How Did the Ancient Norse Feel About Loki?
(Image Source. Note, it’s very hard to find non-marvel images of Loki)
The Norse trickster Loki has become a hot topic in the last few years. In addition to appearing as the bad guy in the Avengers movie, he was also the theme of the most recent Amon Amarth album, “Deceiver of The Gods” (2013).
His popularity in the media has brought up much debate about “who he was really.” Even in the pagan community (which is already fairly small), there is an even smaller number of people who consider themselves devotees of Loki (Lokeans). They honor him as a patron of change, trickery and chaos. This has been somewhat of a source of contention in the Heathen community, because many Heathens see Loki as the antithesis of everything the Ancient Norse stood for. It doesn’t help that he’s the one fated to fight the Aesir on the day of Ragnarok.
If people today want to worship Loki, I certainly don’t have a problem with it. But I can see how a Lokean honoring Loki at a Heathen gathering may be somewhat like declaring oneself a Cowboy’s fan in a Washington D.C. Sports Bar.
MOST SCHOLARS AGREE THAT LOKI WAS NEVER WORSHIPED AS A GOD
While many people today may see Loki as a “God of trickery or mischief,” the fact remains that most scholars believe that in ancient, pre-christian times, Loki was never worshiped as a God.
SO WHO WAS LOKI?
Loki, son of a jötunn, was a sort of interloper who hung out with the Aesir, sometimes causing mischief and other times helping out (usually as a way to clean up the mess he caused).
In modern times many people interpret Loki as an “evil character.” But the ancient Norse did not have black and white, Judeo-Christian ideals of “good and evil,” like we do today.
Instead there were standards of behavior for how one ought to act in the community. Ideally, people were supposed act with honor and courage, which is the opposite of how Loki acted. Loki in turn was a figure of cowardice and duplicity. Yet he wasn’t entirely terrible, because he was allowed to coexist with the Aesir until he was responsible for getting Baldur (The God of light and beauty) stuck in the Underworld. Then that was when his trickery went too far.
However, despite his trickery, he did help the struggling Gods get Asgard built, by contracting a giant to do the job. The giant asked for the sun, the moon and the Goddess Freya in payment. While the Gods were not too sure about this arrangement, Loki insisted that the giant would never get the work finished in time. When the giant came close to finishing the job, Loki turned himself into a mare and seduced the giant’s stallion, which prevented the giant from getting the job done in time.
There was another situation where Loki helped Thor find his missing hammer in a comedic escapade, where Loki convinces Thor to cross dress and pretend to be a bride at a wedding.
However, Loki’s role as an antagonist cannot be white washed, considering that he will eventually fight against the Aesir during Ragnarok.
LOKI AND ODIN: BLOOD BROTHERS
Yet despite Loki’s mischief, the fact remains that Odin and Loki were blood brothers – a very serious bond deeper than any other. Perhaps this is because Odin saw Loki as being useful, when a job required brains and negotiating, rather than brawn. I have even heard interesting theories that there was a deeper motivation behind Loki’s mischief than people think (I emphasize the word theories here). As mentioned earlier, Loki was responsible for keeping Baldur trapped in the Underworld. However, in the aftermath of Ragnarok, Baldur emerged from the Underworld to return to the land of the living where he and his brother Höðr would rule the new earth together with Thor’s sons. Had Baldur not been trapped in the Underworld, he may have died in Ragnarok. So was there a method behind Loki’s madness? Who knows…
But perhaps the point of Loki was that the Norse saw the world in a much more nuanced way than we do today. The world wasn’t simply a place of good and evil. The world was a place where courage and bravery were ideal, but even so – sometimes there were situations that called for a little trickery, trickery that yielded results that were good, bad and highly comedic.
AMON AMARTH – FATHER OF THE WOLF
I’ve always felt sorry for Loki. Seems to me His mischief had a kind of innocence to it in the beginning. I can appreciate how alienated He must have felt later on, and how that alienation would eventually fuel His apocalyptic rage.
