Loki

An anonymous painting of Loki from an Icelandic illuminated manuscript

Loki (pronounced “LOAK-ee;” Old Norse Loki, whose meaning/etymology is unknown[1]) is the wily trickster god of Norse mythology.

While treated as a nominal member of the Aesir tribe of gods in the Eddas and sagas, Loki occupies a highly ambivalent and ultimately solitary position amongst the gods, giants, and the other classes of invisible beings that populate the traditional spirituality of the Norse and other Germanic peoples.

His familial relations attest to this. His father is the giant Fárbauti (“Cruel Striker”), and his mother, Laufey (possibly “Tree”), could be a goddess, a giantess, or something else entirely – the surviving sources are silent on this point. Loki is the father, by the giantess Angrboða (“Anguish-Boding”) of Hel, the goddess of the grave, Jormungand, the great serpent who slays Thor during Ragnarok, and Fenrir, the wolf who bites off one of the hands of Tyr and who kills Odin during Ragnarok – hardly a reputable brood, to say the least. As we’ll see below, Loki demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the well-being of his fellow gods, a trait which could be discerned, in vague outline, merely by considering his offspring.

Loki often runs afoul not only of societal expectations, but also of what we today might call “the laws of nature.” In addition to the progeny listed above, Loki is also the mother – yes, the mother – of Sleipnir, Odin’s shamanic horse, whom Loki gave birth to after shapeshifting into a mare and courting the stallion Svaðilfari, as is recounted in the tale of The Fortification of Asgard.

In the tales, Loki is portrayed as a scheming coward who cares only for shallow pleasures and self-preservation. He’s by turns playful, malicious, and helpful, but he’s always irreverent and nihilistic.

For example, in The Kidnapping of Idun, Loki, by his recklessness, ends up in the hands of a furious giant, Thiazi, who threatens to kill Loki unless he brings him the goddess Idun. Loki complies in order to save his life, and then finds himself in the awkward position of having the gods threaten him with death unless he rescues Idun. He agrees to this request for the same base motive, shifting his shape into that of a falcon and carrying the goddess back to Asgard in his talons. Thiazi pursues him desperately in the form of an eagle, but, having almost caught up with Loki as he nears his destination, the gods light a fire around the perimeter of their fortress. The flames catch Thiazi and burn him to death, while Idun and Loki reach the halls of the gods safely. Loki ultimately comes to the aid of the gods, but only to rectify a calamity for which he himself is responsible. This theme is repeated in numerous tales, such as in Loki and the Dwarves and the aforementioned The Fortification of Asgard.

After Thiazi’s death, the giant’s daughter, Skadi, arrives in Asgard demanding restitution for the slaying of her father. One of her demands is that the gods make her laugh, something which only Loki is able to do. To accomplish this, he ties one end of a rope to the beard of a goat and the other end to his testicles. Both he and the goat squawk and squeal as one pulls one way and the other pulls the other way. Eventually he falls over in Skadi’s lap, and the giantess can’t help but laugh at such an absurd spectacle. Here, Loki once again comes to the aid of the gods, but simply by being silly and outlandish, not by accomplishing any feat that a Viking Age Scandinavian would have found to be particularly honorable.

Loki alternately helps both the gods and the giants, depending on which course of action is most pleasurable and advantageous to him at the time. During Ragnarok, when the gods and giants engage in their ultimate struggle and the cosmos is destroyed and re-created, Loki joins the battle on the side of the giants. He and the god Heimdall mortally wound each other.

Loki is perhaps best known for his malevolent role in The Death of Baldur. After the death of the beloved god Baldur is prophesied, Baldur’s mother, Frigg, secures a promise from every living thing to not harm her son. Well, almost everything – no such oath is obtained from the mistletoe, which the gods think too small and safe a thing to harm Baldur. Upon discovering this omission, Loki carves a mistletoe spear, places it in the hands of the blind god Hod, and instructs him to throw it at Baldur. Hod, not knowing the origin of the weapon, complies, and Baldur is impaled and dies. The god Hermod rides Sleipnir to Helheim and implores Hel to release Baldur, pointing out how beloved he is by all living things. Hel retorts that if this is so, then it shouldn’t be difficult to compel every being in the world to weep for Baldur, and, should this happen, the dead god would be released from the grave. Every living thing does indeed cry for Baldur’s return, with one sole exception: a frost-hearted giantess named Tokk (Þökk, “Thanks”), who is almost certainly Loki in disguise. So Baldur must remain in Hel until Ragnarok.

For these and many more crimes against them, the gods eventually forge a chain from the entrails of another seldom-mentioned son of Loki’s and tie him down to three rocks inside a cave. A venomous serpent sits above him, dripping poison onto him. Loki’s apparently very faithful and loving wife, Sigyn, sits at his side with a bowl to catch the venom. But when the bowl becomes full, of course, she has to leave her husband’s side to pour it out. When this happens, the drops of venom that fall onto him cause him to writhe in agony, and these convulsions create earthquakes. And in this state he lies until breaking free at Ragnarok.

