Although most people probably think of Tom Hiddleston when the name Loki is mentioned, there is actually a lot more to the story. As with many other Marvel movies, the actor was named after an intriguing Norse god. Actually, a Norse god that is probably a lot more eventful than the characters in Marvel movies.
The god Loki brings confusion to many readers because of his shapeshifting abilities. His stories are plentiful, and his categorization impossible. Because of his appearances in the stories of Thor, Odin, Odin’s wife Frigg, Baldr, and many more Norse mythological figures, Loki plays a more than significant role in Norse mythology.
Loki in a Nutshell: His Kennings
To get the full story of Loki, there are some things that need to be discussed first. But, in case your time is short, here comes a short nucleus of what Loki is and represents.
Just think of this: Mischief Maker, Bringer of Gifts, Lie-Smith, Truth Teller, Sly One, Sigyn’s Worry, Sigyn’s Joy. Or, in short, Loki.
The terms that were just mentioned are generally known as kennings, common literary devices that are often found in skaldic poetry and the Eddas; the books that will be discussed in a bit.
They’re descriptive phrases (sometimes indirectly descriptive) used in place of a noun, and modern inhabitants of the Nordic areas (also known as heathens) use kennings when addressing the gods whilst engaging in rituals and writing. Because it refers to the actual god, the kennings are capitalized.
The kennings are, thus, the perfect way to describe Loki or his fellow gods without using too many sentences.
The Most Popular Kennings for Loki God
Some were already mentioned, but there is a deeper meaning to the kennings that are used in relation to Loki. Also, there are a couple of others that should be mentioned than just the ones above.
For starters, Scar Lip is one of the most common ones when referring to Loki. How did he get to this point? Well, he actually lost a battle when he tried to create a place called Mjölnir. Loki’s lips were literally sewn shut, leaving a bunch of scars on his lip when he was free again.
The second name that is often used in relation to Loki is Sly One. He is sneaky and clever, always devising new ways to disrupt the status quo. Or, just to save himself. He went way too far too often, so he had to act like a sly fox sometimes to make things right or run away.
Bringer of Gifts
Bringer of Gifts is a name that is also used quite often, courtesy to Loki’s role in attaining treasures for the gods. Some academic theories also claim that Loki represents sacred ritual fire in the era of Paganism in ancient Scandinavia. If this is true, Loki would be the one that relayed the offerings at the fires to the deities in Asgard.
The one that is considered to be the real wife of Loki is called Sigyn. It’s therefore pretty straightforward where the kenning Sigyn’s Joy comes from. However, normally it is believed that Sigyn would provide comfort for Loki and the trickster god himself would mostly just annoy her with his shenanigans.
But, the fact that Sigyn’s Joy is quite the popular kenning shows that the relationship is not just one-sided. It shows, albeit very superficially, that it’s a two-sided relationship and suggests that Sigyn had plenty of reason to stay with him.
Father of Lies or the Lie-Smith
Some ancient poets in Northern mythology refer to Loki as the Father of Lies, amongst others. This is generally considered to be a bad thing, and it’s quite obvious why that is the case. However, the instances in which Loki is referred to as Father of Lies are normally rooted in a Christian interpretation of his story.
For example, in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, there is a character who is called Low-Key Lyesmith. Just say it out loud and you see that it is pronounced Loki Lie-Smith.
However, it might not be fully justified to call him the Lie-Smith, actually. Although his tongue gets him in trouble more than he wants, it’s mostly just because of his brutal and blunt honesty. It’s painful for the subjects involved, sure. But, it’s not lying. So, it’s still a bit contested. After all, it is one of his most common kennings. Yet, things that are common don’t necessarily have to be true.
Liminality is the area in which someone or something goes from one place to another. Transition. It’s the threshold between places, between times, and between identities.
Loki really is a liminal creature, who transcends any categorisation and challenges the authority of any social norm. Chaos is his way of being, which is necessarily indicative of a state of liminality.
Although there are definitely other gods that can shift shapes, Loki is normally the first one that comes to mind. That is, within Nordic mythology. This could well be because he takes on the greatest variety of shapes in many stories.
In the biggest poetic works of the ancient Nordic populations, he would transform into things like old women, falcons, flies, mares, seals, or even salmon. While most other gods have a magical weapon that helps them win battles, the trickster god method of self-defense leans towards quick thinking and shapeshifting.
