Saturday, January 12, 2013

Questioning Loki, Part Two

Click here for Questioning Loki, Part One.

Emily Taylor Kent (Bristol, United Kingdom) asks:

“Do you think Loki is ‘evil’ or just mischievous, cheeky and misunderstood? Do you think he deserved his punishment?”

I think that it depends on whether you decide to read the mythology as a whole or decide to throw out the uncomfortable bits. Personally, I think we have to take everything we know about Loki as a totality and make our judgement accordingly. Let’s look at the evidence.

Is Loki really a special squeezable unicorn?

Loki's children turn out evil. Since Darwin won out over Lamarck, we haven’t subscribed to the idea that acquired characteristics can be transmitted to our offspring. Given that there’s no mention of Loki raising his monstrous kids in his household and passing on his values to them, let’s not blame him for the nasty things they do. On the other hand, you should read what I wrote to Cameron (in Part One) about our modern sympathy for monsters – a sympathy that would have been completely alien to the worldview from which the Norse myths originate.

SCORE: Evil 0, Cheeky 0

Loki's children actually do seem a bit rough, though, don't they?

Loki has a bunch of adventures in which he gets the gods out of sticky widgets. Admittedly, he usually gets the gods into these awkward situations in the first place. He really does seem more naughty than evil in these stories, so let’s give him a point on the mischievous side.

SCORE: Evil 0, Cheeky 1

Now we run into problems. Loki brings about the murder of Balder, the fellow that Snorri Sturluson calls “the wisest of the Æsir [the Norse gods] and most beautifully spoken and most merciful.” You could even call him Christlike. What did Balder ever do to hurt anyone? Nothing. He’s the great innocent of Asgard. With no motivation given in the myths (other than, perhaps, base jealousy), Loki causes Balder’s death. He simply kills the nicest of all the gods. You really can’t read this action as anything other than evil.

SCORE: Evil 1, Cheeky 1

In the poem Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”), Loki murders a servant named Fimafeng simply because he’s mad that folks were praising the excellence of the waitstaff. He's jealous of waiters, now? Fimafeng is the second innocent killed by Loki. Yikes! Loki then goes on to say nasty, nasty things about each one of the gods and goddesses – until Thor shows up and shuts him up. Although some of the things he says may actually be true, airing people’s private business in public in the nastiest possible way isn’t much better than outright slander, is it?

SCORE: Evil 2, Cheeky 1

Loki isn't the greatest guy to have over to the house for a party.

Here’s the big ’un. At the end of mythic time, Loki attacks the gods in the ship Naglfar, which is made from the fingernails and toenails of dead people. Eww, right? Here’s how the scene is described in the poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”):
A ship journeys from the east, Muspell’s sons [the giants] are coming
over the waves, and Loki steers.
There are the monstrous brood with all the raveners,
The brother of Byleist [Loki] is in company with them.
Loki actually drives the gang of giants to come kill the gods in the final battle of Ragnarök. During the ensuing carnage, almost all of the gods are killed, every human being (except two) are killed, and the world is destroyed. Mass murder on a worldwide scale and destruction of the earth itself – could it get any worse? By the end of mythic time, Loki makes Hitler, Stalin and Mao look like amateurs.

FINAL SCORE: Evil 3, Cheeky 1

In the end, Loki really is an evil so-and-so. He may have some good times with Odin and Thor in the middle-period stories, but that can’t really balance out the truly evil things he does. I know that a lot of people today want to see Loki as a gothy emo cutie, but that’s really going directly against the source mythology.

What happened to you, Loki? You used to be cool.

Regarding Loki’s punishment, the Poetic Edda tells us that Loki is captured after his second murder. He is “bound with the guts of his son Nari,” but the poem doesn’t tell us how those guts were got. While the Poetic Edda simply says that Loki’s other son “changed into a wolf,” Snorri Sturluson writes in his Prose Edda that this wolf-boy ripped his brother apart (but does not say that the gods forced him to do so). Given the fact than, in Norse mythology and saga, “changing into a wolf” can mean (1) going into a berserker rage or (2) being branded an outlaw and kicked out of the community, I'm not so sure that we can take the original quote to mean a literal change into an animal. Snorri is notorious for taking poetic images literally, then spinning them out into long-winded explanations.

