Part I: The Role of Loki in the Eddas
Norse mythology as reflected in the Prose and Poetic Eddas, stories recorded one hundred years after the close of the last Heathen Temple (in Uppsala, Sweden in 1100 C.E.) is replete with dynamic, inter-related families of Gods and Goddesses. Their dramas, exploits and behaviors reflect a curious panoply of conflicting elements that at times seem, to the modern mind, both ambivalent and even amoral. This is especially true of Loki. Loki is a fascinating figure. Perhaps no other being in the Northern Pantheon is quite so controversial and at the same time quite so compelling. This holds true not only in the scholarly world but also within the contemporary Northern Tradition, the modern Reconstructionist faiths that seek to revive the worship of the Norse Gods. The role of Loki in this modern religious movement has created an ideological fault line that remains explosive and hotly contested within the American Heathen community, for just as scholars often don’t seem to know quite what to make of this particular figure, neither does modern Heathenry.
Perhaps it is fitting, given Loki’s often provocative role in the Eddic lore, that a consensus within both the scholarly and religious communities as to his function and nature has yet to be truly reached. Historian of religion William Paden notes that “religions are grounded in mythic language….myth is not a medium of neutral, mathematical objectivity, but a definitive voice that names the ultimate powers that create, maintain, and re-create one’s life.” (Paden, p. 73). Myths shape and define that which is ephemeral and timeless, creating living bridges to the numinous. To some extent, by their very nature, such myths also reflect the beliefs and world view of those creating them. This makes the appearance of Loki, in a mythos otherwise focused around what are known as the “Reginn,” or ordered powers, all the more thought-provoking. Frank Stanton Cawley, in his essay “The Figure of Loki in Germanic Mythology” notes that in the study of Germanic mythology, the scholar is presented with many difficult problems. “One of the most puzzling of all is that presented by the God Loki, about whose essential nature there are almost as many opinions as there are scholars who have occupied themselves with him.” (Cawley, p. 310).
For that and for his dominant role in the surviving mythos, Loki is a fascinating figure. He enlivens the Eddic tales and serves as a catalyst for both adventure and trouble. He is both friend of the Aesir and their bitterest enemy. He is numbered amongst the Gods and yet at Ragnarok battles against them. He defies boundaries and his apparent and uncompromising liminality presents a continuous challenge to those who would understand and categorize his nature. One modern devotee of Loki refers to him as a God of both “paradox and uncertainty,” (personal correspondence with F. Plaza) And that perfectly reflects the startling ambiguity with which he was equally held, not only by medieval Christian authors, who saw in him a Nordic version of Satan, but also by modern Heathens and modern scholars.
This series of articles will seek to explore the nature of Loki, both his role in the surviving Eddic tales and the impact his controversial nature has had on the development of modern Heathenry within the United States. Loki’s nature and relationship to the other Gods will be examined particularly in light of the core cosmological principles reflected in Norse beliefs (both ancient and modern) and the development of a subsection of American Heathenry, focused around worship of Loki and his kin will be examined.
According to Heathen cosmology, the world began with what amounts to a “big bang.” In the beginning, there existed a great chasm called Ginungagap. Scholar Rudolf Simek notes that the meaning of Ginungagap is “difficult to interpret etymologically” but offers either ‘yawning void” or, drawing on the work of Germanic scholar de Vries, “void filled with magical and creative powers.” (Simek, p. 109). Within this void lay two diametrically opposed worlds: Muspellheim, the world of fire and dynamic movement and Niflheim, the world of ice, fog and stillness. Eventually these two worlds collided and from that elemental conflagration, life burst into being and the process of cosmic evolution began. From the primordial ooze crated by the steam, ice, fog and heat, there arose the first being, a proto-giant named Ymir. Ymir was born when the ice of Niflhem melted in the heat caused by the nearness of Muspelheim. Ymir nourished himself on the milk of a primordial cow named Audhumla (from audhr: riches, wealth Simek, p. 22). Audhumla in turn lived on salt, which she licked from the ice and brine of Niflheim.
As Audhumla licked the salty brine –matter infused with creative life force, a new being began to emerge. This was Buri. Eventually, Buri would father the first Bor, who in turn fathered the first of the Gods, including Odin. (Krasskova, p. 28). Odin with his two brothers slew Ymir and from his corpse fashioned the world of man, Midgard. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by the slaughter of the Jotuns, for from Ymir’s descendents not only sprang the race of the Aesir, but also that of the Jotuns, the race from which Loki sprang. This dynamic of conflict and violence permeates the Eddic tales and lies at the heart of Loki’s contentious and ambivalent nature.
Despite the fact that Odin himself traces his lineage from the Jotnar, throughout the Eddic tales, the Aesir remained in constant conflict with them. Scholars argue about the nature of the Jotnar, much as they do about the nature of the most famous member of that tribe, Loki. Many differing theories have been advanced. Some consider them personifications of the forces of nature, others an earlier group of Gods dispossessed by newer deities and therefore hostile to them (MacCulloch, p. 281). This theory is occasionally espoused by followers of the Rokkr movement in modern Heathenry, a fringe movement that focuses not on worship of the Aesir or Vanir, but rather on worship of the Jotnar. Loki is simply the most obvious of the Aesir’s links to the more violent and primal world of the giants standing, as one scholar noted “midway between the doomed gods and the hostile powers which ultimately compass their destruction. (Cawley, p. 311).
According to lore, at some point in their early history, Loki and Odin became blood-brothers. In stanza nine of the Lokasenna, Loki reminds Odin:
Remember, Othin, in olden days
That we both our blood have mixed;
Then didst thou promise no ale to pour,
Unless it were brought to us both.
