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The Enigmatic Loki, a Trickster among Gods in Norse Mythology

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The Norse trickster god, Loki is undoubtedly the most debated figure from Norse mythology to this day.  Though he appears to be a scheming, mischievous deity who has no real loyalties, scholars still explore what his purpose might have been in the ancient stories. Was he merely a plot device, a foil for the AEsir, the pantheon of gods in Norse religion? His character surely meant more to the non-Christian Scandinavians than can be gleaned now, and though that purpose cannot be fully realized due to a lack of sufficient sources, an overview of who Loki was and what he did can loosely be outlined.

According to Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda , Loki was the son of Fárbauti, a jötunn (giant), and Laufey, a lesser known female god. His jötunn heritage does aid in explaining the complexity of his character, as the jötunns once went to war against the AEsir and are considered, in many ways, their enemies. Loki, as the son of a giant as well as a goddess, straddles the two warring factions, a trait which plagues his character throughout his mythology. He marries the minor goddess Sigyn, but has many affairs, his most notable with the giantess Angrboða, by whom he gives birth to Hel, the queen of Niflheim; Fenrir, the oversized wolf who is fated to kill Odin at Ragnarök; and Jörmungandr, the World Serpent banished to the seas. The trickster god also, interestingly enough, is the mother of Odin's great eight-legged steed Sleipnir, as Loki mated with a powerful male stallion while disguised as a mare.  As his parentage and his progeny are all outside the normal state of affairs even in the godly world, scholars believe that there must have been pertinence to his connection to so many dark and powerful figures in the Norse pantheon.

Loki's relationship with the other gods is what causes most of the concern and confusion in modern scholarship. Loki is not shown as an outright evil god, though he does appear to take great pleasure in fooling or insulting the AEsir. One of the most notable examples is his fluctuating relationship with Thor, as recorded in two different poems both from the Codex Regius, which houses the Poetic Edda .  "Lokasenna" tells of when Thor comes to the great hall of the sea god AEgir and immediately becomes bothered by Loki and his antics. Three times Thor threatens to silence Loki with his hammer Mjölnir, and three times Loki proceeds to insult him and Odin.  At the end of the tale, Loki flees the scene, hiding from the AEsir for his harsh words, only to be found and captured, and bound to the rock where he will remain until Ragnarök.

A depiction (1895) of Loki quarreling with the gods, as in the Poetic Edda poem Lokasenna.

A depiction (1895) of Loki quarreling with the gods, as in the Poetic Edda poem Lokasenna. Public Domain

For his mischief, Loki is hounded by the gods and bound to a rock where a serpent drips painful venom upon him.

For his mischief, Loki is hounded by the gods and bound to a rock where a serpent drips painful venom upon him. There he lies till Ragnarok. Painting illustrating Loki and Sigyn from Norse mythology. Public Domain

"Þrymskviða", contrastingly, details Thor and Loki on friendlier terms, as it is Loki to whom Thor turns for aid when Mjölnir, his powerful hammer, goes missing. Loki is the first person Thor seeks out, and together they work to uncover which god or magical creature has stolen the weapon. Loki goes out of his way to travel to Jötunheimr, the home of the giants, to ask the jötunn Þrymr what he knows, only to uncover Þrymr himself has taken Mjölnir and will only return it if Freyja will agree to marry him. In this tale, Loki and Thor retrieve the hammer with a clever plan of disguise, and Þrymr is punished for his misdeeds.

Thor and Loki in the Chariot

"Thor and Loki in the Chariot". Foster, Mary H. 1901. Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology. Silver, Burdett and Company. Page 41. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Though these are only two of many stories that describe Loki, these tales regarding his association with Thor reveal the wide spectrum of his personality and thus why his portrayals in the ancient Norse sagas constantly conflict. Just as modern scholars do not fully understand Loki's role, the Christian authors who finally wrote down the oral tradition did not seem to comprehend him well enough to know how to describe him either. Although Loki is neither depicted as completely evil nor completely helpful, he will fight against the Æsir during Ragnarök and eventually kill and be killed by Heimdall, the god who guards the rainbow bridge Bifröst which leads to the world of mortals. Loki appears to have no regret of his actions or sympathy for his family members—Hel, Jörmungandr, and Fenrir—thereby emphasizing the anomaly of his relationship with the AEsir. 

