Part Two: Loki as a Trickster Figure
One of the most enduring theories about Loki’s nature is that he is the quintessential Trickster figure. While this theory is not without controversy, it does provide an interesting avenue into the examination of Loki’s character. Lewis Hyde, in his book Trickster Makes the World, defines a Trickster Deity as one who represents the “paradoxical category of sacred amorality.” (Hyde. P. 10). He goes on to point out that Tricksters invariably appear in nearly every mythology, often cropping up in folklore and popular culture as well.
Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish – right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead – and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction….Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox. (Hyde, p. 7).
Certainly that amorality is one of the dominant characteristics of Loki as his stories have come down to us in the lore and it’s the characteristic that gives modern Heathens the most trouble in coming to terms with him as part of the existing cosmology of Gods.
Because Tricksters are defined by their ambiguity and guile, (Hyde, p. 18) it is not surprising then to find folklorists and scholars willing to place Loki in this category. Like the West African Eshu, Loki may be considered a trickster not only ‘because he fools people and creates chaos, but because he’s always escaping the codes of the world.” (Davis, p. 39). Dumezil, for instance, in his monograph Loki, while not approaching Loki as a Trickster, discusses him as a manifestation of creative and often impulsive intelligence, what he calls ‘the unquiet thought.” (Dumezil, p. 216). Scholar Jan de Vries on the other hand, places Loki definitively in the category of Trickster, emphasizing his nature as mischief maker. (de Vries, p. 224) and, equating him with Lodur, as a divine thief of fire, a comparison Dumezil also makes.
It is admitted by all scholars that the most outstanding feature of Loki is his character as a trickster and a thief. With only very few exceptions all the traditions about him show him as a cunning creature, delighting in making mischief. Sometimes he shows a rather childish pleasure in playing his tricks upon the gods, often he contrives to do serious damage, but in most cases he is obliged to repair his faults. …Loki as a trickster is quite sufficient as a religious phenomenon. (de Vries, p. 253-254).
Parallels may also be drawn between Loki as Trickster and Loki, Prometheus-like, as a cultural hero. Something of this perhaps survives in the Faroese balled, the Loka Táttur, in which Loki is the only God out of three (the others being Odin and Hoenir) who is able to save a peasant boy from a giant’s wrath. This tale stands in stark relief amongst the surviving lore, portraying Loki as a cultural hero instead of as the enemy of Gods and man. It is interesting that Loki is paired with Odin and Hoenir as this pairing is echoed in the creation triad of Odin, Hoenir and Lodur as well.
The Trickster and the Hero are both powerful cultural archetypes often highlighting those transformative or traumatic moments where the sacred leaks into every day life. The most ubiquitous of mythic or archetypal figures are often also the most disturbing and controversial and the trickster is no exception to this rule. Diana Paxson in her book “Essential Asatru” declares: “Steer clear of Loki if you have problems with ambiguity;” and later notes “like Coyote in Native American myth, Loki is a trouble maker and a culture bringer, the latter often as a result of the former.” (Paxson, p. 71).
As Hyde notes, Tricksters are Gods are uncertainty. (Hyde, p. 247). They are figures who ‘can tear a hole in the fabric of fate so a person might slip from one life into another.” (ibid). They help the outsider escape the restrictions and boundaries imposed by cultural conventions. Liminal figures, tricksters often define thresholds and then by their actions either cross or expand those thresholds. Tricksters inhabit “The cracks between languages or between heaven and earth,” (Hyde, p. 260) and by their finagling machinations, create a means whereby diametrically opposed opposites (like heaven and earth, good and evil, chaos and order) may intersect and learn from each other without actually touching and thereby violating the necessary boundary between the sacred and profane. (Hyde, p. 263). They are the enemies of entropy, the living embodiment that unchanging surety is an illusion, that, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: Everything changes. Nothing remains the same. (Balme, p. 11).
