Loki (sometimes referred to by his full name, Loki Laufeyjarson) is the god of mischief, lies, and trickery in Norse mythology. He is the son of Fárbauti and Laufey (two giants), and is a blood-brother of Odin. He is described as the "contriver of all fraud" and bears many names that reflect his character as a deceiver: "Lie-Smith," "Sly-God," "Shape-Changer," "Sly-One," and "Wizard of Lies" (among others).
Despite significant scholarly research, Loki seems to have been a figure that roused the imagination rather than any religious impulse, as "there is nothing to suggest that Loki was ever worshiped." For this reason, Loki can be seen as less of a "god" and more of a general mythical being. He was not a member of Vanir and is not always counted among the Aesir, the two groupings of Nordic gods. Though some sources do place him among the latter group, this may be due to his close relation with Odin and the amount of time that he spends among them in Asgard (as opposed to among his own kin: the Jotun).
Loki in a Norse Context
As a figure in Norse mythology, Loki belonged to a complex religious and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E. Though some scholars have argued against the homogenizing effect of grouping these various traditions together under the rubric of “Norse Mythology,” the profoundly exploratory and nomadic nature of Viking society tends to overrule such objections. As Thomas DuBois coherently argues, “[w]hatever else we may say about the various peoples of the North during the Viking Age, then, we cannot claim that they were isolated from or ignorant of their neighbors….As religion expresses the concerns and experiences of its human adherents, so it changes continually in response to cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Ideas and ideals passed between communities with frequency and regularity, leading to and interdependent and intercultural region with broad commonalities of religion and worldview.” The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the greatest divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility, and wealth. More specifically, Georges Dumézil, one of the foremost authorities on the Norse tradition and a noted comparitivist, argues quite persuasively that the Aesir / Vanir distinction is a component of a larger triadic division (between ruler gods, warrior gods, and gods of agriculture and commerce) that is echoed among the Indo-European cosmologies (from Vedic India, through Rome, and into the Germanic North). Further, he notes that this distinction conforms to patterns of social organization found in all of these societies. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally evil (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir.
Loki fulfills the role of trickster among the Aesir, though his eventual involvement in the downfall of the gods at Ragnarök implies a more malevolent nature than such a designation usually signifies.
Loki's role as a deceiver made him the prototypical "con man" in Norse mythology. In many Eddic accounts, he is depicted helping the gods resolve issues that he was often the cause of in the first place. Some illustrations of this include the myth in which Loki shears Sif's hair and then replaces it, or the kidnapping and then rescue of Idunn, which he orchestrated and accomplished. In carrying out his assorted schemes, Loki is aided by his ability to change his sex and form at will. For example, he was able to become a salmon, a mare (which eventually gave birth to a monstrous colt), a bird, and a flea, just to name a few. His generally coarse disposition, as well as his hostility toward the other Norse Gods, is well attested in Lokasenna ("The Flyting of Loki"), an intriguing skaldic poem that describes one of Loki's fateful visits to the hall of the Aesir, where he proceeds to insult, mock, and defame all of the deities in attendance with unrestrained bile.
Describing the Sly God, the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241 C.E.) states:
- Call him Son of Fárbauti and Laufey…Father of the Monster of Ván (that is, Fenris-Wolf), and of the Vast Monster (that is, the Midgard Serpent [Jormungandr]), and of Hel…Kinsman and Uncle, Evil Companion and Benchmate of Odin and the Aesir…Thief of the Giants, of the Goat, of Brisinga-men, and of Idunn's apples, Kinsman of Sleipnir [Odin's eight-legged horse which Loki was the mother of], Husband of Sigyn, Foe of the Gods, Harmer of Sif's Hair, Forger of Evil, the Sly God, Slanderer and Cheat of the Gods, Contriver of Balder's death, the Bound God, Wrangling Foe of Heimdall and of Skadi.
These varied titles make reference to Loki's numerous thefts, deceptions and his pre-meditated murder of Odin's son Balder discussed below.
Some scholars, noting the intriguing similarities between Odin and Loki in terms of their tendencies to solve problems with cunning, trickery, and outright deception, suggest that the two deities may have historically been more closely related than current understanding permits. Ström connects the two gods to the point of calling Loki "a hypostasis of Odin," and Rübekeil suggests that the two gods were originally identical, deriving from Celtic Lugus, whose name would continue in Loki. Regardless of this hypothesis, these undeniable similarities could explain the puzzling fact that Loki is often described as Odin's companion (or even blood brother).
Despite the relatively close ties between Loki and the gods of Asgard, he was still destined to play the "evil" role in the apocalypse (Ragnarök), where he would lead the giants in their final conflict with the Aesir and would be killed in a duel with Heimdall. As Lindow argues, "Loki has a chronological component: He is the enemy of the gods in the far mythic past [due to his lineal connection to the Jotun], and he reverts to this status as the mythic future approaches and arrives. In the mythic present he is ambiguous, "numbered among the Aesir." The phrase "numbered among the Aesir" is a reference to Sturluson's Prose Edda, which describes Loki's relationship with the remainder of the pantheon in those ambiguous terms.
Loki was the father (and in one instance the mother) of many beasts, humans and monsters.
Together with Angrboda (a giantess), Loki is said to have had three children:
- Jörmungandr, the sea serpent (destined to slay Thor at Ragnarök);
- Fenrir the giant wolf (preordained to slay Odin at Ragnarök);
- Hel, ruler of the realm of the dead.
