Loki – a provocative lecture
By Gunivortus Goos
A lecture / presentation given at several locations in 2016 and 2017
You are flattering me by joining this lecture, so it really pleases me to welcome you all.
Before starting telling you about Loki, two short prefacing remarks may be useful.
First, this lecture will appear quite heavily to your concentration. Not only, because of the content, I do have a lot to tell, but also to understand my English. While I have published several books in English, I hardly have the opportunity to speak that language. And written English quite differs from conversational spoken English. So, I have to admit, that about some of the used words I am very unsure how they are spoken correctly. So, yes, I can write English rather well, but speaking it is quite another thing for me. If I am lucky, I can speak a few words in English to someone once in a year and only for a few minutes.
And second, if you really don’t know anything about the Viking god Loki, at least, parts of this text might be less comprehensible to you. If it nevertheless then arouses your interest, don’t hesitate putting questions later, or search for more information. At least, the early Germanic tribes and the later Vikings were over a period of about 1300 years dominating big parts of North-, West- and Central-Europe. They also penetrated in East- and South-Europe, yes, they even settled in North-Africa. Therefore, it is not deviously to know about this early history a bit more than just a few headwords or deceitful superficial knowledge.
So far these remarks.
As a kind of introduction, I will start now with a tale from the most well known book of myths about the Norse people of the Viking era, called Edda. For this tale, it is not necessary to know, that this Edda in fact are two literary works by different authors. More about them later.
The three Aesir gods Odin, Hœnir and Loki once hiked around. At the time they became hungry and had nothing to eat with them, they butchered an ox from a drove on a grazing in a nearby valley. The preparing of the meat however was hindered by the magical powers of a big eagle. That eagle, sitting high on an oak tree, was actually the giant Thjazi and he only would abrogate the spell, after the three gods had promised him, he was allowed to eat with them. After he got this permission, he flew down, and grasped immediately the best parts of the meat. Loki became infuriated about this, and he hit the bird with a stick.
Magic caused, that the stick was glued both to the eagle and to Loki. The eagle flew up and Loki was pulled up too. Only after he had promised, to bring Thjazi the goddess Idunna, he got his freedom back. However, when Loki then kept his promise and brought Idunna to the giant, the other gods started getting older. Because, only Idunna could give them the special apples that kept them young.
No wonder, Loki was summoned and strongly urged to bring that goddess back to Asgard at once. Thereupon, he flew in Freyja’s falcon dress to Thjazi’s castle, there he changed Idunna in a nut, (it is not known whether that was a hazelnut, a walnut or some other kind of nut) took it in his beak and flew as fast as he could back to Asgard. As soon as the giant discovered what had happened, he started pursuing him. The giant eagle was slowly gaining upon the falcon, but Loki got help from some other gods who killed Thjazi, shortly before he and his prey had reached the walls of Asgard.
Of course, Skadi, Thjazi’s daughter, became very angry upon the killing of her father and she went out to Asgard to get revenge for him. Upon her arrival, the gods made an agreement with Skadi: She got the right to choose one of the gods to become her husband; however, at choosing, she was restricted in the way, that she only could see the feet of the gods who were available for a marriage. In addition, it also was agreed, that the gods should make Skadi laugh.
Based on the ‘feet-choice’, although Skadi perhaps had hoped to get Balder as her groom, Njord became her husband, and later she gave birth to the Vanir gods Freyr and Freyja. (well, yes, this last piece is disputed). That marriage did not last for a long time, but that is another story.
The other condition, to make Skadi laugh, likely was more problematic than the gods may have thought, because it only worked after a quite extreme and painful ‘performance’:
Loki tied up a rope at the tuft of a billy goat and the other end around his own testicles, and after the he-goat was hit to let it move, the following spectacle even made Skadi laugh.
So far this introductory tale from the Edda. Let’s try now, to get rid of the vivid mental movie you may have got about the goat and poor Loki….
My short talk contains both aspects from history and mythology and also some psychological and religious expository assumptions….. maybe just good to know for your critical attention.
There are quite a few articles and books written about the god Loki, some are of really high quality. But if you maybe would expect or hope to get complete clarification about this god here and now, you may feel disappointed after I’ve finished this lecture, maybe you are even already before.
The information about Loki you are getting here, is a kind of my personal, both conscious and unconscious choice – so, just as the whim took me.
It is a mixture of interpretations, convictions, opinions and similar dubious approaches. Well, but perhaps also less known items are included, and rather sketchily discussed. Admittedly, without specific subtlety, it will be trying to provoke you at a maybe subliminal level. Perhaps, you could start feeling yourself a bit irritated if you are confronted repeatedly with words that express uncertainty – because that could harm your health, it seems to me a good advice, to hear this all with an open mind, just try to follow the thoughts. And if you are rooted in your views on Loki, lock them away, at least for a while, to prevent, that you perhaps could get the impression, that I am making a fool of you.
