I’ve been doing a lot of TV shows lately, and I’m afraid I’m going to give you one more. But in my next post, I’ll give you a nice, if somewhat obscure film about 12th century Italy. Today’s show is the dramedy The Almighty Johnsons, which has one of the oddest premises of any TV show I can think of. The Norse gods have been reborn. In New Zealand, of all places.
The Johnson Brothers
The show focuses on the lives of the four titular Johnson brothers, each of whom is the reincarnation of a Norse god. It seems that after fading from power in medieval Scandinavia, the Norse gods sort of became humans, constantly being reborn. The show opens on the 21st birthday of Axl (Emmett Skilton), the youngest Johnson brother. His brothers take him out into the forest and perform a strange ritual and tell him that he’s actually the reincarnation of Odin the Allfather, the king of the Norse gods. His brothers are, in birth order Mike (Tim Balme), who is Ullr, god of the hunt; Anders (Dean O’Gorman), the reincarnation of Bragi, the god of poetry; and Ty (Jared Turner), who has the misfortune to be Hödr, god of cold and darkness. The man Axl thought was their drug-addled cousin Olaf (Ben Barrington) turns out to actually be their biological grandfather and the god Baldr, who is the god of rebirth and therefore doesn’t really age much. He’s also an oracle, but he’s not very good at predicting things.
At the moment, the gods aren’t very powerful. Most of them have one or two small powers, but are otherwise normal mortals. Ullr, as god of the hunt, can find anyone he’s looking for; he’s also the god of games, because he can’t lose any game of skill or chance he plays. Bragi is supernaturally persuasive and can convince anyone to do or think anything; as a result he’s a charming but shallow asshole, especially to his secretary, the perpetually put-upon Dawn (Fern Sutherland). Ty can’t stop radiating cold, and struggles to taste anything or feel any emotion other than gloom (so he became a refrigerator repairman).
Baldr tells Odin a prophecy. If Odin can find the goddess Frigg, his divine wife, and win her, then all the gods will become full gods again and thus much more powerful. But there’s a catch; if he dies before finding Frigg, then some sort of disaster will kill his whole family and lots of innocent mortals as well. No pressure there.
It also turns out that gods and goddesses don’t really mix well. They tend to bring out each other’s passions but also their worst divine personality traits. As a result, there’s a sort of divine Cold War going on with a group of goddesses who are also looking for Frigg for their own reasons.And when mortals learn too much about ‘god business’ it usually ends up harming the mortals, so the gods can’t really tell anyone who they are.
Over the course of three seasons, our heroes run into a variety of other Norse gods (as well as a couple gods from a totally different pantheon), and the show finds an interesting mix of humor and pathos from its interpretation of the gods and goddesses. Bragi loves being a god and mostly uses his abilities to seduce women and win clients for his PR firm. Ty hates being a god, because the cold he radiates makes it nearly impossible for him to be intimate with women; when he finally manages to start dating, his girlfriend almost dies of hypothermia while sleeping beside him. Ullr wants to live without using his gifts because when he uses them he tends to become arrogant, since he literally can’t lose. And Axl is mostly baffled, struggling to discover what powers he actually has. He’s got a crush on his roommate Gaia (Keisha Castle-Hughes, whom you might remember from Whale Rider), but since she’s not a goddess, he can’t end up with her. Or can he?
Let’s Take a Look at Norse Myth
As should be obvious, the show draws heavily from Norse mythology, and that’s where things get complicated from a more scholarly standpoint. But before we can do any analysis, we need to talk about what we actually know about the subject.
Most of our knowledge of Norse myth derives from one of three sources. We have a body of Old Norse poetry, lumped into two broad categories, eddic and skaldic, but for the purposes of this post I won’t really get into the differences. Most of it comes from a single manuscript, the Codex Regius, somewhat misleadingly known as the Poetic or Elder Edda, but a good deal also survives as individual verses embedded in various Norse sagas and other texts. This poetry has a very complex structure that seems likely to have resisted the sorts of changes common to oral transmission (for example, the poems have a very complex set of metrical rules and rely heavily on alliteration; it would be hard to accidentally change a single word by misremembering it, because few other words would have the same metric pattern and first letter), so scholars generally argue that these poems are genuine survivals from the Viking era (roughly the 9th-11th centuries).
But Norse poetry is less narrative and much more allusive than, say, the Iliad is. While some poems tell stories, they rely heavily on allusions to other myths that go unexplained. This makes understanding the various mythological references somewhat challenging if we don’t know the myth being referred to. Imagine for example, a line like “when Luke met the princess in the star of death”. A contemporary person will probably get that the line refers to the first Star Wars movie, in which Luke Skywalker rescues Princess Leia from the Death Star. But in a couple hundred years, after people have forgotten the Star Wars series, that line will be much harder to make sense of; who is Luke, who is the princess, and what is the star of death?
