The debate regarding Idris Elba playing Heimdall, “the whitest of Gods”, has me recollecting my first encounter with the Horned God of Wicca:
He was not black as in African. Black was not so much a description of looks as it was of who he was. He was utter blackness: the extreme darkness of moonless nights, of empty space, of deep caverns, and dreamless sleep. While he had dark hair and eyes and black clothes, black was what he was and not how he appeared.
I still feel what I wrote a year ago is as true as when I experienced it all those years ago. The “Black Man” of the trial records that Murray analyzed is to my knowledge never referred to as a Moor or any by any other indication that he had dark skin or was of African ancestry. Black, like many colors, took on meaning beyond the visual color spectrum in folklore. A blackguard is someone untrustworthy, not someone who is dark in appearance. In the folksong I Know Where I’m Going, a young woman laments her lover’s reputation is undeserved:
Some say he’s black
But I say he’s bonnie
The fairest of them all
My handsome winsome Johnny
The blackness of the Horned God is a quality apart from his skin tone. The fact that Heimdall is considered “The White God” makes me consider not his appearance, but what whiteness means. Heimdall is very different from the Horned God in several important aspects. While the Horned God lives in the wild, Heimdall lives among the Aesir. The Horned God is found at night, in rites secluded and private, while Heimdall stands before Bifrost every day for all to see.
With Heimdall nothing is hidden. Not only does he possess keen powers of observation, he illuminates all things and hides from no one. He takes up the same post each day, guarding Asgard. His duty is plain, his enemy could be said to be chaos itself and he will alert the Aesir to the danger of Ragnarok when it comes. Heimdall could be said to be a paladin, a warrior type often given a “white” or “bright” appearance. His whiteness comes from his steadfast openness and commitment to duty. He is, in D&D terms, lawful good.
None of this changes the weirdness of having someone of African descent playing a Norse God. (Usually films dealing with Europe’s history use the Crusades as a device to explain away such characters, but since we are technically dealing with aliens here I suppose such a device is unnecessary.) Yet, it does help us to see if Idris Elba’s Heimdall will live up to the mythic qualities of whiteness. From the few clips we have seen in him in the trailers he does seem to be a fierce and unyielding paladin-type warrior. Will he be the illuminator, the guardian of order and rightness in the movie Thor? I guess we’ll find out on Friday.