Deity of the month - Loki
-by Robin Smith
We have had excellent articles on Loki in this group before that discuss Loki’s qualities as a trickster and a deity which I will try not to repeat. Instead I will discuss the ways in which Loki and other trickster archetypes exist outside of traditionally expected binary norms.
One of the perks of being seen as the fool or the joker is that people are inclined to laugh and see any perceived transgressions as fun, whereas others who are generally taken more seriously are more likely to be met with harsher criticisms or personal attacks. This is part of being a trickster deity, and in Loki’s case, there are several examples of where Loki does not fit neatly into an expected category. The ability to transcend these social traditions and their rules is seen in many parts of Loki’s character.
Loki seems to exist outside of several binary concepts. As those of you who have played the card game ‘Ragnarok: destiny of the gods’ that Dan Coultas has brought to some moots may remember, even a question a simple as ‘is Loki a god’ feels impossible to answer when there are only two options to choose from. On the one hand, Loki is not necessarily a god by their blood. Their parents are thought to be Laufey and Farbauti, a goddess and a giant. Aside from the giant blood, mixed marriages like this were not generally allowed and so by their birth Loki is not necessarily a god. However, Loki is accepted in the halls of the gods and goes on plenty of expeditions with the Aesir, with Odin even going so far as to swear an oath that he and Loki were blood-brothers. From this perspective Loki is certainly one of the gods.
However, their loyalties are not always as clear as choosing one side or the other, the gods or the giants. This is significant given that there is otherwise no overlap between these two sides; many of the major stories are conflicts between the two great sides of gods and giants. This makes it all the more unusual for Loki to exist in between these two groups. He is comfortable socialising with pretty much anyone, whether god or giant; this is also part of being a trickster since jokers and fools are not necessarily expected to pick sides in the same way as serious personalities would be.
Another way in which Loki does not fit into the typical binary categories is through their gender and sex. Generally, Loki is seen as a male deity, but there are plenty of instances where this isn’t a helpful description.
Much like in a lot of today’s society, the concept of men being seen as unmanly was looked upon by many as something to be ashamed of. In fact, this was so deeply rooted in the culture that it was seen as one of the worst insults. The following quote is taken from the book Viking Britain, by Thomas Williams:
‘The Norwegian Gulathing Law was specific about what constituted the worst sorts of insult: Concerning terms of abuse or insult. There are words which are considered terms of abuse. Item one: if a man say of another man that he has borne a child. Item two: if a man say of another man that he has been homosexually used. Item three: if a man compare another man to a mare, or call him a bitch or a harlot, or compare him to any animal which bears young’
It’s worth noting that item two isn’t really about homosexuality so much as the idea of being used by being penetrated; according to Williams, ‘it was the adoption of inappropriate gender roles that Vikings objected to, rather than homosexual liaisons per se.’ It is interesting that of these three items that were regarded as the worst things a man could possibly be, Loki themself manages to be all three at once. When in mare form, Loki was impregnated by Svaðilfari and gave birth to Sleipnir eight months later, which encompass all three of the items mentioned above. This is not the only time Loki was said to have been impregnated; in verse 41 of Hyndla’s song, they eat a woman’s heart and are made pregnant which results in the creation of ogresses. In an argument, Odin also claims that Loki spent eight winters living underground as a woman, which Loki does not deny. In the story of Thor’s hammer being stolen where he dresses up as the bride in order to retrieve it, Thor seems upset and embarrassed at first when he realises he will have to dress as a woman, whereas Loki on the other hand doesn’t seem to have any hesitations about being a bridesmaid. It is worth noting as well that unlike Thor who simply dresses as a woman on this occasion, Loki transforms into a woman.
Loki is not the only trickster deity to play with gender in this way; the link between tricksters and a gender or sex which falls outside the binary is present in many different pantheons of lots of cultures worldwide. For example, the Romans had a bi-gendered trickster deity called Pales, who was depicted as an intersex being with a donkey’s head, and there are several Native American tribes whose trickster deities fit this pattern, such as Coyote who removes his penis so that he can sleep with a man he has fallen in love with, and Raven who castrated himself in order to fertilise the Earth Mother.
The archetypal character of the Trickster can be represented in astrology by the planet Uranus, named after the Greek god who was castrated. Uranus is said to suggest non-conformist, forward-thinking people who are often androgynous as well as having trickster aspects to their personality, which certainly describes Loki very well.