Like any good trickster, Loki is the most controversial being in the entire Nordic pantheon. Many modern Asatruar won’t even utter his name, such is the discomfort he inspires. Loki entered the ordered ranks of the Aesir through a ‘back door,’ so to speak: he swore blood brotherhood with Odin (a God with more than his fair share of tricksterish qualities). This oath entitled Loki to be treated with all the honor and respect due Odin’s actual brother. (Krasskova, p. 97). Despite this erstwhile acceptance into the ranks of the Aesir, Loki pays little heed to their rules and comfort zones. Interestingly enough, one possible etymology of Loki’s name is ‘a looped piece of string,’ in other words, a loop-hole. (http://www.ellipsis.cx/~liana/names/norse/vikbynames.html). Certainly in the surviving Eddic tales, Loki is a master of creating them both for himself and others.
It is part of a trickster’s nature that they force those who work with them to expand the boundaries of their understanding. They bring evolution, a dynamic synergy and creative power. They often act as catalysts and facilitators of growth. Through Loki’s tricks, for instance, the Gods acquire tools like Mjolnir that help them defend and maintain the order that the Aesir created at the beginning of time. When Thor’s hammer is later stolen, it is through Loki’s quick thinking that Thor is able to win it back. (A certain gender fluidity is also, often the mark of a trickster and it is notable that in the Thrymskiviða, Thor must disguise himself as the goddess Freya to triumph and Loki himself exhibits a certain ambiguity in the area of gender, even transforming into female form twice, once actually giving birth). At the same time, through Loki’s direct interference, the Gods lose Baldr, one of the favored sons of Odin. Eventually, Loki is said to rise up against the Gods.
So what are the traditional characteristics of a trickster, outside of a certain moral ambiguity? Folklorist Barbara Babcock defines trickster figures by their duality:
No figure in literature, oral or written, baffles us quite as much as trickster. He is positively identified with creative powers, often bringing such defining features of culture as fire or basic food, and yet he constantly behaves in the most antisocial manner we can imagine. Although we laugh at him for his troubles and his foolishness and are embarrassed by his promiscuity, his creative cleverness amazes us and keeps alive the possibility of transcending the social restrictions we regularly encounter. …In the majority of his encounters with men, he violates rules or boundaries, thereby necessitating escape and forcing himself to again wander aimlessly. …
Trickster is . . . a “creative negation” who introduces death and with it all possibilities to the world. . . . Things “are” by virtue of and in relation to what they “are not”: structure implies antistructure and cannot exist without it. …Trickster, “the foolish one” — the negation offering possibility — stands in immediate relation to the center in all its ambiguity . . . . And for this we not only tolerate this “margin of mess,” this “enemy of boundaries,” we create and re-create him. (Babcock, p. 147-186).
It is easy to see Loki fitting into these rather broad categories. He is bringer of gifts, cultural hero and at the same time brings destruction (or negation) by helping to kill Baldr and eventually leading the etin forces against the Aesir at Ragnarokk. Erin Weber in her article on Nanabozho and Hermes briefly discusses the attributes common to tricksters across cultures, again reinforcing their ambivalent ambiguity:
…godlike qualities intermixed with human frailties, the role of educator, often through the counter or negative example (particularly through ambiguous sexuality that presents the consequences of disobedience vis-à-vis societal norms), as well as the function of guide to worlds unknown or as middleman or conductor between worlds. In essence, the trickster embodies an entire bundle of contradictions that enact an uneasy but necessary reconciliation of the world’s dualities. (http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:YKa8gQXaNm4J:honors.web.mtsu.edu/docs/Word%2520%26%2520Excel%2520Documents/Weber%2520(Erin)%2520Abstract%252006U.doc+Characteristics+of+Trickster&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=39).
Loki, a being who resists categorization of any sort manages to fall fairly neatly into the categories that define tricksters. A few relevant examples will clearly highlight this aspect of Loki’s nature.
