By: Danielle Sanchez, Assistant Professor, Colorado College
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains graphic information about suicide which may be upsetting to some people.
Representation of depressed “Fat Thor” in Avengers Infinity War was one of the most disappointing moments of phase three of the MCU, even more so than Thor’s failure to stop “the blip” by going for Thanos’ head. Others have discussed “Fat Thor” and obvious issues of fatphobia and the stereotypical representation of depression and PTSD in Endgame.1 This article takes a different approach by focusing on trauma and Thor’s fellow God of Thunder, Sango, and the ways societies think about mental health.
Who is Sango? This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but Thor is not the only god of thunder. In fact, societies around the world have gods of thunder, from Egypt’s Set to Orko in ancient Basque mythology. Sango is a Yoruba deity who was an ancestor of the Yoruba people. He was one of the early alaafins (kings) of the Oyo Empire. Similar to Thor and Loki’s issues with sibling rivalry, Sango and his brother, Ajaka, fought over power and Sango eventually deposed Alaafin Ajaka. After Sango emerged as the new alaafin, Oyo underwent a dramatic transformation which thrust the cultural and political powerhouse into an era characterized by violence, instability, and oppression.
The turning point in Sango’s life occurred when he lost several of his wives and children in an accident that he caused. Like Thor, Sango absconded and tried to abdicate as alaafin. According to Samuel Johnson, Sango “even used his sword against some of his loyal subjects who ventured to remonstrate him, and who promised to replace for him his dead wives by others, by whom he might beget children, and so in time make good his present losses.”2 After struggling with the weight of the loss of his family and so many of his followers, Sango eventually killed himself.
Sango struggled under the heavy burden of life as an alaafin. His demise is a controversial topic, as some argue that Shango died by suicide, while others claim that he used a chain to climb from Oyo to the land of the ancestors, which led to his transformation into an orisha (deity). Muideen Owolabi Bakare discusses Sango’s death from a psychological perspective in a recent article in History in Africa. According to Bakare, Sango may have struggled with depression and impulsive-aggressive personality disorder.3
If Sango did indeed struggle with depression and an impulsive-aggressive personality disorder, the historical context of Oyo is an important part of understanding the ways that Sango responded to the volatility of daily life. While historians describe his reign as one of tyranny and violence, maybe a more generous reading might include acknowledging the difficulties of running one of the most important cultural, economic, and political centers in West Africa while trying to cope with depression and impulsive-aggressive personality disorder. Sango had very few, if any, allies. He killed his brother so he could become alaafin, the oyo mesi (ruling council) did not approve of Sango’s politics and leadership style, and he also struggled with foreign relations. In short, Sango was surrounded by foes who posed a threat to his power and could potentially kill him on a daily basis. This instability may have weighed heavily on Sango and potential mental health issues would have compounded his daily epinephrine and serotonin moderation struggles. In other words, Sango may have always beenin ‘Fight or Flight’ mode and simply couldn’t turn it off.
Oyo did not have mechanisms or resources in place for Sango to practice Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT) or Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) or access to drugs that are currently approved to treat impulsive aggression or depression. This does not mean that people in Oyo did not discuss what we now call mental health. Historians like Matthew Heaton4 and Jonathan Sadowsky5 have written about mental health in colonial Nigeria, but there is much less information on how people discussed mental health issues before imperial conquest. According to Sadowsky, madness in colonial Nigeria took a few forms: “People will be said to be wère when they have disordered speech, suffer from hallucinations, or are vagrant and inattentive to dress. Healers refer to a number of more specific diagnostic categories, such as wère àgba, or psychosis associated with old age, and wère ilé, or ‘madness of the house,’ which refers to inherited insanity.”6 Yoruba healers in colonial southwest Nigeria were professionals and melded plant-based remedies, divination, and rituals to treat people who were suffering from wère.7 Samuel Johnson’s classic 1921 tome The History of the Yorubas, provides a fascinating (and sometimes problematic) overview of the life of Sango (and lots of other Yoruba leaders), insight into Yoruba culture, and more, but only briefly mentions mental health struggles in Yoruba society and describes insanity as hereditary.8 In Imperial Bedlam, Sadowsky argues that it is impossible to accurately assess origin dates for “conceptions of madness” in southwest Nigeria, but “there is no evidence for their novelty.”9 In short, people in southwest Nigeria were talking about mental health A LOT, and these discussions did not start during colonialism. Rather, people in Nigeria were talking about “madness” and treatment in ways that existed well before the arrival of the British and healers worked in ways that reflected larger bodies of professional knowledge shared among practitioners and also relied upon knowledge that was passed between generations. While it would be foolish to assume healers in Oyo and colonial southwestern Nigeria operated in the exact same ways, it is not much of a reach to guess that people in Oyo had conversations about madness, or wère, and healers worked with people struggling with mental health issues, especially Sango during his time as alaafin, as Johnson notes that “the whole of which period was marked by his restlessness.”10
Perhaps thinking about Thor and Sango as individuals battling psychological and the challenges of daily life can help us rethink the ways we talk about mental health. Grief was all-encompassing for both Thor and Sango; the only difference is that in Endgame and Love and Thunder, Thor was able to pull himself out of his “Fat Thor” phase without fully working through his trauma. Unfortunately, Sango and many of us do not have that luxury. Sango may be able to speak while shooting fire out of his mouth and show his badassery with a massive double-edged ax, but mental health is a critical part of the stories of both of these gods of thunder.
