Last year, I began a new feature at The Norse Mythology Blog called "Ask a Norse Mythologist." Everyone is welcome to submit questions about Norse mythology and Norse religion through the online form. I've received messages asking about Loki from all over the USA, Canada, Turkey and the United Kingdom. I’m very glad that people of such different ages and backgrounds are curious to learn more about the Norse myths. I hope that my Loki answers will be helpful to others, or at least lead them to do further reading and research on their own.
Richard Windsor (Beloit, Wisconsin, USA) asks:
“Is Loki the god of mischief or the god of fire?”
|Wotan (Odin) and a flaming Loge (Loki) in a|
recent production of Wagner's Das Rheingold
by the Metropolitan Opera in New York
The idea that he was a “god of mischief” seems to be connected with modern scholarship that attempts to connect him to Tricksters in other cultures (African, Native American, etc). The portrayal of Loki in Marvel Comics has strengthened this connection in the popular imagination. The “god of fire” idea is a famous mistake that is due to the similarity between the names Loki and Logi, the latter being a personification of fire in the well-known story of Thor’s visit to the giant Útgarða-Loki. The connection to fire was popularized by the composer Richard Wagner in his Ring operas, in which he portrayed Loki as a sort of fire-sprite named Loge.
Cameron Schick (Erie, Pennsylvania, USA) asks:
“Why does Loki want to end the gods?”
|An 18th-century illustration of Loki & his fishing net|
That being said, it’s very difficult for modern people like you and me to keep from wondering about this issue. From a contemporary perspective, you can view Loki through the lens of the nature versus nurture debate. His behavior can be explained from either end of the spectrum; just remember that we’re projecting a modern way of thinking onto ancient stories. The results say more about how we think than about how the people who created these stories may have thought.
If you believe that people are born with an intrinsic predisposition to good or evil, you can read the tales of Loki from that perspective. At the beginning of mythic time, Loki is a giant. The giants are the destructive opponents of the gods, so you could say that Loki is a natural born killer. Loki fathers the most monstrous enemies of the gods: the Midgard serpent, the wolf Fenrir and the death-goddess Hel. He brings the killers of Odin and Thor into being. In the mythological present, Loki lives with the gods and is the traveling companion of Odin and Thor who continually gets them both into and out of trouble. In the future of the mythic timeline, Loki will bring about the death of the god Balder and lead the forces of darkness to destroy the world at the final battle of Ragnarök. So, you can interpret this as Loki starting out evil, striving to do good (as best he can) and finally reverting to his evil ways. According to this reading, he can’t escape his nature.
|Loki's monstrous children in an illustration by Willy Pogany|
from Padraic Colum's Children of Odin (1920)
You can also ask if the actions of the gods actually turn Loki’s children to evil and therefore make the prophecy come true. Do the gods bring their doom upon themselves? Again, it all depends how you read the myths, but you should always be aware that we are overlaying modern concepts onto ancient tales. In order to put your mind into an ancient worldview (as much as that is actually possible), you have to realize that physical deformity was taken as a sign of evil. This led to horrible mistreatment (in real life) of people who were born with physical challenges. Even in modern times, we are often guilty of judging the character of individuals by their physical appearance. It makes no sense to suggest that long-ago gods would love and cherish children born to a giant in the form of a serpent, a wolf and a half-corpse woman. Although the monsters may seem sympathetic to modern sensibilities, that sympathy would have been completely alien to the culture that invented these stories. Myths reflect the values of the cultures that create them.
Miguel La Porte (Texas, USA) writes:
“I wanted to know if there was any documented story that tells us why Loki was so against the gods, who in reality were his very family.”
That’s a very interesting question. Please check out what I wrote above to Cameron, regarding motivation. I would like to make clear that the gods are not really Loki’s family – at least not his birth family.
In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, it says that Loki is “numbered among the Æsir [the gods].” The language is important; Loki may hang out with the gods in several myths, but he is not one of them. He is the son of a giant, and – in the world of the myths – kinship is reckoned through your line of fathers. As a giant, Loki actually belongs to the family of the gods’ greatest enemies. In the end, he sides with his birth family against his adopted family.
|Thor & Loki being adoptive brothers is an idea from comics, not myth|
Tom Hovland (Canada) writes:
“What I want to know is if Loki is just a character who was added to the stories later on, or he was just a minor player, or he was just poorly documented.”
Loki plays a major part in the Norse myths that have survived. These myths mainly come from two collections – the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, both written down in 13th-century Iceland. The oldest written source for Loki is the 9th-century Norwegian poem Haustlöng (“Autumn-long”), which includes Loki’s adventure with the giant Thjazi. There is no mention of Loki in earlier sources from continental Europe or the British Isles.
Scholars have been arguing about Loki’s age and origin for very long time. Since his stories come from a time when heathens and Christians interacted, some have argued that he is a late invention (based on Christian demonology) that was inserted into the mythology – or that Christian ideas about devils were incorporated into his character. Others have suggested that the original conception of Loki was a heathen one of a bound giant or of a master thief. As Hilda Ellis Davidson writes, “Other theories which try to establish Loki as an early god in the Germanic world have not been very successful.”
|When I was a kid, this is exactly how I drew the Hulk's teeth when|
he was angry. Since he's always angry, I had a lot of practice.
|A bound Loki or a bound Satan?|
|Loki, Sigyn & the snake|
on the Gosforth Cross
One interesting source that may shed some light on all this is History of the Danes, composed in the 13th century by the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus. In this massive work, the Norse gods appear in very different forms from those we're used to (which come from Icelandic literature), and the stories themselves are very different. Saxo tells us of a human hero named Thorkil who finds a bound giant when he travels to “a land that knew neither stars nor the light of day but was shrouded in everlasting night.” The story has been connected by scholars to the Edda tale of Thor’s visit to the giant Útgarða-Loki. In Snorri’s version, Loki travels with Thor, and we interpret the name of the giant as “Loki of the Outer Regions.” In other words, this deceitful fellow is to the giants as Loki is to the gods; he's their Loki.
The giant in Saxo is also called Útgarða-Loki, but he's a very different figure. Here’s the part of the story describing how Thorkil finds the giant:
After this, with others in front acting as torch-bearers, [Thorkil] squeezed his body in the narrow jaws of the cave and gazed on every side at rows of iron seats festooned with slithering serpents. Next a quiet stretch of water flowing gently over a sandy bed met his eyes. When he had crossed it, he reached a place where the floor sloped downwards rather more steeply. From here the visitors could see a murky, repulsive chamber, inside which they descried Útgarða-Loki, his hands and feet laden with a huge weight of fetters. His rank-smelling hairs were as long and tough as spears of cornel-wood. Thorkil kept one of these as a more visible proof of his labours by heaving at it with his friends till it was plucked from the chin of the unresisting figure; immediately such a powerful stench rolled over the bystanders that they had to smother their nostrils in their cloaks and could scarcely breathe. They had hardly gained the open air when the snakes flew at them from every direction and spat on them.You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next!
|Louis Huard's illustration of Loki bound|
In the end, the answer to your question is really that the only definitive things we know about Loki come from late literary sources, either from the time of northern Christian conversion or long after that conversion was completed. There is a lot of scholarship on this issue, and I've merely addressed some of the basic issues here.
To be continued in Part Two.