The Basics of Norse Mythology
So far for the brief and descriptive introduction of Loki. To get more in depth, some notes about the sources and nature of Norse mythology should be elaborated upon.
The stories that can be found in Norse mythology are fascinating, but also very tough to understand without some background information. Therefore, it’s good to indicate where the god Loki appears first and some other important terminology in relation to Norse deities.
How Do We Know Things About Norse Mythology?
If you’re familiar with Greek or Roman mythology, you might know that the biggest stories of the ruling deities appear in something that is called an epic poem. In the Greek story, Homer and Hesiod are the two most prominent poets, while in Roman mythology Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a great resource.
Something similar happens within Norse mythology. Indeed, the god Loki appears in two big works which are referred to as the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. These are the primary sources for Scandinavian mythology in general, and they help draw a comprehensive picture about figures in Norse mythology.
The Poetic Edda should be seen as the oldest one of the two, which covers an untitled collection of Old Norse, actually anonymous, narrative poems. In theory it’s a cleaned up version of the Codex Regius, the most important source on Norse mythology. The original Codex Regius was written around 1270, but it is somewhat contested.
That is to say, it is often referred to as the ‘old Edda’. If it was written in 1270, it would actually be younger than the Prose Edda: the ‘young Edda’. In that case, it wouldn’t really make sense to call it the old Edda, but let’s not get too much into detail here. The story of Loki itself is already complicated enough.
On the other hand, there is the Prose Edda, or Snorri’s Edda. It was written during the early 13th and its author goes by the name of Snorri Sturluson. Hence, its name. It is considered to be even more detailed than the Poetic Edda, making it the most profound source for modern knowledge of Norse mythology and even north Germanic mythology.
The myths are actually written in a series of books, with the first one being called the Gylfaginning. It deals with the creation and destruction of the world of the Æsir and many other aspects of Norse mythology. The second part of the Prose Edda is called the Skáldskaparmál and the third Háttatal.
The Stories Relevant for Loki
Although the two Edda’s refer to a wide arrange of Norse gods, some stories in particular reference frequently to Loki. The first goes by the name of Völuspá, which literally means the Prophecy of the Seeress. This is the more general of the two stories, focussing on basically all the gods in old Norse mythology. The Völuspá is the first poem of the Poetic Edda.
Another poem that is found in the older Edda is more focussed on Loki itself. This second piece is called Lokasenna, or the Flyting of Loki. It is the story where Loki plays a more major role, but there ara a lot more poems and proses that mention the trickster god.
When we look at the Prose Edda, the first part, Gylfaginning, tells various myths featuring Loki. Although the book doesn’t have as many words as the books today (around 20.000), it still has a lot of chapters. In about five chapters, Loki is discussed elaborately.
Æsir and Vanir
One last thing to elaborate on is the distinction between Æsir and Vanir in Norse mythology, or more specifically with regards to old Norse gods. Since Loki is considered to be tapping into both categories, some explanation is needed on their differences.
So, Æsir and Vanir are a way to distinguish Norse gods and goddesses. Æsir deities were characterized by their chaotic, combative tendencies. With them, everything was a battle. So it really goes without saying that they were notable for their use of brute force.
The Vanir, on the other hand, were a tribe of supernatural people hailing from the realm of Vanaheim. They were, unlike the Æsir, practitioners of magic and having an innate connection to the natural world.
War Between Æsir and Vanir
These two pantheons were actually at war for years. In the history books this is often referred to as the Æsir-Vanir war, and the conflict only ended when the two tribes merged into one.
To some extent, it can be compared with the Titanomachy in Greek mythology. What makes the Æsir and Vanir unique, however, is that they are not of opposing generations. Whereas the Greek gods and goddesses had to wage war against the previous generation of Titans, the Æsir and Vanir did no such thing. They were equals.
Loki: the Trickster God
Here we are, all set and clear to dive deeper into the actual story of Loki.
What should be noted is that Loki is not his full name. It’s actually Loki Laufeyjarson. It would be a bit long to constantly repeat a surname with a dozen letters, so we’ll keep it to just the first name.
Starting off with his characteristics, Loki was the ultimate trickster among the Norse gods. He is known as a shapeshifter whose intricate deceptions sowed chaos among his people. He survived the fallout of his pranks thanks to his wit and cunning.