In addition to his alliance with the giantess, Loki is said to have married a goddess named Sigyn who bore him two sons: Narfi and Vali. This Vali is not to be confused with Odin's son with the giantess Rind. Finally, while Loki was in the form of a mare, he had congress with a stallion and gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged steed of Odin.
Scheming with fellow gods
As is often the case with trickster figures, Loki is not always a liability to the Aesir, in that he occasionally uses his trickery to aid them in their pursuits. For example, he once tricked an unnamed Jotun, who built the walls around Asgard, out of being paid for his work by disguising himself as a mare and leading his horse away from the city. In another myth, he pits the dwarves against each other in a gifting contest, leading them to construct some of the most precious treasures of the Aesir (including Odin's spear, Freyr's airship and Sif's golden wig). Finally, in Þrymskviða, Loki manages, with Thor at his side, to retrieve Mjolnir (the thunder god's hammer) after the giant Þrymr secretly steals it. In all of these cases, Loki's ambiguous status is maintained; although he is Jotun-born and destined to turn against the other gods, he is also an efficient and fundamentally useful ally.
Slayer of Balder
The most famous tale of Loki's trickery, and also the point where he becomes truly malevolent, can be seen in the murder of Balder (the Norse god of warmth, goodness and spring). In the story, Loki, whether motivated by envy or simple malice, decides to end the beloved Balder's life. However, Balder's mother Frigg, having had premonitions of this dire event, had already spoken to every animate and inanimate object in the world and convinced them not to harm her son.
Unfortunately for Balder, Loki was able to discover the single item that had escaped the concerned mother's notice, mistletoe, by virtue of his cunning. So he proceeded to take the small plant and fashion it, using his magical abilities, into a potentially deadly arrow. Next, he convinced Hod (Balder's blind brother) to fire the missile, which embedded itself in the joyful god's heart and killed him instantly. When Hod discovered the evil that he had been involved with, he fled into the woods and was never seen again. Loki, on the other hand, was captured and sentenced to a torturous fate.
The binding of Loki and his fate at Ragnarök
The murder of Balder was not left unpunished, and eventually the gods tracked down Loki, who was hiding in a pool at the base of Franang's Falls in the shape of a salmon. They also hunted down Loki's two children, Narfi and Váli. His accusers transformed young Váli into a wolf, who immediately turned upon his brother and tore out his throat. The unforgiving Aesir then took the innards of Loki's son and used them to bind Loki to three slabs of stone on the underside of the world. Skaði then suspended an enormous snake over the trickster god's head, so that its venom would drip down upon his prone body. Though Sigyn, his long-suffering wife, sat beside him and collected the venom in a wooden bowl, she still had to empty the bowl whenever it filled up. During those times, the searing venom would drip into the Sly God's face and eyes, causing a pain so terrible that his writhing would shake the entire world. He was sentenced to endure this torment until the coming of Ragnarök.
At the end of time, Loki will be freed by the trembling earth, and will sail to Vigridr (the field where the final conflict will take place) from the north on a ship that will also bear Hel and all the forsaken souls from her realm. Once on the battlefield, he will meet Heimdall, and neither of the two will survive the encounter.
Loki in Popular Culture
The composer Richard Wagner presented Loki under an invented Germanized name Loge in his opera Das Rheingold—Loge is also mentioned in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, though does not appear as a character. The name comes from the common mistranslation and confusion with Logi, a fire-giant, which has created the misconception of Loki being a creation of fire, having hair of fire or being associated with fire, like the devil in Christianity.
In more modern contexts, Loki (as a character or archetype) is frequently featured in comic books, novels and video games. In these sources, the characterizations vary wildly, from villainous and malicious trickster to benevolent yet mischievous hero.
- Turville-Petre, 126.
- Lindow, 6-8.
- DuBois, 27-28.
- Dumézil, xi-xiii, 3-25.
- Lindow, 217.
- Turville-Petre, 126-146; Lindow, 216-220.
- Orchard, 236-237.
- Sturluson, Skáldskaparmál (XVI), 114.
- Folke Ström, Loki. Ein Mythologisches Problem (Göteborg, 1956).
- Ludwi Rübekeil, "Wodan und andere forschungsgeschichtliche Leichen: exhumiert," Beiträge zur Namenforschung 38 (2003): 25–42.
- Lindow, 219.
- Lindow, 219.
- Orchard, 237.
- Orchard, 237.
- Turville-Petre, 135-137.
- Turville-Petre, 126-146; Lindow, 216-220.
- Munch, 80-86.
- Munch, 92-94.
- Dumézil, 61; Sturluson, Gylfaginning (LI), 77-80.
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- Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen; Introduction by C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 0-520-02044-8.
- Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. ISBN 1-57607-217-7.
- Munch, P. A. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. In the revision of Magnus Olsen; translated from the Norwegian by Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt. New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1926.
- Orchard, Andy. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell; New York: Distributed in the United States by Sterling Pub. Co., 2002. ISBN 0-304-36385-5.
- Sturlson, Snorri. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology. Introduced by Sigurdur Nordal; Selected and translated by Jean I. Young. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1954. ISBN 0-520-01231-3.
- Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated from the Icelandic and with an introduction by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American-Scandinavian foundation, 1916.
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All links retrieved November 3, 2022.
- The Internet Sacred Text Archive. The Lokasenna - "Loki's Wrangling": an insult competition between Loki and the other gods.
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