Thor, in Norse mythology, is a pagan god wielding mjölnir, his magic hammer.  His devotees include heathens, pagans, and followers of Ásatrú, a neopagan belief system.  “Thor’s hammer” may now be etched on the headstones of American soldiers killed in the line of duty, following a little-publicized decision by the Obama administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs.  The mjölnir pendant, popular among pagans, is among the 57 “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers,” according to a Veterans Affairs website.  Thor’s mjölnir, “a sacred symbol” for heathens who worship the Norse gods, has taken its place alongside the Latin Cross, Russian Orthodox Cross, and Star of David.

The Department of Veterans Affairs explains, “An emblem of belief for inscription on a Government headstone or marker is an emblem or symbol that represents the sincerely held belief of the decedent that constituted a religion or the functional equivalent of religion and was believed and/or accepted as true by that individual during his or her life.  The belief represented by an emblem need not be associated with or endorsed by a group or organization.”

The American taxpayer, in some instances, will pay the cost for inscribing Thor’s mjölnir on headstones.  “Upon request and at no charge to the applicant,” the department explains, “VA will provide a headstone, grave marker or medallion for the grave of any deceased eligible Veteran whose death occurred on or after Nov. 1, 1990, in any cemetery in the world.”   And, “If desired, headstones and markers may also include an emblem of belief.”

In the last decade, heathens have worked to advance their cause among U.S. military personnel on several fronts.  The Mjolnir Project’s mission, according to a Facebook post, is “to distribute a Thor’s Hammer amulet to any active duty personnel stationed at home or abroad, who needs one, for free.  Just send us an email with your APO.  Thank you for your service!”  The Open Halls Project worked to secure approval of Thor’s mjölnir on headstones.  The Open Halls Project “is dedicated to helping Military Heathens, followers of the traditional Polytheistic worldview of Northern Europe.”  The group sought headstone approval for Thor’s mjölnir starting in 2009, after the death of a follower who served as a sergeant.  “A call was sent forth to raise the troops in battle,” a project post explains.  “Those troops responded and took charge of the mission.  That battle was fought by a large swath of organizations and groups involved with American heathenry, it was not always perfect, but it was inspiring to see that some barriers could be bridged to fight a higher cause.  The troops assembled, they marched forward.  We would have THOR’s HAMMER on our stones if we so desired!”

The VA’s decision, on one level, is an example of life imitating fiction.  In this instance, the VA acted after the U.S. Army moved to protect Thor’s mjölnir in an episode published earlier this century by Marvel Comics, which features a fictional Thor character.  Thor, “the Asgardian God of Thunder,” Marvel explains, “is the son of Odin the All-Father and Jord, the spirit of the Earth . . . Feeling lonely, Thor has resurrected his brother Loki and father Odin and they continue to battle-on for the survival of Asgard,” which has been recreated in Oklahoma.

On another level the decision underscores the U.S. government’s continued secularization.  The Open Halls Project states it “is dedicated to helping our service members.”  Thus, it is “working to get Asatru and Heathen added to the religious preference list in the U.S. Army’s database.”