Loki is commonly referred to as a trickster, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica online defines as “[s]imultaneously an omniscient creator and an innocent fool, a malicious destroyer and a childlike prankster, the trickster-hero serves as a sort of folkloric scapegoat onto which are projected the fears, failures, and unattained ideals of the source culture.”1
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Loki has an amazing ability to get himself into trouble, usually by being foolish. He gets cocky or angry and suddenly he’s up to his neck in it; when he tries to resolve the problem, he often digs himself deeper. He’s clever and creative, but when he decides to use his abilities for evil, he pulls out all the stops.
Loki and Odin have sometimes been described as mirror images to each other. Odin certainly pulls his share of dirty tricks, although for different reasons. The parallels and contrasts between these two characters will also shed some light on the myths and the people who believed them.
Previously, I described the story of how Loki transformed himself into a mare to lure Svadilfari away before the builder could complete the wall around Asgard. By doing this, Loki saved the Aesir from having to give the builder the sun, the moon, and Freyja’s hand in marriage. In one sense it was an honourable act (even if the Aesir’s intentions were underhanded and self-serving), but by turning himself into a female horse and allowing himself to be mounted by Svadilfari, he made a shameful choice according to the gender politics of the Vikings.
While it is true that the Viking women were generally respected and given significant protections in law from spousal abuse and sexual assault, they were by no means equals in society. By convention, if not by law, they were typically the last on the list to inherit property,2 and they could not speak on their own behalf at the “Thing” or “Althing” (legal assemblies) even if they were the complainant. Instead, a male relative or guardian had to speak on the woman’s behalf. And despite what you may have heard, there is very little evidence of female Viking warriors;3 moreover, one of the worst insults you could throw at a man would be to call him a woman or imply that he accepted the woman’s role in sexual intercourse, consensual or otherwise.4,5 Thus, you can imagine how Loki would have been scorned for accepting the female sexual role and becoming the mother of Sleipnir. However, Sleipnir was considered the best of all horses and gifted to Odin, even though his conception and birth were black marks on Loki’s reputation.
It is interesting that Loki and Odin were treated differently given that Odin, too, was inclined to engage in “womanly” activities, such as seidr, a form of witchcraft. Practitioners of seidr could supposedly speak to spirits to learn the future, among other things. Odin would have considered this a very desirable skill and well worth any scorn he might receive; however, there is little evidence he lost the respect of his followers for engaging in seidr.
In Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, there is a story of Odin (renamed Othinius) cross-dressing, which may have been illegal in Viking Age Icelandic society6 in particular and was certainly frowned upon in general. Whether the story of Othinius is adapted from a true pagan myth is questionable, as it was written down more than a century after the Viking Age, but it appears to be closely related to the rape of Rind in the original mythology.7 That Rind is identified as an Ásyna (goddess) by Sturluson makes her rape particularly odious as she was a member of Odin’s own community.8 Nonetheless, assuming this is an Viking Age myth, it is clear that this blatant transgression of societal norms and laws was not sufficient for the Vikings to stop worshiping him.
Creation, Destruction, and Power Dynamics
The greatest difference between Loki and Odin is the result of their roles in the power structure of society. Odin lies, cheats, and steals to attain power or acquire objects that will bring him esteem, such as the mead of poetry. Odin wields power to preserve himself and his status.
Loki’s behaviour is typically foolish, such as flying into Geirröd’s window and sitting long enough to be captured. In righting his wrongs (often at his own expense) he maintains the order of the Aesir with Odin as their ruler and himself as a pesky but useful member. Loki does not exercise any real power until he leads the Jötnar to Ragnarök, when his actions serve to destroy Odin’s power rather than usurp it.
The things Loki is responsible for directly or indirectly bringing into existence, such as Freyr’s ship, Sleipnir, etc., are typically the results of his attempts to make amends for some mischief he caused. Sometimes he causes more trouble in the process of making amends, as is the case with Thor’s hammer. However, he does not create these things for his own purposes and gains no power or respect for having brought them into existence.
Odin, on the other hand, tends to benefit in some way from his creations. Kvasir came into existence when Odin and the Vanir spat into a vessel to seal their truce, making him indirectly a being of Odin’s creation. Kvasir’s existence ended a seemingly unwinnable war and helped Odin maintain his position. When Kvasir was killed by two dwarves, his blood was brewed into the mead of poetry, which Odin stole and brought back to the Aesir, securing his position as a god of poetry. In this way, Kvasir’s existence benefited Odin twice over, and Odin was not demeaned or reviled for the manner in which he created Kvasir or acquired the mead.
Outlaw and Disorder
What about these “fears and failures”? Obviously, there is a fear of betrayal and destruction, as signified by Ragnarök and the extraordinary efforts of Odin and Frigg to prevent it. Such fears would hardly be unique to the Old Norse peoples, but there are other aspects of this narrative that are worth mentioning.
As I discussed in part IV, Loki actually keeps his oaths—a most honourable behaviour in Old Norse societies—and yet he regularly causes mischief and mayhem in doing so. As I described above, Loki’s behaviour ultimately upholds Odin’s rule until, for reasons we don’t currently know, Loki causes Baldr’s death and then brings the armies of Jötnar to destroy the Aesir. Combined with the themes of societal breakdown during Fimbulvetr as well as the human messiness in the sagas, it would appear that the unreliability of others and social disorder are major concerns for the Vikings.
