The mythologies discussed in previous articles are the earliest examples of both stories and of heroes in the cultures of our world. Before we move from the realm of mythology and gods to literature and men, it is time to delve into the analysis of heroic archetypes. This blog post will look back at the previous post for examples of these archetypes and lay the groundwork for future discussions of heroes and how our perception of the hero has changed. The other, previous posts in the Catalogue series are also useful for reference on how the archetypes defined here pop up in other mythologies than the Norse one.
Today, the word hero typically means a selfless person of great virtue, who might sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, but in this post, we are interested in its other, older uses: the protagonist of a (mythical or legendary) story, a person with supernatural powers, and either a reflection or an inversion of the ideals of society.
Furthermore, our concept of a hero can be divided along two axes. One is the source of their power: whether that source is something society approves of or rejects. Upwards is positive, downwards is negative. The other axis is their intent: whether they seek to preserve or destroy society. Right is preservation of society, left is destruction. This gives us four categories:
Champion (positive power and preservation of society)
Guile Hero (negative power but preservation of society)
Iconoclast (positive power but destruction of society)
Villain (negative power and destruction of society)
As academic as this blog gets, people. Bona fide diagrams and actual visual aids instead of stock photos and bad jokes.
Thanks to Amina Belkhojayeva for doing the actual work on this diagram.
The Champion is what we usually mean with the word hero. They are the defenders of society and its values, morals, and virtues, usually embodying these themselves. They operate within the law, be it the laws of Nature or Men; thus the source of their power is (super)natural and seen in a positive light by society.
Thor is the most straightforward example of the Champion. He is the ultimate defender of humanity, and his power derives from his strength; although Thor is supernaturally strong, strength in itself is a natural power and thus viewed positively.
Guile Heroes have good intentions, using their powers to protect society. However, the means by which they do so are considered circumspect by society. Typically, they derive their powers from some unnatural means, forcing them to work in the shadows or through others.
I would characterise Odin in this manner. His extensive knowledge of magic, especially seiðr (which was considered unnatural for men to practise), casts a suspicious light over his character. He does not fight openly with arms, but uses his wits and cunning instead, often adopting disguises and deception. Despite all this, his intentions are noble; like Thor, he seeks to combat the influence of the Jötunns, and if he betrays men who trust him, it is only to gather them to Valhalla to fight for him.
The Iconoclast is a rare case, as any hero whose power is viewed positively by society will tend towards being its protector (making them a Champion); there are examples of this category, however. Due to having (super)natural powers, the Iconoclast cannot be viewed as evil, even if their intentions are destructive. The destruction of society or life can be seen as a necessary component for rebirth, allowing the cycle of life to continue. The incarnation of powerful natural forces (such as earthquakes or floods – not evil in nature, but destructive nonetheless) would be a typical Iconoclast.
In Norse mythology, the best example would thus be the Jötunn of fire, Surtr. Unlike other Jötunns, his powers are not unnatural (shape changing) or devious, but instead elemental. When the prophecy of Ragnarök describes how he will destroy the world, it does not seem to be due to personal enmity against the gods (unlike e.g. Loki), but rather simply an act that happens because it must happen, much the same way that a volcano erupts without any sentient will behind it. After all, fire is not evil in itself and cannot be blamed for burning what it touches.
The Villain is quite obvious. It may seem odd to name a subcategory of heroic archetypes as Villain, but as future blog posts will show, times change; what society in one age considers villainous may in another age be deemed heroic, even if the character remains the same. In this manner, even a Villain may in time be considered a hero. To be thorough in our description: the Villain is a hero or character, whose powers are unnaturally derived, and whose goal is to destroy society.
The most intriguing example in Norse mythology is Loki, since he did not begin in this category. In many stories, he can be considered a Guile Hero; using his powers of shape change and his wits to further the cause of the gods, much like Odin does with his magic, disguises, and deceptions. However, in the end, Loki’s acts and intentions become unquestionably evil (as viewed by the gods and thus by society), ultimately leading to Loki fighting against the gods in Ragnarök. It is no doubt this unpredictable aspect of Loki’s character, his actions, and intentions, that makes him the perfect trickster – unreliable, but constantly surprising.
I hope you enjoyed this quick analysis and categorisation of Norse gods as heroes. We have a long way to before the Catalogue is done dissecting our cultural heroes through the ages, but this has been a start. Next time, we focus on mortal heroes of the Norse sagas.
You didn't expect we'd get through an entire blog post without a single silly image, did you?
Credit: Speaks for itself