Co.Design

How Thor's Hammer Made Its Way Onto Soldiers' Headstones

Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, is a weapon of honor and virtue, making it an appealing icon for American soldiers. But its path to becoming an acceptable headstone symbol was anything but easy.

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.

[IMAGES: Thor in Chariot via Artduh, Headstones via Religion and Politics]

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36 Comments

  • Andrew Robinson

    Having been a Thor fan as a child, I got interested in Norse mythology and I'm indebted to Marvel for that. I'm pleased Thor has remained one of Marvels top ranking characters of all and hope this leads readers to become interested in the historical myths of Scandinavia and Europe.

    I'm convinced that a female Thor will be a flash in the pan phenomena, let's give it six months to a year at most. Far better to develop Sif and Frigga in the way that Thor and Loki are as Marvel characters. They are strong female figures from Norse mythology and with the right promotion should have the potential to fill any market for female super-heroines.

    That makes better business sense to me than messing about with an established character for a few months. Possibly alienating core Thor fans, and not breaking into a new female market. Developing and promoting an existing character from Norse mythology with the historical kudos as well as a long term super-heroine, that makes more sense to me.

  • Andrew Robinson

    I've just bought Marvel's The Art of Thor: The Dark World today, Wow! the artwork and photographs are fantastic. This convinces me even more that Marvel must keep Thor the male thunder god, and that it should undertake a project to recreate the stories from the ''Penguin Book of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings'' and ''The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology Penguin Classics'' with artists like Andy Park, Jackson Sze, Bryan Andrews, Jane Wu and Rick Newsome along with Wendy Partridge, Kramer Morgenthau, Charlie Wen et al. It would truly be a work of art and become a classic for posterity. All those who agree with me that this is a graphic novel project that Marvel Comics must undertake please sign the petition to keep Thor the Nordic god of thunder a man.

    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/petition-to-keep-thor-the-nordic-god-of-thunder-a/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=button

  • Paul Robert Powell

    As a Follower of this religion (the Aesir) and Former Navy I am Glad to see this change for the Better!

  • OberonZell

    Quote: "The common thread of paganism is that we are all faiths who are trying
    to revive, reimagine, or reconstruct pre-Christian religions."

    Please note that "Pagan" and "Paganism" are names of a RELIGION, and are thus proper nouns and adjectives which demand capitalization the same as "Christian," "Jewish," "Islam," "Buddism," "Hindu," and all other such names of religions.

    To not capitalize names of any religions can only be viewed as disrespectful in the extreme.

    Bright Blessings,
    Rev. Oberon Zell, Primate
    Church of All Worlds

  • Spade020

    People keep trying to say that that many white supremacists have co-opted Odinism...do people honestly forget that the KKK is a Christian movement?!?!  Pretty easy to point the finger at others when the original (and the majority) white supremacists are Christian and carry the Bible.  1% of an organization does not speak for the whole of an organization...regardless of what the Democrats want us to believe 

  • Erik Peterson

    Probably has a lot more to do with the use of Mjölnir as a symbol amongst white supremacist "Asátru" groups. White supremacist groups have a strong presence in the armed forces of the United States.

  • GreenEyedJinn

    27 years in uniform...didn't meet or even hear of one of those with a "strong presence."  Certainly a lot of tattoos...but nowhere else have I ever been where what you could do totally outweighed where you can from or what you looked like. Just sayin'.

  • Dawnfire82

     I hear this routinely, but in my five years in the US Army I never ever met one.

  • Bsch

    I've been in the military, serving with the Navy and Marine Corps (Demographically the whitest service) and I've never met any white supremacists, so it sounds to me like you're just another narrow minded liberal trying to stereotype people you've never met. The men I served with were black, white, Asian and every possible mix thereof. Unless you've served with us, I'd suggest you take a closer look before you make wild claims about how racist we are.

  • Tamara G. Suttle

    John, this was such an interesting article!  Had no idea that symbols were ever restricted on veterans' headstones and had not heard of the history of Thor's hammer.  Thank you so much for a great read!

  • User Rick

    you did a fine job John, never mind the nit pikers its not easy to cram so much into such a small space, I am Asatru and I am glad the VA will let my brethren pay honor to their faith. thanks for writing the article

  • 6yearArmyguy

    John, I really wish you had expanded your interview to include some actual Heathens. There is a lot more information you could have collected that would have made a better case, and looked better for those of us who have fought to get Heathen religious needs taken care of by the military.

  • Williame

    The constant references to the Marvel character are vapid and distracting.

  • jmrowland

    How many times do you need to make the point that it's no wonder that soldiers want to be buried under a symbol of honor and virtue?

  • eowyn

    So first off, "Thor" is great film and an enjoyable comic.  Second, it has nothing to do with my religious faith, which as an eclectic pagan, acknowledges several Norse gods.   I appreciate the effort this article has taken to at least acknowledge the prolonged battle that pagan movement has fought to get our religious symbols recognized by the VA, but I'm just a little tired of being portrayed as a tiny "weird" curiosity or being lightly dismissed as "like X pop culture icon".  Certainly certain branches of the Christian community would object to such a description of their religion, but no one ever minds when pagans are dismissed as weird, trivial or generally badly represented as cartoons instead of actual people, practicing a real live religion. 
    There are dozens of excellent books on modern paganism.  You might start with Margot Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon".  As a journalist, please try to read at least one text from a religion before you report on it (watching a movie, based on a comic, inspired by Stan Lee's lose understanding of Norse myth doesn't count).
    Paganism is also probably a fair bit larger than you would think.  It's hard to get an exact count when you have no box on the Census form.  Additionally many members of the pagan community fear persecution and remain "in the broom-closet".  As the religion has generally resisted any sort of large bureaucratic structure, numbers are hard to gather (plus, we generally tend to disagree on what "pagan" means, but we sort of like it that way.  Pagans are often a fairly anti-hegemony/theology bunch).
    So, I appreciate the interviews with some fairly well known pagan folks and the effort to call attention to this issue, but please stop interpreting our faith through Marvel movies 
    ....Unless you want me getting my understanding the Christian faith through "Jesus Christ Super-Star" 

  • Person

    Eclectic paganism is just a word for people that think they can combine every sort of folklore together in a religion from wich they can pick the parts they like and discard the parts they don't

  • Gothiwizard

    Eowyn ,drawing down the moon is a wiccan/witchcraft book I fail to see your comparison to the Nordic faith... not all pagans are witches, not all witches are pagan !!