Representation isn’t enough though, especially when that representation causes harm through ridiculous and offensive caricatures of obesity, PTSD, and depression in a film that made almost $2.8 billion globally. Like Sango, Thor potentially had access to mental health services to help him process his PTSD from the Infinity War, especially after he settled in New Asgard in Norway, whose government provides substantial funding to care for people in both in-patient and outpatient treatment centers. Publicly funded mental healthcare is an important part of Norway’s national health program, which caps the cost of outpatient treatment at approximately 230€ a year and provides free inpatient treatment throughout the country.11 Norway also offers strong community based healthcare services that range from mobile clinics to collaborative practices that work with local hospitals.12
The type of community based mental healthcare services offered in Norway are not at all dissimilar to the program launched by Dr. T. Adeoye Lambo, who challenged racist believes in the field of psychiatry and developed the Aro Mental Hospital in Nigeria, which sought to provide effective treatment for Nigerians connected “modern” psychiatric practices with local customs and understandings of health, life, and the world. According to Matthew Heaton, “the Aro Village Scheme provided a holistic, community-based therapeutic experience. Lambo made arrangements with local chiefs and elders for his patients to live in four villages surrounding Aro Hospital… Patients and villagers engaged in community projects and activities together, including church services, films, plays, dances, and eventually in agricultural activities, which were meant to help patients develop qualities of sociability and responsibility that they would need for effective social reintegration when they returned home.”13 The success of Lambo’s Aro Village Scheme and his ideas of transcultural psychiatry made him internationally famous and psychiatrists and governments attempted to create similar programs around the world.
While an exact replica of the Aro Village Scheme certainly does not exist in contemporary Norway, there was the whole network of Avengers and supporting characters who work in academia and could have probably called upon scholarly networks to connect Thor with trauma resources. Looking at you HULK.
A disclaimer that points viewers to mental health resources during an Avengers film might be awkward and unwieldy, there is definitely space for thoughtful representations of grief, trauma, and mental health issues. Ohhh… or maybe one of those Captain America PSAs from Spiderman: Homecoming.
Dr. Danielle Sanchez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in wartime central Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Novels. Her nerdy obsessions: knitting, Harry Potter (except the TERF crap), contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez
- For example, see Clarkisha Kent, “Thor’s ‘Endgame’ Weight Gain Should Have Been More Than a Punch Line,” BitchMedia, June 3, 2019, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/avengers-endgame-thor-fatphobia.
- Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas (London: Lowe and Brydone Limited, 1960), 151.
- Muideen Owolabi Bakare, “Alaafin Sango, “Oba kò so”: A Historiographical Note with Psychological Perspectives Focusing on Suicide,” History in Africa 40 (2013): 315.
- Matthew Heaton, Black Skin, White Coats: Nigerian Psychiatrists, Decolonization, and the Globalization of Psychiatry (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013).
- Jonathan Sadowsky, Imperial Bedlam: Institutions of Madness in Colonial Southwest Nigeria (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
- Sadowsky, Imperial Bedlam, 14.
- Sadowsky, Imperial Bedlam, 14.
- Johnson, The History of the Yorubas, 113.
- Sadowsky, Imperial Bedlam, 16.
- Johnson, The History of the Yorubas, 150.
- Ragnar Nesvåg et al., “The Quality of Severe Mental Disorder Diagnoses in a National Health Registry as Compared to Research Diagnoses Based on Structured Interview,” BMC Psychiatry 17, 1 (2017), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5351165/.
- T. Ruud and S. Friis, “Community-based Mental Health Services in Norway,” Consortium Psychiatricum 2, 1 (2021), https://www.consortium-psy.com/jour/article/view/43.
- Heaton, Black Skin, White Coats, 57-58.
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