August 12, 2015 at 5:53 pm
Agreed. That’s what I love about the myths. Loki isn’t just some static bad guy. The motivations for his mischief are quite understandable. He was an outsider who lived among the Gods (therefore he probably felt quite alienated). As his sense of alienation grew, so did his bitterness. He was jealous of Baldur, because everyone loved Baldur for being light and beautiful, while Loki was universally hated. After getting Baldur stuck with Hel, he gets chained up and has venom drip on him for millions of years until Ragnarok. At this point, after millions of years of imprisonment and torture, his reasons for fighting the Gods are quite understandable. Not that I’m justifying his actions….just saying that his motivations are quite human, rather than random.
August 12, 2015 at 5:56 pm
Reblogged this on Endless Erring and commented:
A fascinating look into the complexities of Loki and his role in Norse myth and religion:
August 13, 2015 at 5:33 am
Reblogged this on My Path, Uncharted and commented:
This post explains the balance I try to maintain within my Lokean and Heathen views. I’m glad I stumbled upon this.
August 13, 2015 at 3:08 pm
Loki is probably the most misunderstood of the Northern Gods, many have come to view Loki as a vile being but this is probably a misconception? Loki today seems to have a strong following of Neo-Pagan eclectics who have taken on this deity from generic Asatru (calling themselves Lokeans) to represent some aspect of Carl Jung’s Archetypal gnosis or worse still compare him to other mythological deities from other belief systems without considering the primary sources.I have had a few encounters with Loki during Spæ workings during the early 90s but my experiences then with this Northern god were one of downright mischief making rather than the Ragnarok end of the worlds struggle the sagas speak of. As everyone knows his actions will ultimately help destroy the gods, but there is more to him than that. I feel that Loki is a role player in the scheme of things and he is far from being chained up as many wrongly believe that he is? In fact there are some folks who claim that Loki is amongst them today. Loki is a renegade and trickster without whom the courts of Asgard would be very boring indeed. Through many wrong choices Loki has become the mischief-maker, the instigator of wrongs doings in many tales. He is also disruptive, representing the necessary questioning of authority if things are to be kept running in an optimal way.
Loki’s consort Sigyn however is a goddess of compassion and fidelity who remains one of the lesser known Norse goddesses during the heathen era. I am rather surprised by the lack of patronage to this particular Nordic deity (Loki’s consort) but all those that do so will gain her help during times of bereavement or loss. She is a beautiful fidelity very loyal goddess and a boon to the family well being especially during desperate times.
Celander, Hilding 1911: Lokes mytiska ursprung, Edv. Berlings Boktryckeri, Uppsala
de Vries, Jan 1933: The Problem of Loki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki
Dumézil, George 1959: Loki, Wissenschaftlige Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt
Eddan: De nordiska guda- och hjältesångerna, translated by Erik Brate, 1990, Niloé, Uddevalla
Holtsmark, Anne 1964: Studier i Snorres mytologi, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo
Rooth, Anna Birgitta 1961: Loki in Scandinavian Mythology, C.W.K. Gleerups Förlag, Lund
Sturluson, Snorri 1978: Snorres Edda translated by Björn Collinder, Forum,
Uddevalla Ström, Folke 1956: Loki- ein mythologisches Problem, Almquist & Wiksell, Göteborg
1993: Nordisk Hedendom: Tro och sed i förkristen tid Akademiförlaget, Göteborg
Turville-Petre, E.O.G 1964: Myth and Religion of the North, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London
Anderson, Philip N. 1981: “Form and Content in the Lokasenna: A Re-evaluation”, Edda: Nordisk Tidskrift för Litteraturforskning, Scandinavian Journal of Literary Research, 4, Oslo
August 28, 2015 at 1:46 am
Lots of great sources you listed there. Will have to check these materials out.
I have to agree that Loki is misunderstood.
The Norse had a firm belief in Fate ruling the course of events. So rather than being an agent of evil, it is my opinion that Loki for better or for worse was an agent of fate. Without him, the walls of Asgard would not have been built, Thor wouldn’t have got back his hammer, and Baldr may not have survived Ragnarok.
