LOKI is an enigmatic figure in Scandinavian mythology. There is no evidence for the worship of Loki, nor any evidence of his being known elsewhere in the Germanic world. He turns up only rarely in skaldic poetry and not at all in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. Even in Eddic poetry he turns up less frequently than Óðinn or Þórr. And yet he is something like the lynchpin of the mythology proper in its vernacular Icelandic form.
According to Snorri Sturluson's Gylfaginning, part of his Edda (c. 1220–1230), Loki is the son of the giant Fárbauti. With the giantess Angrboða, Loki is the father of three monsters who threaten the gods: the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jǫrmungandr, and the woman Hel. Óðinn, with his foresight, saw the threat and had the monsters brought to him. The wolf was bound; the serpent was cast into the sea, where he lies coiled around the earth and hence is known as the Midgard serpent; and Hel was cast down into the underworld, where she rules over the realm of the dead. These monsters remain checked until Ragnarǫk, the end of the world.
Despite his giant heritage and these threatening offspring, Loki lives among the gods in the time before Ragnarǫk. At the end of his catalogue of the Æsir (gods) in Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson wrote that Loki "is also enumerated among the Æsir." This puzzling expression may in fact hold the key to understanding Loki. He is numbered among the gods, but is not apparently one of them. Much of his activity during the period up to Ragnarǫk supports the gods in their struggle against the forces of chaos, but some of his actions are ambiguous. One good example involves another monstrous offspring, Óðinn's eight-legged horse Sleipnir, best of horses. Loki bore Sleipnir after seducing, in the form of a mare, the workhorse that a giant was using to construct the wall around Valhǫll. The giant was to have done the work without help, but when he requested the use of his horse the gods consented, with Loki's specific approval. The horse did more work than the giant, and it began to appear that the giant would fulfill the contract, for which he was to receive the goddess Freyja, the sun, and the moon. When the horse ran off to mate with Loki in the form of a mare, the giant was unable to finish the wall on time and had to forfeit his life. Giving up Freyja and the celestial bodies to the giants would have meant the end of the gods' order, so here Loki caused a problem for the gods, solved it, and protected them, and he also produced a valuable treasure for Óðinn.
In another case, Loki was once captured by the giant Þjazi and agreed to deliver Iðunn and her golden apples, which kept the gods young. Loki did so, but then the gods forced him to retrieve her. This he did in the form of a falcon. The myth, which is found in skaldic poetry as well as in Snorri's Edda, highlights Loki's ambivalence. He begins the myth traveling together with Óðinn and Hœnir. His agreement to deliver Iðunn nearly leads to the demise of the gods; his retrieval of Iðunn restores order and reinforces the mythological rule that females move only from giants to gods, never in the opposite direction, and in the end of the story the gods kill Þjazi, thus reinforcing their hierarchical supremacy over the giants.
The story goes on in Snorri's version. Þjazi's daughter Skaði demands compensation for the death of her father. The gods agree to allow her to choose a husband from among them, and she chooses Njǫrðr. But they must also make her laugh, and it is Loki who meets this challenge. He ties one end of a rope around his testicles and the other around the beard of a she-goat, and as both howl, Loki falls on Skaði's knee; then she laughs. Here Loki sacrifices his honor, and perhaps more, to right the original wrong of his giving Iðunn and her apples into the hands of the giants. He also helps procure for the gods a wife from among the giantesses.
Snorri has several stories of this kind. Captured and starved in bird form by the giant Geirrǫðr, Loki agrees to deliver Þórr to the giant without his hammer or belt of strength. Loki accompanies Þórr on the arduous journey, which ends with Þórr killing the giant's daughters and the giant himself. We have the same myth in a late tenth-century skaldic poem, Þórsdrápa of Eilífr Goðrúnarson ; in it the motivation for the journey is not provided, and Þjálfi, not Loki, accompanies Þórr.
Perhaps the most important of these stories of Loki's ambivalent position, all retained in Snorri, begins when he cuts the hair from the head of Sif, the wife of Þórr. How he does so is unknown, but it is not impossible that he was cuckolding Þórr at the time (as Margaret Clunies Ross suggests). To avert Þórr's rage, Loki agrees to acquire gold hair from the dwarfs. He returns with six great treasures, which are divided in Dumézilian triads: the spear Gungnir for Óðinn, the gold hair for Þórr's wife, and the ship Skíðblaðnir for Freyr; and the ring Draupnir for Óðinn, Þórr's hammer, and the golden-bristled boar Gullinborsti for Freyr. The second set was made by Brokkr, with whom Loki had bet his head that the dwarf could not make better items than those in the first set. Turning himself into a fly, Loki bit the smith mercilessly, but the only effect was that the hammer ended with a short handle. Even so, the gods declared it the greatest treasure, but when Loki declared that he had wagered his head, not his neck, the dwarf sewed Loki's lips shut.
