You’re probably already familiar with Thor, Marvel Comics’ weird pagan analog to D.C. Comics’ alien-born super messiah, the Man of Steel. As portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the Thor and Avengers movies, Thor is a flagon of mead by day, bevy of wenches by night kind of guy—the sort of god whose love for ribald drunkenness is matched only by his love for cratering a frost giant’s face with his mystical hammer, Mjölnir.
In the comics, Mjölnir has many magic properties. It can be hurled incredible distances and then boomerang back into Thor’s hand. Thor can fly when holding it just by throwing it as hard as he can without letting go of the handle. It can control all the powers of a storm, including rain, thunder, and lightning. Upon the side of Mjölnir is an inscription: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."
The key word there is "worth." Mjölnir is a weapon of honor and virtue, and a fitting symbol for any noble warrior. So it’s appropriate that American soldiers can now request the symbol for Thor’s Hammer be placed on their headstone if they die in the line of duty. But Mjölnir’s path toward becoming an acceptable headstone option wasn’t easy. It practically took the power of Thor to get it there.
Mjölnir, of course, isn’t just another comic book weapon like Captain America’s shield or Batman’s bat-a-rang. In Norse mythology, Mjölnir (which means "crusher" or "grinder") is a fearsome weapon that can destroy entire mountains with a single blow. This all despite its curiously diminutive handle, which makes Mjölnir look disingenuously wimpy.
Mjölnir was made for Thor by two master dwarves (in the comics, it is forged of material made from "the heart of a star"), and can only be lifted by Thor with the use of a magical belt and iron gloves. Thor was extremely protective of Mjölnir, so much so that when the hammer was stolen from him, the hyper-masculine but flaxen-maned God of Thunder was willing to disguise himself in drag as Freyja, Nordic Goddess of Love and Fertility, in an attempt to seduce it back. Thor’s reputation didn’t suffer for long, though: Armed with Mjölnir, Thor was a warrior of a ferocity and strength matched only by his honor.
Even a thousand years ago, Thor was as much a superhero as he is today. "Thor has always been this super popular god," says Jason Pitzl-Waters, a religion-beat journalist and founder of The Wild Hunt, a primary Internet news source covering modern pagan religions and minority faiths. "When you unearth old Viking treasure troves, you’re always finding icons and other representations of Thor’s hammer there. It’s just the de facto symbol of Nordic faith, and has continued to be iconic through all modern permutations of Odinism."
Thor’s hammer is a noble weapon. Even to modern practitioners of Germanic neopaganism—also known as Odinism—it represents honor, virtue, self-reliance, truthfulness, and strength of personal character. Is it any wonder, then, that Thor’s Hammer is a symbol that a growing number of U.S. soldiers feel drawn toward?
"With guys like Thor running around, there’s a strong warrior ethos attached to Odinism," Pitzl-Waters tells Co.Design. "It’s a symbol which makes sense to a lot of people attracted to the military. 'Hey, this religion lines up really well with the job I’m doing!'"
To summarize, Thor’s hammer represents heroism, nobility, self-reliance, and honor. It’s a symbol with a history that extends back a thousand years to pre-Christian Europe. And adherents of Odinism, the religion that Thor’s hammer represents, tend to make natural soldiers. Oh, and it also shares a pretty strong cultural heritage with a superhero who is, in his own weird, Technicolor, space viking way, as American as apple pie. How strange would it be, then, if the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—the organization that oversees cemeteries dedicated to U.S. veterans and ultimately says which symbols can be used therein to represent your religious faith—had a problem with Thor’s hammer?
But for decades, the VA did have a problem with Thor’s hammer. Not so much for what Mjölnir stood for but because it was a pagan symbol, and pagan symbols were verboten.
"If you look at all the symbols the Department of Veterans Affairs have approved for use on headstones over the years, pagan symbols were really the final frontier," Pitzl-Waters says. "Hinduism, Humanists, Atheists, all these other symbols had been approved. But there wasn’t a single pagan symbol on the approved list."
There isn’t, of course, one exclusive symbol representing paganism. According to Pitzl-Waters, paganism is an umbrella term of convenience. "The common thread of paganism is that we are all faiths who are trying to revive, reimagine, or reconstruct pre-Christian religions. We all sort of banded together in the ’70s and ’80s because we were all very subcultural together and weren’t big enough individually to have our own events. And that’s why today, we all still advocate for each other, even though our beliefs are often very different."