Stating that the history and mythology of the Germanic peoples are miles away from completeness even sounds like an understatement. That may be very well the reason, that already for centuries now, both by experts as well as by well-informed laymen, an impressive list of speculations, interpretations and other explanatory attempts is produced concerning almost all fields of Germanic history and mythology.
Impressive, sometimes even convincing presentations are maintained awhile, and then, they are, based on newer information, theories or recent insights, with only a few sentences exposed as incorrect and become outdated. Views about Loki are affected too by such processes. So please, don’t take my words here as some ultimate wisdom – oh well, you can do that until they’re proven wrong.
Another explanatory something……
As already before briefly mentioned…. It is not the only one, but the main source for the mythology of the Norse people is the Edda, better would be ‘are the Eddas’, because the name “Edda” refers to two different Icelandic documents: The first is a collection of poems and we know it under the name ‘Poetic Edda’. The second manuscript was written by the Icelandic author and historian Snorri Sturluson, and was originally meant as a textbook for Norse poets, called Skalds, and contains an extensive presentation of the Norse-heathen mythology. This work is known as the ‘Prose Edda’. Both works were written in the 13th century.
The myths about Loki are almost all from these sources.
Now the point has been reached of telling how Loki, based on those old sources, has usually been seen and has been presented in the last few centuries, scholarly and religiously…. if you already know that, please close your eyes, breathe slowly, get calmer and calmer the way that you can still hear me without irritation about listening to old grudges. Perhaps you even can drink a virtual coffee or beer.
Following the popular myths, Loki is one of the Norse gods. Likely, his parents both were Giants’, he is married to the goddess Sigyn, with her he has a son called Narfi or Nari – sometimes, it is presumed, that these names concern two sons.
It is also sometimes assumed, that Loki and Odin were blood brothers.
Nonetheless, it is not with Odin, but with Thor, that Loki is often traveling. Quite often, this is because of trying to solve problems he had caused himself before. But also, to mend problematic matters of other gods. There are quite a few tales about that.
With the giantess Angrboda, Loki fathers the Midgard Serpent, the Fenris Wolf and Hel, the reigning goddess of the Netherworld, the Realm of the dead.
Also, Odin’s famous eight-legged horse Sleipnir is Loki’s child; he gave birth to it in the shape of a mare.
After he had persuaded the blind god Hodr to shoot an arrow, made of mistletoe wood, at the god Balder, who would be invulnerable, but nevertheless that god dies – Mistletoe appeared to be the only material that could hurt Balder. Because of that deed, Loki is hunted by the other gods, captured, tied up, and imprisoned. Above him the goddess Skadi places a viper, whose venom drips down at Loki and causes terrific pain. Therefore, Loki’s wife Sigyn sits beside her husband, and intercepts most of the venom by holding a bowl under the viper.
Norse mythology knows a story about doomsday, a final last battle, in which many gods die, and the human world submerges. At that final day, Loki gets back his freedom, and he goes to war, fighting side by side with his ‘monstrous’ children and an army of giants, against the other gods and the deceased human heroes who are dwelling in Asgard. In that battle, Loki and the god Heimdall kill each other.
Loki’s tricks often bring other gods in problems, but using his deceitfulness, he then also solves these problems himself. Admittedly, he is often forced to do that by those other gods.
He is credited for outward beauty, cunning, and love of treason, malice and devilish action. Because of such characteristics, Loki is sometimes called a ‘trickster’. Later more about that term.
Many members of today’s Pagan religions, particularly Asatru, which is sometimes also called Germanic heathenism, feel uncomfortable when Loki comes ‘into play’. But there are also people, both from Asatru and other Pagan beliefs, who express themselves as worshipers of Loki – some of them think to emphasize that best, by getting dressed like modern Goths; doom-mongering is often also part of the lifestyle of them.
But, among Asatru, there are also people who seriously venerate Loki in their religious practice, like others do with Odin or Freyja.
Other names for Loki in circulation, from which some are seen by many scholars as at least seriously disputable, and even sometimes rejected, are ‘Lodur’ (Lóðurr), ‘Loghe’ and ‘Loptr’. In Flanders and the Netherlands, the names ‘Lodder’ and ‘Kludde’ appear and in England the name ‘Lok’ is known.
Scholarly literature shows different views and opinions regarding Loki. One example of that concerns a comparative study of the Loki-myths by the Dutch scholar E.J. Gras from 1931, in which is rather extensively argued that Loki and Loðurr are two names for the same god. Bringing in then the terse remark about that by the Austrian scholar Rudolf Simek: “ Attempts to merge Loðurr with Loki … are not convincing”, one might wonder which arguments by Gras exactly are not convincing, because Simek does not argue that clearly.
Similar things often happen in Norse mythology; with just few exceptions, arguments are rejected without supporting that rejection by giving counter arguments.