In each of these cases Loki acts to right an initial misbehavior, and the outcome is favorable to the gods. Every case involves shape-changing, and bearing a foal and having his lips sewn shut represent significant losses of honor for Loki.
Bodily injury, dishonor, shape-changing, and especially the shortsighted or impulsive behavior that leads to significant cultural acquisition make Loki look much like the common narrative and mythological type of the trickster. Georges Dumézil (1948) contrasts this impulsive intelligence with that of Hœnir, who cannot speak without counsel, but the better comparison would be with the deep-thinking Óðinn. Both Óðinn and Loki are shape-changers and both are sexually ambiguous.
While Loki clearly plays the trickster and shows impulsive behavior in many myths, he by no means does so in every case. In the Eddic poem Þrymskviða, for example, he helps Þórr to retrieve his hammer from the giant who has stolen it. Although both he and Þórr must dress as women (Þórr as Freyja, whom the giant has demanded in exchange for the hammer), there is no indication that Loki had anything to do with the loss of the hammer, and Loki's wise responses to the giant's questions make possible the ultimate retrieval of the hammer. Similarly, in Gylfaginning Loki is one of Þórr's party when the god visits the giant Útgarðaloki and helps him wholeheartedly in the contests that follow. In neither case is there indication of any ambivalence in or about Loki.
Just as there are stories in which Loki unequivocally works on the side of the gods, so are there stories or indications of stories in which he opposes them unequivocally. Stanza 37 of the Eddic poem Hymiskviða charges Loki with having lamed Þórr's goat. The skald Úlfr Uggason, describing the carvings in a chieftain's hall in western Iceland circa 985, left us one stanza about a battle between Loki and the god Heimdallr. It is obscure, but Snorri tells us that the gods fought in the form of seals, and that they were fighting over the Brísingamen, the precious necklace of Freyja. Since some kennings (metaphors) call Loki the thief of this object, and since Freyja has it in the mythological present, it is possible that the battle between Heimdallr and Loki took place in the mythic past and that Heimdallr won the battle and got the necklace back. In the poetic language Heimdallr is known as Loki's adversary.
We may conjecture that the battle with Heimdallr and the siring of the three monsters with the giantess Angrboða both occurred in the mythic past. We have Loki's own voice testifying to his joining the gods during the mythic past as well:
Do you not remember, Óðinn, when we two in days of yore Blended our blood together? You said you never would taste beer, Unless it were served to both of us. (Lokasenna 9)
According to medieval Icelandic literature, an oath of blood brotherhood meant that the sworn brothers would avenge each other as though they were actual brothers; that is, each would be obliged to revenge the other, and an injury done to one could be regarded as an injury done to both. On the obverse side, sworn brothers agreed never to harm each other. We have no information on this oath taken in days of yore between Óðinn and Loki, but Óðinn and the gods would appear to be the beneficiaries, as Loki was the father of monsters and adversary of Heimdallr, and the oath would have neutralized his natural enmity toward Óðinn and the family of gods.
Lokasenna (Loki's quarrel) puts the oath to the test and indicates its failure. Loki has been excluded from the feast which is the scene of the poem because, according to the prose header, he killed the host's servants. His appeal to Óðinn matches the context—the gods are drinking—but it is ominous, because beer is a weapon Óðinn uses against the giants; Óðinn obtained the mythic mead of poetry and is a master of wisdom. The rest of the poem is a series of poetic dialogues, usually Óðinn's arena, in which Loki humiliates the gods by telling home truths, including his own role in the death of Óðinn's son Baldr. In the end only the threat of Þórr's hammer silences him.
The prose colophon tells of the punishment of Loki. The gods bind him with the guts of his son with the goddess Sigyn, and another of these sons turns into a wolf. The gods hang a pot of dripping poison over his face. Sigyn catches it in a bowl, but when she goes to empty the bowl the poison torments Loki and his writhings cause earthquakes. According to Snorri, the gods visited this punishment on Loki for his role in the death of Baldr. In Snorri's version of the story, Loki learns that only mistletoe will kill Baldr; guides the arm of the blind Hóðr when he throws the mistletoe at Baldr; and then, disguised as the old hag Þǫkk, refuses to join all creation in weeping for Baldr, to meet the condition that Hel has set for his release. Snorri's presentation of Loki, then, shows that Loki is ultimately a giant and that he shares the enmity of the giants toward the gods. The fictive kinship implied by an oath of blood-brotherhood or by Loki's being "enumerated among the Æsir" is less strong than the blood kinship of Loki's patrilines. Son of a giant, he arranges the death of Óðinn's son at the hands of another son. Any vengeance Óðinn takes must be hollow: he can sire an avenger to kill his own son, Hóðr, or he can have one of Loki's sons kill another (as Snorri has it) and bind Loki, but the damage is done. The first death of a god, as Baldr's is, must lead to Ragnarók, the end of the world.