Loki epitomizes both sides of good and bad. On the one hand, he’s responsible for giving the greatest treasures to many gods. On the other hand, he’s known to be responsible for their downfall and destruction.
One of the lines that indicates best what Loki is about comes at the end of the Æsir section in the Gylfaginning. It states that Loki is ‘also numbered among the Æsir’.
As indicated, the war between the Æsir and Vanir ended in them joining together. It is plausible that the whole group of gods obtained the name Æsir. As we will see, it would be a bit strange if he would actually be related to the Æsir before the war, since the characteristics of Loki are way more magical related to the natural world than the original Æsir.
So, in theory, Loki is related to both categories. Traditionally he is associated with the Æsir gods, although he was not actually born to this tribe. The real categorization of Loki is therefore somewhat in the middle.
His connection with both groups of gods is actually rooted in the fact that he wasn’t born to two gods himself. In many versions of his mythology, Loki was the son of a jötunn, a group which is referred to as giants.
Loki’s parents go by the name of Fárbauti and Laufey or Nál. Well, it’s probably Laufey actually. This would only make sense, since many Nordic surnames include the first name of either the mother or father. The fact that Loki’s full name is Loki Laufeyjarson links him to a mother named Laufey.
The jötunn in this case is Loki’s father, Fárbauti. Loki’s brothers were Býleistr and Helblindi, who were not really of any importance within Norse mythology. Maybe Loki tricked them into everlasting dullness? We will never know.
The wife of Loki is known as Sigyn, who is generally a Norse goddess that is associated with freedom. That’s quite contradictory if we know the full story of Loki, which will become more evident in a bit.
With this goddess of freedom, Loki had one or two children. It’s not really clear if there are two stories in which the child is referred to differently, or if there are actually two children. The child that Loki had with Sigyn is a son named Nari and/or Narfi. .
But, Loki was a real father figure and craved for some more children. At first, he wanted to have three more actually.
The three other children that Loki fathered go by the name of Fenrir, Midgard, and Hel. But, these were not just some regular children. Actually, we should refer to them as the wolf Fenrir, the world serpent Midgard and the goddess Hel. Indeed, all three children that Loki had with the giantess Angrboda weren’t human and somewhat immortal.
Loki Gave Birth
The actual story becomes a bit contested at this point, but there are even some sources that claim that Loki had another child. A child that Loki gave birth to himself. What?
Yes. Remember: Loki is an excellent shapeshifter. At one point, it is believed that Loki transformed into a mare and gave birth to an eight-legged horse. It goes by the name of Sleipnir and is believed to be fathered by a giant stallion by the name of Svaðilfari.
The story goes something like this. It all began when the giant stallion Svaðilfari, who was a master builder. He approached the gods, offering to create an impenetrable fortress. It would keep the jötnar out and, hence, the gods safe.
In exchange, he asked for the sun, the moon, and the hand of Frigg for marriage. Demanding a marriage with Frigg was something that actually returns quite a lot in Norse mythology. Indeed, he was not the only mortal nor immortal that wanted to marry her.
Svaðilfari built a beautiful fortress with summer approaching. But, as has been said, Frigg was quite valuable to a lot of people. She was actually considered too valuable for the gods to just let her go over a lousy fortress.
So, the gods decided to sabotage Svaðilfari. Loki was called for help, transforming himself into a mare. The idea was to entice Svaðilfari with feminine charms. The stallion got so distracted that he wasn’t able to finish the job. Eventually, he would fight the Æsir out of mere desperation, wanting to marry Frigg instead.
Meanwhile, Loki became pregnant by the stallion. That is, in his mare form. Eventually, a gray, eight legged horse would be birthed by Loki. The creature goes by the name of Sleipnir, which would quickly become Odin’s favorite horse.
Loki’s Origins: The Nature of Loki
Of course, there has to be some way in which Loki got related to the Æsir gods. It’s indeed not for nothing that Loki is mentioned in their category. But, be aware that he isn’t part of the actual group. Just somewhat of a cousin one might say. That’s because he made a blood oath with the war god Odin, making them blood brothers.
That is not to say that Loki was always the one that helped the gods in any Norse myth. The trickster god is notorious for initiating the complications in any of the stories he is mentioned in. Sometimes when things go wrong, the Æsir assume immediately that it’s Loki’s fault. However, things might often seem to go wrong in theory, but in practice no real harm is done.