Most old sources indicate, that Loki hardly, or not at all, was worshiped by humans, and if, then most likely only locally on a small scale in ancient Scandinavia and Iceland. That would imply, that the continental names of Loki likely originated from the late Middle Ages, or even later, since the year 1500.
Nevertheless, Loki lives in our languages:
An Icelandic saying ‘there’s a Loki in it’ points to a thread that is strongly knotted. Loki’s name would also be involved in the term ‘Lokabrenna’, meaning, the heat of the summery Dog Days.
In Norway, Loki is connected to the hearth fire. When the hearth is crackling the saying ‘Loki is hitting his children’ is used. And when leftovers from meals are thrown in the fire, sometimes the words ‘that is for Lokje’ are spoken.
Although today the connection of Loki with fire is seriously questioned and is even widely rejected as a real possibility, that connection has got in Germany its rather recent popularity, thanks to the composer Richard Wagner, who calls Loki in his epic opera series “The Ring of the Nibelungs” a ‘Firegod’.
And that ends this short and surely incomplete summary of the usual views about Loki. From now on, the much more disputable parts will follow.
However, in addition, the so popular representation of Loki in the myths of the death of Balder we mainly thank the English anthropologist and author James Frazer, who tells in volume 7 of his well-known monumental and multi-volume work “The Golden Bough” the story of “Baldr the Beautiful”. It is problematic here, that Frazer in his representation of Balder’s death did not endeavor to bring the several medieval versions of that myth, which do show serious differences. Instead, he only offers one version which is the one by Snorri Sturluson, and uses that, to deduce a rich and vivid Balder cult in pagan times. Quite airy.
Although such an approach to ignore several other possibilities and only to rely on a single one, has been recognized quite a long time already as scientifically false, as a wrong scientific method, the publicized ‘Frazer’ myth continues to be seen as the one and only valid one, and is still kept as such in circulation.
That these and other known representations of Loki are at least questionable, should also be made clear in the following part now.
First, let me take the common view, that Loki seduced the blind god Hödr to shoot a mistletoe arrow at Baldr, which kills him; that was the only possibility to hurt Baldr, his mother Frigg had made him invulnerable for anything else. This story is an Icelandic myth, but the mistletoe as a plant never existed on Iceland in those days. That makes a Mistletoe arrow at least doubtful; a plant that was unknown in the neighborhood of the Icelandic audience, might not have been recognizable for that audience at the time.
In another Balder myth from the 12th Century, from the in Latin written work “Gesta Danorum” which means: Deeds of the Danes, the two brothers Hotherus and Balderus rival for the love of a noble woman. After several combats, Hotherus kills his brother Balderus with his sword. Although that story does not mention a name of that sword, some scholars proposed, that this would be the same sword as is mentioned in the Icelandic Saga of Hromund Gripsson in which a sword called ‘Mistilteinn’ (Mistletoe) is mentioned. Accordingly, it is suggested, that in this Balder myth from the Edda by Snorri Sturluson, two different myths were merged into one and that would have caused, that the Mistletoe became part of the story.
The eye-catching point of this all is, that Loki’s role in the death of Balder, is questionable, the more if Mistletoe is pointing to a sword and not to an arrow. The doubt is also supported by the argument, that only in one of the myths about Balder’s death a blind god Hödr appears.
In a finishing addition to this argumentation:
It is very well acceptable, that Snorri Sturluson already knew in his time the well-known Celtic myth called “Aided Fergusa” – because, in Snorri’s lifetime there were already for quite a few generations Celtic inhabitants on Iceland. In that Celtic myth, the jealous Ailil seduces the blind Lugaid to kill Fergus, the man with whom he had grown up as a brother.
The presumption lies near, that Snorri Sturluson used that Celtic myth to complete another story concerning the death of Baldr, which he just knew incompletely.
Another item from the Loki myths is the widespread view, that he is a giant who lives among the gods in Asgard. Related to that, is the sometimes uttered view, that he does not belong to the Æsir gods.
From Norse mythology, we know the two divine families Æsir and Vanir. And then there are also the giants, from who some also are seen as gods.
Except for Loki, Skadi is known as a giantess and also Gerdr, the wife of the god Freyr is also the daughter of Giant parents. In Old Norse, these giants are called ‘Jötnar’, singular ‘Jötunn’ whose home-world is Jotunheim. Quite often they are seen as a mythological race. The translation into ‘giant’ might be dubious. In Old Norse the three common words for giant are “gjør”, “gýgr” and “risi”, for giantess the words ‘gýgr’ and ‘íviðja’ exist. In hindsight, the translation ‘giant’ for ‘Jötunn’ could be incorrect. The view has much to recommend, that the Æsir, the Vanir and the Jötnar are three different divine families. That would make the marriages between these three families much better explainable and not deviant at all. Some examples of it are:
- Odin’s mother is ‘Bestla’ and she known as a Jötunn
- his father is Borr; it is unclear to which kind of family he belongs, presumably also a Jötunn.
