In the modern day, Loki is occasionally drawn up as being power-hungry and possibly psychopathic, but this interpretation obscures the complexity of his original character. While the mythological Loki does some truly horrifying things (he does bring about the destruction of the Nine Worlds, after all), he is mostly just a troublemaking pain in the arse and he often gets kicked around for it.
It’s hard to know quite where to start discussing the master of mischief, but as usual, it’s best to start at the beginning—in this case, with the early myth of Mjolnir’s creation.1
For reasons unknown, Loki gives Thor‘s wife, Sif, a surprise haircut, so Thor threatens Loki until he agrees to fix it. Loki seeks help from two dwarves simply known as the sons of Ivaldi, who produce golden hair that will grow like natural hair, plus a spear (Gungnir) and a ship that folds up small enough to fit into a man’s purse (Skidbladnir).
But Loki isn’t done. He spots two other dwarves, Brokk and Eitri,2 and wagers that they can’t make any items finer than the ones he has just received. If he loses, they get to keep his head. The game is rigged, of course, and while the dwarves work, Loki turns into a fly and bites them. They keep working, and when they are done, they present a boar with golden bristles (Gullinbursti), a gold ring that drips eight copies of itself every nine days (Draupnir), and a hammer that if thrown, will return to the thrower’s hand (Mjolnir). One dwarf says that Mjolnir’s handle is shorter than intended because a fly bit his eyelid and the blood obscured his vision while he worked the bellows.
Loki and the two dwarves take the lot back to Asgard to be judged and, wouldn’t you know it, the dwarves win the wager. Loki tries to flee, but Thor thwarts his efforts. Finally, Loki calls up a technicality, saying that the dwarf can have his head but not his neck. Of course, you can’t really cut off someone’s head without taking part of their neck, so the dwarves stitched Loki’s lips together and left.
It was Loki’s mischievousness that caused the problem, and his willingness to make amends saved his life—at first. But when his mischievousness (combined with greed and possibly a desire to win favour from the Aesir) got him into more trouble, his cleverness very literally saved his neck.
Loki’s motivation for cutting Sif’s hair is unclear. I’ve heard one person suggest that it may be related to Sif’s infidelity, which Loki exposes at Aegir’s feast while claiming to be the other party to the, ahem, dirty deed. This is an interesting hypothesis, but it’s also quite possible that he was just being foolish and impetuous, or that he found it amusing to embarrass Sif and/or Thor, who is responsible for safeguarding the women in his life. Of course, Loki would have known that upsetting Sif would get him in deep trouble with Thor (which it did), and at that early stage he hasn’t yet developed the vicious streak that shows up in the later myths. But (if you will indulge my speculation) perhaps we’re missing part of the story and Loki acted under compulsion. It would certainly fit the pattern established by several other myths.
Promises Made, Promises Kept
One of the core values of Viking society was honour, and one of the most honourable things you could do was follow through on your oaths. The Vikings often lived in relatively small communities, were highly social, and their daily lives were primarily taken up with work from morning until night. They had animals and crops to tend, kids to raise, food to cook, and clothes to make—from scratch.3 Winter was coming and things just had to get done. Oath-keeping was critical for the members of these societies to just survive, so trustworthiness and reliability were highly prized traits.
Knowing this, would you be surprised to learn that Loki consistently makes good on his promises? Well, he does and, ironically, it’s one of the reasons he lands himself in so much trouble.
Consider the story of Geirröd’s attempt to kill Thor. In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Loki flies to Geirrödgard in Frigg’s falcon cloak4 and sits up in a high window of the hall. Geirröd spots the “bird” and sends his servant to retrieve it. Amused by the servant’s struggle to climb the wall, Loki sits and waits because he thinks he will have time to escape. However, when he tries to take off, his feet are stuck to the ledge and he is captured. Geirröd interrogates him but gets no answers, so he locks Loki in a trunk and starves him. After three months, Loki finally tells him his name and, under threat of harm, agrees to bring Thor to back to Geirrödgard without his hammer or belt of strength.
The Prose Edda does not elaborate on exactly how Loki convinces Thor to leave Mjolnir behind, but it is implied that he uses some rather crafty means. Indeed, it seems that Thor doesn’t know much about Geirröd, because when he visits Gríd, one of his father’s mistresses, she tells him that Geirröd is dangerous. She then lends him her belt, steel gloves, and staff to protect himself.
Granted, Thor’s not the sharpest sword in the armoury, but one would think that being persuaded to visit a land full of enemies without a weapon would set those warrior instincts a-screamin’. Apparently not. But it’s a good thing Thor had some kind of weapon on hand because Geirröd and his daughters all try to kill him and instead are all killed by him.
According to Sturluson’s version of the myth,5 Loki goes back to Geirrödgard with Thor, although he doesn’t seem to play an active role on the journey. You could ask why Loki accompanies Thor this time, but perhaps the question should be why he even complies with Geirröd’s demands in the first place. If Loki really were as duplicitous as some popular conceptions would have it, then it would be much easier for him to make the promise to save his own skin and then break it for the same reason.
The most reasonable answer to both of the above questions, however, is likely that Loki was very simply keeping his oath. Geirröd trapped and starved him, then extracted information and promises from him under duress. Since Loki had no known relationship to Geirröd outside of this story, it’s extremely unlikely that this was a relationship Loki would care to maintain. He did have a relatively close relationship with Thor, however, and had Thor realized that Loki had delivered him into enemy hands under false pretenses, he could easily have beaten the tar out of Loki. Additionally, if Thor had been killed and the Aesir discovered Loki’s treachery, Loki most certainly would not receive a warm welcome at their dinner table ever again.