As for the implication (i.e., not a direct statement) in the Poetic Edda that the gods kill one of Loki's sons, this is actually not an alien concept to the moral worldview of ancient times. There are many instances in many sources concerning the murder of an enemy's children. This awful act appears in not just in Norse myth and saga, but in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, Jewish scripture, Greek myth & etc. Although this idea is rightly abhorrent to us today, we should be careful about projecting modern morality onto ancient texts. Seeing Loki as a victim of outrageous cruelty by the gods is a simple misunderstanding of historical cultural realities.

This complicated business aside, Loki’s subsequent punishment is described by Snorri like this:
Skadi [the giant maiden in my Norse Mythology Blog logo] took a poisonous snake and fastened it over Loki’s face; poison dripped down from it. Sigyn, Loki’s wife, sat there and held a basin under the poison. But when the basin was full, she carried the poison out; and meanwhile the poison fell on Loki. Then he writhed so violently that all the earth shook from it; these are now called earthquakes.
Sigyn's favorite song: "Stand by Your Man"

You have to decide whether this is a just punishment for a purely malicious pair of murders, both against completely innocent victims with no real motivation. Binding for (nearly) eternity and snake poison (sometimes) in the face are both pretty nasty things, but the punishment for murder in real life has been pretty nasty, too. I think you need to weigh all the above evidence and information for yourself and make your own judgement – while always keeping in mind the danger of reading today's morality and psychology into yesterday's mythology.

Michael Bullard (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) writes:
Recently my nephew and I were watching an animated version of Marvel's Thor on television that featured the frost giants as the villains. Somewhere in the story, it's mentioned that Loki is actually a jotun [an Old Norse term usually translated as “giant”] like the frost giants and not one of the gods. My nephew picked up on this and asked how Loki could look the same as Thor and the gods, but actually be born a jotun – which were giant icy monsters in the film. It may seem like a silly question, but it was one I remember asking myself as a child when reading Norse stories. Not just about Loki, but about the giants themselves. I guess what I'm asking is: 
Just how giant were the giants? Could they change size? Could the gods change size? Does it even matter? How did so many gods and giants intermarry and have children if the giants were, well, giant?
Anyone who follows this blog knows that I’ve read a lot of Marvel Comics (and was a bit heartbroken by Kenneth Branagh’s Thor movie). I really do love the comic books, and I’m always happy when they lead young people (like your nephew) to the original Norse myths. I’ll address your questions in order.

What happened to you, Thor? You used to be cool.

Giants could definitely change their physical form or, at least, how we see them. The story of Thor’s visit to the hall of Útgarða-Loki shows this; the giant of the tale has the ability to change his outward appearance, and he is a master of illusion.

The gods can certainly change size. In the story of Thor’s fishing trip, the god of thunder swells to gigantic proportions. The angrier he gets, the larger he gets (like the Hulk), until his feet go through the floor of the boat and rest on the bottom of the ocean as he throws his hammer from on high. That’s pretty big!

As for whether this matters, I’m not sure that it does. I stress to my college students that we shouldn’t try to apply too much of the logic of modern realist literature to ancient tales of gods and giants. Here’s what the Roman writer Tacitus had to say about the Germanic tribes in 98 CE:
They conceive it unworthy the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.
This was written over 1,000 years before the Eddas, but it’s interesting to note that the ancient tribes (at least in this reported instance) did not think of their gods in discrete physical terms as walking and talking characters. Gods and giants are mystical beings with fluid characteristics. To get too hung up on physical details is like asking what color God’s beard was before it turned white, or who cuts his hair.