- With the female jötunn and goddess ‘Jord’ Odin fathers the Æsir god of thunder, Thor.
- The Vanir sea god Njörd, marries the Jötunn Skadi.
- The Vanir god Freyr marries the beautiful Jötunn daughter Gerdr.
- Loki’s father ‘Fárbauti’ is a Jötunn, the family of his mother ‘Laufey’ is unknown.
So, Loki and Odin obviously have a similar parental background; hence, this might be favoring the view, that both gods are Æsir and Jötunn.
The conjecture, that the Jötnar are the oldest of the three divine Norse families could be worth taking into consideration.
It is often asserted, that Loki and Odin would be blood brothers. There exist a quite clear indication, that this could be correct. In verse 9 of the Lokasenna, a poem of the Poetic Edda, Loki speaks to the gods who are present at the feast banquet of the sea god Ægir:
Do you remember, Osin, long time ago
that we both mixed our blood;
and you made the promise not to pour ale,
Unless it was brought to the two of us.
Odin does not deny that, instead, as a kind of perhaps confirming answer, he orders, that Loki has to get a seat among the other gods.
However, on the other hand …
In verse 46 of the Grímnismál, another poem of the Poetic Edda, Odin gives himself many names. He says:
My name is Grim,
and I am also Gangleri,
Herjan and Hjalmberi,
Thekk and Thrithi,
Thuth and Uth, Helbindi and Har.
Concerning that name Helblindi …..
In the Gylfaginning, one of the parts of the Prose Edda, it is recorded, that Loki’s two brothers are called Býleistr and Helblindi. A part of chapter 33 reads:
… he is named Loki or Loptr, son of Fárbauti the giant; his mother was Laufey or Nál; his grothers are Býleistr and Helblindi.
This, perhaps, could mean, that Odin and Loki are really brothers by having at least one parent in common. That might lead to new speculations about the aforementioned names of the parents of both; Bor and Bestla for Odin, Fárbauti and Laufey for Loki – one of them would carry then two of these names.
Well, remember, this is speculation, but based on Old Norse sources.
From the myths, we know Loki as a cunning and often malicious god. But following various related scholars, that would not have been all the time part of his personality, but would have been added to his character in later times by skalds, the singers and storytellers of the Norse people. In the myths in which Loki acts, he usually plays a most prominent role. Consider, for example, the myth in which Loki kills an otter. As a result of that, the three gods, Odin, Hönir and Loki run into troubles, which then are solved too by Loki. Would this god, who often plays such an important, often problem-solving role in so many episodes, have been indeed from the beginning considered vicious? Wouldn’t the other gods then have cast him out much earlier?
Going back now to the story, told in the beginning of this lecture about Loki, Idunna and Thjazi…
Obviously, that myth was written down after the suggested view at Loki’s character already was changed unfavorably. But apart from that, that whole Loki – Thjazi myth is composed for the most part of traditional fairy tale elements. Because of that, it even can be questioned whether, except only for the three names of the gods, indeed an older folk tale was the basis for it, but, instead, at the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 10th Century completely was invented by the skald Diodolf of Kvinir and was then later adapted by Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda.
- The meat that cannot be fried ready
- the two who are firmly glued together
- the shapeshifting into something else
are all well-known motives of fairy tales. And Skadi, who doesn’t want to laugh strongly, brings to mind the fairy tale character of the maid who doesn’t want to speak or laugh.
The way Skadi chooses her husband recalls clearly the fairy tale of Cinderella, who is recognized by the prince through her foot. That whole Loki-Thjazi-Skadi myth looks like a series of loosely connected fairy tale motives, brought together like stringing beads. Motives, that in fact do not belong together in one and the same myth – from that point of view, this myth likely is a late filigreed tale – the fairy tale motives seem to have been brought together to create a clearly understandable and thrilling story for the audience.
The inspiration to create the story arose by that skald Diodolf as he looked at a drawing on a shield that he had received before as a present. In that drawing he interpreted three gods and a giant. After the first stanza of the poem he subsequently wrote, he expresses in the first verse his gratitude for getting that shield, then he starts his story in verse 2.
Remember the story I told you; the beginning was, that the three gods Odin, Hœnir and Loki were preparing an ox for meal on a fire and an eagle sat in a nearby tree. Well, that was, what Snorri Sturluson made it, from the corresponding part of the original poem:
On the left the poem in Old Norse. But compare what I told you now with the middle column of this picture, the translated stanza by Diodolf:
It might be clear, that, without the modern explanatory interpretations in the third column, the poem seems incomprehensible. And we do not know, whether the ‘modern’ interpretations are correct, because, most likely they, were deduced from the 13th Century myth of the Prose Edda. That implies, that the later myth, based on this very older poem, is used to explain that same old Skaldic poem! Snorri Sturluson used that old poem to create his very own story. It looks all very near to circular reasoning.