When Ragnarók arrives, all bonds break. Human kin kill each other and kinship is spoiled. Loki steers a ship full of giants to the last battle, and he and his monstrous offspring are free to face the gods. The wolf kills Óðinn (and is avenged by another son of Óðinn). Þórr and the Midgard serpent kill each other, as do Loki and Heimdallr according to Snorri. In the new world that springs up after the battle, Baldr and Hǫðr return, their enmity annulled. Loki and the other giants are no more.
The scholarship on this enigmatic figure is vast. Older scholarship pointed to Loki's byname, Loptr, which appears to be related to the noun lopt (air) to buttress various notions familiar to nature mythology. Jan de Vries, The Problem of Loki (Helsinki, 1933), offers the connection with the trickster figure. Georges Dumézil's notion of Loki's impulsive intelligence is to be found in his Loki (Paris, 1948). In his Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley, 1973), Dumézil adduces supposed Ossetic parallels to Loki's role in the death of Baldr. Folke Ström's Loki: Ein mythologisches Problem (Göteborg, Sweden, 1956) argues on the basis of the patent similarities between the two figures that Loki was an hypostasis of Óðinn. Anna Birgitta Rooth, Loki in Scandinavian Mythology (Lund, Sweden, 1961), applies a very strict version of folklore mythology that regarded everything found elsewhere as not original to Loki; stripping away these supposed layers, she is left with an original notion of Loki as a spider, a notion that finds no support in the texts. Jens Peter Schødt, "Om Loke endnu en gang," Arkiv för nordisk filologi 96 (1981): 49–86, offers an insightful exploration of Loki as mediator. Anatoly Liberman, "Snorri and Saxo on Útgarðaloki, with Notes on Loki Laufeyjarson's Character, Career, and Name," in Saxo Grammaticus: Tra storiografica e letteratura, edited by Carlo Santini (Rome, 1992), pp. 91–158, speculates on the etymology of the name and on the relationship between Loki and Útgarðaloki. John Lindow, Murder and Vengeance among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology (Helsinki, 1997), discusses the fictive kinship between Óðinn and Loki and the narrative implications of myth told in a society that used blood feud to resolve disputes.
John Lindow (2005)
Sky Walker, Wizard of Lies, Loge
Son of giants Farbauti and Laufey
In Norse mythology , Loki was a trickster god who caused endless trouble for the gods but who also used his cunning to help them. He lived in Asgard (pronounced AHS-gahrd), the home of the gods, and he served as a companion to the great gods Thor and Odin (pronounced OH-din). Loki enjoyed mischief and disguise and could change his form to imitate any animal. At first the gods found him amusing but eventually they became tired of his tricks and grew to dislike him.
Despite his mischievous nature, Loki helped the gods on many occasions. One time a giant, disguised as a builder, came to Asgard and offered to build a wall within a year and a half in exchange for Freyja (pronounced FRAY-uh), Odin's wife. Thinking the task was impossible, the gods agreed to the deal. The giant, however, had a powerful stallion that could perform great feats of labor. When it looked as if the giant would succeed, Loki disguised himself as a mare and lured the stallion away, preventing the wall from being completed. The mare later gave birth to an eight-legged horse, called Sleipnir (pronounced SLAYP-nir), which Loki gave as a gift to Odin.
Loki had a number of wives and children. With his second wife, the giantess Angrboda (pronounced AHNG-gur-boh-duh), he had three fearsome offspring: a supernatural being named Hel , a serpent named Jormungand (pronounced YAWR-moon-gahnd), and a wolf named Fenrir (pronounced FEN-reer). As these creatures grew larger and more terrifying, the gods decided to get rid of them. They cast Hel into the dismal realm called Niflheim (pronounced NIV-uhl-heym), where she became the goddess of the dead; they threw Jormungand into the sea; and they bound Fenrir with a magical ribbon and fastened him to a huge rock.
As time went on, Loki grew increasingly evil. Angry with the gods because they now disliked him, he arranged the death of Odin's son Balder (pronounced BAWL-der). Loki discovered that Balder could be harmed only by mistletoe. One day, while the gods were tossing objects at Balder in fun, Loki gave a piece of mistletoe to the blind god Hod and told him to throw it at Balder. The misdetoe struck Balder and killed him.
In honor of Balder the gods held a banquet, to which, naturally, Loki was not invited. But he showed up anyway, insulted the gods, and then fled again when they became angry. To escape detection, Loki disguised himself as a fish, but the gods knew his tricks by this time and caught him in a net.
