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What Makes Thor Worthy?

One answer may be found in ancient Chinese philosophy.

Key points

  • Worthiness is an issue that affects most people at some time in their lives, and can have crippling effects on well-being.
  • Thor has struggled with worthiness his entire life because he can only lift his mighty hammer Mjolnir if it finds him worthy.
  • One aspect of this understanding of worthiness is “acting without thought,” a concept of the ancient Chinese philosophy Taoism.

I think it’s safe to say that even the most confident among us doubts our worth from time to time. It may be your worth as a person in general, or in some specific aspect of your life, such as in your relationship, in your job, or as a member of your community. It’s natural to wonder if we’re good enough or if we do enough, compared to a standard we’re given or that we set for ourselves.

In the world of Marvel Comics, no superhero has faced these questions more than the mighty Thor, son of Odin and wielder of the hammer Mjolnir, which can only be lifted by someone who is “worthy.” In this post, the first of three based on my latest book, we’ll look into what worthiness means in the world of Thor.1 (In future posts, we discuss the issues of who gets to decide what worthiness means and how one can reclaim it after it seems lost.)

What Makes Thor Worthy?

Despite his hammer’s famous inscription demanding worthiness, Thor’s early stories weren’t clear on what this meant: They spoke of “deeds of valor and nobility” and vague notions of virtues such as courage, strength, and heroism in general. It wasn’t until we are told the story of the first time young Thor lifted Mjolnir, in the “Tales of Asgard” backup stories in Journey into Mystery #100-102 (January-March 1964), that we learn the inscription’s original understanding of worthiness.

At the beginning of the story, the narration repeated the standard explanation, that “accomplishing deeds of valor” is necessary for “inheriting the enchanted battle hammer of Odin.” And that is exactly what Thor does, time and time again, as he had for years, always ending with a futile attempt to even budge the stubborn mallet.

Marvel Comics
Journey into Mystery #102 (March 1964)
Source: Marvel Comics

The stakes are raised when, near the end of the story, the Fates tell young Thor that, before he can lift Mjolnir, “You have to meet death first!” After he learns that Storm Giants abducted his beloved Sif and gave her to Hela, the Goddess of Death, Thor swears, “I shall rescue Sif from the enemy, or die trying!” Then it happens: “For the first time in his life,” reads the narration, “Thor grasps the mighty hammer and holds it high over his head! But, so intent upon his mission is he that he doesn’t realize what he is doing!”

When Thor confronts Hela and offers his life in exchange for Sif’s, Hela refuses: “I cannot take a life which is so young, so brave, so noble!” The narration in the final panel reads: “And so it was that Thor first gained possession of his magic hammer—by offering to make the supreme sacrifice—giving up his life for that of another!”

The Elements Three (of Worthiness)

In this story, we find three elements of worthiness as far as Mjolnir is concerned: selflessness, sacrifice, and “doing without thinking,” or acting without self-awareness. The first two are obvious aspects of heroism, thinking of others and putting the safety and lives of others above one’s own, but the third is more specific to Thor’s case. We see it again in a later version of the first time young Thor lifted the hammer (in Thor, vol. 5, #14, August 2019): In the midst of battle, he hears his mother Freyja scream and he absentmindedly grabs the hammer before taking off with it to save her, only realizing later what he has done.

Not only does it take a selfless act of sacrifice to make Thor worthy of lifting the hammer, but he also needs to do it without thinking—in particular, without consciously trying to be worthy enough to do it. This idea of “mindless action” is reminiscent of wei wu wei, a concept from the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. In chapter 63 of his book Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu cautioned against counterproductive effort, instead recommending that we “do nondoing, strive for nonstriving.”2

Although this sounds paradoxical to Western ears, it has many applications to modern life, as I have discussed many times in this blog (starting here). For instance, the quest for happiness is commonly described in terms that resemble wei wu wei, such as the commonplace saying that you can’t force happiness, but instead, you need to do things that make you happy—achieving happiness without thinking about it. The point is not to literally do nothing, but to avoid putting so much effort into something that it defeats the purpose, such as making yourself miserable trying to be happy. The quest for love is often discussed the same way: Rather than force it, we should make ourselves open to it by “putting ourselves out there” and letting things happen naturally.3

But Why Does This Make Thor Worthy?

What does this have to do with worthiness, though? As we said, selflessness and sacrifice are obvious heroic virtues, but what is particularly virtuous about “doing without thinking”? One possible explanation is that action performed this way is not based on conscious deliberation, but rather an instinctive reaction based on a person’s core character traits. If the resulting action is selfless, courageous, or “noble,” it serves as evidence that those traits have been successfully cultivated.

Think of the movie Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), when scrawny Private Steve Rogers instinctively jumps on the grenade during basic training, not knowing it was a dud. He didn’t think about it—it was just “in him” to do it, and that showed that he was worthy of receiving the Super-Soldier Serum and Vita-Rays that transformed into Captain America.4 The fact that Thor doesn’t have to think about risking his life to save Sif or Freyja shows that doing so is a reflection of who he has become—and that person (or god) can truly be said to be worthy.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the person who picked up the hammer after the Odinson was declared unworthy, and how both of them confronted the question of who decides if one is worthy.

References

1. Mark D. White, A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics' Thor: If They Be Worthy (Ockham Publishing 2022).

2. Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 63, in Thomas Cleary (ed. and trans.), The Taoist Classics Volume One (Boston: Shambala, 1990), p. 38.

3. For more examples of the relevance of wei wu wei today, and how it relates to both modern psychology and neuroscience, see Edward Slingerland’s book Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity (New York: Crown, 2015).

4. For more, see my book The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

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