Anyway, it seems rather clear, that the Sturluson myth was created by bringing together several fairy tale motifs, which is built on an old well-known and often-used scheme:
– A conflict arises, (Loki, Hœnir and Odin vs. Thjazi),
– by cunning, the enemies are triumphed over (Thjazi’s death).
Looking at other Loki myths, a similar scheme often can be recognized in varying forms. Especially in old folk tales, such literary schemes usually do not appear, and therefore, many of those myths seem to be the creative work of professional skalds and other authors – whether they used older folk tales in written or oral form, or completely relied on their own inspiration, combined with knowledge of the penchant and understanding of their audience is in almost all cases not known.
From the Faroe Islands comes the longer ballad ‘Lokka Tattur’ (Loki’s tale) in which Loki is presented as a cunning but not a vicious god. The ballad narrates about a conflict between a human and a giant. After Odin and Hœnir fail to solve the problem, it is Loki, who, through cunning again, solves the conflict in favor of the human. In this story, Loki acts without any malicious intentions towards the ones he is helping.
The age of this story can not be clearly determined, both an early Viking origin and a post-Viking origin are advocated; if the first view would be correct, then it would support an early Loki without malice.
Whatever, concerning the several Loki myths, there is cause to question whether viciousness indeed was foisted in the course of time to Loki. Did Loki, perhaps, fail short of expectations to the warrior ideals of the late Norse Noblemen, and was that the reason that his earlier high esteem was changed? Because, although Loki is in many conflicts the victor, he does not reach that by strength and heroic combat, but by intelligence and cunning – a way of achieving victory, that likely was not really appreciated by the majority of the class of population of those Norse nobles from late Viking times.
Generally, myths often indeed change in the course of time, they are altered by the narrators according the understanding and outlooks of the contemporary audience. There are many examples for that.
So, let us accept for now, that there was a time, that in the known Norse myths not everything malicious was laid at Loki’s door, a time, he just was seen as a clever and cunning god. Would it really be a peculiar thought to accept, that the problems occurring to several gods were not caused by Loki, but originally by these gods themselves? Sure, Loki was asked then to solve those problems. It would fit to his downfall, that the cause of those problems then later also were shunted and ascribed to him.
A Loki, not malicious in origin, would also much better fit to the defense of Asgard, the main world of the Norse gods. They have Thor with his tremendous powers and his magic weapons who slays the enemies, and Loki who uses his slyness – power and cunning … that together generally would fit to what we know about the Germanic peoples from pre-Viking times.
While we are dealing now with disputable topics concerning Loki … the assumption, that Loki would be an enemy of the Æsir and Vanir gods also can be challenged. The view, that Loki can be seen as one of the Æsir himself was already expounded and also his alleged malicious behavior. Accepting him as an Æsir god, and a late foisting malicious behavior on him would break away a lot of reasons for this assumption of being such an enemy.
But there is still Loki’s role at Ragnarök, that Last Battle in which many gods die, and the world submerges. In Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Loki joins the army of Asgard’s enemies. Other places in related literature only record, that Loki is steering a ship that him brings to the battlefield. In Sturluson’s description again, Loki and Heimdall kill each other, in other related descriptions that is not mentioned at all. But if that would be true, then that would not make Loki an enemy of all Æsir, it makes him an archenemy of Heimdall … and perhaps of few others who caught and imprisoned him.
In the skaldic poem Húsdrápa, attributed to the skald Ulf Uggason, who lived in the 2nd half of the 10th Century, it is narrated about “Singasteinn” (meaning a singing or chanting stone), which is obviously either the name of a piece of jewelry or, more likely, the name of a piece of land, possibly an island, as is assumed quite often. Loki and Heimdall compete with each other in the shape of seals for that ‘sea-kidney’, as Singasteinn is described poetically. The story narrates, that Heimdall robs it from Loki. The vague conjecture exists, that it concerned here Brisingamen, the jewelry of the goddess Freyja, which would have been stolen by Loki and which Heimdall took away from Loki and gave back to Freyja. However, that conjecture is not supported by indications from Old Norse sources. It is likely again just an attempt to project some kind of coherent logic in the Old Norse myths. As the story describes it, Loki owns something precious and Heimdall took it away from him; no wonder, that Loki is shirty towards Heimdall.
It is even possible, that Sturluson used this incident between the two gods from that old ‘singasteinn’ poem, by interpreting it as an ongoing enmity between the two gods and, maybe it seemed to him a good thought, to let both have a last and final fight. That would ‘complete’ and ‘finish’ the enmity and would fit too perfectly to the aim of his Prose Edda: a book for Skalds and storytellers – and a good story has to offer a satisfying end.