The link between trickster deities and a gender or sex that doesn’t conform to a binary category is helped by the earlier discussed tendency to take tricksters less seriously. Whereas gender non-conformity may still often be met with laughter and ridicule, society is used to this sort of character seeming unusual or abnormal, and therefore less likely to respond in a way that is hostile or dangerous. This is also a part of how trickster personalities can help to shape society for the better without any great conflict, by normalising things that others would struggle to do without being abused, and by gently poking fun at rigid traditions to make people question why they hold certain long standing and unquestioned beliefs. It also ties into the fact that tricksters don’t necessarily have to conform to societies expectations in other ways, such as being specifically one thing or the other.
Loki in particular is difficult to define; for example, they are neither wholly good nor wholly bad in character. Whilst Loki can sometimes be interpreted as the villain in various stories, they also act as a catalyst for adventures to develop, and when they do cause trouble, it is often out of mischief rather than malice or is a necessary misfortune required for things to change for the better. Even in cases where Loki does make things worse, such as when they stole Sif’s hair, they also go to great lengths to fix the situation and put things right, so that things often end up better than they were before Loki got involved.
Overall, there are various helpful aspects to Loki which can help us to examine various traditional ideas and work out for ourselves where value really lies, and where we have just been taught that something is the norm. The ability to spur vital changes is all the more important when it can be done through the trickster’s methods of satirising concepts and gently encouraging a new perspective, rather than through violence or attacks on individuals.
Viking Britain, by Thomas Williams The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, by H. R. Ellis Davidson
-by Toni Wilson, March 2019
Today I will be covering Loki. An extremely controversial but misunderstood figure who is referenced heavily in the Eddas and other texts regarding ancient Germanic civilisation and culture. He is a chaotic figure also associated with fire.
As I mentioned last week, Loki is the son of Fárbauti and Laufey. Fárbauti (Meaning Anger-Striker) is listed among the giants and Laufey is listed as a goddess. Not much else is known about the two as they are only mentioned in reference to Loki.
The trickster god
Loki is seen as a trickster and his antics often result in annoying situations for the gods. He shaved off Sif’s golden hair as she slept for example. But he often makes up for these situations and the gods end up in a better position than before. When Loki shaved off Sif’s hair, Loki convinced the dwarves to craft fantastic gifts for the gods (Mjolnir, Sif’s literal golden hair).
Due to this reputation, Loki is often blamed for things that aren’t his fault and fixes the problem anyway (usually with some “encouragement” from Thor).
When the giant Thrym stole Mjolnir from Asgard, Loki was blamed and without him they would not have even found the hammer, nevermind retrieve it. He also made Skadi laugh by tying goats to his testicles…..so….there’s that
Loki’s unusual children
I’ve mentioned previously about Loki’s monstrous children that he fathered with the giant Angrboda. Hel, the ruler of the dead and daughter of Loki, is described by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda as being half-black, half-white, and with a perpetually grim and fierce expression on her face.
Fenrir, another child of Loki, is an abnormally large wolf that the gods bound with Gleipnir (A small unbreakable chain or ribbon). Originally Fenrir didn’t not show any signs of aggression towards the gods but their fear lead to his binding, the loss of Tyr’s hand, and his prominent role in Ragnarök.
The third monstrous child of Loki is The Midgard serpent, Jormungandr. The serpent was banished to the sea by Odin. Loki also conceived Sleipnir after he transformed into a mare and was impregnated by a giant’s horse………..so…….yeah…..
Ragnarök and preceding events.
Certain aspects of Loki’s involvement in Ragnarök is disputed among scholars. There are generally two opinions regarding this and it depends on the belief that Loki was behind the death of Balder, by convincing Hodr to throw the deadly mistletoe dart (or possibly an arrow or spear) that ended his life.
The alternative version of events suggest that Hodr was Jealous of the perfect Balder and killed him out of spite.
In the Eddic poem “Lokasenna” (Loki’s Taunts) he famously insults all of the gods to the point that they were furious with him. Loki feared for his life so he hid in the falls in Frananger in the shape of a salmon.
The God caught him and bound him. This is described in the following excerpt from the Poetic Edda (Jackson Crawford’s translation).
“He was tied up with the intestines of his son Nari, and his son Narvi was turned into a wolf. Skathi took a poisonous snake and tied it up over Loki; poison dripped on his face from its mouth. Loki’s wife Sigyn sat there and caught the poison in a jar. But when the Jar filled, she had to empty it, and when she did, poison dripped on Loki’s face. And this hurt him so badly that he trembled, and all the world with him. This is what is called an earthquake.”
