NGC 2359, also known as the Thor's Helmet Nebula, image by J.A. Toala & M.A. Guerrero (IAA-CSIC), Y.-H. Chu (UIUC/ASIAA), R.A. Gruendl (UIUC), S. Mazlin, J. Harvey, D. Verschatse & R. Gilbert (SSRO-South) and the European Space Agency

Thor’s Helmet Nebula, #ThrowbackThorsday for 4/23/15

This image of Thor’s Helmet was released this week by the European Space Agency. The bright blue bowl of the nebula shows X-ray emission from Wolf-Rayet star HD 56925, which is expelling mass equivalent to our sun every 100,000 years. This star and other nebula inhabitants contribute to the pale red and green regions to either side of the dome of the helmet; these curving wings represent a shock wave of ionized hydrogen and oxygen that are actually relatively cool areas compared to the much hotter center, the temperature of which is thought to reach from several million to tens of millions of degrees.

All of this violence is taking place a relatively close 15,000 light years from Midgard, or, uh, Earth. That means the light in this image has been traveling since the Mesolithic era (middle Stone Age), around the time of the last glacial period. Thor has been watching over us a long, long time.

Thor’s Helmet is a beautiful reminder of the deadly terror and infinite majesty to be found all throughout this vast, fascinating universe.

But Thor’s Helmet is misnamed.

The mythological source material makes no mention of Thor wearing a helmet of any kind, at least not one that I can find by searching digital translations of the Eddas and more popular Sagas (this is the part where I remind you that I’m not a scholar of mythology, etc.).

Eyrarland Thor Idol currently housed at the National Museum of Iceland
Eyrarland Thor Idol currently housed at the National Museum of Iceland. The conical headgear could be a cap or a helmet; it does not have wings.

That’s not necessarily a problem. Thor was well-known for his many battles and it’s safe to assume that a helmet was part of the way his followers pictured him going into single combat against Hrungnir the giant or facing Jormungandr the World Serpent at Ragnarõk. The Thor idol found at the Eyrarland farm in Iceland has a pointed cap that could be interpreted as a helmet.

Depicting Thor as having a helmet with wings is much more problematic.

The culture we most associate with Thor and the Norse pantheon, the Vikings, didn’t wear horns or wings on their helmets. There is evidence that some northern European priests wore horned headgear prior to the Viking Age (ca. CE 793-1066), but evidence suggests these were for ceremonial purposes, not for battle. There probably wasn’t a connection to Thor here.

And the wings that are seen on the Thor’s Helmet nebula and on the helmet of Marvel’s Thor are certainly apocryphal. Germanic and Scandinavian cultures have no history with winged helmets of which we are currently aware. These wings were added by Romantic (18th/19th century) artists who were aware of ancient Greek and Roman encounters with “barbarians” who had winged helmets: these were the Celts, who did not worship Thor.

Whoever named Thor’s Helmet (I can’t find a specific attribution) was undoubtedly inspired by these many great depictions of Viking warriors with winged helmets and wanted to honor the Vikings’ greatest warrior, the terrifying god of thunder. And certainly we have greatly honored Thor by associating him with celestial forces that are massively destructive while heralding rejuvenated life, just as his greatest storms do.

There’s just no reason to believe he wears a helmet that looks quite like that.

Thor #1 July 2007 Olivier Coipel
Thor #1 from July 2007 cover by Olivier Coipel. Jack Kirby’s Thor was inspired by earlier Romantic depictions of Thor and his Thor headgear may have been influenced by the Roman god Mercury.

One comment on “Thor’s Helmet Nebula, #ThrowbackThorsday for 4/23/15

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