Let us leave now this ‘feud’ between Loki and Heimdall and step over to and take a closer look at the myth, in which it is narrated, that Loki cuts off the hair of the goddess Sif, the wife of his companion Thor.
Did Loki really do that?
Or, is that deed, during the changing views and his downfall in the eyes of men just ascribed to him? In the several myths, Thor seems to have a bit of an irascible character. Couldn’t Thor have done that himself while being in one of those short-fused moods? Or, could perhaps Sif it have done herself, and then accused Loki of it, perhaps to drive a wedge between the two companions, who, in Sif’s view, are too often away and too long on the road?
But if we would accept this indeed as being done by Loki, why would he have done that? I have not the slightest idea. Had Thor perhaps to his companion boasted a bit too much with the qualities of his wife, and was it Loki’s intention just to tease Thor a bit?
Then Loki shows himself in this myth, in which he, after cutting off Sif’s hair, and successfully orders new golden hair, made by dwarfs, as a being, who likes to rib others in the form of gimmickry; and also as a being with huge supernatural power and able to command dwarfs. And, seen through contemporary spectacles, these things really are ‘just’ joking, perhaps mischief. All the more, when comparing it with deeds by Thor, like crushing heads of giants or compared to Odin’s decisions of giving the victory in battle to one side, which leads to doom and death of the losers, which are complete armies of men.
Is, eventually, Loki then just a friendly cunning god who sometimes likes to joke and prank others?
Thinking of the two proverbs “The quarrel of lovers is the renewal of love” and “Teasing is a sign of affection”, could lead to the assumption that, in fact, Loki likes the other gods.
Sure, clearly, good-natured raillery has its limits, and Loki shows his indignation about the way others teased him as he speaks to the gathered gods and goddesses at the feast organized by the sea giant Ægir. In a venomous speech, he shows himself extremely well-informed about secret intimacies and other deeds of the gods, of which these most likely had been seen as passed into oblivion.
Regarding Odin, we know, he gets lots of information from his two ravens Hugin and Munin. But from where does Loki gets his rich and detailed knowledge of those ‘godly secrets’? To his other competences, he obviously is also a god of secret knowledge.
If Loki is indeed the god of the ‘practical jokes’, the god who likes to play tricks on others, then he is far away from being the Norse equivalent of the Christian devil, as he is called sometimes. Closer to that might be another view, in which he is seen as a ‘trickster’.
This Trickster concept needs some explanation:
A ‘trickster’ is a figure or character, who presents himself as shifty and ambiguous, whose actions aren’t just simply destructive. They effectuate often transformations of the soul, the psychic and the cognition of people. Not always, but remarkably often, the trickster god is related to the creator deities. Several Native American peoples know the trickster god ‘Coyote’, the younger brother of the main god ‘Wolf’ and, as shown before, in Norse mythology Loki is related to Odin.
According to a Viking creation myth, the three gods Odin, Hœnir and Lodurr created mankind. If it is accepted, although, admittedly, it is disputed, that Lodurr indeed is an older name for Loki, then Loki himself is partially responsible for the coming into being of mankind. After the shapes of the first man and woman (Askr and Embla) were created, Odin gave them breath, Hœnir contributed the energy and Lodurr warmth and a healthy look. In this view, we all got something from the trickster, we all might have something trickster-like in our personalities. And yes, admit it, we all indeed do have that in our characters, maybe hidden until it suddenly burst to the ‘surface’.
That is, by the way, no legitimacy for you to undertake dubious actions!
Other examples for trickster gods are Hermes, the god of thieves from Greek mythology, and Guahayon, a god from the Taino-Indians, a tribe from the Greater Antilles. From the latter, here is an example of his trickster-acting:
Together with his brother-in-law, Guahayona, he robbed the women from the harem of a prince and fled with them across the sea. He brings all women, except one, to an island, with the one woman he liked best, he traveled to another island.
On one hand, this looks like clear malignant behavior, on the other hand, he tears them away from a kind of slavery, and brings them into new territories where they can live free and have to meet new challenges.
The trickster is not a hero, and neither an exceptional figure who dominates all others. In fact, he actually stands for life itself, which is so often incomprehensible and even sometimes cruel, but still goes on and on.
In the various mythologies of the world where a trickster appears, he is the one, who can laugh last, because he, finally, in some way, turns out as the winner.
Another characteristic of a trickster from mythology is, that he either direct or on detours gathers magical attributes for other gods; through Loki, Freyr gets his magical ship, Odin his famous spear and his eight-legged horse Sleipnir and Thor his famous hammer Mjölnir. If magical tools of the gods have been lost, it is the trickster who gets them by his cunning back again, like in the myth where Thor’s hammer was stolen.
A trickster can make other gods laugh, which is also a token of a trickster. All together it seems acceptable to see Loki as a trickster god.
It is also Loki whose acting is the reason, that among the gods no stolidity, sedateness, idleness or sluggishness appears. He keeps them on their toes and causes them to join together, again and again, even if he has to take the blame himself for it, and even if he has to suffer pain for it.