(Bellows translation, p. 155).
This connection to Odin persists, carrying over even into English folk charms down into the 19th century. (ibid). This connection, inextricable as it seems to be, has caused some scholars to dismiss Loki as nothing more than a hypostasis of Odin. (von Schnurbein, p. 113). In fact, that is one of three primary explications of Loki’s nature, the others being that he is a fire God or a Trickster Deity. Additionally, Georges Dumezil considered Loki, falling as he does outside of the tri-partite Divine functions, as being an incarnation of impulsive intelligence. (ibid). In order to draw any conclusions as to the validity of each of these theories, it is necessary to discuss the manner in which Loki actually appears in the lore.
Loki is the child of two Jotuns: Laufey (leafy isle) and Farbauti (cruel striker). His mother is sometimes also referred to as Nal (needle) and apparently has two other sons: Byleistr and Helblindi, about which nothing else is known. Loki is often known as Laufeysson and has several other bynames or heiti, including Lopt, which means either Airy One or Lightening One (Simek, p. 195), ‘the bound god,’ ‘wolf’s father’ (referring to his siring of the great wolf Fenris), “Sly One’ and “the foe of the Gods” (MacCulloch, p. 147). Some attempts have been made to link him with Lodhur, third in the divine triune of Odin, Hoenir and Lodhur, but there is no etymological basis for this connection.
Loki has two wives, as different as night from day to each other. The first is a sorceress of the ironwood named Angurboda (‘one who brings grief’) by which he sired a brood of “monsters”: Fenris, the wolf of chaos, Jormungand, the world serpent and Hela, who became the Goddess of the Underworld. The Gods were so threatened by these three children that they banished them. Fenris was bound, Jormungand was tossed into the ocean and set to encircle Midgard and Hela was cast into the land of the dead. Loki’s second wife, Sigyn was ostensibly of the Aesir, though nothing about her background is known. Her name means ‘victory woman’ and every reference made to her in the Eddas (of which there are only three) refers to her loyalty to Loki. After his part in the death of Baldr, he was bound in a cave with a poisonous serpent fixed above his head. Sigyn refused to repudiate him and stood by his side loyally holding a bowl to catch the venom that the serpent dripped onto him. It is known that he had two sons by her: Narvi and Vali, but when he was bound, it was with the entrails of his own son for Vali was turned into a wolf by the Aesir and in turn, he killed his brother.
Loki is responsible for the Gods gaining many of their most powerful tools from Odin’s spear to Thor’s hammer. There are several episodes in the Edda where Loki functions as a thief. In one of these escapades, he sneaks into the bedroom of Sif, wife of the Thunder God Thor and cuts off all her hair. This was a grave insult and humiliation in Nordic culture, being a punishment visited on adulterous women. Thor is, of course, enraged, and in the face of his fury, Loki offers to put things right. In order to do so, Loki travels to Nidavellir, the land of the Duergar, dwarves renown for their skill in smithcraft. He finagled and bartered and convinced the dwarves to craft new hair out of pure gold for Sif, a wig that when placed upon her shorn head would take root and grow like real hair, becoming more beautiful than the original. He also had them craft other gifts, to make up for his transgression. He goaded two different dwarven clans into a contest, betting his head against the original crafter Brokk, that Brokk would lose this contest. Of course, he did not: the winning gift, out of several which included Odin’s spear Gungnir and Frey’s ship Skidbladnir was Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor. Loki didn’t lose his head, however, as he pointed out that he hadn’t bet any part of his neck. Brokk had to content himself with sewing the etin’s lips closed instead.
Loki was also indirectly responsible for the theft of Idunna’s apples. Idunna was guardian of the apples of youth, for the Norse Gods are neither immortal nor unchanging. On one of his travels, Loki was captured by the giant Thrym and in order to secure his escape, he promised to bring to the giant Idunna and her precious apples. He contrived for Idunna to be captured and only when the Gods began to age did he admit his part in her disappearance and work to gain her return. This he did, by borrowing Freya’s shapeshifting falcon cloak, flying into Thrym’s stronghold, transforming Idunna into a nut and flying back to Asgard with her thus transformed in his claws. This however, led to the death of Thrym and eventually to his daughter Skadhi storming Asgard demanding wergild for her father’s death. Loki helped ameliorate her anger in that instance by debasing himself to make her laugh but ultimately Skadhi was to have her vengeance on Laufey’s son.
Loki was also known to be somewhat fluid in gender presentation, and this is one of his attributes that has caused some scholars, like de Vries, to classify him as a Trickster figure. It is certainly one of the major issues modern Heathens have with this most changeable of Gods, the other being Loki’s role in the death of Odin’s favorite son Baldr.
In part two, we will look at Loki as a manifestation of the Trickster.
- Bellows, Henry (translator) (1926). The Poetic Edda. New York: The American Scandinavian Foundation.
- Cawley, Frank Stanton, (1939). The Figure of Loki in Germanic Mythology. Retrieved October 2006 from http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0017-8160%28193910%2932%3A4%3C309%3ATFOLIG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L
- de Vries, Jan, (1933). The Problem of Loki. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia Societas Scientiarum Fennica.
- Dumezil, Georges, (1986). Loki. France: Flammarion.
- Krasskova, Galina (2005). Exploring the Northern Tradition. New Jersey: New Page Books.
- MacCulloch, John, (1964). Mythology of All Races, Vol. 2. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.
- Paden, William, (1994). Religious Worlds. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Simek, Rudolf, (2000). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. UK: DS Brewer.