There’s been a dark, dangerous, deceptive figure creeping around the edges of this blog since I first started posting images associated with Thor well over a year ago. In pictures, in stories, in analysis, Loki cannot help insinuating himself into every representation of the gods of the Vikings and the wider Germanic peoples, even though we’ve never found any evidence of anyone actually worshiping him.
What the Hel?
Even attempting to understand Loki will tie you into knots. Gabriel Turville-Petre wrote in 1964 that “more ink has been spilled on Loki than on any other figure in Norse myth. This, in itself, is enough to show how little scholars agree, and how far we are from understanding him.” I’ve read near-identical complaints from authors both before and since Turville-Petre.
And yet Loki is incredibly popular in Western culture today. He is well-known for his role in Marvel’s comics and film franchises, but he has cultural cachet beyond his association with Thor, turning up in Jim Carrey films, the Supernatural television series, multiple works of Neil Gaiman, and the list goes on. People like Loki. Should we? What kind of god/myth/figure/character is he?
I don’t have the answers, and this subject is too big to answer in one blog post. It’s going to take several. Let’s start with introducing some basic facts about who Loki is, and who he isn’t, and maybe we can start to make some headway. Understanding Loki’s place in Norse Mythology, Norse religion, or his relationship to Thor specifically, is still far in the future.
Let’s start with the basics: Loki is the son of the giant Farbauti (male) and either Laufey or Nal, and it is not known whether his mother was a giant or a god. However, notably, Loki is “numbered among the Aesir” according to Snorri, so even though lineage is typically determined by paternity, Loki found a place among the gods. At one point he is called Odin’s blood brother, so he is at least as much part of the Aesir as any of the Vanir, for instance.
As we have previously discussed, Loki is the mother, via strange shape-shifting incident, of Odin’s steed Sleipnir. He is the father, by the giant Angrboda, of the monstrous creatures Jörmungand the Midgard Serpent and the Fenris-Wolf, and also the queen of the dead called Hel.
He is, like Odin and Freyja, well-versed in magic, with shape-shifting and other shamanic abilities. In some stories, he is a traveling companion, in others, his mischief leads to consequences he is forced to set aright, but he sets Ragnarök into motion by causing the death of Balder and as punishment is bound by his son Nari’s entrails and forced to suffer the eternal drip of a serpent’s poison dripping into his eyes. Ragnarök begins in earnest when he escapes his bonds and steers Naglfar, the ship of the dead, against the Aesir at Asgard, where he and Heimdall die in combat against one another.
There is quite a bit of controversy over whether Loki is merely mischievous or is a more complex version of evil. Some experts see a god of mischief like trickster gods in African and Native American cultures, and the fact that he becomes so clearly evil after a more benevolent beginning has been interpreted by some to mean he was corrupted by the myths’ exposure to Christianity and certain tales of Lucifer the fallen. Anna Birgitta Rooth carefully studied local folk traditions of Loki and found his origin to be most likely as a spider, which puts me in mind of the mischievous, loquacious storytelling spider Anansi of Ghana and the Caribbean. Few of the trickster gods in other myths have anything like Loki’s reputation for outright evil, as seen in the death of Balder or as commanding general against the Aesir at Ragnarök.
Could the difference be Loki’s close association with Odin? Not just as blood brothers, but the details of each figure are similar as well. Loki is a wandering figure, always a traveling companion to anyone leaving Asgard, and occasionally getting into trouble on travels of his own. He is associated with the same shamanic magic as Odin (and Freyja, incidentally). He does not fear being associated with womanly activities like that sort of magic and in fact is actually a mother. And as Odin is the father of the slain, on the battlefield and beyond, Loki is the father of the end of the mythological cycle, where all things perish. Is Loki simply an extension of Odin’s godhood? Are they more than blood brothers, but two sides of the same coin? Opinions differ; while the similarities are compelling, finding a firm, definitive picture of exactly what the relationship between Odin and Loki is elusive for now.
If Loki is a god, what is his function? Recall that we’ve talked about two ways of interpreting godhood.