With Loki, always something is going on, Loki’s actions over and over provoke the passion of the other gods.
He can be quite gruesome, but every time the other gods are learning something from it which expands their fields of experiences. Loki’s deeds surely have sense and purpose, although often just underlying.
Incidentally, when dealing with stories from Norse mythology, we have to bear in mind, that those myths and poems had to appeal to the contemporary audience; what looks cruel in our society today, was in that former society customary. Nevertheless, do not be mistaken, in many ways our society is very cruel too!
It means, that Loki also should be for us humans, today, a good example and a mainspring not to long stay satisfied with what is achieved, but soon keep again on the go, resume the thread again, stay open for new experiences, and proceed with new challenges. Because, if that is not done, the ‘trickster’ can hit us at a moment we are not prepared, not resilient for such things, and then it strikes the harder.
Indeed, even today, Loki often induces feelings of anxiety and discomfort. But we exactly need also such feelings and emotions. They often lead us to look over our mental walls, they can shift our intellectual and psychological borders and they make us aware of our own limitations.
Loki constantly challenges us, and he does not care at all about any limits of decency, of behavior, or an alleged non-ability. Through him, we are confronted with our own dark sides, and those, who are seeing themselves in a better light than reality permits, should not wonder if the Trickster appears – usually with unpleasant consequences.
The self-aware and self-confident pagan should not ignore Loki, when he or she honors the gods. Like Sigyn, who stays to her husband Loki in bad and testing times, so should we do too.
When Loki comes into play, it is almost always spoken that he is a Scandinavian deity, who would not or hardly have had human worshipers. And people elsewhere would not have known him. However, that is not really a fact. Because, in the region where the West-Germanic peoples lived, a supernatural being was known under the names Kludde, Lodder, Lode and (Loeke), and in the folk tales, this being shows a distinguishing resemblance with Loki as we know him from the Norse myths. ‘Kludde’ is going around in Flanders and the Netherlands scaring people where he can. It is more than once suggested, based on etymology, because of the shared sympathy for water and fishes, and because both are able to shape-shift into the shape of a horse, that Kludde and Loki would be the same god. Several tales exist about Kludde or Lodder, which indeed show Loki-like tricks. An example:
Some farm laborers had to bring eight horses from the pasture to the barn. However, a ninth horse had joined the group. Because the men did not know to whom that one belonged, they decided to also bring it to the stable. Thereupon, the youngest of the laborers then had to ride that horse. At crossing a shallow creek, that same horse suddenly moldered into two parts, and the young laborer fell into the water, while at the same moment Kludde appeared at the other side of the creek, and jeered at the soaking wet boy.
In England Loki is also known. It is not comprehensible unequivocally, who had brought him there; the most likely suggestion is, that the Vikings did that.
Anyway, Loki was known in England, which, for instance, is shown in the text of an old spell:
Father, son and Holy ghost,
Nail the devil to this post.
Thrice I smite with Holy Crock,
With this mell I thrice do knock,
One for God,
And one for Wod,
And one for Lok.
This spell would have been practiced by an old woman to cure her grandson. While nailing three horseshoes to a board, she would have spoken these sentences. Wod stands for Woden, and Lok for Loki. Because at the time England was already converted, the Christian god was also added to the spell.
Which role Loki further played among the Germanic-Celtic English people is not clear. If, however, the characteristics are considered, that are classified as being typically British, then a wide new area of speculation can be headed. Doesn’t the expression ‘practical joke’ comes from there? That might be thought-provoking.
From the Arthurian legends we know the sorcerer Merlin, who, on one occasion, changes the appearance of King Uther Pendragon into the shape of the Lord of Cornwall to let him go to bed with the married Ygraine (with whom Uther had fallen in love), who he then impregnates with King Arthur. In that same night, that Lord of Cornwall, the husband of Ygraine, dies in battle. So, if Uther had just waited for a few hours, that whole masquerade would have been superfluous. And Arthur, in his turn, is slain later by his own bastard son Mordred.
Isn’t that really a Loki-like story?
Generally, if Loki is added to many an episode of England’s history, many pieces of it perhaps might become better explainable and understandable.
But we leave England again and step over to a last Loki item …
When is spoken or narrated about Loki, he is almost always depicted as a male god. But in the shape of a mare he gave birth to Odin’s horse Sleipnir. And in another tale, after Balder’s death, Balder would be allowed to leave Hel and return to Asgard if all beings on earth would weep for him. That failed, because there was one old woman who refused to weep for the deceased Balder. That woman is interpreted widely as being Loki, who would prevent a return of Balder.
These examples imply, that Loki is able, by choice, to be male or female. Knowing that, the thought is not reprehensible at all, to see Loki as an androgynous god (meaning, having the characteristics of both sexes). That would be something he would have in common then with the Greek god Hermes.