Note the absence of physically-manifested gods (of any size) hanging about
in Emil Doepler's 1905 illustration of a sacred grove described by Tacitus

Your question about intermarriage between gods and giants gets right to the heart of the matter. Both Odin and Thor had giantesses for mothers. Njord (god) marries Skadi (giantess) and Frey (god) marries Gerd (giantess). In no instance is there any suggestion that the giantesses are physically larger than the gods. Loki, who is definitely a giant, seems to be smaller than Thor; he even hangs on to Thor’s belt for safety while crossing a raging river.

In the end, we should avoid thinking of the giants in terms set by later folklore and popular culture, but try to read the Norse sources with Rudolf Simek’s words in mind:
The concept of giants probably originated in the observation of various natural phenomena, in particular wintery phenomena (hence: frost giants) which overwhelmed human understanding and lay outside the close area of experience of men. Thus giants are natural spirits and among the original inhabitants of the world.
Books are awesome (even ones without pictures)

Think about winter storms. You can have a tiny little snowfall that barely coats the ground or a huge raging blizzard that shuts down schools and causes multiple car accidents. In other words, you can have a tiny giant or a huge giant. Make sense?

Jovana Garcia (Florida, USA) asks:

“I want to know if there has been any mention of Loki having mortal or demigod children and, if there was, did they inherit any powers from him or other gods?”

This is a much easier question to answer! Loki’s three monstrous children (the giant snake, the giant wolf, the half-corpse Hel) were all born of a giantess. Loki seems to have also had two sons with his wife Sigyn, who is a goddess. So, no – Loki doesn’t have half-human children like, for instance, Zeus does.

Loki and the kids share a quiet moment

Irem Ayar (Turkey) writes:
I'm a high schooler who is very interested in Norse mythology but, unfortunately, there aren't so many books about it in my country. So I've read some tales on the net (seems like they're from the book The Jotunbok: Working with the Giants of the Northern Tradition) and loved them very much, but I'm not sure if they're real myths or some talented writers who are inspired by the real myths just wrote them, because I've never heard of these tales before. 
For an example, is there really a myth about the birth of Loki?
I’m very glad to hear from you, and I’m saddened by the lack of access you have to good information. I would steer clear of books like the one you mention, which really have more to do with modern neopaganism than with any actual Norse mythology or historical Norse religion. No, there is no myth about the birth of Loki. That’s the danger of some of these new books – the authors tend to make up information to fill in the gaps in the mythology, but they don’t make it clear what is original and what is modern. J.R.R. Tolkien was also very interested in exploring what could have existed in these blank spots in the Norse myths, but he would never have dared to suggest that his works of fantasy were anything other than modern creations.

If you want to explore the major tales of Norse mythology, I strongly recommend Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin. It’s the first book I ever read on the subject, and it’s very easy to read (with great black & white illustrations by Willy Pogany). It presents the main stories in an order that makes sense, and it provides a great introduction to the most famous myths. You can read it for free online by clicking here. After you’ve read it, just send me a message through the contact tab, and I can recommend another book. Please keep in touch!

Strongly recommended: The Children of Odin

That's it for this edition of “Ask a Norse Mythologist.” Keep on reading and asking questions – both activities are good for the soul.


Anonymous said...

Loki having his mouth stitched shut seems to be the beginning of the end of his 'friendly' relationship with the other gods. And I always find that nothing but cruel, and also hypocritical as it was supposedly due to his 'dishonourable' actions - yet Odin, Thor and the others saw no harm in keeping the gifts Loki's 'dishonour' brought them.

I for one will never see him as evil - just hurt.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think you are reading against the text. Here's the sequence of events:

1. Loki "had cut off all Sif's hair," an action with (violent) sexual overtones that are made explicit in the poem Lokasenna.

2. Thor shows up and demands restitution from Loki for the "rape of the lock." In Lokasenna, Thor likewise shows up after Loki publicly makes sexually inappropriate comments to Sif. In the second case, he demands that Loki leave the hall and (arguably) declares him an outlaw – a punishment for very serious transgressions in Viking times.

3. Loki convinces the dwarf sons of Ivaldi to make magic golden hair for Sif - and a magic spear. No mention is made of payment.

