earth was made of  flesh, and the rocks of the bones…They also took his skull and made out of it the sky and set it up over the earth…Then they took molten particles and sparks that…had shot out of the world of Muspell and set them in the middle of the firmament of the sky…”

The Prose Edda is like a Bach fugue: themes repeat and are transformed throughout. 

Note the complex ecosystem in place prior to creation, ‘before’ even the beginning of time. The primal entity, Ymir, feeds off of milk from the cow, Audhumla, who produces milk from nourishment she receives by licking salty rime-stones. But that process of licking in turn uncovers a second primal entity, Buri, from whom Odin, Vili and Ve are descended. These grandsons of Buri in turn kill Ymir, but they recycle his body as the raw material needed to create heaven and earth, the temporal realm.

But, as Sister Jean Therese used to say, “Let’s go back to our catechism.”

Q: How was the earth arranged?

A: It is circular 'round the edge, and around it lies the deep sea, and along the shore of this sea they gave lands to live in to the race of giants. But on the earth. on the inner side, they made a fortification 'round the world against the hostility of giants, and for this fortification they used the giant Ymir’s eyelashes, and they called the fortification Midgard (‘Middle Earth’).

Q. And where did the people come from who inhabit this world?

A: As Bor’s sons walked along the seashore, they came across two logs and created people out of them. The first gave breath and life; the second consciousness and movement; the third a face, speech, hearing, and sight…

This is a sophisticated Trinitarian model, similar to but importantly different from, the Christian model. First, the manifestations of God are allocated differently among the divine personae, and second, the phenomena associated with being human are grouped and segmented differently from how we might do it today. 

A (cont.): The man was called Ask, the woman Embla, and from them were produced the mankind to whom the dwelling-place under Midgard (Middle Earth) was given. After that, they made themselves a city in the middle of the world, which is known as Asgard. We call it Troy…In the city there is a seat called Hlidskialf, and when Odin sat in that throne he saw over all worlds and every man’s activity and understood everything he saw.”

Humans build a city, Troy, which becomes the homeland of the gods (Aesir), who originally created heaven and earth, and the homeland of humans. The process of creation flows both ways: gods create for humans, and humans create for gods. Ontology is a Möbius strip: events recur, but orientations reverse. We find a close parallel in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

“Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out; the bride awaiting the god’s touch; Ecbatan/City of patterned streets…” 

Here, a city built by human hands is intended to be a home for the gods. In a previous article in this collection, we connect this ancient Iranian city both to Cain’s city (above) and to the ‘patterned streets’ (circles) found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Perhaps Pound also had Troy in mind as well…or should I say, Asgard.

But back to the Prose Edda: “He (Odin) is the father of all the gods and of men, and of everything that has been brought into being by him and his power. The earth was his daughter and his wife. Out of her he begot the first of his sons…(wait for it)…Asa-Thor.”

Ok, enough! Our story began with Thor, grandson of the proto-historical king of Troy, Priam. Eighteen generations later, Odin was born. Odin married Frigg and together they migrated to Scandinavia. Now we learn that this same Odin is ‘All-father’, the father of all gods and men, that Frigg, his daughter and his wife are really ‘earth’ and that the first of their sons is the very same Thor with whom our story began. Gimme a break!

What are we to make of all these apparent contradictions? Nothing! There are no contradictions in mythology. The concept of contradiction arises in systems characterized by identity, quantity, causality, extension, duration, and logic. None of these concepts figure in any important way in mythological thinking.

Myths are the first TOEs (Theories of Everything). Hawking meets Tolkien. Like Hawking, mythology searches for universal patterns; like Tolkien, it then struggles mightily to formulate and communicate these patterns. You, dear reader, expect your patterns to be symmetrical, continuous, and orientable, but the world we’re modeling is not like that at all. It is stochastic, discrete, and non-orientable.

You are expecting events situated in spacetime; mythology gives you a hierarchy of fractals. Scale takes the place of extension. The order of events is immaterial, and ‘time loops’ are expected, perhaps even required. Mythic thinking has only one proper subject: ‘the pattern of everything’. 


In spite of the important parallels with Christian theology and Greek proto-history, the Norse cosmos is fabulously more complex. As we have already glimpsed, in addition to humans, there are many other humanoid races: frost giants (including trolls and, unexpectedly, wolves), light elves, dark elves (aka dwarfs), and, of course, gods (Aesir).

Each of these races has its own ‘homeland’, but there are other ‘uninhabited’ homelands as well: Muspell and Niflheim (above), Hel (the land of the dead), Val-hall (Valhalla, the home of fallen warriors), and Gimle (the resting place of the righteous):

“…(Gimle) shall stand when both heaven and earth have passed away, and in that place shall live good and righteous people for ever and ever.”

Astoundingly, all of these ‘homelands’ are connected by the trunk of a single ash tree, Yggdrasil, that has three principal roots: one in the realm of the Aesir (Asgard), one in the realm of the frost  giants, and one in Niflheim. 