August 28, 2015 at 3:51 pm
POTENTIALITIES OF LOKI
The figure of Loki is as fascinating as he is problematic. Jan de Vries (1933), Hilding Celander (1914)and Folke Ström (1956) characterise Loki as a ‘problem’, while to Anne Holtsmark (1962) he remainsa ‘riddle’. To this day scholars are divided on how to categorise Loki. Some call him a god, others agiant, an elf (Karl Weinhold 1849:13) or a demon, and often they do not define what they mean bythese appellations . Is Loki a demon? Or, as according to Jakob Grimm (1835) (1953:199f.), a fire elf? Does Loki’s alleged ‘fire nature’ (Karl Simrock 1887:99) imply that he is a ‘destroyer’ (Karl Simrock1887:99)? Is he ‘evil’ (Hermann Schneider 1938:241), the Lucifer of the North (Sophus Bugge1881:10)? The cunning trickster (Jan de Vries 1933)? Or death (Anatoly Liberman 1992:142)? Of course, a conference presentation cannot provide answers to all of these questions, but let usconcentrate briefly on one of them, Loki as ‘evil’.
To find the key to unlocking the mystery surrounding the figure of Loki, we must examine the literature. Most literary sources date to Christian times. Only few might have been created earlier,during the siðaskipti or even in “heathen times”. One of these is the skaldic poem Haustlöng. One of our major sources, the Snorra-Edda, is however written by a Christian, who seemed to have two mainambitions:
1. Gaining and increasing personal wealth and power,
2. Establishing and maintaining an Iceland independent from Norway.
He wrote both Edda and Heimskringla between two journeys to Norway, where he argued for theindependence of Iceland. Traces of his ambition for independence are reflected in
Heimskringla (namely in Hákonar saga góða and Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar) which shows that the Norwegians gambled away their chance for a peaceful Christianisation, whereas the people of Iceland were clever enough to accept the new faith in order to maintain social order. On closer examination, Heimskringla should not only be understood as a history of the Norwegiankings, but also as a milestone towards the independence of Iceland. It is worth examining the Ynglingasaga in this light as well. The history of the
Ynglingar could not begin with gods since to the Christian mind, these were not gods, but demons, which by definition could not be integrated into the familytree of the Nordic people and their Christian kings. On the other hand, misguided people servingdemons and becoming deified by mistake after their death could. The description of the æsir
and their worship corresponds to the understanding of demons and their worship as described by Augustinus in De Civitate Dei (Weber 2001:94). It may also correspond to common superstitions of afturgöngur and the Christian idea of necromantia as described by Thomas von Aquin for example. Snorri used thisdevice to integrate not only (heathen) history, but also strongly rooted heathen traditions into theNordic people’s self-perception within Christian times. Both of these formed the basis of an otherwise lost identity. This concept of demonisation only worked for the history of the Nordic people within Heimskringla, however. In his Edda, Snorri’s aim was to preserve the cultural tradition and art of skaldic stanza,which depends on the kenningar created on the basis of heathen tradition.He could therefore only usefine nuances. One example of this is the distinction between the álfar in ljósálfar and dökkálfar.
Snorra-Edda is an excellent example of the art of connecting pre-Christian and Christian ideas oftenusing nothing but fine nuances. This resulted in a mythological system and chronology that may nothave existed before but one which had enormous impact potential. One of the general impacts – not only found in Snorra-Edda, but also in the Eddaic poems – is the ensuing descent of the “powers of chaos”. But the descent of personifications of these powers – of the giants, elves, Loki (vömm allragoða, as Snorri calls him) – also has an impact on the development of those gods who at first ight seemed to be connected to order rather than chaos.
Ref: Potentialities of Loki
Bonnetain, Yvonne S.. (2006) – In: Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives p. 326-330
August 29, 2015 at 3:36 am
As a kid, I bought a folktales book. While it focused on the Arabic ones, I was so fascinated by the Scandinavians tales. Trolls, elves, Mara, Dwarves Odin, Thor. Only, I related to Loki most of all since he depended on his wit and tongue, instead of strength to get out of most situations. The fact that he was an outsider, made me see him as the most human of all the gods.
PS, I think Thor 2011 is the best marvel movie.
August 5, 2017 at 1:26 pm