Master of Mischief, Part I: Mythological Origins

We all know who Loki is—he’s the god of mischief. He’s a power-hungry madman who runs around causing trouble until it’s time for him to parade the giants into Asgard to destroy the other gods. Right?

Well … sort of.

Those who are already familiar with the myths should have spotted the most obvious error here: Loki is not a god. Details about his parents, Fárbauti and Laufey, are practically non-existent, but Snorri Sturluson, the author of The Prose Edda, assigns Loki’s father Fárbauti to the giants, which meshes well with the translation of his name: “Anger-Striker”.1 2 It appears that Loki is almost definitely one of the giants.

Another thing—“giant” isn’t really an appropriate description as these beings (the “Jötnar”, singular: “Jötun”) are rarely physically distinguishable from the gods (the “Aesir”, singular: “Áss”—which rhymes with “house”, just to be clear).3 The two peoples sometimes intermarry, although the Aesir get the all benefits of these transactions.4 5 And just to make things a little more complicated, the Aesir and the Jötnar are actually cousins. This story goes right back to the origins of the worlds.

In the Beginning…

the universe was a really boring place. Ginnungagap was a void which may have existed between primordial worlds of fire and ice—Muspellheim and Niflheim, according to The Prose Edda. In Ginunngagap lived a literal giant named Ymir as well as a cow named Auðhumla, who fed Ymir with her milk and licked a man named Buri out of the ice. (I’m not making this up.) These beings were created by hoar frost melting in the heat of Muspellheim, so the mythical worlds we know originated from fire and ice. Ymir reproduced by sprouting children from under his arms and the bottoms of his feet (which gives a whole new meaning to having kids underfoot). Buri’s son Bur, who was probably conceived in the usual way, mated with Bestla, who appears to be one of Ymir’s descendants; their children Odin, Vili, and Ve slaughtered Ymir and created the worlds out of his dismembered body. So much for respecting your elders.

Of the worlds created, the three most prominent in the mythology are Midgard, the home of humankind; Asgard, the realm of the Aesir; and Jötunheim, the lands of the Jötnar. The Jötnar and Aesir are locked in a power struggle in which the Jötnar try to steal from or attack the Aesir; however, between Thor’s sheer might and Odin’s knowledge and ruthlessness, the Aesir always have the upper hand.

So the question is, if the Aesir and the Jötnar are such bitter enemies, then why is Loki in Asgard? I will look at that in Part II: Prophesy and Fate.

The Series:

  1. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto [2001], p.111. 
  2. The origins of Loki’s mother, Laufey, are less certain and, in my opinion, highly problematic regardless of her race. I will discuss this issue in a later post. 
  3. The goddesses are often referred to by the feminine form, Ásynjur (singular: Ásynja). 
  4. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto [2001], p.2. 
  5. Loki is definitely an exception to this rule. You could argue that Skadi, the Jötun wife of Njörd, is another exception. 

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