A fascinating variant of the tale of Loki’s being bound comes to us from the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. In his History of the Danes, Thor, on one of his many journeys to Jotunheim, the homeland of the giants, finds a giant named Útgarðaloki (“Loki of the Utangard“). Útgarðaloki is bound in exactly the same manner as that in which Loki is bound in the tale mentioned above, which comes from Icelandic sources.[2][3] It seems that even the heathen Scandinavians themselves held conflicting views on whether Loki was a god, a giant, or something else entirely.

No traces of any kind of historical worship of Loki have survived into modern times.[4] Is this any wonder, given that his character is virtually the antithesis of the traditional values to which most pre-Christian Germanic people subscribed?

Loki’s Role in the Pre-Christian Northern European Worldview

Why, then, did the Scandinavians have such a god in their mythology at all? What did he represent to them? To which modalities of life does his character correspond?

To answer these vexing questions, we must consider Loki from the perspective of the pre-Christian northern European worldview itself. Only then can we hope to understand what Loki meant to the people who told tales of him around their hearth-fires during the long winter nights.

Before the victory of Christianity, the Germanic peoples had no conception of what we think of as absolute moral “good” or “evil.” Some values and actions were appropriate for some people and some situations; others were inappropriate for those people and those situations, but very well might be appropriate for other people and other situations. This was not the free-for-all of moral relativism, however, which is, after all, simply the inversion or denial of the Judeo-Christian perspective of an absolute, universal morality. In traditional Germanic society, a person who occupied a particular social role and was a devotee of that role’s corresponding god or goddess could rightly be held to the standard of conduct appropriate for that role and its divinity. Thus, while most Viking Age men were held to the standards of honor and manliness exemplified by such figures as Tyr, Thor, or Freyr, for example, not everyone was necessarily held to these standards. Devotees of Odin, for example – a god for whom we have ample evidence of true historical worship – followed a path of ecstatic and creative self-actualization that often seemed fickle, ruthless, irresponsible, and even shameful by the standards of, say, a man of Thor. (See Polytheistic Theology and Ethics.) Thus, Loki can’t rightly be considered a model of moral “evil.” Instead, he’s a model of one of the countless, and often opposing and contradictory, principles and meanings of which life consists.

Odin shares many of Loki’s boundary-crossing, trickster-like attributes. One Old Norse poem even states that the two are blood brothers.[5] Why, then, was Odin the recipient of considerable worship and active emulation, and Loki, as far as we can tell, received hardly any or none at all?

If the modality of life to which Odin corresponds were to be expressed in conceptual terms, it would be something like the modern German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” a restless, vital force that strives to continually overcome itself and its surroundings, fostering growth through the mastery of subtle, arcane knowledge and abilities. That this could be seen as sacred, worthy of the name of a god, is perfectly comprehensible from the perspective of a worldview that seeks to affirm life unconditionally, which the pre-Christian Germanic worldview, much like Nietzsche’s, certainly does.

The principle to which Loki corresponds, however, is the disregard for or hatred of the sacred as such. For Loki, the gods are “not to be worshiped, but ignored, to be overcome, or in the last analysis mocked.”[6] This perspective certainly had its adherents in the Viking Age, such as Glúmr in Víga-Glúms Saga (not to mention that this perspective has been enshrined as the norm by modern humanism). Why would such people, who place their trust solely in their own might, reverence a god who happens to share their anti-spiritual perspective?

Paradoxically, however, in order to affirm life as being inherently and unconditionally sacred, one must affirm even Loki and the principle to which he corresponds as being an embodiment of divinity in and of itself. One embodies Loki whenever one lives in a totally profane manner, without any reference to sacred models – hence Loki’s utter lack of any allegiances to the gods, giants, or anyone else. Thus, while the animistic and pantheistic Germanic peoples held the sacred to be categorically superior to the merely profane, they recognized that, since, in their perspective, the sacred and the profane are not dualistic, mutually exclusive conceptions (as they are in Judeo-Christianity), all that is profane is – again paradoxically – ultimately sacred as well. The difference lies solely in the mindset with which one approaches any given phenomenon. To a profane mindset such as Loki’s, it will be profane; to a sacred mindset such as Odin’s, it will be sacred. And from a sacred perspective, even the apparently profane is ultimately sacred and worthy of being called a god.

Loki features so prominently in the tales of Norse mythology because, from the perspective of the heathen Norse themselves, those tales expressed the inner meaning of the physical world we inhabit. Since most people live most of their lives with the mindset exemplified by Loki, it’s inevitable that the pre-Christian Scandinavians would have had much to say about him, as a way of reminding themselves that everything, even irreverence itself, is ultimately worthy of reverence.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my book on the worldview at the heart of Norse mythology, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.

References:

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 195.

[2] Saxo Grammaticus. 1905. The History of the Danes. Book VIII.

[3] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 138.

[4] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 195.

[5] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, stanza 9.

[6] Ricketts, Mac Linscott. 1993. The Shaman and the Trickster. In Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. Edited by William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. p. 87.