Thursday, April 21, 2011

the Norse were tribal, not racist

Regarding The misguided "Thor" race controversy, both racists and antiracists are starting from a false assumption. We have no evidence that the Norse were racist, and we have strong evidence that they were tribal: their pantheon of gods come from two groups, the Vanir and the Aesir, which probably represent a merging of religious traditions, much as the El and Yahu stories represent a merging of Canaanite tribes from the north and the south who were the beginnings of the Jewish people.

Which means that a thousand years ago, if a black guy spoke Norse and wore Norse clothing and knew Norse customs like a Norseman, he was a Norseman, and anyone who heard him speak would've agreed, though they might've asked him when he or his family came to Norway.

Also, Idris Elba is awesome. If you think he can't play Heimdall as well as anyone else, please stop embarrassing yourself on the internet.


  1. Yes, the black guy would have been accepted as Norse- but would he have been described as "The whitest of all" the Norse? That was Heimdall's description, his distinguishing feature amongst the Gods- being the whitest. With gold and sea foam highlights. It would actually have made more sense to have made Thor black, as he carried a hammer forged by black dwarves. Or Loki- as a shapeshifter, he could be whatever he pleased, and it would have been cool if the look he preferred as his natural default was African. Or Baldur- it would also have been cool for the most righteous of them to be black. Or Sif, Thor's girlfriend.

  2. I should've mentioned that. Do we have any evidence that "white" referred to his skin? It could've been his shining deeds, or a fondness for a white piece of clothing, or his bright teeth, or his honorable position as the guardian of the gate, or maybe he was out in the snow a lot...

    Agreed that it would've been cool if all the Vanir and suspected Vanir gods were darkskinned.

  3. Well, the Encyclopedia Brittanica says, "Called the shining god and whitest skinned of the gods,...", and the New World Encyclopedia, talking about his being born of the sea and having nine mothers, says,"We understand that whatever his mythical value and functions were, the scene of his birth made him, in the sea's white frothing, the ram produce by the ninth wave." He is spoken of as a ram a number of times, and most rams are white. It couldn't have been his teeth; they were metallic gold- that's actually a plot point in a couple eddas.

  4. The Encyclopedia Brittanica comes out of two and a half centuries of racism. If they don't quote anything saying Heimdallr had white skin, assume they're assuming.

    Yes, he was born of the sea. Maybe the white refers to foam, but not his skin. We have other seaborn figures, and none of the ones I know of were assumed to be white.

    Also, epithets are based on distinctive attributes. Are these writers suggesting the rest of the Norse gods were not light-skinned Europeans?

    Gold teeth may imply that his words were golden.

  5. I don't know where epithets come into it- the Norse didn't seem to connect colors to attributes as much as southern Europeans did. As I mentioned, the dwarves who forged the weapons of the Gods were black- and the most skilled craftsmen in all three worlds. And I don't think they were suggesting the rest of the Norse Gods were not light-skinned Europeans- if we were holding this discussion in the presence of Edgar Winter, one may well describe Winter as the whitest of us all without implying that we were not white.

    His words may well have been golden, but in the most famous of the Eddas about him, he is trying to go incognito among the humans, and has to remember not to smile, because if they see his golden teeth, he will be exposed.

    It seems to me the simplest explanation that covers the knowns is that the physical descriptions are in fact physical descriptions, and that the Norse didn't have all the color based hangups we modern Americans do.

  6. Things like "the whitest of the gods" are epithets. They also may be mistranslations of "brightest of the gods." That the Norse didn't have the skin color hangups, I agree. But I think the conclusion that Heimdallr's epithet of whiteness is a physical description is, at best, simplistic. Should he be played by an albino?

    Some say he was a god of dawn, which is more reason he'd be described as white or bright or shining, regardless of the color of his skin. I've found arguments that his name means World-Brightness, Sea-Brightness, World-Bow or World-Bridge, Ram... Etymology ain't easy.

    Also, regarding the notion that ram should equal whiteness, I googled some pics of rams, and they come in quite a range of grays and browns. In the wild, even the palest ones aren't especially white. Has any poet or bard used a ram as a description of whiteness?

  7. Richard, I may've been channeling a bit of your post, 'cause I thought it was mighty fine back when I read it. (And still do!)

    And, yeah, why does no one whine about casting a Japanese guy? (Who looks like he'll be great for the part!)

  8. Many thanks!

    Actually, now that I know about it, there is one casting choice in Thor I don't like: I gather that Volstagg has been slimmed down and is depicted as a muscular guy with a slight beer belly. Wrong! You would surely think that if any director understood the potential greatness of a Falstaffian character, it'd be Ken Branagh...!

    (I also have a sneaking suspicion that Natalie Portman will turn out to be every bit as believable a physicist as Denise Richards, but that's a whole other topic.)

  9. Richard- you're right that a slim Volstagg is the worst heresy. I loved Volstagg, one of the best sidekicks ever!

    It would be a far better argument to say they are rebooting the story, as several other comics have been rebooted. After all, if the comic is the source material, Heimdall was white in the comic book. (well, half-toned red, actually)

  10. Meh, I'm still getting over having Will Smith as Capt. James West :P