From Mythology to the MCU: Egyptian and Norse
The success of the Disney limited series Moon Knight has thrown Egyptian mythology into the spotlight. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is no stranger to portraying gods: we previously saw characters from Norse mythology in the Thor movies. Thor and Loki crossed over into the Avengers movies, and Loki got his own series.
The ancient Nordic people and ancient Egyptians told their myths to explain aspects of the natural world and impart wisdom. These stories became famous parts of history, and they have been used as inspiration for many stories. Of course, each time the stories are retold, details may change to fit what the storytellers wish to say. By analyzing what details changed for the Marvel films, we may find special insights into the stories of these movies and shows.
Before we begin, a quick disclaimer: this will be different from comparing the Captain America movie to the real-life historical events of World War II. The canon of some ancient myths can be hard to pin down, which is why it is often easy to make changes for retellings and adaptations. In addition, these myths have already been retold in Marvel Comics, which occasionally has its own canon inconsistencies, before being retold again for the films and TV shows. Sources may vary, and that is okay.
In Marvel’s Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac plays Marc Spector, the avatar of Khonshu, Egyptian god of the night sky. Khonshu sends Spector to violently punish people who have done evil acts, and he does not give Spector much choice in the matter. He threatens to take Spector’s wife as his avatar if Spector disobeys or fails him. His motivation is justice, although he is willing to take extreme measures to carry it out.
The differences between this Khonshu and the god of ancient Egyptian mythology begin with his name: it was traditionally spelled Khonsu. As a moon god, Khonsu was believed to affect the fertility of humans and livestock and provide healing. He was only portrayed as violent in early mythological accounts, such as “the more terrifying Pyramid Texts”. 1
The most likely reason Khonshu was made more aggressive for the show is to explain why he grants his avatar powers like super strength rather than magical healing – Moon Knight seems to magically heal his own wounds but not the injuries of others. Perhaps Marvel’s writers think healing other people would be a less interesting superpower. The ability to heal his allies may have been more appropriate if he spent more time on superhero teams, but Moon Knight is predominantly a solo act.
In Moon Knight, Khonshu is an outcast among the Egyptian gods. He hesitates to call on them for help, and when he does, the gods do not take his concerns seriously. This lack of respect is quite different from how Khonsu was treated in Egyptian mythology. The god of the moon and time was instrumental in the Egyptian creation myths; he was “the serpent who fertilized the Cosmic Egg from which creation burst forth”. 2
Again, Moon Knight is usually a solo vigilante, often compared to Batman from DC Comics. For the show, making Khonshu a pariah in his own society helps support the individualism of the hero connected to him. It helps explain why Moon Knight is a mostly unknown player in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe who does not interact with other superheroes, like Thor.
In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were believed to be the avatars of gods, primarily Ra and Horus. Mythology does not depict other gods, such as Khonsu, taking humans as avatars, but the Marvel show suggests that all the major Egyptian gods do this. This differentiates Egyptian myth-inspired superheroes from other god-powered superheroes like Thor and Hercules; Khonshu is more like an otherworldly spirit empowering a human body than a space alien crash landing on Earth.
The other Egyptian god who prominently appears in Moon Knight is Ammit, a goddess of divine retribution. In the show, Ammit seems to be motivated by justice, like Khonshu, but she claims to foresee the bad things people have yet to do, and she judges them with preemptive execution. The other Egyptian gods considered this unfair and imprisoned Ammit, but a cult of Ammit worshippers conspire to release her, at which point she becomes a giant half-crocodile monster and begins raining down indiscriminate divine wrath.
All this makes for a compelling supervillain plot, but it is only loosely based on the original myths of Ammit. In ancient Egypt, “Ammit was never worshipped, and was not strictly a goddess… although she was referred to as a demon, she was in reality a force for order” called upon to judge humans who failed the test administered by the real death gods (Ancient Egypt Online). If a human’s heart was determined to be heavier than a special feather, Ammit would devour it. According to these myths, Ammit would never try to punish a person before they had died, let alone before they had even committed a sin worthy of judgment.
With this in mind, Ammit may seem like an odd choice for a supervillain, but she represents humanity’s significant fear of judgment for our transgressions. She also represents the human wish that people had been stopped before committing terrible acts. Audiences can understand why this new Ammit would have followers who want to help her gain power, partially out of fear.
Egyptian mythology has some gods of chaos and destruction that would be more logical choices for supervillains, but Ammit is a more appropriate villain for Moon Knight, specifically. Marc Spector’s internal struggle involves a traumatic childhood and a lot of guilt. Personal, psychologically manipulative villains like Ammit and her lead follower, Arthur Harrow, make better antagonists for him than a chaos god.
