Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Gods and Goddesses, Part Five

Loki and his monstrous progeny are every bit as complex as Freya and the valkyries. Depending on the source that is examined, Loki can be a friend to the gods or a deadly enemy, a mischievous trickster or a powerful warrior, a slightly-built traveling companion or a gigantic force of vengeance. Many of the tales that involve Loki are only attested in very late sources, and may be the creation of storytellers during an age when belief in the old religion was waning or had already dissipated.

Jacob Grimm, in his 1835 treatise Teutonic Mythology, gives a convoluted argument that Saturday is named for Loki. While the other days are clear translations from the Roman days of the week into their Germanic pagan equivalents, Saturday does not fit the pattern. Every other weekday is named for a god or goddess from Norse mythology: Sunday/Sol, Monday/Mani, Tuesday/Tyr, Wednesday/Odin, Thursday/Thor, and Friday/Freya. Grimm asserts that Saturday does not retain the name of the Roman Saturn, but is named for Sæter ("insidiator" or "one who lies in ambush"), a name that he connects with Loki and supports with Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse sources. However, there is no evidence of a historical Loki-cult, or that he was ever worshiped as a god. There are, instead, multiple contradictory portrayals of the slippery figure.

Loki is best-known in the guise of the Trickster – the god who continually gets into mischief, has his escapades go horribly wrong, gets compelled by the other gods to fix the results of his troublemaking, and ends up doing good in the end as a sort of byproduct of his machinations. One of the more intriguing etymologies of his name connects it to the Swedish dialect-word Locke ("spider"), which places Loki in the world continuum of Trickster Gods with animal forms. In 1933, French philologist Georges Dumézil argued that the characterization of Loki as master thief is incredibly ancient, and can be traced back as one of the foundational conceptions of Indo-European mythology.

Loki as flea on Freya's cheek by Maria Klugh [?] (1909)

Indeed, many of the tales of Loki center around both his transformation into animal shape and his thefts from the gods. In order to steal the golden necklace of Freya, he turns himself into a flea. When Heimdall, the watchman of the gods, confronts him to win it back, the two gods fight in the form of seals. We have already seen how Loki is forced by the giant Thjazi to kidnap the goddess Idunn and her golden apples of youth, and how he transforms himself into a falcon (with the aid of Freya's magic cloak) and turns the goddess into a nut to carry her back to safety.

Combined with this transformative ability and thieving nature is the idea that Loki's pranks end up redounding to the benefit of the gods and of humanity. The clearest example of this occurs in the Skáldskaparmál ("The Language of Poetry") section of the Edda. After Loki cuts of the hair of the goddess Sif as a prank, Thor threatens him with grievous bodily injury unless he can convince some dwarves to make her a new head of hair. Loki somehow convinces a pair of dwarves to not only spin the golden hair, but to also forge the ship Skíðblaðnir and the spear Gungnir ("swaying one"). The hair magically attaches to Sif's head and begins to grow. In the Ynglinga saga, Snorri writes that the ship, given to Frey, "is large enough for all the Æsir to board it fully armed, and it takes a fair wind as soon as the sail is hoisted, wherever it has to go. When it is not at sea, it is constructed so skillfully and of so many parts that it can be folded up like a cloth and put in a pocket." In the Eddic poem Sigrdrífumál, the valkyrie tells Sigurd that there are mystic runes cut into the point of the spear. According to Snorri, it has the magic power that it is "never stopped in its thurst" and will be used by Odin during his final battle with the monstrous wolf Fenrir that will occur at Ragnarök.

Loki as gadfly by Willy Pogany (1920)

Loki then goes to another pair of dwarves and bets them his head (a common enough wager in the mythology) that they can't make three things as fine as the three treasures created by the first pair. In order to handicap his bet, Loki turns into a fly and continuously bites the dwarf who is manning the forge-bellows. Despite his meddling, the dwarves create the boar Gullinbursti ("golden bristles"), the ring Draupnir ("dripper"), and the hammer Mjolnir ("mauler" or "crusher"). In Snorri's telling, the boar "could run across sky and sea by night and day faster than any horse, and it never got so dark from night in worlds of darkness that it was not bright enough whereverit went, there was so much light shed from its bristles." The ring, which is thought to be an arm-ring rather than a finger-ring, would "drip" eight rings equal to itself in size on every ninth night. The hammer is the mighty hammer of Thor, which is endowed with the magic power of never missing its target, of always returning to the Thunderer's hand when thrown, and could be shrunk down "so small that it could be kept inside his shirt." Due to Loki's interference with the forging, the hammer's handle turned out a bit short.

The triumvirate of Odin, Thor, and Frey judges that the hammer is the greatest treasure of the lot, as it will defend them in their battles with the enemy frost-giants, and they decree that the dwarves have won the wager. Loki, of course, is not quite willing to give up his head and uses his magic shoes to flee across the sky and sea. At the dwarves' request, Thor (ever the enforcer of legal contracts), catches the fleeing Trickster and brings him back. When the dwarves attempt to cut off Loki's head, he tells them that they are welcome to it, as long as they don't damage his neck in the process. Frustrated by the letter of the contract from taking the head away, one of the dwarves instead pierces Loki's lips with an awl and sews his mouth shut. A stone carving from the Viking Age found in Denmark is sometimes thought to be a depiction of Loki on account of what appear to be stitch-marks on the figure's lips.

Loki's misadventures also redound to the benefit of humanity. After he has brought about the death of the god Baldur, Loki is finally driven from the company of the gods once and for all. Hiding from the wrath of the Æsir, he spends his days in salmon-form at the bottom of a river. Trying to figure out what device the gods might use to capture him, he develops a net, but throws it into the fire when he realizes that his enemies are near. Kvasir, the wise Vanir, sees the ashes of the net and realizes what Loki had created. The gods weave their own net and use it to drag the river, eventually deciding to weigh it down so that Loki cannot hide in the stones of the riverbed. When Loki tries to jump over the net, Thor grabs him by the tail so that he can't slip away. The end result is that Loki, despite his anti-heroic nature, is what Hilda Ellis Davidson calls a "culture hero, who provides mankind with benefits" – in this case, the invention of the fishing net and the idea of dragging a river bottom. He also provides comical Just-So Stories; after Thor catches hold of the wriggling fish, Snorri concludes, "And it is for this reason that the salmon tapers towards the tail."


Anonymous said...

Interesting about the connection with spiders. There is a trickster figure in Lakota mythology who is very much associated with spiders (including having the ability to turn into one) called Iktomi.

C.D. said...

Anansi the trickster of West Africa and the Carribbean is also a spider.

The evolution of gods in the public mind over time is extremely interesting. The Egyptian god Set was apparently a respectable god, rather than the treacherous murderer of his own brother, until after contact with the Romans. Set was the Egyptians' god of foreigners . . . .

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