To make matters worse, Norse poetry loves to employ kennings, a poetic device in which two nouns are linked in a genative relationship and used as a poetic synonym for a third object. The most common kenning employed in modern English is “the ship of the desert”, which is a poetic reference to a camel. There’s a lot of cleverness to that kenning; a desert is exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find a ship, and yet the dunes are suggestive of waves, and the camel and the ship both rock as they travel and get you from one place to another. But that’s an easy kenning; Norse mythology uses far more complex ones, including a kenning that replaces one of the nouns in another kenning. For example, “the gull of war” would be a raven, which flies over a battle like a seagull over the water, and the “feeder of the war-gull” would be a warrior, who kills people and leaves them as food for the raven. Nearly any god’s name can be used to substitute for a generic man and nearly any goddess for a generic woman, so a man could be called the “Hödr of battles” and a woman could be the “Freya of linen”, instead of being a direct reference to a specific god. So maybe that “star of death” isn’t the Death Star but a kenning for a gun or something.
Fortunately, to help us make sense of all this we have the Prose Edda, written by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241). One of his most important works, the Prose Edda is a collection of Norse myths, but it also contains a long section in which he explains how Norse poetry is written and what many of the obscure references refer to; for example, he offers a long list of names that refer to dwarves, so anytime one of those names comes up, you know the poem is talking about a dwarf. The Prose Edda is our single-most important source for Norse mythology. Most of the famous Norse myths you might have heard about come from this one book.
But how, you might ask, did a 13th century Icelander, living in a society that had been Christian for almost 250 years, know so much about the myths of a religion that his people had left behind so long ago and condemned as inferior and immoral? Good question, and unfortunately we don’t have a really solid answer for that. Perhaps Norse religion held on in Iceland well after the formal conversion of the island in 1000; it probably did to some extent, but certainly not for more than two centuries. Perhaps Snorri had a written text to work from; that’s highly unlikely, since writing was a Christian technology and Christian monks would have been unlikely to faithfully record pagan stories (although someone wrote down the poems of the Elder Edda, so it’s not utterly inconceivable). Perhaps the stories continued to circulate as folk-tales; again, that’s probable, but how much change did they undergo? Is Snorri giving us myths that Norse pagans would have known, or bastardized versions that Christians considered safe to retell? Or perhaps Snorri is just making shit up. That’s more plausible than it seems; the first section of the Prose Edda tells us that the three most powerful Norse gods were actually the descendant of Trojan princes who just fooled people into thinking they were gods. That’s clearly not a native Norse idea, and is probably Snorri trying to show off how much he knows about Classical literature. There are certainly places in his text where Snorri seems to just be guessing about things.
All of this makes it incredibly hard to figure out what many of these myths actually mean. Take for example the story of how the giants stole Thor’s hammer and demanded the goddess Freya as the price of returning it. Since Freya refuses to marry a giant, Loki persuades Thor to dress up in drag as Freya (with Loki acting as her handmaiden) and go to the wedding. There’s a lot of comic banter about how ‘Freya’ has blood-red eyes (“she’s been crying for love of you!” and how much food she can put away (“she hasn’t eaten because she’s been pining for you!”). Then, when the hammer is put in Thor’s lap, he rips off the dress and slaughters all the giants.
What are we to make of this story that turns Thor into a comic drag queen as well as a bloodthirsty killer? Did Norse pagans simply consider Thor a god you can make fun of? One common reading sees Thor’s battles with giants as a metaphor for good weather driving back winter, so Thor is sometimes viewed as a farmer’s god; so is this a story of the Norse elites laughing about the god of the little guys, or an example of the coarse sense of humor of the peasantry? A more Freudian take on the tale reads Thor’s hammer as his penis; when he loses it he must literally and metaphorically become a woman until he gets it back. Or, is this a myth either an invention or a revision made by Christians to ridicule the old gods and loosen people’s devotion to them? Did Snorri know some fragment of an old story about Thor losing his hammer and then just make up the details to have another tale to tell in his book? There’s no easy way to know. (And by the way, this story demonstrates that Marvel Comics’ decision to have a female Thor has primary source precedent, although she shouldn’t have the hammer.)