Thinking back in this context to the story from the beginning of this lecture, in which Loki ties up his testicles and a goat to one rope, every man would think immediately with disgust for the excruciating pain that must have caused. But if Loki also can think feminine, then a masculine instinctive protecting behavior concerning those genitals perhaps may not have played a decisive-rejecting reaction for such a thing – being able to think or to be feminine even may have brought Loki at all to do such a thing voluntarily.
If we consider, that the Norse myths are written by men, in a society that clearly can be characterized by patriarchal domination for at least already over a thousand years, a society in which the role of the women was socially subordinate – then, was that perhaps the reason to think automatically of the companion of Thor as being exclusively male?
In addition, the idea, that a woman would have been substantially involved in the creation of mankind, may have been unimaginable for most Norse people at the time. For many people that view still exists today.
And that brings this talk almost to its end.
Previously, it was said about Loki, who cut the hair of Sif, Thor’s wife. Because not everyone knows the whole myth, I conclude with that story, in which Loki gets himself into trouble with his cleverness, but also saves from it with relatively little damage thanks to his wilyness. This story also tells how various gods obtained their magical tools through Loki.
Loki, for mischief’s sake, had cut off all Sif’s hair. But when Thor learned of this, he seized Loki, and would have broken every bone in him, had he not sworn to get the Black Elves to make Sif hair of gold, such that it would grow like other hair. After that, Loki went to those dwarfs and they made the hair, and also the magical ship Skídbladnir, and the famous spear called Gungnir. Then Loki wagered his head with the dwarf called Brokkr that Brokkr’s brother Sindri could not make three other precious things equal in virtue to these ones. Now when they came to the smithy, Sindri laid a pigskin in the hearth and asked his brother Brokkr blow, and did not cease work until he took out of the hearth that which he had laid in there. But when he went out of the smithy, while the other dwarf was blowing, straightway a fly settled upon his hand and stung him. Yet he blew on as before, until the smith took the work out of the hearth; and it was a boar, with mane and bristles of gold. Next, he laid gold in the hearth and again bade Brokkr to blow and cease not from his blast until he should return. He went out; but again the fly came and settled on Brokkr’s neck, and bit now half again as hard as before; yet he kept on blowing even until the smith took from the hearth that gold ring which is called Draupnir. Then Sindri laid iron in the hearth and asked him to blow once more, saying that it would be spoiled if the blast failed. Straightway the fly settled between Brokkr’s eyes and stung his eyelid, and when the blood fell into his eyes so that he could not see, then he clutched at it with his hand as swiftly as he could,–while the bellows grew flat,–and he swept the fly from him. Then the smith came thither and said that it had come near to spoiling all that was in the hearth. Then he took from the forge a hammer, put all the precious works into the hands of Brokkr his brother, and said for him go with them to Ásgard and claim the wager.
Now when he and Loki brought forward the precious gifts, the Æsir sat down in the seats of judgment; and that verdict was to prevail which Odin, Thor, and Freyr should render. Then Loki gave Odin the spear Gungnir, and to Thor the hair which Sif was to have, and the ship Skídbladnir to Freyr, and he told the virtues of all these things: that the spear would never stop in its thrust; the hair would grow to the flesh as soon as it came upon Sif’s head; and Skídbladnir would have a favoring breeze as soon as the sail was raised, in whatsoever direction it might go, but could be folded together like a napkin and be kept in Freyr’s pouch if he so desired.
Then Brokkr brought forward his gifts: he gave to Odin the ring, saying that eight rings of the same weight would drop from it every ninth night; to Freyr he gave the boar, saying that it could run through air and water better than any horse, and it could never become so dark with night or gloom that there should not be sufficient light wherever he was going to, such was the glow from its mane and bristles. Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his shirt, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.
This was their decision: that the hammer was best of all the precious works, and in it there was the greatest defense against the Rime-Giants; and they gave sentence, that the dwarf should have his wager. Then Loki offered to redeem his head, but the dwarf said that there was no chance of this. ‘Then take me, if you can,’ said Loki. But when Brokkr tried to lay his hands on him, Loki was a long way off. Loki owned magical shoes with which he could run through air and over water. Then the dwarf asked Thor to catch him, and Thor did so. Then the dwarf was going to cut off his head, but Loki said that he might have the head, but not the neck. So the dwarf took a twine and a knife, and would have bored a hole in Loki’s lips and stitched his mouth together, but the knife did not cut. Then Brokkr said that it would be better if his brother’s awl were there: and even as he named it, the awl was there, and pierced the lips. He stitched the lips together, until Loki ripped out the twine out of the holes.
That’s why Loki got off well in this adventure with only two lipped lips, a very mild punishment for the time.
And that completes this lecture.
Thank you all for your patient and attentive listening.
(Previously known under the pseudonymGardenStone)