Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
Actor Portrayal of Heimdall Leads to Controversy
Actor Idris Elba brought Heimdall to life on the silver screen. He played a pivotal character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and seemingly was a good fit for this powerful, no-nonsense Asgardian. Marvel fans loved him, as did those who watched the Thor movies. But, not everybody was thrilled to see Elba's portrayal of Heimdall.
The Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacists group, had issues that a black actor was playing the role of a Nordic god. The group went as far to establish a website called boycott-Thor.com upon the release of the first Thor movie in 2010. According to The Guardian, the group called for a boycott in "opposition to what it sees as an example of left wing social engineering."
Surprisingly, this wasn't the first time Heimdall, the Guardian of the Gods, became a controversial topic. Also, Heimdall wasn't the first name he went by. In the early days of Norse mythology, he was known as Rig or Rigr. However, in this incarnation, researchers believe he was used to justify a social caste system within ancient Nordic societies.
In other words, social rituals or norms appear to follow this twice-named god through his evolution. From mythological being to comic book superhero to the cinematic universe, Heimdall/Rig has been a lightning rod of sorts.
Most Powerful God You’ve Never Heard of
He was first known as Rig. His story was found in fragments of several works and never had the type of prominence (at least with that name) as the all-powerful Odin or the mighty Thor.
Rig, or Rigr, as he was known in certain translations, was the subject of an Eddic poem, an incomplete collection of poems, and portions of the important collection of Norse mythology, Prose Edda.
One such poem that centers on this god was Rígsþula, which translated means “Song of Rig” or “Lay of Rig.” This is also the only known poem that invokes Rig’s name in its title.
According to legends, Rig sought refuge with any couple who’d allow him to stay in their homes for the night.
The name itself has a specific meaning and seemingly gives Rig some prominence in the mythology. The translation reveals that Rig means,
- mighty and
Also, as revealed in another collection, Völuspá (translated: “Prophecy of the Volva”), Rig may have been a name given to Heimdall—the father of humankind (more on that later).
There were other titles given to Rig. He was known as the most “fertile” of all the gods. Additionally, he was known as:
- the father of humanity;
- the patriarch of human leaders and royalty; and
- the wanderer.
The latter is a curious one. According to legends, Rig sought refuge with any couple who’d allow him to stay in their homes for the night. Although he’d leave the next day, he’d always leave a little surprise for the homeowners: a surprise that came nine months later (this was where the distinction of being a fertile god came from, too).
The Dark Side of Fertility
However, his importance to Norse culture had a dark side. Not only did he create humanity, he fostered a caste system in which people were born into a set of socio-economic groups such as serfs, slaves, farmers, or nobles.
The poem Rígsþula was a creation story of sorts and a tale of seduction. Its accounts followed Rig on his journey:
- First, disguised as an old traveler, he came upon a farm owned by Ai (great-grandfather) and Edda (great-grandmother). The impoverished couple offered the wandering god food that was barely edible. They offered him a place to stay for the night, between the two on their bed. The next day, Rig departed, continuing his journey. Edda gave birth to an ugly, dark-hair child named Thrael (meaning serf or slave) nine months later.
- Second, Rig paid a visit to Afi (translated: grandfather) and Amma’s (grandmother) nicely built house. The farmer/craftsman Afi let Rig stay and gave him good food to eat. And, just like the previous couple, he slept between the two for the night. Nine months later, Amma gave birth to a red-headed and red-faced son, Karl (meaning freeman). He’d become the ancestor of the lesser farmer and herdsmen.
- Finally, Rig came to a mansion owned by Faðir (father) and Móðir (mother). The food was excellent. And, nine months later after this visit, Móðir gave birth to a beautiful blond-haired baby named Jarl (meaning earl or noble). However, Rig eventually came back for Jarl when he grew up. He claimed the boy as his son, passed on his own name, and made him his heir.
Throughout the rest of the poem, the lineage starting with Jarl continued, culminating in the various royal bloodlines such as those of Danish nobility.
But, the poem abruptly ended, giving rise to the notion that the poem was either unfinished or survived incomplete.
The poem appeared to justify a practice that placed people in particular groups. The serfs/slaves were at the bottom; the farmers and craftsmen in the middle; and the aristocrats and royal lineages at the top.
This practice predated the poem and was widespread throughout northern Europe. This system placed individuals in perpetual poverty, servitude, and lack of real power on one side of the spectrum while giving it all to one group of people on the other side. Even today, this cycle can be observed throughout the world.
Rig Becomes Heimdall
The next tale to feature Rig was Völuspá. It was the first and best-known poem of the Poetic Edda. It was a creation story that told how the world was made and how it would be destroyed. It was told by a prophet known as Volva, who was addressing Odin.
Also, Völuspá identifies Rig as Heimdall. This passage comes from the poem:
I ask for a hearing
Of all the holy races
Greater and lesser
Kinsmen of Heimdall
Additionally, the influential and iconic Icelandic version of the tales—told in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda—identified Rig as Heimdall. There was no definite reason for the name change or the two gods to be the same. What is known is that the two gods shared the same tasks and were also the creator of the three socio-economic classes of humanity.
There was no definite reason for the name change or for the two gods to be the same
There were other tasks that Rig/Heimdall was known for. In particular:
- He was a prophet who told of what was to become of the Norse gods’ universe.