A third source of knowledge is various objects recovered by archaeology. Rune stones, metal work, stone and wood carvings, and fragments of cloth all offer images that seem to connect to mythology. Take for example a small piece of gold foil depicting a man and woman with a branch between them. This might be a reference to a myth in which the god Frey sends his servant to the goddess Gerd and offers her a branch with golden apples on it if she will marry him. Or it might be a reference to a now-lost myth involving some of god or hero. Or it could just be an interesting piece of decoration whose meaning cannot be recovered.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Almighty Johnsons uses Norse myth.
Gods and Their Attributes
All of the characters identified as gods and goddess are loosely based on genuine figures from Norse myth, but some of them are more loosely based than others. Axl is only sporadically Odin-like, but one of the central themes of the series is his quest to learn how to be Odin, and there are numerous myths of Odin searching for wisdom and doing various extreme things to get it. As befits a god called the Wanderer, Axl departs on a literal journey of self-discovery in the third season. Odin is a god of disguises, and in one of the funniest episodes Axl wakes up to discover he’s changed sex; to my knowledge, Odin never changes sex, but as we saw, Thor does, and Loki does several times, so the basic motif is Norse. Odin is also a riddler, and this is used beautifully in a third season episode when Axl wakes up with a girl who insists on playing the Game of Questions, the first question being what her name is; later on, Axl plays a similar game with her.
The other brothers, unfortunately, are more obscure gods, about whom comparatively little information still survives. Ullr is plausibly a god of hunting; he’s associated with skiing and archery in surviving poems, and he seems to have been quite an important god, judging from how many place names include his name. But Snorri apparently knows no myths about him, so his actual function is now lost. No myths connect him to gaming. Likewise, Bragi is consistently connected to poetry; the Norse bragr means ‘poetry’ and might therefore denote “what Bragi does”. But while he’s mentioned in a number of Snorri’s myths, it’s mostly in passing.
Hödr is a minor god who plays a major role in only one story, in which he is tricked by Loki into killing his brother Baldr. Snorri says he is blind, but another source he seems to be a great warrior, which suggests that Snorri’s story was only one version of the myths around Hödr. However, no source connects him to cold or darkness, other than Snorri’s claim that he is blind, so the series has just invented the idea that Hödr is “the god of cold and darkness”. I’m not sure why you’d want a god for such a thing. And the series doesn’t seem interested in the main story about Hödr.
The series has a quartet of goddesses as recurring characters. Freya is presented as the goddess of prosperity and thus a wealthy businesswoman. The real Freya is generally understood to be a fertility goddess more than wealth specifically, but she does own a fabulous necklace and cries tears of gold, so it’s not too much of a stretch.
But the other three goddesses, Sjofn, Snotra, and Fulla are much more obscure figures, usually classified as disir, goddesses who attend more important goddesses. All three are associated with Frigg and may in fact simply be alternative names for her (since the Norse gave many of their major deities multiple names) or aspects of her. But Sjofn does seem to be connected to love, and in the series she has the power to make people briefly fall madly in love (Bragi likes to call her the goddess of going both ways), and Snotra is connected to wisdom, so calling her the Goddess of Prudence is not a huge stretch. Fulla is described carrying Frigg’s box of treasures (basically her jewelry box) and acting as a general servant, so the series gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Stacy/Fulla feels a compulsion to do housework, despite hating it.
Shane Cortese’s Loki is a major antagonist in the series, a figure who ridicules or tricks the protagonists almost every time he appears. That draws off of Lokasenna, a poem in which Loki systematically insults all the Norse gods and goddesses. The series uses a 19th century theory that Loki was the personification of fire to make him the god of fire. Modern scholars are much less clear about Loki. The mythology never calls him a god; rather he’s a son of the giants, but he joins the circle of Norse gods when he becomes Odin’s blood-brother. In various myths he is by turns helpful, harmful, amusing, and malicious. For example he orchestrates Baldr’s death apparently out of amusement and then spitefully sabotages Frigg’s efforts to resurrect her son. There’s no scholarly consensus, although he does seem to fit into the broad archetype of the Trickster.
Perhaps the most interesting supporting character is Thor (Derrick Hansen), a vulgar, violent, loutish drunken goat-farmer who loves his carpenter’s hammer. When he first appears, there’s a hysterical hammer-throwing contest. This treatment of him is very much in keeping with the myths, which frequently show him being tricked or embarrassed in various ways, but never actually defeated. It’s this comic element of Thor that has led scholars to theorize that he’s more a god for peasant farmers than a war god (as popular imagination has it); weather is directly connected to agricultural fertility, after all. In what is probably the singlemost clever episode of the whole series, Thor loses his hammer when he throws it at a neighboring gay couple he is feuding with over farm land; the couple agrees to return the hammer only if Thor and Odin will show up to their bachelor party in drag. The show milks a good deal of humor from an inherently comic myth, but it also finds real dramatic power in Thor’s struggle with his sense of emasculation and failure as a person, and the recovery of his hammer serves as a moment of genuine emotional healing.