Taweret, patron goddess of mothers and children, also makes an appearance in Moon Knight. In mythology, she was notable for looking like an aggressive hippo but acting like a kind midwife to help mothers with childbirth. “She was associated with the lion, the crocodile, and the hippo, all animals that were feared by the Egyptians but also highly respected”. 3 In the show, this translates to a cute, high-pitched voice and an awkward personality coming from a frightening hippo person. However, this is where the similarities end.
In the show, Taweret plays the role of guide into the Duat, the Egyptian underworld. This is very unexpected, considering she is traditionally associated with birth, not death, and Anubis is supposed to be the guide to the underworld. Taweret also steals Anubis’ heart-weighing ritual and pilots a boat that’s usually reserved for the sun god and Egyptian royalty.
Presumably, Taweret is used in the show for shock value and comic relief. If Anubis had been there, playing his traditional role, his god of death aesthetic may have brought down the vibe of an already thematically dark show. Khonshu and Ammit offer enough serious tone; it is somewhat uplifting to see a kinder and more positive Egyptian goddess.
In summary, the gods in Moon Knight are very different from the Egyptian gods they are based on. One potential reason is – although Egyptian mythology is full of exciting imagery like mummy wrappings and monstrous animal-human hybrids – the original storylines might not make for very interesting superhero stories. Changes are added to adaptations to hold audience interest.
Dwarves and Elves
Norse mythology, on the other hand, is ripe with stories perfect for superhero stories. Thor and his fellow Asgardians were believed to be warriors frequently fighting giants and other monsters. Loki was, indeed, a god of mischief and a frequent antagonist in the Norse myths. Yet there are some details the Marvel movies changed a bit.
From the perspective of Thor and the Asgardians, Earth, aka Midgard, is one of nine realms connected by ethereal bridges like the branches of a tree. Thor’s father, Odin, rules these realms from their home, Asgard. Enemies of Asgard include the frost giants of Jotunheim and the fire giants of Muspelheim. All this is translated fairly consistently from Norse mythology to the Marvel movies.
The changes begin with a realm the movies call Svartalfheim. This is a realm of darkness inhabited by dark elves. In Thor: The Dark World, the dark elves’ ruler, Malekith, desires to cover the other realms in darkness and rule them all. This is all to be expected from a superhero story; the problem is it has almost no basis in Norse mythology at all.
In the Norse myths, dark elf and black elf were alternative names for dwarves. Svartalfheim, the dwarves’ home realm, was more often called Nidavellir. These dwarves acted much like one would expect of fantasy dwarves: they mined in underground caves and crafted things in forges. 4 They were definitely not as antagonistic as the dark elves in Thor: The Dark World.
To further complicate this issue, Avengers: Infinity War introduces dwarves and Nidavellir as completely separate from the dark elves of Svartalfheim. The movie’s Nidavellir seems more like a science fiction setting than its mythological counterpart, but it is still much closer to the myths than the realm of darkness fabricated for The Dark World.
The movies also combined Niflheim, the realm of mist and primordial ice, with Helheim, the underworld and home of Hel, goddess of death. The most likely reason for all this rearranging is that details about the nine realms in the original Norse myths were often unclear. There was some room for embellishment, and Marvel took the opportunity to create a new antagonist for Thor.
The God of Mischief
Thor’s main antagonist throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe is his brother, Loki, the god of mischief. Loki was originally a frost giant; Odin took him from Jotunheim as an infant and raised him to believe he was the younger son and, potentially, an heir to the throne. Loki’s discovery of the truth was the impetus for his shift to villainy. After multiple attempts to conquer through trickery or force, Loki eventually begins to redeem himself and becomes an ally to Thor.
The original Norse myths about Loki have numerous differences. First of all, he joined Asgard as an adult, not a baby. He was closer to Odin’s brother than his adopted son, and his rivalry was primarily with Heimdall, the gatekeeper of Asgard who was always bitter about the frost giant who was allowed to walk right past him.
By making him Thor’s brother, Marvel gave Loki a backstory of constantly feeling overshadowed by Thor. This sets him up to be the natural antagonist to Thor and makes his redemption arc believable and understandable. Thor is continually trying to convince Loki to stop being a villain and be his brother and ally again, and it seems to work in Ragnarök.
In the myths, Loki had no redemption arc. He was sometimes on the Asgardians’ side, but only ever in his own mischievous way, continually defying the expectations of a god of Asgard. While most Norse gods solved problems with bravery and strength, Loki used deception or playfulness, earning him a reputation as “a scheming coward who cares only for shallow pleasures and self-preservation”. 5
In addition, Loki’s crimes against Asgard far outweighed any help he provided. He was almost entirely responsible for the death of Balder, the god of light, the most well-loved of all the Asgardians. He was prophesied to fight against the gods in the climactic, apocalyptic battle of Ragnarök – Loki’s actions in the Ragnarök movie decidedly do not match the mythology.