- He would be the one who warned Odin that the battle Ragnarok would end everything.
- And, he would know his fate: He’d kill Loki, the trickster god, but also die in the process.
Heimdall the Superhero
Marvel comics revived Norse mythology for a modern audience. First came Thor, and eventually, everyone that once inhabited Asgard was brought back. However, this time, the Norse gods were depicted as humanoid-alien beings with superhuman strengths.
Heimdall’s first appearance came in the pivotal comic book series Journey into Mystery Vol 1. #85 (Thor’s introduction was in #83 for the same title). This particular title, published in 1962, had several short features. One of them was entitled “Trapped by Loki, The God of Mischief.”
This issue became important in many ways. Not only did it introduce Thor’s home planet of Asgard, but it also introduced characters that would make up a sub-Marvel Universe, which would become part of the broader Marvel Comics Universe and Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Along with Heimdall, the characters introduced were:
- Frost Giants
Eventually, the comic book was renamed Thor for its 126th issue in 1966. In addition, Heimdall and the rest of the Asgardian received larger character arcs through the Thor series.
Subtle but Interesting Changes
As mentioned, Heimdall and the rest of the Asgardian were more superhumans from another planet than ancient mythological deities. Still, his role in this part of the Marvel Universe has similarities and differences.
The two versions of Heimdall are guardians. In Nordic tradition, he was an Aesir that protected Asgard from invaders (most likely giants). He stood guard at the rainbow bridge called Bifrost, the main entrance to Asgard. Also, he had Gjallarhorn (known as the ‘yelling horn’ ), which was used to warn the Asgardian of intruders.
In the Marvel version, Heimdall is also a guardian of Bifrost (which seems to be more of a worm-hole portal to Earth and other planets than anything else) and uses Gjallarhorn; however, he acts more as a gatekeeper and the first line of defense against invaders. He also keeps fellow Asgardians (including Thor) from entering or leaving Asgard.
According to Marvel, Heimdall has a few unique powers. They are:
- slowing his aging process;
- heightening his five senses;
- possessing super-strength;
- having excellent sword-wielding skills; and
- abilities to use Odinpower, a massive energy source to enhance superpowers.
Marvel has given him physical features such as having gray eyes, brown hair, a height of 7’2”, and a weight of 525 lbs. Also, like his mythological counterpart, he’s depicted as a Caucasian.
MCU Makes More Changes
It seems to be in his nature for him to change over time. And Marvel’s movie franchises, MCU, did just that. Heimdall’s race changed.
It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise or have caused any controversy. The movie versions of other Asgardians’ ethnicity and sexual identity had been altered. Yet, a British actor of African descent playing a character based on a Norse god was enough to trigger right-wing groups such as The Council of Conservative Citizens.
The campaign to boycott the first Thor movie and its sequels failed. In addition, Heimdall, as played by Elba, has become a favorite among MCU fans. In fact, Heimdall would end up in other MCU films such as The Avengers.
Either as Rig or Heimdall, he has been viewed as a powerful entity. He was a symbol of fertility and was often seen as the creator of humanity. However, he has courted controversy as well.
As Rig, he became a horrible justification for a deplorable social order. As Heimdall, he became a lightning rod for a group that wanted to keep him as a symbol for a racial and social order.
Interestingly, the MCU version is portrayed as someone with a good judge of character. And with the recent success, Heimdall/Rig will overcome these controversies and be embraced as a positive symbol for today’s society.
- Thor: Ragnarok Is Quietly the Queerest Superhero Movie Yet | WIRED
You wouldn't necessarily know it, but Thor: Ragnarok features three queer characters.
- Racists Totally Freak Out Over Idris Elba Playing Norse God in ‘Thor’ | Comics Alliance
Did you know that the totally made-up-by-medieval-drunks gods of Norse mythology were all white?
- Rígsþula: The Lay of Rig
- Heimdall | Myth Encyclopedia
In Norse mythology, the god Heimdall stood guard over Asgard, the home of the gods. He lived near Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connected Asgard to the world of humans and from there kept watch for the approach of the giants.
- Heimdall | Marvel
An all-seeing Asgardian in charge of guarding the Rainbow Bridge known as the Bifrost, Heimdall's keen skills serve him well as a first line of defense.
- White Supremacists Urge Thor Boycott Over Casting of Black Actor as Norse God | The Guardian
Council of Conservative Citizens attacks Marvel for giving role of deity Heimdall to Idris Elba, star of The Wire.
- Journey Into Mystery Vol 1 85 – Marvel Database | Fandom
In the far off land of Asgard, home of the Asgardians, the trickster god Loki has spent time trapped in a tree, so put there by Odin until someone would shed a tear over him, thus freeing him from his prison.
- The Poetic Edda: Voluspo
The general plan of the Voluspo is fairly clear. Othin, chief of the gods, always conscious of impending disaster and eager for knowledge, calls on a certain "Volva," or wise-woman, presumably bidding her rise from the grave.
- Faðir and Móðir | Encyclopedia Mythica
Faðir ("Father") and Móðir ("Mother") were third and the last couple visited by the mysterious wanderer Rígr on his travels.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Dean Traylor