The first is by remembering that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, as with many polytheistic societies, saw their gods as the animating spirits behind the forces for nature, that everything around them had its own consciousness and life and was sacred in its own way. Odin was the animating force behind all life, Thor the protector against destructive forces, Freyr the lord of the harvest, and so on. If Loki was genuinely a god, what was his role?
We’ve also talked about Georges Dumezil’s tripartite function hypothesis, that the gods fit a rough class structure associated with sovereignty functions, military functions, and the common people. This derived from Dumezil’s study of the Proto-Indo-European mythologies, where he noticed that societies and gods seemed to fit this structure fairly consistently. This doesn’t really help us understand Loki, either. He’s not a leader or worshipped by leaders; he isn’t a protector or warrior, and in fact might be particularly hated by the warrior class, and he doesn’t serve a fertility function or serve as a god of the sea or anything similar that might map onto a third-tier function.
But there are lots of ways to think about godhood, and these are just two. Maybe we’ll pick up on something in a later analysis that makes some sense. The fact that we can’t find a Loki cult or evidence of Loki worship doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a god – being an immanent part of the system of worship can put him in the class of the gods. But it doesn’t look good for Loki being anything like what the pre-Christian Germanic peoples thought of as god.
Should we just call him a giant? We know his father was a giant. As we’ve discussed in our analysis of Thor, giants are agents of destruction and chaos who are constantly threatening, and they’re the whole reason we need a Thor. He defends us from natural forces too big to fight ourselves. Loki seems a lot like a giant at Ragnarök, and even if he didn’t throw the spear that killed Balder, being the guiding voice of deception could be the kind of destructive force that fits the bill of a giant.
But it’s hard to ignore the fact that in other stories, Loki is explicitly good, and even a force for creation. He helps the Aesir when they need him with the construction of the outer wall of Asgard, and ends up giving birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin. He’s responsible for the existence of Mjölnir, even if he tried to muck up its creation a bit. He is only helpful during Thor’s journey to Utgarda-Loki with Thjalfi and Roskva. He is often referred to as Odin’s friend, or Thor’s friend. That’s not a giant, a frightening and destructive force of nature. Is it? I’m seriously asking.
Since there’s little evidence for Loki being a god, and he doesn’t fit the giant paradigm, what if we tried a different strategy? What if Loki is just a storyteller’s indulgence, a catalyst to get the gods in action in their stories? These were oral myths, after all, and for them to survive, they had to be memorable and useful and occasionally they had to be fun. That might well be why so many of the surviving stories of the gods included Loki – those were the ones that tended to include some humor, and therefore were most popular or easiest to transmit to the next generation. Stories that didn’t have Loki in them just weren’t as much fun. Or, alternatively, stories that included Loki had a figure in them who could be easily equated with Lucifer, and therefore were able to survive into Christian scholarship because they equated the Old Way with the devil.
This set of theories is of course nearly impossible to evaluate. I don’t know what the stories that didn’t survive were like because they didn’t survive. I’m not sure how much the extant stories exist because they were fun, and many of them are, or whether they survive because they were more relevant for preserving poetic meter (they do), or because Snorri and others who were looking at these poems and stories in the 13th century just thought Loki was cool.
I’m back where I started. Loki is complicated and difficult to understand. He’s not a god but he’s not (merely) a giant. If he’s a storytelling device alone, he’s a pretty complicated storytelling device.
What the Hel?
This post isn’t the last time I’m going to talk about Loki and I’ve not covered every issue relevant to who he is and what he’s about. So we’re going to come back to this. I’m especially interested in his relationships with Thor and Odin, and trying to pick apart his role in Ragnarök, but I also want to see if I can figure out what he might mean outside the internal logic of the myths.
For now, I hope we can come away with a couple of quick truths. Loki is not Thor’s brother. He was not adopted as a baby by Odin and Frigga because they wanted to figure out some way to make peace with the frost giants. He is not (merely) a god of mischief, a god of death, destruction, or evil, and he’s not (merely) a trickster or a giant either. He might be all of those things or none of them, but Loki seems too complicated to fit into any black and white pronouncement of any kind. He’s an enigma, and we may never know exactly what the pre-Christian Germanic peoples thought of him. We’ll have to come to terms with who he is for us instead.