This umbrella of convenience, though, has its drawbacks. Pagans may advocate for one another, but the same brush also tars them. That’s what happened with Thor’s hammer. It was guilty of association with another pagan symbol, the Pentacle: a five-pointed star that is the emblem of choice for Wiccans . . . and a symbol synonymous with modern witchcraft. For Thor’s hammer to become an approved symbol for veteran headstones, then, the VA had to first be persuaded that a symbol commonly (and incorrectly) denounced by politicians and the media alike as a blood-drenched grimoire of Satan was OK for servicemen to be laid to rest beneath.
Needless to say, the Department of Veteran Affairs took some legal convincing.
On September 25, 2005, Sergeant Patrick Stewart was killed in action in Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade shot down his Chinook helicopter. An avowed Wiccan, it was Sgt. Stewart’s wish to be buried underneath the Pentacle. His widow, Roberta Stewart, petitioned for her husband to have his wishes respected by the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the VA stuck to their guns, claiming that the Pentacle was not a "recognized emblem of faith." The matter quickly came to a head, with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filing a lawsuit on Stewart’s behalf in November 2006, arguing that the VA was showing favoritism for some faiths over others by having an "approved list" of religious symbols under which a soldier could be buried.
"During the discovery phase, a lot of embarrassing information came to light about why the Department of Veterans Affairs was blocking the Pentacle," Pitzl-Waters says.
Back in 1999, then Texas Governor George W. Bush said in a television interview: "I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at [the issue of Wiccan gatherings on military bases] and decide against it." Under the Bush administration, Americans United found the president’s past comments about Wicca were being cited in internal VA documents and being "interpreted at a high level," justifying the omission of the Pentacle from the approved list of religious symbols.
On April 23, 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs settled the Stewart case, officially adding the Pentacle to the list of approved emblems of belief. Galvanized, pagans next began to lobby for Thor’s hammer. But it turned out they didn’t have to do much. Two years later, the VA loosened the requirements on getting additional symbols added to the list.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs got out of the deciding game," Pitzl-Waters says. The new rules stated that as long as a soldier filled out the proper paperwork and the symbol they wanted was linked with an existing religious community, a soldier could have any emblem they wanted on their tombstone. "You can’t just put, say, a Metallica logo on your headstone, but otherwise, the VA shifted the onus off of themselves in deciding what is or isn’t an 'appropriate’ religion."
In theory at least, Thor’s hammer was an acceptable symbol of faith in the eyes of the VA for the first time ever. But there was a dark side to the rules change. Like blót, the ancient Norse ritual sacrifice used to worship the gods, the Department of Veterans Affairs required blood to be spilled before Thor’s hammer could be officially added to the list. A soldier needed to die.
On May 10, 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs quietly made an update to its official list of approved emblems, adding Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. "There was no press release, no announcement, nothing," Pitzl-Waters marvels. "They just dumped the symbol, and all of a sudden, there was Thor’s hammer."
Implicit in the VA’s spontaneous recognition of Mjölnir was that someone had died, but who?
Details are thin: His name was Shane, and he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He came from an extremely private family of Odinists, and he died in August 2012. After his death, his mother campaigned for the VA to not only allow Shane to have the symbol of Mjölnir placed on his headstone but for the same right to be extended retroactively to her husband, Mark, who had been buried by the Department of Veterans Affairs under a blank headstone under stricter rules. After ten months of red tape, the VA finally relented, and where once the space had been left empty, Mjölnir was carved into both of their headstones.
It’s a weird thing, when you think about it. That somewhere within a sea of headstones at Calverton or some other national cemetery, two soldiers—father and son—lay buried beneath the emblem of their faith: a magic, flying hammer that just also happens to be a pretty cool comic book weapon millions of people around the world know pretty well.
But this is the power of symbols. To most of us, Mjölnir might bring to mind Jack Kirby’s trippy Marvel Comics Asgard, a rainbow-striped city of no fixed point in time. Or it might make us think of an armored Chris Hemsworth bellowing as he smashes his hammer down on Captain America’s raised shield. But it’s also a symbol that represents virtues so profoundly felt that two men lived and laid down their lives for it in service of their country. Great symbols resonate deeply within all of us, but each to our own unique frequency. That’s what makes them more powerful than even Mjölnir.