At Ragnarök Loki will break his bonds and join his children, the Jotun and the dead that reside in Hel’s hall to fight against the gods and allow the earth to rise a second time from the sea after the destruction.
My own experiences with Loki are generally a new development in my religious experience. When I first discovered Heathenry I tended to be more attracted to Odin (as I’m sure many others are). My personal experience with Odin is one of being tested, sometimes beyond my limits. This is understandable, as we always end our blots with, “a gift for a gift” and I personally think it would be naïve of me to view Odin as some sort of kindly father figure, despite the “all-father” moniker. To do so would be to ignore some of his more manipulative actions in the Eddas and other texts. In contrast I feel drawn to Loki completely unintentionally and completely out of the blue. Particularly after a depressive episode or when chaotic circumstances in the short term have an unexpected positive outcome. Chaos is not always negative and can be vital to move things along sometimes.
This reminds me of how natural forest fires can in some cases be vital to the ecosystem. The fire removes decaying trees decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation. This is a great metaphor I feel for Loki.
-by Dan Coultas, April 2018
Loki, son of Laufey is arguably the most complex and complicated of all the Heathen Gods. He is a controversial character, so much so that some heathens will not even mention his name. There are those who believe that you should never make an offering to Loki. On the other side there are those who have dedicated themselves to Loki as a patron God, and refer to themselves as Lokians. The topic of Loki is huge, and I will not be able to cover every story or opinion about him here (this piece is longer than some essays I submitted at university as it is!), and I have not covered Loki's children, as they can be a topic for another week. However, hopefully this short piece will give you a starting point to form or further develop your opinion of Loki, and decide if you want any kind of relationship with this controversial figure. If you want to explore the topic of Loki further, I thoroughly recommend Stephan Grundy's book, referenced below, for a more comprehensive study.
People have tried to pigeonhole Loki into several different roles seen in other mythologies. These include both the fool and the trickster, however neither of these come close to fully explaining Loki's character. The comparison with the role of the fool is likely based on the humour that Loki brings into the tales of the Gods, for example when he he tied his private parts to a goat in an attempt to make Skadi laugh. Despite these humorous acts, Loki is far too clever and cunning to fill the role of the fool. The trickster initially makes more sense, as Loki is known to play tricks. The theft of Sif's hair for example. However, the traditional trickster God is usually just that, and Loki has far more to his character than just playing tricks. Comparisons have also been made between Loki and Satan. This is possibly due to the lack of an entirely 'evil' character to direct scorn towards, that those brought up in a Christian society are used to. Whilst Loki does things in the tales of the Gods which to the modern reader seem bad, these comparisons with Satan are largely baseless. In Christianity Satan's actions are 'evil', and no good can come of them, and this is simply not the case with Loki. He is, for the most part at least 'a mischievous rather than a wicked being'*1 and even 'rescues the Gods from serious predicaments'*1, not something that Satan would ever do.
Arguments that people use against Loki can equally be applied to other Gods. He uses cunning to outwit his opponents, so does Odin. He indulges in what a modern viewer may regard as questionable sexual practices, so does Odin (again!) but also Freya and others, and anyway, unlike many monotheistic religions, there is nothing in Heathenry to suggest these practices are morally wrong. The difference perhaps is that he takes things further. He does what the other Gods are not prepared to do, because they have reputations to uphold. Odin uses underhand tactics when he can get away with it, but sometimes something blatant has to be done. This can be where Loki comes in, almost as a 'fall guy', doing the dirty work for the other Gods that they cannot do themselves.
I do not wish to discuss the death of Balder too much as I don't want to tread on the toes of Calvin who is writing a piece on Balder and Hodr for next week, but seen as it is one of the main reasons people give for not worshipping Loki it does need to be addressed. It is Loki who guides the blind God's hand as he fires the mistletoe arrow that kills Balder (in Snorri's account at least) and (possibly) Loki, in the form of an old woman, who refuses to weep for Balder. However, the end result of Balder's death is that he will not be present at Ragnarok, and will therefore survive to take up his fathers throne. This was all foreseen by Odin. The wise and far sighted Odin would surely want a way to ensure that someone of his line would survive the doom of the Gods, but he could not kill Balder himself, this would be catastrophic for his reputation. Is it therefore possible that this is an extreme case of Loki doing Odin's dirty work for him?
Loki's role at Ragnarok itself is clearly opposed to the rest of the Gods of Asgard. He will side with his children, the Fenris Wolf and the Midgard Serpent, as well as Sutr, in destroying Asgard and slaying the Gods. However, it is important to remember that this will take place following his binding in the entrails of his son, and torture with snake venom at the hands of those same Gods.