Creative powers, bringer of culture:
As discussed above, Loki was responsible for the acquisition of several important tools of the other Gods. In payment for his theft of Sif’s hair, he won Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer by which he defends Midgard and the realm of the God against Jotun incursion; Odin’s armring Draupnir that drops eight identical rings every ninth night; Frey received his golden boar Gullinbursti and of course, Sif received new hair made entirely of gold, hair that took root and grew like real hair when placed upon her shorn head. The theft of Sif’s hair and its eventual replacement with pure gold is interesting in that many modern Heathens (and some scholars) accept the idea that her hair represented the grain crop (particularly wheat) and that this story may be symbolic of the seasonal harvest: the grain, so necessary for life, is cut and grows anew with the turning of seasons. Scholar Marion Ingham points out that the few scholars who still support such nature-symbolism point to the fact that it is virtually indispensable to have thunderstorms for the grain to ripen—it fixes the nitrogen. And Thor with his mighty hammer is associated with thunder. (Krasskova, p. 53). Thus, in a rather round-about way (fitting for a trickster) Loki might be seen to assist in bringing about the creative abundance of the harvest.
Loki is associated with fire and by some scholars (such as de Vries) with Lodur, one of the triune of creator Gods (the other two being Odin and Hoenir). Of Lodur, the Voluspa notes that he was responsible for bestowing ‘life hue and warmth’ upon the first man and woman, just as Odin gave breath, and Hoenir consciousness.
Of course it should be noted that not all scholars accept Loki and Lodur as being the same entity. There is admittedly scant etymological evidence to support this attribution, yet the translation of the name as “Fire bringer” and Loki’s ongoing connection with fire, particularly in folklore where he is often regarded as something of a fire-spirit or fire demon (MacCullough, p. 148-149), as well as Loki’s connections with Odin have contributed to its persistence.
By some accounts, Loki creates the fishnet, which is then used to trap him when he attempts to flee in the aftermath of the Lokasenna. Then of course there is the story of Skrymsli the peasant’s child in which Loki is hailed as a hero, providing a permanent solution to the danger the child was in where Odin and Hoenir only provided temporary aid. (Guerber, p. 119). And while it may not fall strictly within the confines of “culture-bringer,” in his travels with Thor, Loki does consistently help his companion navigate interactions with the Jotuns, effectively bridging two disparate cultures.
Promiscuity and sexual ambiguity:
Perhaps no other aspect of Loki’s character gives both modern scholars and Heathens such pause as his sexual exploits and ambiguity. Unlike any other God, Loki is known to several times have shape shifted into female form. While Odin is accused of unmanly behavior and keeping company with witches in the Lokasenna, only Loki goes so far as to assume female shape and actually give birth. He first does so when the safety of Asgard is under threat. A stone mason hires out to the Aesir to build a sturdy protective wall around Asgard. His payment, should he finish by a set date was to be the sun, moon and Freya as his bride. The Aesir agreed largely because it did not seem possible for the giant to finish in the time allotted. His horse Svadilfari, however, proves to be of more aid than the Gods expected and so, to lure the stallion away and thus slow the giant down and prevent him from fulfilling his part of the contract, Loki transforms into a mare. This results in Loki giving birth to Odin’s eight-legged steed Sleipnir, hailed in the Grimnismal as ‘the best of horses.
He again transformed into female form (this time that of an old woman) after the death of Baldr. Hela, Mistress of the Underworld, had agreed to release Baldr from her realm, on the condition that every living thing weep for him. In the guise of the old woman Thokk, Loki refused saying “Let Hel keep what she has.” He is also accused of taking the form of a milkmaid and living for eight winters beneath the earth and bearing children. (Lokasenna, stanza 23). Preben Sorenson speculates that this ‘must certainly be taken to mean that Loki served as mistress to giants or trolls, whose sexuality was considered gross and unbridled.” (Sorenson, p. 24). He points out that in Nordic culture, “the charge of wearing women’s clothes, of performing women’s work or being a woman or a female animal evoked the whole complex of ideas on cowardice and effeminacy” (when applied to men) (ibid). Thus, Loki taking the form of a woman was in effect, Loki violating a major cultural taboo and engaging in that which was nið and/or argr i.e. unmanly and socially/sexually deviant.