Again, as incongruous as it may seem, Old Norse societies were extremely well-ordered, at least in principle; acting honourably and showing hospitality were their foremost duties. The Icelanders (who were mostly former Norwegians) had a very well-developed sense of law and order, and they produced a nearly democratic society that was in part a backlash to the growing power of kings in early medieval Scandinavia. The Danes made treaties with the Anglo-Saxons that allowed for reasonably peaceful relations between the two peoples by establishing the Danelaw, a region in Britain where Danish laws and culture dominated.
In the harsh climate of the far north, cooperation among members of society was necessary for survival. Most Old Norse people were farmers or tradespersons. Winters were long and cold, so you needed every man, woman, and child capable of working to participate in the production goods and food to benefit the community. Ejecting members from the group was not done lightly. Those who posed a significant threat to the security of people or property (including slaves) could be outlawed, banishing them from the community and thus cutting them off from resources.
Given how most Old Norse people lived their day-to-day lives, it should be no surprise that social upheaval would be a major concern for them. However, that is exactly what Loki brings to the Aesir, who accept him despite their foreknowledge of his treachery.
Loki’s status as Odin’s blood-brother and Thor’s companion gives him some legitimacy, but there is a sense in which he is not fully integrated into Aesir society. His behaviour is unlike that of the Aesir, and he is frequently both the source of and solution to many of their problems. He even gets scapegoated in the case of the building of the wall around Asgard—after all, it was his suggestion that the builder be allowed to use his horse in the process of building the wall. Loki’s outsider status remains but since he sets things right, he is never ejected from the group.
However, this acceptance gives him access to Baldr. As a (mostly) trusted member of society, his presence at Baldr’s fateful game is not challenged; moreover, Hodr’s willingness to trust him suggests that he was sufficiently integrated into society to participate in its rituals. As a result, Loki was easily able to play his foreseen role in the death of Baldr and the subsequent onset of Ragnarök.
It is also interesting that Loki marries Sigyn, whom Snorri Sturluson lists among the female goddesses. In the myths, the Aesir regularly take valuable items, information, and women from the Jötnar, while the Jötnar try and consistently fail to take such things from the Aesir. Loki’s marriage to Sigyn is unique in that it reverses this trend and is therefore itself a disruption to the existing order. Unless Loki’s mother, Laufey, was herself a member of the Aesir, in which case Loki’s parents defied the norms and Loki was the product of this reversal. Either way, Loki is a disturbance in the force.
Historically, the Vikings spread throughout Europe but maintained their culture even as they move to new areas, where they often intermarried with locals and learned their languages. This versatility allowed them to survive and thrive in vastly different contexts, but eventually, their willingness to adapt wiped out their culture as Scandinavians increasingly converted to Christianity, by choice or otherwise. Iceland legislated the change from paganism to Christianity in the late Viking Age, although some pagan traditions quietly continued on until the worship of the old gods was expressly forbidden. While Vikings saw change as inevitable, they were also concerned with their own impermanence, as suggested by the theme of social upheaval that dominates the mythology.
Loki is the personification of societal disorder. He is both blood-brother and nemesis, friend and foe, creator and destroyer. He creates mayhem in what is otherwise a law-abiding society. Even though the Jötnar are kept at bay by Thor, Loki’s presence is accepted and his antics largely tolerated. As a result, he is able to destroy Aesir society from the inside.
Loki’s peculiar position highlights the fragile and ever-changing nature of society. By constantly creating havoc, Loki forced the Aesir to continually assert their dominance or risk being undermined or destroyed. The possibility of loss meant they had to find ways to re-establish control; thus, they were constantly confronted with the need to ensure the continuity of their way of life. Inasmuch as Loki forced their hands, he also helped smooth over the trouble he caused, simultaneously ensuring their continued existence while setting up the conditions for further social turbulence.
Loki is an agent of change and renewal. He is not evil but neutral; he is not the deciding hand of fate but the fulcrum upon which the future is balanced. If he shifts position, the balance changes. By simply acting, he triggers chain reactions of destruction and creation within society; eventually, he destroys that society from within and opens up the possibility of a new one taking its place.
The Vikings implicitly understood the fleeting and unstable nature of human life and society. Loki is a symbol of human frailty and impermanence. His role in the myths is critical, and he should be respected rather than reviled.
- 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
- “Trickster tale“, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed October 31, 2016.↩
- “The Duty of Revenge and the Right to Inheritance” (chart) in Thorsson, Örnólfur, ed. and Bernard Scudder, assistant ed. The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Books, Toronto , p. xli.↩
- “Raining On Your Parade About Those Women Viking Warriors“, accessed July 6, 2017, “Viking Women, Warriors, and Valkyries“, accessed July 6, 2017, and “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again“, accessed October 1, 2018.↩
- “Homosexuality in Viking Scandinavia“, accessed July 6, 2017.↩
- Larrington, Carolyne, transl. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York , page 297, notes 37 and 42 regarding “The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani”.↩
- Although Grágás was recorded in book form after the Viking Age, it contains various clauses that appear to be holdovers from the period. The proscriptions against cross-dressing may have been retained from the pre-Christian era, given the Vikings’ strict gender segregation. [Wolf, Kirsten, ed. Laws of early Iceland, Grágás II. transl. Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. The University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba , page 69.]↩
- “Rindr” in Simek, Rudolph. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. trans. Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge , p. 265.↩
- Through the myths and sagas, there are clear us-and-them distinctions, such as the dominance of the Aesir over the Jötnar. In real life, hospitality was afforded to all visitors (assuming they were not outlaws or attackers), even as raiding, raping, and enslaving members of foreign communities was commonplace. While it is sometimes difficult to reconcile this “tribal” mindset and resulting contradictory behaviour, it is necessary to accept it if we are to understand the culture of the Vikings.