I’ve been contemplating lately various representations of Thor that resonate with me, and the idea of John Henry keeps coming back around: a powerful man wielding a huge hammer against a mountain and a machine, in defense of his friends, the common working man, and those downtrodden and oppressed by forces outside their control. He also wields his hammer in his own defense, when directly challenged, of course, but only when provoked.
John Henry is a uniquely American fable with ambiguous history, making him a typical heroic legend. There are countless variations on dozens of songs in his honor. He has long represented the causes of the labor movement and civil rights, especially for African Americans.
I would not presume to detract from his representations of those essential causes. Rather, I see how John Henry is what Thor looks like in that context. I believe John Henry could easily have been an avatar of Thor in his time and place. (Of course, he could also have been an avatar – or a translation – of Ogun. These are not mutually exclusive options.)
Certainly John Henry is a heroic representation worthy of Thor. As soon as I can get a suitable image to represent him, I will be putting him on my Aesir shrine in Thor’s honor.
Why am I looking at African-American representations of Thor?
The first and most obvious reason is that I look for my gods all around me, and I live in America. My family is diverse. My culture is diverse. My nation is diverse. My identity is diverse. Why should my gods only apply to some of that?
Nobody else’s ever have.
People have depicted all the gods they know in the likenesses of all kinds of people they know throughout history. We have every reason to do so today, as long as we don’t erase Their cultural origins in the process. If a Middle-Eastern Hellenized Jew like Yeshua ben Yosef can become a well-armed Medieval German guy called Christus; a Hindu god can morph into a Chinese Bodhisattva goddess; and an Irish Goddess can become a Roman Catholic saint, and then an Afro-Carribean graveyard spirit; there’s no reason our modern American Thor can’t be an African-American hero, (or a woman, or a grey alien) just because we need Him to be.
He’s also thunder rolling through the skies, and lightning striking fertile fields, and randy goats scaling mountains like they’re anthills, eating everything they please because they’re just that damned tough. Thor is whatever He needs to be to get through to us. If direct translation and human-embodied avatars don’t give us what we need, syncretism is definitely fair game.
Speaking of syncretism, the other reason I’m looking at dark-skinned representations of Thor came up at PantheaCon this year. As PSVL pointed out that weekend, this is NOT the first time someone has suggested a potentially dark-skinned Thor. Snorri Sturluson, the Skald of the Prose Edda himself, proposed in his preface to the Edda that Thor was actually a historical human, the son of a Trojan hero:
“One king among them was called Múnón or Mennón; and he was wedded to the daughter of the High King Priam, her who was called Tróán; they had a child named Trór, whom we call Thor. He was fostered in Thrace by a certain war-duke called Lóríkus… When he was twelve winters old he had his full measure of strength… and then he slew Duke Lóríkus, his foster-father, and with him his wife Lórá, or Glórá, and took into his own hands the realm of Thrace, which we call Thrúdheim.”
Snorri was clearly referring to Memnon, an Aethiopian king and honorable hero of the Trojan war famous for going toe-to-toe with Achilles and being tragically defeated, but only just barely.
Alas, there’s a few… problems… with Snorri’s assertion, but they have nothing to do with Memnon’s worthiness for being syncretized to Thor.
The biggest problem is that Snorri’s preface wasn’t grounded in scholarship so much as Medieval Christian politics. He begins by summarizing Genesis, and then goes on to explain how Greece and/or Jerusalem are the center of the world, and the best of all places. We know exactly why he had to do that, and it’s not because he was being open minded about brown people (although Medieval Europe was more diverse than we give it credit for, actually).
It was blatant Roman-Christian apologia to a court that had lost respect for local folklore as culture.
Snorri’s preface also says Odin is descended from Thor 17 generations removed, and Ingvi (Freyr) is Odin’s son. Both statements are directly contradicted in the body of the Prose Edda itself, with better and more consistent references to the elder Poetic Edda, giving Thor as Odin’s eldest son, and Invgi-Freyr as Njordh’s son, which is what we know of Them as gods from every other reference available, including the rest of Snorri’s work.
The thing is, reframing the Norse gods as Greek heroes was the whole point of Snorri’s apologia. Snorri wasn’t syncretizing Thor as the Son of Semi-Divine Memnon, he was equating them directly. Classical mythology was regarded as great literature, while the Norse gods were treated as ignorant folksy nonsense and dangerous heathen heresy. This was a few hundred years after people had been required to renounce Odin, Thor, and other Germanic gods as demons, after all, and there was no revival in sight. If Snorri played his cards wrong he could have been excommunicated – or executed. Snorri was there to give Icelandic nobility plausible deniability for any interest in their own cultural heritage – his work in trade as a courtly Skald – by handwaving the Aesir as dead heroes instead of living, threatening gods.
We actually DO know who the Greeks and Romans syncretized Thor to most of the time: Hercules and Jove/Jupiter. The followers of Thor got all over the place as both traders and raiders, including the Mediterranean, so I wouldn’t put it past history to have people hear of both Memnon and Thor and syncretize Thor to a son of Memnon, perhaps in Thrace or Northern Africa.
Unfortunately for Snorri I can’t find any references to Memnon actually having a son so far.
Unfortunately for our modern argument, the older accounts of Memnon give him as a child of a half-nymph Trojan prince and a Titan Goddess rather than being from Aethiopia at all, much less by birth. Given that he describes “Trór” as having an appearance contrasting with those around him as “the ivory that is inlaid in oak; his hair was fairer than gold” that’s probably the version Snorri was referencing.
Ultimately, between the options given, it is indeed possible that a half-Aethiopian King of Thrace was at some point identified with Thor, and that’s pretty cool. Our Ancestors had their own reasons for multiculturalism, but it’s good to see them embracing it regardless of why, really.
What’s NOT cool is embracing Snorri’s Christian apologia as a statement that Thor is Memnon, the long-defeated Trojan hero, because that is participating in the Christian erasure of our gods. So let’s not do that.
Besides, we really do have better reasons than Snorri’s dubious politics for finding a black Thor: John Henry is awesome.