Asgardian Fashion 101
Writing for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange, I came across a question about the Mighty Thor that has piqued my interest only in that I had never seriously considered the classic Thor costume and its design. What are those circles on his costume supposed to be? <empty stares; looks of confusion>
I left the question alone for a few days while other writers on the site tackled the problem. My writing calendar was full and I was sure some of the site’s capable admins and moderators would find some worldly wisdom that I, even with all of my superhero history, did not have an instant answer for.
You know what they came up with? Nothing. Fan rumors. Suspicions. European Defense Initiative Bio-Mechanical Suit, from Earth 1610’s Ultimate Thor.
I was compelled to intervene. Here I was a Thor aficionado and I didn’t know the answer but I knew the European Defense Initiative Bio-Mechanical Suit wasn’t it.
Here is what I discovered. <cue fanfare> Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Bupkiss.
My Official Answer
“There is little in the way of historical references in Marvel canon for the circles on Thor’s chest tunic. He has had this costume since his first appearance in Journey into Mystery #83 (1952).
If you know anything about me, you know that wasn’t going to be enough. I did a cursory scan of the Journey into Mystery series and the early Thor comics with no results. Then I knew I would have to go meta.
What follows is my research and speculation about those circles. If you know something more concrete, please share it with me through the comments below.
Can history be our guide?
With that said, we can look perhaps into history and see if we can determine what the artist Jack Kirby was hoping to show in this costume design. If we can assume this design was inspired by Thor being an ancient god of war, then perhaps it would be considered a stylized armor design. Since Thor is a superhuman being, he might have little use for armor in his day to day life, but might want to remind his enemies of his valor with a costume that resembled an armor he may have worn at one time. It was a good idea but nothing in my historical rummaging in Journey into Mystery or early issues of Thor, showed this.
Case in point: Here is a picture from Tales of Asgard, Journey into Mystery 101. In it young Thor is seen wearing his costume as we knew it from the classic Kirby era. Since he is wearing it into battle, it is safe to assume it must double as armor for the young godling. Everyone else is festooned in armor that looks like armor, though they resemble classic Earth Vikings wearing platemail instead of chainmail.
Tales of Asgard, Journey into Mystery 101
If his costume is indeed supposed to be armor, then perhaps what we should look for is an example of an armor with similar properties. Having a bit of history under my belt I remembered an armor accessory I thought might be a match. It was called the Lauersfort Phaelara.
A closeup of the Lauersfort Phalera, Burg Linn Museum Center, Krefeld, Germany
One of the first and earliest potential armor designs which bears more than a passing resemblance would be the 120 AD, Legionary Roman armor. The phalerae medallions, the large shiny metal disks share a similar placement (though not exact) on the Roman armor. The disk were usually covered with the faces of prominent leaders or mythical beasts denoting bravery or skill in battle. Legion armies also carried them on their banners as group awards for the regiment.
From the Augustan period, both infantrymen and cavalry men received the same award when an opponent was killed and his equipment seized: a series of nine phalerae which gravestone reliefs show were worn on leather straps on the upper torso. Once again, these decorations were intended for soldiers up to the rank of centurions. –Armed Batavarians: Use and Significance of Weaponry and Horse Gear, by Johan Nicolay; Amsterdam University Press.
Turkish, Antique char-aina, (chainmail with mirror plates), Russian Zertsalo (Ottoman inspired)
The phalerae medallions were not unique to the Romans. The Celts wore similar devices for religious reasons and similarities could be found in ancient Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, Ottoman and Japanese armors, often designated mirror armors for their shiny appearance.
Art Imitates Life
Thor has had many different costume designs, many actually resembling armor rather than the cloth or leather of his early designs. These later designs were more inclined to use actual armor plates to depict the circles in his early costume designs, strengthening the appearance to phalerae medallions, even including ornate designs in some of them. I suspect this was a design issue that came about when later versions of Thor’s costume were reimagined by new artists.
I am willing to be one of those artists knew what phalerae were and decided to incorporate that design element into the armor. We don’t know that Kirby wasn’t influenced by phalerae but some of these on the newer armors are too similar to miss.
While we have no definitive proof the circles on Thor’s early costume were indeed a representation of phalerae medallions, it is at least historically possible the original design may have been inspired by early armors from the Roman, Ottoman and Persian armor designs which incorporated similar elements.
Note: While Vikings did wear armor into battle, it has not been shown to be an integral part of the armor designs to wear phaelara into battle. Most vikings wore leather furs, cuirboilli (boiled hardened leather) or chainmail tunics with shields into battle.
A fairly realistic depiction of Viking armor and weapons circa the 5th century AD.
Asgardians, warlike yet fashionable.