Transcendence of social restrictions/violation of boundaries:
This is perhaps the area in which Loki most exemplifies tricksterish behavior. Most glaringly evident, are his violations of gender and sexuality taboos as noted above. Loki manifested through his gender fluidity, behavior that was considered nið and/or argr– unmanly and effeminate and thus inappropriate. It is worthy to note that many modern Asatruar find this particular behavior equally as offensive as his role in the death of Baldr.
Gender fluidity aside, the very means by which Loki becomes part of Aesir society exemplifies his position as ‘other.’ He is of Jotun birth, a member of a race in constant conflict with the Aesir, yet he becomes blood brother to Odin and thus gains entrance into that culture. He travels frequently between the two worlds, maintaining a wife amongst the Aesir (Sigyn) and a wife amongst the Jotuns (Angurboða). On the latter, he births three terrifying children: Fenris, the great wolf of chaos who so frightens the Aesir that they contrive to bind him; Jormungand, a great serpent who is thrown into the sea to surround Midgard; and Hela, a half woman, half corpse child, who is cast into the Underworld. On Sigyn, Loki fathers two boys: Narvi and Vali but one is killed by his brother who is transformed into a wolf when Loki is bound. So while Loki brings very helpful tools to the Aesir and utilizes his cunning intelligence to help them avoid trouble (or conversely to get them out of trouble that he has helped create), he also sires children who embody the powers of destruction, transformation (in the body of a serpent) and death.
He is a thief, by its very definition a violation of boundaries. He steals Freya’s necklace, Sif’s hair, and is the cause of Idunna and her apples of youthfulness being stolen by the giant Thjiazi. In this latter story, Loki manages to rescue Idunna, which leads to Thjiazi being killed. This in turn leads to his daughter Skaði storming the halls of the Aesir demanding wergild for the death of her father. Loki assists in soothing her anger, playing the fool to cause her to laugh. This he achieves by tying the beard of a goat to his testicles and prancing around, in yet another example sexually ambiguous behavior. By setting into motion the course of events that led to Skaði allying herself with the Aesir, Loki crossed yet another boundary and helped bring some of the wildness and primal power of the Jotun race into the sacred enclosure of Asgard.
Loki was also known for his shapeshifting, which is perhaps the most concrete and pragmatic of his violations of accepted boundaries. At various times he transformed into a mare (birthing Sleipnir), a seal (battling with Heimdall after his theft of Brisingamen), a fly (on two occasions), a flea, a milkmaid, a woman, a giantess, and a salmon. He also borrowed Freya’s feathered cloak to transform into a bird (to retrieve Idunna after his machinations had contributed to her being kidnapped by the Jotun Thjiazi in the first place). (MacCullough, p. 146). These exploits violate not only simple physical boundaries but also gender expectations, as noted above.
Creative negation/introduction of death/possibilities:
While not ever associated with being a death deity in and of himself, Loki hovers on the periphery of death and transformation throughout the Eddic lore. Firstly, he is the father of Hela, who takes her place in the Nordic pantheon as a Goddess of the Underworld. Secondly, in contributing to the death of Baldr, Loki becomes a bringer of death and opens up the possibility of the order the Gods created surviving Ragnarok, for after Ragnarok, Baldr is freed from Hel and thus something of the world of the Gods remains intact.
Loki is clearly a liminal figure, always existing betwixt and between: neither fully part of the world of the Jotuns (beings of chaos) nor fully part of the world of the Gods. Belonging to neither, he is able to move between both and possesses the synergetic power of active manifestation. Because he is a being of chaos yet bound to order via his oath to Odin, he is able to manifest this quixotic and change-inducing power directly in the ordered realm of the Gods. He opens careful doorways and through them, that power is brought under tentative control. This liminality is perhaps the most ambivalent aspect of Loki’s nature, as it is within many tricksters, through the most cursory examination of the surviving lore shows that Odin possesses it too. Odin however, always returns to the secure realm of inangarð, to the hallowed ground of the Gods. Loki is never part of that, though he may dwell there for awhile. He is always an outsider, always on the fringe of the Divine community, always “other.” (Krasskova, p. 99).