A lot of credit to Loki should be given, since he is always willing to fix things. Actually, he often sacrifices his honor to help fix the problems.
The Nature of Loki
Loki is without a doubt a liminal creature. Go figure, he is considered both a Jöntun, as well as an Æsir. To add, he is an excellent shapeshifter who both fathers and births his offspring, as well as a challenger of many other social and biological norms. Also, he instigates chaos but with the intent to create a better way of being.
He is a god, but not really. He states deceptive things but only states the truth. Loki is found in between places, times, shifts your concert of self and alters your worldview. If you pray to Loki, he will help you to see what’s unseen and what’s unknown. Or, he actually shows the things that you don’t really want to see.
A Chronology of Loki Myths
Quite the figure indeed, but what about his myths?
Indeed, there are ample myths related to the trickster god. After all, what did the Pagan Scandinavians have to do otherwise in the Viking age if not thinking about liminality?
The myths of Loki have a strong chronological component to it, which justifies Loki’s relation with the Æsir. In the far mythic past, he is the enemy of the gods. It gets remotely better over time, eventually ending in Loki’s positive relations with many of the gods.
Earlier Times and Atrocious Relationships with the Gods
Starting out at the beginning. Here, Loki is actually seen quite negatively, somewhat as an evil creature. This has mostly to do with his involvement with the death of Baldr: a (bald?) god that was beloved throughout the world of deities.
Loki didn’t really intend to be involved with Baldr’s death, although he is the very reason that his heart is not beating.
It all starts out with the mother of Baldr, the goddess Frigg. She makes her son invulnerable by demanding to anyone that no one or no thing would harm her son. Frigg did so because Baldr was troubled by dreams of his own death, and so was his mother.
Nothing in this world could harm the son of Frigg. Well, except for the mistletoe, just in case that the mother’s child Baldr would fall in love and needed an obvious sign to make a move. Imagine if the spells of Frigg would interfere in such a situation? Terrible.
So, anything but a mistletoe. While everyone was shooting arrows at Baldr for fun, Loki wanted to state the obvious. Indeed, Loki thought it would be fun to give out some arrows that are made of mistletoe. He handed it to someone who wouldn’t notice that the arrow was made out of another material. How about the blind god Hodr, Baldr’s brother?
Eventually, Hodr killed his brother and hence is responsible for Baldr’s death. Another brother of Badr, Hermodr, rushed to the underworld to demand their brother back.
Quite the bossy family, one might say. However, in the underworld Hermodr runs into Hel: the daughter of Loki. Loki tricks Hel into demanding too much from Hermodr, so he could never give enough to get his brother back.
Since Badr was so appreciated by the other gods, Loki was captured and tied to a rock. Not too bad in and of itself, but there was actually a serpent attached right above his head. Oh, and the serpent drips venom. Luckily for him, his wife Sigyn was with him on this occasion. She was able to catch the largest part of the poison of the snake.
Still, at one point she had to leave to empty the boil of poison. Of course, the poison of the snake would reach the face of Loki in that instance. It would hurt so bad that the earth would shake. Don’t assume, however, that the gods thought that this was enough suffering for Loki, since the very death of Badr is believed to be the initiation of Ragnarök.
Ragnarök and the Rebirth of the World
Translated as ‘the fate of the gods’, the Ragnarök is believed to be the death and rebirth of the whole world. As soon as Loki broke free of the rock that he was tied to, the gods started fighting the encroaching forces of the underworld because it didn’t want to give back Badr.
Loki stood aside his daughter, fighting for the underworld. So clearly, he is the enemy of the gods in this instance. The battle wasn’t pretty. As said, it led to the death of the whole world, including Loki himself. But, it is believed that the world rose again from its ashes and was reborn, more beautiful than it was before.
Somewhat Improving Relationships in Lokasenna
As indicated, the position of Loki in relation to the gods is getting better with every story. The quintessential version of Loki is really seen in the poem called Lokasenna, which appears in one of the older Edda. The poem begins with a feast and soiree, in the halls of Aegir.
It’s not that the story starts any better than the previous one, since Loki basically starts killing right away. He kills a servant, due to a misunderstanding. Or actually, he took offense to something Fimafeng and Elder said, after which he killed the former.