Perhaps Loki hoped that Thor would kill Geirröd (Loki certainly had reason to hate him), but then why lure Thor with deceit? Surely, Asgard’s ultimate alpha male would be more than willing to prove his dominance, especially if he knew that an enemy was itching for a fight. Geirröd stipulated only that Thor was not to bring his hammer or belt, so another weapon could have been—and was in fact—allowed. Loki could have turned on Geirröd or played Thor and Geirröd against each other to save his own hide. Instead, he did what he promised and nothing more.
But by no means is this the only case where Loki gets himself out trouble by promising to do things that cause further mayhem.
An Apple a Day … Attracts Hungry Jötnar
While travelling with Odin and Hoenir, Loki loses his temper with the Jötun Thjazi (who is in eagle form) and strikes him with pole that mysteriously fastens itself to both parties.6 Thjazi flies away, dragging Loki along for a rough ride that only stops when Loki promises to help Thjazi kidnap Idunn and her apples of youth.
Just as in the story of Geirröd, Loki keeps his promise, but this time the Aesir find out what happened and demand that Loki set things right, which he does. He manages to retrieve Idunn, but Thjazi flies after him. The Aesir build a fire, and when Thjazi flies overhead, his wings are burned and he crashes to the ground where he is killed. When Thjazi’s daughter, Skadi, arms herself and comes to Asgard, she demands that the Aesir compensate her with a husband and with someone to make her laugh.7 The second job falls to Loki, who ties his testicles to the beard of a goat in a most absurd game of tug-of-war. Needless to say, he gets the job done.
Of course, all this misery (and much more besides) could have been avoided if Loki had learned to manage his impulses, but that was just not his way. However, there are also cases where Loki is not at fault for some awful situation but the Aesir put him on clean-up duty anyway.
An Eight-Legged Boy and his Mother
A builder came to Asgard and offered to build a protective wall that would keep out all enemies, asking for Freyja and the sun and moon as payment. He said he could do it in three half-years, but as much as the Aesir wanted the wall, they did not want to make this payment. Their counter-offer required him to do it in one winter (six months) with no help from any man. The builder asked if he could still employ his horse, Svadilfari; at Loki’s suggestion, his request was granted.
However, Svadilfari was no ordinary steed. He worked night and day to bring boulders back to his master, who came worryingly close to fulfilling his end of the bargain. The Aesir rather conveniently concluded that Loki must have been behind all this and threatened Loki with a terrible death unless he could find some way to thwart the builder. Clever Loki turned himself into a mare and neighed to attract Svadilfari’s attention. The ploy worked: Svadilfari came running and the two disappeared, to the builder’s dismay. Unable to complete his work on time, the builder showed himself to be a Jötun and was subsequently killed by Thor. Loki returned sometime after giving birth to Svadilfari’s foal, the eight-legged Sleipnir, whom Loki gave to Odin.
What’s curious is that there are no winners here. Really, everyone comes off looking pretty bad. The builder offers a reasonable service, albeit for an unreasonable price and possibly for malevolent purposes. The Aesir set him up to fail by making a deal that looks fair but which they don’t believe can be fulfilled. They blame Loki for their conundrum, but there is no evidence that Loki actually colluded with the builder. Why Loki prodded the Aesir accept builder’s request―whether it was to deliberately assist the builder or whether Loki just figured that this would make the deal appear more acceptable so the Aesir would get their wall―is an interesting question. But regardless of Loki’s intentions in the matter, the Aesir broke their oath. When the builder came close to earning his pay, not only did they create a crisis that would cause him to fail, but they also had him killed when they found out who he was. The Aesir reneged on their deal, the builder died a swift and brutal death, Odin got “the greatest of all horses”,8 and Loki did the Aesir’s dirty work, becoming a “pervert”9 in the process.
The mythology turns tragic, however, when Loki ceases to be a friend to Odin. In Part V: Ragnarök, I will deconstruct the end of the world and how it represents the inevitable breakdown of society.
- Part I: Loki’s Origins
- Part II: Prophesy and Fate
- Part III: The Many Faces of Odin
- Part IV: Loki’s Charms
- Part V: Ragnarök
- Part VI: Trickster, Blood Brother and Nemesis
- While it is tricky to put the myths in a specific order, there are a few myths that clearly belong in early, middle, or late periods in the mythological setting. Since Thor has his hammer for virtually the entire known mythology, this story clearly fits into an early period. ↩
- At some point after the Middle Ages, someone scrawled “Brokk and Sindri” in the margins of the Poetic Edda, but Eitri is the correct name. [Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto , pp. 106, 267.] ↩
- Just making clothes could be a full-time job. The wool had to be collected, carded, spun, woven, and sewn, all by hand. Although the Lendbreen tunic pre-dates the Viking Age, it took 760 hours to produce using technologies that probably had not changed much by the time the Vikings appeared. To give you some perspective, 760 hours at 40 hours per week works out to 19 weeks, or just over four months, to make one tunic. Now imagine trying to clothe an entire family. ↩
- In “Thrym’s Poem” in the Poetic Edda, Loki borrows Freyja’s falcon cloak. ↩
- In the poem “Thórsdrápa”, an earlier version of the myth told by tenth century skald Eilíf Gudrúnarson, Thor is accompanied by his faithful human servant, Thjalfi . The poem, or a large part of it, is included in the Prose Edda. ↩
- As you can see, Loki has a way of becoming inconveniently “stuck” to things. ↩
- Blood money was a common way to legally settle violent disputes without further bloodshed, so this sort of compensation for the death of a family member was not unusual. ↩
- Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York , p. 28. ↩
- In “Loki’s Quarrel”, Odin tries to silence Loki by recounting a now-lost story of how Loki gave birth and was thus a “pervert”. [Larrington, Carolyne, transl. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York , pp. 84, 295.] ↩