We learn from Third that “Odin is the highest and most ancient of the Aesir. He rules all things…Odin is called ‘All-father’ for he is father of all gods. He is also called ‘Val-father’ (father of the slain)…Hanga-god (god of the hanged) and Hapta-god (god of prisoners), Farma-god (god of cargoes, possibly to be understood as human cargoes, i.e., travelers, or even slaves)…” 

One of the Aesir, “…Loki or Lopt, son of the giant Farbauti…is pleasing and handsome in appearance, evil in character, very capricious in behavior…There was a giantess called Angraboda in Giantland. With her, Loki had three children. One was Fenriswolf, the second Lormungand (i.e. the Midgard serpent), the third is Hel. 

“And when the gods realized that these three siblings were being brought up in Giantland…All-father sent the gods to get the children and bring them to him. And when they came to him, he threw the serpent into that deep sea that lies around all lands, and this serpent grew so that it lies in the midst of the ocean encircling all lands and bites on its own tail. 

“Hel he threw into Niflheim…The Aesir brought up the wolf at home…” But as the wolf grew, the Aesir felt the need to tether it securely. So they went to the dwarves and asked them to make a bond that that wolf could not break…and they did!  “It was made of six ingredients: the sound of the cat’s footfall and the woman’s beard; the mountain’s roots and the bear’s sinews; and the fish’s breath and the bird’s spittle…”

To prove this this story is true, we are told, “…You must have seen that a woman has no beard and there is no noise from a cat’s running, and there are no roots under a mountain…” Who needs Scholasticism?

The dwarves’ “fetter was smooth and soft like a silken ribbon,” but it acted just like the strong force binding quarks in an atomic nucleus: “…When the wolf kicked, the band grew harder, and the harder he struggled, the tougher became the band.”

Earlier attempts to fetter Fenriswolf all failed…because the tethers were made out of ordinary materials. No matter how strong they were at the outset, they were inevitably weakened by the wolf’s incessant struggles. They were ultimately subject to the law of entropy, and eventually, the wolf escaped them all.

The text leads us to believe that a woman has no beard, for example because the dwarfs used it to make Fenriswolf’s fetter.  But there is another possible interpretation: What if the dwarfs made something (a fetter) out of nothing, out of things that do not exist (e.g., a woman’s beard)? ‘Something made out of nothing’ is, well, something else. The laws of physics may be reversed, entropy upended. 

My nine-year-old grandson says, “The fetter was made out of the opposite of everything.” Exactly so, and therefore it behaved in a way opposite to all other materials.

No bird's-eye view of the Norse cosmos would be complete without consideration of Ragnarök, aka the Apocalypse. Admit it, this is what you’ve been waiting for since you opened this post. So…back to the catechism:

Q: What information is there to be given about Ragnarok?

A: There are many important things to be told about it. First of all, that a winter will come called fimbul-winter (mighty or mysterious winter). Then snow will drift from all directions. There will be great frosts and keen winds. The sun will do no good. There will be three of these winters together and no summer between.

…The wolf will swallow the sun…the other wolf will swallow the moon…The stars will disappear from the sky…trees will become uprooted from the earth; mountains will fall; and all fetters and bonds will snap and break.

Then Fenriswolf will get free…the Midgard serpent will fly into a great rage and make its way ashore…After that, Surt (a fire demon from the race of giants) will fling fire over the earth and burn the whole world.

Q. What will happen then after heaven and earth and all the world is burned…will there be any kind of earth or sky?

The earth will shoot up out of the sea and will be green and fair. Crops will grow unsown…And in a place called Hoddmimir’s holt, two people will lie hid during Surt’s fire called Life and Leifthrasir, and their food will be the dews of the morning. And from these people will be descended such a great progeny that all the world will be inhabited.

And so ends the discourse on Norse cosmology…and now comes the really interesting and totally revolutionary part:

“But the Aesir sat down to discuss and hold a conference and went over all these stories that had been told him (Gyfli), and assigned those same names that were mentioned above to the people and places that were there (in Sweden), so that when long periods of time had passed, men should not doubt that they were all the same, those Aesir about whom stories are told above and those who were now given the same names. 

“So someone there was given the name Thor…and to him are attributed the exploits that Thor (Hector) performed in Troy.” Wow! What else is there to say? Wow!

In Ulysses, James Joyce maps a day in the life of ordinary Dubliners onto events in Homer’s Odyssey. An incredible feat! But the Prose Edda goes much further. Sturluson begins by mapping Norse mythology onto both Jewish and Greek proto-histories. Then he maps Christian theology onto Norse mythology. Finally, he maps Norse mythology onto the lives of ordinary, contemporary Swedes and, for his piece de resistance, he maps the lives of ordinary, contemporary Swedes back onto events in Greek proto-history. To borrow a Judeo-Christian concept, everyone is ‘priest, prophet and king’.

What Joyce (and Pound) demonstrated brilliantly, Snorri Sturluson had demonstrated with even greater power and complexity centuries earlier: the various ontological categories that populate human thought are really just different ways of experiencing and understanding the present lives of ordinary people. Everything that happens is happening right now! The past and the future only exist to serve the present, and they exist only in the present. 

On the one hand, the Prose Edda is a literary triumph. But on the other hand, it is exactly what Mythology is all about. Sturluson searched for the universal patterns that connect all times, all places, and all scales…and, Glory be to God, he found them.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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