Loki, smiling far left

Loki, smiling far left, causes the ultimate death of his fellow deity, Baldr . Public Domain

Based on this outline of Loki's personality and history alone, it is unsurprising that the nature and purpose of his character are still unknown and debated among modern scholars. There seems to be no apparent reason for his varying personality traits, and even less of an indication of his motives. The intentions of Loki in the ancient Norse tradition are lost now, or have yet to be found, but he still remains the most intriguing figure to debate and consider from the Norse pantheon.

Featured image: Detail, An illustration of Loki with a fishnet, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript. Public Domain

Bibliography

Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North: the gods of the Norsemen (Continuum International Publishing Group: London, 2011.)

Colum, Padriac. Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover Publications: New York, 1996.)

Guerber, Helene A. Myths of the Norsemen (Barnes & Noble, Inc.: New York, 2006.)

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda . trans. Jesse L. Byock (Penguin Classics: New York, 2006.)

Unknown. The Poetic Edda . trans. Lee Hollander (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2011.)

By Ryan Stone

Comments

Well, Loki certainly is an interesting and quite popular figure, although I think this article is too short and simplified to point out his nature (I wrote thesis of 50 pages about this god and it still wasnt enough: P). First of all, his mother Laufey was more probably a giantess, not a goddess. Secondly, we do not know if he was so important in pre-christian religion and cult – at least, we do not have any clear evidence. Third, Hel was goddess of her own realm, Helheim, and Niflheim could have been part of this realm (or, less probably, they point to the same place) or it was different realm (possibly later invention). But most of scholars argue that (according to majority of sources) Hellheim was known before goddess Hel. Talking about his children, there is an interesting story about Loki eating heart of a witch and giving birth to a baby in poem Hyndluljod. In Lokasenna, the story in more complex and have many unanswered questions regarding his behavior and accusations (for example passage of Loki being accused of milking cows). There are many other things, but what I wanted to write regarding  approach to study his figure, I believe that scholars were, and still are, trying to fit Loki in our known patterns, like “trickster”, “god of fire”, “god of illusion and death”, “norse mythology devil” etc. But what if he fits in all of them, or just takes something from each of it? Religion, and mythology, are never simple. They are alive - they grow, change, dissapear, modify, evolve... They have their own logic, many layers for many interpretations. Maybe we shall try to see him in his complexity; maybe the reason for his complicated nature is even more complicated human mind. 

Tsurugi's picture

Maybe his purpose is to be a mystery? Mysterious things are humbling, for one...they remind us humans that we do not, in fact, know everything; this is healthy in general, but particularly so from a spiritual standpoint. Mysterious things also lead to questioning, a quest for knowledge and understanding….it sets the feet of the initiate on the path.

I would be extremely interested in reading your thesis on Loki, or at the very least a list of your references. I have a strong interest in learning all that I can - and many insights as well. triviumthink at gmail dot com is my email address.

Hemmig Aydis's picture

I completely agree with you. In my opinion, Loki is someone who keeps the balance of the whole creation. We can’t fit him in some kind of system.
P.S: You said that you wrote thesis about him. Have you ever published it?

Of course according to myth, Loki is tied down to three stones where he must remain until Ragnarok, but as a character he always eludes easy categorisation.
Perhaps it's always wiser not to try to find a logical explanation for the characters of the gods, but rather to let the myths speak for themselves. In trying to explain and categorise each god, we sometimes seem to put them into a box so we can put them away on a shelf and forget about them. There's no harm in analysing, as long as we use this to enrich our experience of the myths and don't try to explain them away.

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