A Brief Account of Life with Loki
Throughout world mythology, tricksters, whether good or evil, tend to occupy a different place in the public consciousness than most other gods. They often bridge the gap between mortals and deities, stealing heavenly items and giving them to humans, such as fire, stories, or even chocolate. One such Trickster is Loki, a Jotun from Norse mythology. Liar, wordsmith, and harbinger of Ragnarök, Loki has been catching the human imagination for over a thousand years.
Norse myth is associated with multiple Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, with the early myths originating from Northern Germanic tribes in the 9th Century. These were largely passed down orally, in the form of stories and poems, before later being committed to text. The two most famous collections of Norse legends are the ‘Prose Edda’, written down in approximately 1222 AD, and the ‘Poetic Edda’, in approximately 1270 AD.
The myths dealt with the nine realms, connected by the World Tree, Yggdrasil with humans living in the mortal realm of Midgard, and the gods (or Aesir) living in the shining world of Asgard. The gods included Odin (All-Father), Thor (god of Lightning), and, of course, Loki – trickster deity and god of lies.
Loki was the son of a Jotun, giants from the realm of Jötunheimr who were spontaneously created from the body of Ymir, the first being in creation. While Jotun usually served as the enemies of the gods, Loki was often seen as a companion to the Aesir, in particular Odin and Thor. He was blood-brother to Odin, though the origins of this particular relationship are hazy.
As a Trickster (and Jotun), Loki’s relationship with the Gods was contentious, at different points he both helped and hindered them, seemingly for either his own amusement or gain. In one myth he snuck into the goddess Sif’s bedroom while she slept and shaved her hair off while she slept as a joke. In another myth, however, Loki assisted the god Thor in retrieving the stolen Mjolnir from the giant Thrym.
Some of the most popular and well-known myths about Loki, however, revolve around his children. Loki had many children, most of them monstrous, and most of them coming to bitter ends.
Possibly Loki’s eldest child, Sleipnir was born when Asgard was new. The gods hired a craftsman to build fortifications around Asgard protecting them from attack. The deal was that if the craftsman could build the wall within one season, with the help of no other man, he would be paid with a marriage to the goddess, Freyja. If he did not complete this task, or was aided by anybody else, the craftsman would not be paid. It turned out that the craftsman had the assistance of a fine stallion, Svadilfari, (not technically a man) and with his aid the craftsman made quick work of the walls. Determined not to pay him, the Aesir decided that it had been Loki’s fault that the deal had been made in the first place and ordered him to find some way of preventing the work from being finished.
Afraid for his life if he failed, Loki transformed himself into a mare, tempting the stallion away from his owner, and leading him in a chase through the woods. Shortly after this occurred, the gods found out that the ‘man’ was in fact a Jotun in disguise and killed him anyway. Loki returned from the woods sometime later with a young eight-legged foal named Sleipnir. The adult Sleipnir would become Odin’s steed, considered the best of all horses.
The next of Loki’s children may not have been born s a result of a liasion with a horse, but nevertheless had an equally inhuman appearance. These three were born to the Jotun, Angrboda. Fenrir, a wolf prophesied to kill Odin during Ragnarök and bound in unbreakable chains, Jörmungandr, a serpent large enough to encircle the Earth, discarded in the oceans of Midgard, and Hel (or Hela) one half living flesh, the other rotting corpse, thrown into Niflheim, where she served as the ruler of a kingdom that shared her name.
While these may be the most popular of Loki’s children, they were far from the only ones. Among Loki’s lesser-known sons are Narfi and Vali, who appear as minor characters in some versions of the myths. Their fates are arguably more horrific than that of their siblings, with Vali transformed into a wolf and used to kill his brother. There is some confusion around the existence of these brothers, as Vali is also the thought to be the name of Odin’s youngest son – specifically brought into the world to punish Loki for the death of Baldur.
If Loki’s friendship with the gods had been tenuous before, it was shattered with the death of Baldur, son of Odin and most beloved of the gods.