Loki gets a redemption arc in the Marvel movies because writers decided it made sense for his character. By changing his backstory to make him closer to Thor, they made him more sympathetic. Combining this with Tom Hiddleston’s iconic performance, audiences are always happy to see Loki return, even if he appeared to die in his previous appearance. With even more appearances than some of the Avengers, Loki was bound to grow as a person, from sympathetic villain to anti-hero.
The Goddess of Death
Loki’s other role in Norse mythology was producing strange offspring. Two of his children were Fenrir the wolf and Hel the goddess of death. Both of these characters appear in Thor: Ragnarök, but there is no connection to Loki. In fact, Hela (another case of Marvel changing a name’s spelling) is Odin’s daughter in the movie. As with Loki, this change helps Hela fit the role of an antagonist for Thor to fight.
In addition to her parentage, Hela has many other differences from her mythological counterpart. In the backstory of Thor: Ragnarök, Hela was Odin’s executioner and a wielder of Mjolnir, the hammer that later became Thor’s signature weapon. She grew too ambitious and tried to rebel against her father, so Odin banished her and maintained the lie that she had never existed until the day he died.
Hela draws strength from Asgard itself, making her far too powerful for even Thor to fight. She can summon a seemingly endless number of blades and throw them with deadly accuracy, slaughtering multiple armies singlehandedly. She can also animate an army of undead soldiers for the battles she doesn’t want to fight herself.
The Hel of Norse mythology had almost none of these characteristics. The myths didn’t say much about her, but they did describe her as “rather greedy, harsh, and cruel, or at least indifferent to the concerns for both the living and the dead” – certainly the personality of a villain. 6 But the original Hel guarded the underworld; she never showed interest in expanding her domain or conquering any of the other realms. And although she was no doubt a warrior, like most Norse gods and goddesses, she wasn’t said to have aggressive powers like throwing blades or commanding undead soldiers.
For the movie, Hela gained an overabundance of ambition and power to make her even more threatening than Loki. Thus, she replaced Loki as Thor’s more villainous sibling. These changes were necessary for the story – Thor needed to face an unbeatable threat for his own character development in the story.
The Twilight of the Gods
By naming the third Thor movie Ragnarök, Marvel drew an explicit comparison to one of the most significant stories in Norse mythology. The Norse myths came complete with prophesies of how the world would end, including detailed descriptions of how the gods would die in battle. The Marvel movie takes significant liberties with this myth.
The movie introduces Fenris the wolf, who was fated to appear in Ragnarök, but the myth said Fenrir (spelled differently) would kill Odin. In the movie, Odin apparently dies of natural causes, which would have been considered unthinkable by the Vikings who worshipped him as a warrior god.
Odin is only one of the gods who died in the myth of Ragnarök. Heimdall and Loki were prophesied to die by shapeshifting into leopard seals and tearing each other apart. Thor was destined to kill the Midgard Serpent, only to die from the Serpent’s venom. 7
Although many Asgardian characters die in the Ragnarök movie, Heimdall, Loki, and Thor all defy their mythological destinies and survive. Fate catches up with Heimdall and Loki when they die in the opening scene of their next movie, but Thor is still alive three movies later.
The reason Thor survives in the movie is pretty easy to understand: he’s the hero. Heroes have died in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not in their solo movies. That’s not how these superhero movies work. In a way, Thor’s fate in the movies is worse than his fate in the myths: he survives but loses his entire family and most of his friends. This survivors’ trauma shapes his actions in all his following movie appearances.
Marvel’s changes to Norse mythology are more understandable than the changes to Egyptian mythology. Fans of the original myths can more easily accept Marvel’s versions of the stories of Thor, Loki, and Ragnarök. This is because the Norse legends easily lend themselves to superhero stories. The Vikings believed in brave warriors fighting monsters as their role models, while the Egyptians told stories about messy family politics to reflect the politics of their pharaohs’ dynasties.
On the other hand, the success of Moon Knight may inspire viewers to research Ancient Egypt themselves. Egyptian mythology is notable for being intertwined with Egyptian history, and stories inspired by Egyptian myths often involve archaeological mysteries – Moon Knight is no exception. The exciting imagery may be all that’s required to draw audience interest; details of the gods’ personalities are less important.
A common motif in Marvel’s movies and TV shows is humans achieving feats of heroism and power previously reserved for gods of legend. Mere mortals can fight alongside Thor or fight against the divine retribution of Ammit. They become the heroes of modern myths, and they fulfill one of the same purposes as ancient myths: inspiring everyone else to try to be heroes, too.
- Gods and goddesses. Ancient Egypt Online. (n.d.). Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/thegods/ ↩
- Joe, J. (2022, April 7). Khonsu: The god of The night light and defender of night travelers. Timeless Myths. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.timelessmyths.com/mythology/khonsu/ ↩
- Ancient Egypt Online. ↩
- Norse Mythology for Smart People. (2019, February 8). Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://norse-mythology.org/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
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