Because, as the stories of Loki show, tricksters are never actually fully accepted parts of the communities they serve, they provide unique role models for those people who may struggle with the artificial and often limiting boundaries of their culture or society. Tricksters help humanity recognize and effectively utilize those opportunities whereby cultural conventions may be usurped or surmounted or simply dispensed with entirely. The struggle to overcome and better one’s fate is a recurring theme in many myths, from that of Prometheus stealing fire to aid humankind to Sigurd, battling the vagaries and often brutal implacability of wyrd. Myth encapsulates that eternal struggle and the trickster teachers various methods whereby one might triumph at it. Hyde refers to these methods as works of artus (Hyde, p. 252) and theorizes that it is such ‘artus-working’ that truly defines the trickster.
Artus is a Latin word for joint, though it’s also related to the word ars or art, skill, craft (or a crafty action). (Hyde, p. 254). The trickster possesses a singular talent for finding the point between dualities, between heaven and earth and turning reality on its proverbial head. As “artus-workers,” tricksters ferret out hidden vulnerabilities (just as Loki found Baldr’s vulnerability to the mistletoe) and untruths, utilizing the first and exposing the second. In Nordic cosmology, Loki might actually have gotten away with his part in the slaying of Baldr were it not for his visit to one of the Aesir’s feasts wherein he systematically exposed the weaknesses of each God and Goddess present, pointing out where they fell short of the expectations of the Divine community (modeled of course on Norse ethics and mores of the time). It was this act, encapsulated in the Eddic poem the Lokasenna, which led to Loki’s punishment, not necessarily his hand in killing a God.
Hyde notes that ‘trickster shifts patterns in relation to one another, and by that redefines the patterns themselves.” (Hyde, p. 257). Being outside of the community, yet conversely to a limited degree part of it, the trickster has a remarkable freedom not only in pointing out weaknesses, but in navigating them to his own advantage. He becomes the translator between the world of myth and the world of temporal culture, a fact that perhaps explains Loki’s many appearances in Scandinavian and even Anglo-Saxon folklore.
In many respects, the trickster is a translator. Translation, the act of changing one thing into another, occurs at the point of articulation and underlies nearly all of Loki’s actions. It involves both an act of sacrifice—of that which is being translated or changed—and creation. In the hands of the trickster, nothing remains untouched, unknowable, unchanging. At the same time, the trickster, who himself acts without shame, makes one ever more aware of those things society might define as shameful (often by his very violation of societal rules and boundaries). Inevitably, the trickster is punished for his transgressions against his community’s taboos and by this highlights that to be without shame, is to be without reverence. It is not reverence that the trickster fights against, but unmindful, unthinking regulations that are irreverent in their lack of mindfulness, regardless of how much shame they evoke. Glimmers of this may be seen in the Lokasenna wherein Loki attacks the sexual behavior of the Gods. Tricksters not only show how to circumvent the boundaries of cultural taboo, but conversely, when they should be upheld as well.
In acting the trickster, Loki is both cunning thief and provocateur, dancing merrily across the divide between the sacred and profane, shameful and honorable, accepted and taboo. As trickster, he supports the traditional structure and boundaries of their communities and at the same time, creates doorways whereby the sacred, the numinous, the unexpected –that which brings evolution—may touch and transform the community.
- Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara, (1975). A Tolerated Margin of Mess: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered. Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 11, #3, pp. 147-186.
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- Weber, Erin, “Nanabozho and Hermes: A Look at the Persistence of the Trickster Archetype in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (abstract). Accessed November 30, 2006 at http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:YKa8gQXaNm4J:honors.web.mtsu.edu/docs/Word%2520%26%2520Excel%2520Documents/Weber%2520(Erin)%2520Abstract%252006U.doc+Characteristics+of+Trickster&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=39