Yet, he is allowed back in for the feast because he is Odin’s blood brother. From here, he starts an insult-spree in which he buries many of the ones present under a mountain of inappropriate comments. But, not false comments, as indicated earlier. Rather, comments that the gods didn’t want to hear. Loki really does it for the reactions, hoping to get some exciting responses.
One of the insults was the one against Frigg, claiming that she cheated on her husband Odin. Loki also showed his manipulative side, since he tricks Thor into butting heads with the giant Geirrǫðr. As suspected, Loki called Thor out for not being strong enough to do so. Of course, Thor fell for it. But, Thor actually won the battle.
While everybody was busy with the battle and victory of Thor, Loki transformed himself into a salmon and jumped into the river. Easily escaping the wrath of the gods.
Building Brighter Futures as Shapeshifter
Till now, the track record of Loki is one direct murder, the death of the earth, one indirect contemplated murder, and a lot of angry gods. Not really a good point to start from. Yet, as indicated, Loki was eventually related to all gods quite closely. For one because he was the blood brother of Odin. But, there is more to it.
Earlier on, the story of how Frigg was kept to the gods was already elaborated on. Indeed, resulting in Loki’s parentage over an eight legged horse. However, Loki returned in some other stories that affirm his close relationship with the gods.
Brighter times start to appear at the point that Thor arrives at Loki’s place and tells him a story. That is to say, Thor awoke that morning without his beloved hammer. Although known for his shenanigans, Loki offered to help find Thor’s hammer.
Thor definitely had every reason to accept the help of Loki, even after the track record he had built up. That’s because after the Ragnarök, Loki made sure that the sons of Thor would become the gods of the new world.
Loki first asked the fertility goddess Frigg for her magic cloak, which would allow Loki to fly and discover the location of Thor’s hammer more quickly. Thor was delighted, and away went Loki.
He flew to Jötunheimr (the land of the jötnar) and asked for the king. Quite easily, king Thrym admitted that he had stolen the hammer of Thor. He actually hid it eight leagues beneath the earth, demanding a marriage with Frigg before he would return it.
It was out of the question that Thrym would marry Frigg. So, Loki and Thor had to think of a different plan. Loki proposed that Thor would dress up as Frigg and convince the king of Jötunheimr that he was her. Thor denied, as suspected.
Yet, Loki urged Thor to reconsider his decision. It would be dangerous to not do so, Loki stated, saying:
“Be silent, Thor, and speak not thus;
Else will the giants in Asgarth dwell
If thy hammer is brought not home to thee.”
One might say Loki had his way with words. Thor, of course, didn’t doubt it either, agreeing to the plan. So Thor started dressing up as Frigg to eventually travel to meet Thrym.
Thrym welcomed the creature that Loki produced with open arms. Although being suspicious of her great appetite, eventually Thrym went to pick up the hammer of Thor whilst expecting to marry Frigg at any second.
So in the end, the dressing up party worked perfectly. When Thrym brought out the hammer to consecrate the marriage, a laughing Thor snatched it up and slayed the entire wedding party, including Thrym’s old sister.
Loki and Odin
Another story in which Loki becomes closer to the gods is another one involving Odin and Frigg. Odin’s lover, Frigg, slipped away and found a cave full of dwarves, who were making all types of necklaces. Frigg became obsessed with the jewelry, asking the price of the necklaces to the dwarves.
It’s quite misogynist and probably wouldn’t be part of of a modernized version of the myth, but the price was that she would have sex with all the dwarves. Frigg conceded, but Loki discovered her infidelity. He told Odin, who demanded him to bring the necklace as proof of his claims.
So, as a trickster god, he would shapeshift into a flea and Loki appeared in Frigg’s bedroom. His goal was to take the necklace, and after some attempts he was able to do so. Loki returns to Odin with the necklace, showing that his wife was unfaithful.
No real significant consequences to the story of Loki came after this, but it just affirms an increasingly good relationship with the gods.
From Good to Bad and Back
As promised, a lively character that can’t be put in a specific box. Loki was an important figure in Norse mythology, although never fully gaining a god-like status. As long as Loki keeps the gods angry and happy at the same time, we can enjoy the demand for liminality that is thoroughly ingrained in Loki’s being.