For me Loki embodies the forced change, that we did not want to make, but which leads to a positive outcome in the future. If it wasn't for Loki's influence, we would not have achieved this outcome by ourselves. That is not to say that Loki's influence will not seem terrible at the time. As we have seen in the lore Loki does terrible things, but they lead to a much greater outcome. From the acquisition of the great treasures of the God's at one end of the spectrum, through to Baldur's return after Ragnarok at the other, it is actions by Loki, initially ranging from seemingly pesky (in the case of the former) through to evil (in the case of the later), which are the root cause of these positive outcomes. So in our lives the forced change may be something relatively trivial, or it might be a massive upheaval or tragedy, but the common factor is that in the long run, some good will come of it.
The other thing Loki embodies is the inconvenience truth. In the Locasenna Loki gets drunk, and lays bare the faults of the Gods. This eventually leads to his expulsion from the hall, and ultimately his binding in the entrails of his son. However, it is important to note that the reason Loki's accusations anger the Gods so much is that they cannot deny them. Facing up to our own faults is hard. Nobody wants to hear the negative opinions people have of them, but if we are not prepared to face these faults, then it is impossible to address them. When we are forced to 'take a good hard look in the mirror', this to me is Loki forcing us to face up to our shortcomings, so that we are able to accept them, and then work towards improving ourselves.
So what part should Loki play in heathen practice today? A good starting point is always to examine evidence of ancient practices. Was Loki worshipped by the arch heathens? Place names are a good indication of worship, and the absence of any Loki based place names has been used to argue that he cannot have been worshipped, however this is no form of proof. 'We also have the shortage of Frigg-based place names to demonstrate unequivocally that the absence of place names does not necessarily correspond to the honour in which a deity was held'*2. Clearly, we need to look further. 'No mention of him has survived in Anglo-Saxon Materials, but that is true of most Scandinavian deities'* and clearly, Loki is a prominent character in many of the surviving tales of the Gods, more so than many for whom we know a cult following existed. Loki often appears as a supporting character to the heroes of the tale. He is unlikely to have been ascribed this role if he was seen to be entirely harmful. The telling of these tales is in itself a form of honour.
Whilst Loki is ascribed with actions that can be (at least temporarily) harmful to the Gods, he is never accused of harming humans. This is particularly relevant when compare this with Odin, whom few have a problem with the worship of today, but is said to have claimed the lives of thousands of his own followers. 'In heathen and medieval literary sources, runic inscriptions, and surviving “charm spells”, ill luck and like troubles are variously blamed on witches, trolls, dwarfs, alfs, thurses, ill-disir, and the ill willing dead. Never Loki'*2. It seems that the idea of Loki as a being that is solely harmful to humans has very much come about since the heathen period, possibly as an attempt to align him with the Christian devil when viewed with modern sensibilities. Whilst there isn't a wealth of evidence for Loki's worship in the heathen period, his significance in the surviving literary sources would suggest he would have been worshipped in some way or another.
So how do modern heathens view Loki? Like in many aspects of Heathenry, the issue is more pronounced amongst our cousins across the pond, where heated arguments and even threats of violence have been made over whether or not Loki should be worshipped. Fortunately, for the most part, we are a little bit more restrained in our debate over here! Regardless, there are still those who think that Loki is one God that they should steer clear of. Also fortunately, this should not be a problem. 'Those who cannot work with Loki need not call on him, any more than anyone who fears or dislikes Odin, Ran or any other God or Goddess should feel they have to call on that deity'*2. This is one of the strengths of Heathenry, no two Heathens will have the exact same beliefs and practices, and that's fine. If however, you wish to include Loki, make offerings to him, and give him thanks, there is no reason why you should not. Whilst his methods may sometimes seem harsh, surely he deserves thanks for the results? If you really do not wish to make any offering to Loki though, it is important to remember that as his sworn blood brother, Odin refused to drink unless Loki was welcome to join him, and so you must also think about excluding the all father.
Personally, I see Loki as necessary, and in many case helpful. He is a complex God. His path is not the easy path, it is not the path we would take given the choice. But the world is not perfect, and neither are we, and I believe it is for that reason that we need Loki, and therefore we should give him our thanks as we would to any other deity who helps us. That is my opinion, I would love to hear yours!
*1Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe *2Grundy, Stephen, God in Flames, God in Fetters: Loki's Role in the Nothern Religions