3. Loki "wagers his head" with a second group of dwarves, betting that they can't make better treasures. This is a very serious wager, and it means that the winner has the right to kill the loser.

4. Loki attempts to cheat his way to victory by repeatedly torturing the dwarf who manages the forge. His intention is clearly that the treasures be good enough to keep, but flawed enough that he wins the bet and can rightfully kill the dwarf.

5. After the gods "decreed that the dwarf had won the stake," Loki asks to buy his way out of his oath. When the dwarves refuse (which is completely within their legal rights), he runs away.

6. The dwarves appeal to Thor, and the thunderer catches Loki and brings him back.

7. When the dwarf seeks to take his rightful prize by cutting off Loki's head, Loki takes a literalist interpretation of the wager and says "that the head was [the dwarf's] but not the neck."

8. After Loki has tortured his brother, refused to honor his word, and prevented lawful payment, the dwarf (who legally owns Loki's head) sews Loki's mouth shut.

In the religious and cultural world that created these myths, this tale is very clear.

In each instance, Loki has acted with shocking dishonor. He has assaulted the wife of one of his hosts (remember, he is only a guest in Asgard). He has tortured members of another race with no provocation. He breaks his word, refuses to accept legal consequences, flees from the host-community, and hides behind a literal "reading" of the oath to avoid the clearly understood import.

In each of his own appearances, Thor demands restitution for wrongdoing. He forces Loki to make amends for assaulting his wife. He forces Loki to face the legal consequences of his oath-breaking.

The actions of Loki and Thor clearly fit with their religio-cultural roles. As a giant, Loki represents the dangerous and chaotic forces of nature that are harmful to all the races of the worlds. As attested by centuries of evidence, the god of the hammer is the protector of the helpless and the enforcer of the laws that keep a community healthy.

You are, of course, free to read tales of Loki however you want. However, by positing him as a misunderstood victim of the gods, you are reading directly against the values and worldview that created the character.

Saira Mokhtari said...

Very interesting. This has helped me to explain in my books how the Olympians are so much alike to their myths, but the Norse aren't so close. This is something I've been struggling with for a while.

Basically some worlds myths are real in my books, but some of them, the gods came first and made up the stories, some, the stories came first and the gods came later and their names were attributed to the myths because of something the gods did to help humans, and some are purely fiction.

I also have something to share with my mythology teacher that he doesn't seem to know given his lecture on tricksters.

Spearcarrier's Ghostfox said...

Thank you thank you for this information on Loki. I get so tired of people assuming things based on a modern perspective, and Loki is kind of one of my favorites.

But I kind of have to disagree on your cheekiness vs. evil count. I feel he calling out everyone's deeds at the "party" (as it were) is more cheeky than evil. I don't make this judgement based on a modern perspective. I know that in today's times that's considered a pretty nasty act.

I base it on a paper I read long ago when I was a lowly anthro student talking about that very incident, and how it seemed to be a teaching lesson. And you know, I and my family wouldn't consider that evil. Rude, maybe. Or we'd laugh at it. But not evil.

So it's kind of like "he shall cast the first stone" sort of sentiment. The more I have looked at things, the more I think that's apt. So not evil. Cheeky. Which swings the evil vs. cheeky count a bit. And I'm not trying to say the Vikings used that as a lesson, so much as... maybe it really did happen one day by some guy whose name happened to be Loki. People do things like that, especially when they've been insulted. They tend to say, "But what about HIM!" and point fingers.

I don't know much about Vikings - I'm pretty sure it's a fact you know more than my whole household put together - but I know how my own people thought before Christian influence came into the world. No evil, per se... and I've often wondered if Vikings leaned more towards that view with a few "this is bad" connotations or truly had the black and white view Christian influence has lead us to believe they had.

Loki has never struck me as evil. Just someone who reacts like a person does when they've been hurt time and time again. Maybe the Norse didn't mean it that way, but his story reads true in that order.

Can't wait to see what else you have to write. This blog is awesome.

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