To punish Loki, the gods captured two of his sons, Narfi and Vali. They turned Vali into a wolf and let him tear his brother Narfi to pieces. They then took Narfi's intestines and used them to tie Loki to rocks in a cave. A giantess named Skadi (pronounced SKAY-dee) hung a great snake over Loki's head, and when its venom dripped onto Loki's face it caused terrible pain. Loki would twist in agony, causing the whole world to shake. It is said that Loki will remain in that cave until Ragnarok (pronounced RAHG-nuh-rok), the end of the world, arrives.
Loki in Context
Loki fulfills the role of trickster in Norse mythology. As with other tricksters , he is often at odds with the supreme gods and is frequently viewed as an enemy. He is also seen by humans as a sometimes helpful god, as shown in a ballad that describes how Loki saved a farmer's son from a giant who was terrorizing him. Although Loki was not worshipped by the Norse people, his role in Norse mythology seems to have been an important one: he brings both entertainment and invention to the Norse gods.
Key Themes and Symbols
In Norse mythology, Loki represents many things, including wickedness, cunning, playfulness, and cowardice. He serves as an opposing force to Odin's bravery and strength. His wickedness is shown in his plot to kill Balder, while his cowardice and cunning are shown in his escapes from trouble—often through lies, promises, or a quick transformation into an animal. His playfulness is shown in his many bets with the other gods, especially Odin.
Loki in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Loki is a popular character in Norse mythology and appears in many illustrations of Norse myths. Artists such as Jon Bauer and Arthur Rackham have created some of the most famous illustrations of Loki and his associates. Loki appears under the name Loge in composer Richard Wagner's 1869 opera Das Rheingold. More recendy, Loki has appeared as a villain in the Marvel Comics' Universe. Much of the character's history and personality is carried over from the original Norse myths.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok (2004), by Sakura Kinoshita, is a Japanese comic series that features unusual updated versions of the Norse gods and goddesses. In the first volume of the series, Loki is a teenage detective who must solve mysteries and, at the same time, figure out who is trying to kill him. The comic is written to appeal to those who are already familiar with Norse mythology. Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok has also been adapted into a successful animated series.
In Norse* mythology, Loki was a trickster who caused endless trouble for the gods but who also used his cunning to help them. He lived in Asgard, the home of the gods, and he served as a companion to the great gods Thor* and Odin*. Loki enjoyed mischief
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
and disguise and could change his form to imitate any animal. At first the gods found him amusing, but eventually they became tired of his tricks and grew to dislike him.
Nevertheless, Loki helped the gods on many occasions. One time a giant disguised as a builder came to Asgard, and offered to build a wall within a year and a half in exchange for Freyja, Odin's wife. Thinking the task was impossible, the gods agreed to the deal. However, the giant had a powerful stallion that could perform great feats of labor. When it looked as if the giant would succeed, Loki disguised himself as a mare and lured the stallion away, preventing the wall from being completed. The mare later gave birth to an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, which Loki gave as a gift to Odin.
Loki had a number of wives and children. With his second wife, the giantess Angrboda, he had three fearsome offspring: a supernatural being named Hel, a serpent named Jormungand, and a wolf named Fenrir. As these creatures grew larger and more terrifying, the gods decided to get rid of them. They cast Hel into the dismal realm called Niflheim, where she became the goddess of the dead. They threw Jormungand into the sea, and they bound Fenrir with magical chains and fastened him to a huge rock.
As time went on, Loki grew increasingly evil. Angry with the gods because they now disliked him, he arranged the death of Odin's son Balder. Loki discovered that Balder could be harmed only by mistletoe. One day while the gods were tossing objects at Balder in fun, Loki gave a piece of mistletoe to the blind god Höd and told him to throw it at Balder. The mistletoe struck Balder and killed him.
The gods held a banquet in honor of Balder to which, naturally, Loki was not invited. But he showed up anyway, insulted the gods, and then fled again when they became angry. To escape detection, Loki disguised himself as a fish, but the gods knew his tricks by this time and caught him in a net.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
To punish Loki, the gods captured two of his sons, Narfi and Vali. They turned Vali into a wolf and let him tear his brother Narfi to pieces. They then took Narfi's intestines and used them to tie Loki to rocks in a cave. A giantess named Skadi hung a great snake over Loki's head, and when its venom dripped onto Loki's face, it caused terrible pain. Loki would twist in agony, causing the whole world to shake. It is said that Loki will remain in that cave until Ragnarok, the end of the world, arrives.
See also Balder; Fenrir; Freyja; Giants; Hel; Norse Mythology; Odin; Ragnarok; Thor; Tyr.