Baldur’s death was prophesised as a harbinger of Ragnarök, though the exact details of the death were unknown. In an effort to protect her son, Frigg (or Frigga) went to every object, weapon, plant and animal and made them swear not to harm her son. The only exception to this oath was mistletoe who was either to young, too small, or too overlooked to swear.
Enchanted with Baldur’s new invulnerability, the gods made a game of throwing objects at Baldur to see how they failed to harm him. The only exception to this game was Hod, Baldur’s blind brother. Loki assured Hod that he would help him play, lining up a shot and allowing Hod to shoot an arrow at Baldur. What he did not tell Hod was that the arrow was made of mistletoe. The shot struck true, and Baldur died. Attempts were made to resurrect the god, but Loki ensured that they did not come to fruition.
In punishment for his crimes, Loki was captured and bound to a rock (in the versions where Vali and Narfi appear, the ropes that bound him were disturbingly made from his son’s own intestines). A poisonous snake was placed above him, dripping venom down onto Loki’s face. Unable to free him, but not wanting him to suffer, Loki’s loyal wife, Sigyn, would hold a bowl above him, catching the venom. Whenever Sigyn needed to empty the bowl the venom would drip onto Loki’s unprotected face, and he would writhe in pain – causing earthquakes across Midgard. Loki would not leave the cave until Ragnarök, when he would lead the Jotun against Asgard, and die, along with the majority of the gods and giants.
While the events of Ragnarök, and perhaps even Baldur’s death have been written, they were not actually expected to have happened yet. With many of the Norse myths believed to recount future events.
Across the 11th and 12th Centuries, beliefs in these myths became less common due to the arrival of Christianity and conversion efforts from German and Anglo-Saxon missionaries. Many sites originally built to worship these Norse gods were taken over for Christian purposes. Despite this however, there are still a number of people across Scandinavian countries who believe in these gods. In Iceland 2,400 people report still worshipping the gods of these myths, with 500-1000 people reported in Denmark, and there are thought to be approximately 20,000 people who worship the Norse gods worldwide.
Some of this number is likely due to a resurgence in the religion in the 20th Century. Particularly with the emergence of New-Age Paganism, and various religions that honour the Norse gods include: Astaru, Odinism, Heathenry, and Neopaganism.
In addition to a growing number of religious followers, the Norse Gods have also found themselves popular figures in modern media. Loki in particular has gained fame as the villainous (or at least, morally ambiguous) brother of Avenger, Thor in the Marvel comics and movies.
First appearing in the comics in 1949, and later solidified as a character in 1962, Loki quickly became a fan favourite, and his popularity only grew with his introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2011. Played by Tom Hiddleston and acting as antagonist to hero and titular character Thor, Marvel’s Loki is reimagined as a Nordic-themed alien, adopted son of Odin and actual son of the Jotun (frost giant) Laufey. Interestingly, in myth Laufey was most likely Loki’s mother, rather than father as the Marvel movie suggests. The reason behind this change may be because Loki is occasionally referred to in myth as Loki Laufeyjarson. The reason for this change may have been the assumption that Loki’s second name was derived from a more common patronym, rather than a rarer matronym.
Loki’s popularity led to him appearing in subsequent Marvel movies, including the 2012 ‘Avengers’ film, and two subsequent ‘Thor’ movies. Most recently Loki has appeared in his own TV show on Disney+, where he encounters a variety of alternate Loki characters from across the Marvel multiverse. Despite multiple onscreen ‘deaths’ the character of Loki endures, much as the god himself did.
As a Trickster, Loki occupies a different space from most gods. He is both part and not part of the pantheon, and, as with many tricksters, is punished heavily for his supposed (and actual) crimes. Despite this, or even perhaps, because of it, Loki continues to capture the public consciousness and is today, one of the most well-known gods from the Norse Pantheon, a victory which, I’m sure, he would wear with pride.