Since today is the twentieth anniversary of the premier of Stargate SG-1, let’s celebrate with a post about that show’s connection to Norse mythology. And the biggest badass in the history of that show (Morena Baccarin notwithstanding), Supreme Commander Thor of the Asgard.
Just to catch you up: in 1994 there was a movie, Stargate, starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, that set the stage for the three Stargate television series: SG-1, Atlantis, and Stargate Universe. The movie, and the series, was based on the idea that the Egyptian gods were in fact humanoid aliens with exceptional, superhuman abilities, and that the pyramids were in fact landing platforms for massive ships built by the alien “gods.” The television series expanded on the idea with a network of “stargates,” interstellar wormholes that allowed near-instantaneous travel from one star system to another, and which these ancient gods had previously used to travel to Earth. The United States Air Force set up a “Stargate Command” and various Stargate exploration teams, designated “SG-1”, “SG-2”, and so on, to explore the various worlds throughout the galaxy that were connected to the Stargate discovered on Earth. They discovered that the Egyptian gods were still very much alive, and found many other societies, friendly and unfriendly, on their travels.
Here’s the part where I remind you of Euhemerus, and the practice of Euhemerism, because Stargate and its affiliated media are a fun fictional version of Euhemerus realized onscreen. Rather than mythological accounts being literary stories with metaphorical and occasionally allegorical meaning deftly put into them over dozens, even hundreds of generations, Euhemerus said that instead, the gods were just mundane people, and the events discussed in myths were actual historical events that have been exaggerated to make a good story.
I bring up Euhemerism every time I talk about Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson – you see, this 13th-Century Christian scholar of poetry wanted to talk about the forms of skaldic poetry, which all talked about the old gods. But he couldn’t treat the Old Gods as real, since he was a Christian. So he wrote extensively in his Prose Edda of how the gods were real people, who had merely moved into Northern Europe from Asia (the Norse gods were called the Aesir).
The original idea behind Stargate, which Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been quite open about, comes from the ancient astronaut premise, that is, that our gods were really aliens. You’ve probably seen that one TV show about this subject, occasionally starring that one guy with the crazy hair. I’m not linking to it here because it’s not worth taking seriously; our ancestors were brilliant, and saw a great depth and complexity to the natural world, and saw the gods in the Earth itself. They didn’t need aliens, or even amazingly talented men, to get archetypes for gods. I’m happy to honor the creative imaginations of modern-day fiction writers and television producers, but not to denigrate the religious beliefs of our ancestors in the process.
So… what about Thor?
In the Stargate fictional universe, several races of aliens controlled the Milky Way in the ancient past, and a species called the Asgard were one of these races. Beginning as early as episode 10 of the very first season, the SG-1 team is introduced to the fact that remnants of Norse culture have been spread around various enclaves of humans living around the galaxy, but the Norse “gods” themselves seem to be absent. Because the SG-1 team is in direct conflict with the now-dominant race of beings who were worshiped as gods by the ancient Egyptians, they use a device on one of these worlds to summon a warship of Asgardian origin… called “Thor’s Chariot” by the local humans who worship Thor. The ship arrives, and aids them in their battle against their antagonists. But they do not meet Thor in person that day.
In time, by the end of that first season, the Stargate team does make direct contact with the Asgard race. They learn more of the history of the galaxy, and that the Asgard (this word is used as both a singular and plural noun) had departed the Milky Way for reasons of their own, but still monitor the situation to the extent their own affairs permit. Their main contact with humanity is Supreme Commander Thor, leader of their military. Over the course of the series, Thor helps the Stargate team, and therefore humanity itself, transition from being an Earth-based, insular-minded group, to carving out a place among the species of the galaxy. This includes negotiating with other species, competing directly with the exceptionally powerful Goa’uld race who subjugated ancient Egypt, building alliances, investigating ancient technologies, and even eventually aiding the Asgard themselves they need creative solutions and allies for problems of their own.
And while Thor and the Asgard respect that Earth is just learning to deal with being a species that lives with interstellar travel (throughout the series, in fact, the Stargate program remains a military secret, so “dealing” is relative), they also accept that Earth has irrevocably entered a situation with new threats, and eventually work with the US Air Force to give Earth access to Asgardian starship and weapons technology.
Thor, like all the Asgard in the show, is not a massive, muscular prototypical warrior. He is a diminutive, oddly shaped alien in the style of the Roswell gray aliens. But he is a strategist, authoritative, and cares deeply about protecting humans in general, and the SG-1 team in particular, from the various threats they face in the show. If you’re going to do an alien astronaut Euhemerization of Thor, this is the way to do it: an awesome warrior protector of an ancient race who guides humanity to its next level of development. And he has really cool weapons, too. That’s important, right?