The show also slightly distorts the concept of Ragnarøk. In the show, it’s described as the end of the world for everyone, unless Odin can avert it. In Snorri’s Edda, however, it’s only the death of the gods (or at least most of them), not the end of the world. The gods of Valhalla die defeating their monstrous enemies, and the world of humanity continues. The idea that a religious system would have a myth about the inevitable destruction of its own gods is rather odd, so a lot of people have suggested that Ragnarøk is a Christian invention to help pave the way for the conversion of the population. That would make a lot of sense, but Völuspå, one of the clearest descriptions of Ragnarøk, comes from the Poetic Edda, which as I mentioned earlier, is usually thought to represent an authentically pre-Christian poetic tradition.
The show is at its best when it’s using gods and goddesses as a metaphor for the problems of interpersonal relationships. Odin’s search for Frigg, with its various false starts, is a nice metaphor for the struggle to find ‘The One’ you could spend your life with. Bragi is fated to have a passionate affair with Idun, the goddess of immortality, even if it destroys his other relationships. Hödr gets into a terrible destructive relationship with the goth-goddess Hel (queen of the Underworld). Sjofn is the goddess of love, and finds herself uncomfortable with being single; she uses sex to ‘build alliances’ to get what she wants and manipulate people, but real emotional intimacy comes much harder to her. Fulla, despite her self-sufficient appearance, must have someone to take care of. And Njord, the god of the sea, is a stand-in for every man who runs away from his relationships and responsibilities, in this case by literally hoping on a boat when he’s starting to feel too tied down. So the gods and goddesses of the show dramatize the various ways that humans misuse and screw up their relationships.
Because the show is focused on the four brothers, it does have a tendency to drift into a somewhat ‘laddish’ mentality, as the Brits and Kiwis say. While Odin’s pursuit of Frigg is the center of the show, the marriages and relationships in the show occasionally veer toward the ‘women are crazy bitches’ cliché, and the show has a lot of jokes about penis size and women as sex objects. It’s hard for me to decide if the show is trying to make a point about male sensibilities or just indulging them. But the characters are refreshingly frank about their sexual pleasures in a way that seems appropriate for pagan gods, and the show frequently finds ways to demonstrate its disapproval of Bragi’s exploitative relationship with women.
What starts out initially as just a goofy comic premise (the Norse gods are running around New Zealand and wacky hijinks ensue!) quickly develops into a surprisingly rich and well-acted story in which the gods become everyman, for good and for ill. The show drags a bit early in the second season; Hödr’s relationship with Hel gets incredibly angsty, and Bragi, whose sheer dickishness is one of the comic engines of the series, is mostly absent because Dean O’Gorman was off filming the Hobbit trilogy (he plays the dwarf Fili). But apart from that low point, the show generally has a great balance of humor and genuine emotional complexity and finds some surprising ways to reinterpret Norse mythology.
The show has had a rough history. It got cancelled after its second season, but was given a reprise when fans protested. After its third season, it got cancelled again. Syfy picked it up for re-runs, and that’s sparked rumors that it might get a fourth season. The third season ends with a beautiful sense of closure, so I’m not sure it really needs another season. There are a couple of petitions you could sign if you want to support the effort to get the show re-revived. There’s also a series of short Youtube videos about the characters. Hopefully The Almighty Johnsons hasn’t had its Ragnarøk yet.
Want to Know More?
You can get the Almighty Johnsons: Seasons 1-3 [Blu-ray]boxed set on Amazon. If you like the opening music, it’s the song “Oh My,” by New Zealand singer Gin Wigmore, off her album Holy Smoke. Check it out; it’s pretty good.
If you’re interested in Norse mythology, the primary sources are mostly available in print. The Poetic Eddaand The Prose Edda (Penguin Classics)are both worth reading. Both can be confusing, but also fascinating. If you want something more scholarly, the classic intro is H. R. Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europebut it’s getting a little old now. John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs takes a dictionary approach.
For a slightly different treatment, Heather O’Donoghue’s From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Mythsis not so much an explanation of Norse myth, but a history of it and its relationship to modern culture. For example, it explores Marvel Comic’s Thor title.
Oh, and if you are looking for something for kids, I cannot recommend highly enough D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. I had it growing up and I loved it; I read it at least a hundred times. It’s truly an excellent introduction to Norse myths for children, and honestly not a bad one even for adults. The illustrations are marvelous.