The Tragedy of Loki

loki_bound

Most people think of Loki as one, of if not the, major villains of Norse myth.  And while there’s some truth to that, like with many things in Norse/Germanic myth, the “reality” within the stories is much more complicated.  If anything Loki is, I believe, a tragic figure.

Loki was always, first and foremost a trickster god.  He played a role similar to that of Coyote, and many others in various mythologies.  As a trickster, to some extent, he was at least a bit of a physical coward.  This goes hand-in-hand with the trickster role.  After all a strong, courageous forhtright warrior-type (like, maybe, Thor) is hardly going to be one to resort to trickery and deception (although even Thor has been known to do so–see Thor’s tricking of Alvis).

Loki’s position among the gods was complicated.  He wasn’t Aesir or Vanir, but a giant.  As a Trickster, he was often somewhat on the outside looking in, as it were, but he was also often the “go-to” guy for solving problems.  And while much of the time it was his pranks that caused the problems, that was not always the case.  And example is when the gods hired a giant and his horse to build a wall around Asgard with the provision that if the giant did not complete the wall within a certain time, the gods would not have to pay.  Odin didn’t want to pay so he had Loki come up with a plan to delay the giant’s work so he would miss deadline.  Loki did so by shape changing (one of his specialties) into a mare and leading the horse away.  Little did Loki know that the horse would catch him (or “her” since Loki was in the form of a mare).  The result, some time later, was Sleipnir, Odin’s eight legged steed.

The role of Loki as active villain rather than a trickster who was, nevertheless, mostly on the side of the gods, came very late in his story cycle, with events moving swiftly from the first act of true “villainy” to his binding as depicted in the image at the top of this post.  It started with Frigg’s dream of doom coming for her favored son Baldr.  Balder was generally considered the most beautiful of the gods.  Everybody loved him.  He was beautiful, he was brave, and from the way the poets gushed over him his bowel movements smelled of lilacs.

As you might guess, I’m not a big fan of Baldr.  He reminds me too much of the pretty and popular of my childhood who made my life hell growing up.  Perhaps if more of his story survived and I had a more complete picture of the god I would feel differently.  But, that aside, the gods loved him and Frigg’s dream foretold doom for him.  As a result of this, Frigg went through the nine worlds getting everything to promise not to hurt Baldr.  She only skipped the Mistletoe plant deeming it too small and helpless to be a threat.  This done, the gods then thought it great fun to throw things at Baldr and see them divert away from him to avoid hurting him.

Loki, on seeing this disguised himself (shapeshifting being one of his attributes) and wheedled out of Frigg the one thing that had not promised not to harm Baldr.  He then went to the mistletoe and used his magic to make it grow and fashioned it into a dart.  He then got the blind god Hodr to take the dart, and with Loki helping him aim, Hodr threw the dart at Baldr, which struck and killed him.

With Baldr’s death, a representative was sent to Helheim to beg Hel to release Baldr back to life.  She said she would do so only if every thing living and dead wept for him.  So once again Frigg went around the worlds begging every thing to weep for dead Baldr.  Only the giantess Þökk refused to do so.  According to the edda it was presumed that the giantess was actually Loki in disguise.

With Baldr’s death things moved pretty fast.  Loki went on the run.  He ended up crashing a feast held in Aegir’s hall where he and the other gods exchanged insults (Loki’s Flyghting). He escaped from their (basically driven off by Thor’s arrival) and was soon caught while hiding in a stream in the form of a salmon.  He was then chained to a rock, with a snake dripping caustic venom on him which his wife, Sigyn would catch in a bowl.  Only when the bowl filled and she went to empty it, the venom would drop directly onto Loki and his writhing would cause Earthquakes.

That is the story, in brief, that we have, and certain aspects of it have troubled me.  For one thing the final bits, from the death of Baldr denote a considerable change in Loki’s character.  It’s possible, of course, that the tales are collections of various deities that got combined into the tales told of Loki, but supposing these tales actually did refer to a single individual, what might cause that change?

I think, in the surviving lore, there are indications of what do mark that change.

First consider the latter part, where Þökk is the individual responsible for keeping Baldr in Hel’s realm.  The Lore says the gods presumed it was Loki, a remarkably coy statement given that the Lore is never shy about saying “but it was really Odin in disguise” or anything like that.  Can we take this presumption as truth, even within the context of the myth itself?  I think not.  We might speculate on who Þökk might actually be, including that it really was a giantess named Þökk.  But we do not know.

As for killing Baldr in the first place, Loki was not stupid.  Indeed, cleverness and outsmarting opponents was his primary attribute.  And given his history as something of a physical coward consider the opening to the tale of Geiroddur’s Castle, where Loki was captured and intimidated into convincing Thor to come, leaving his hammer behind.   So why put himself at such risk, risk he could not have been able to talk his way out of, for such a prank?

Well, consider that as the death of Baldr proves along with many another tale, the gods of Germanic/Norse myth are not invicible.  This sets them apart from many another mythology.  They can be slain by weapons, they can be affected by magic, and even age can bring them down if not forestalled by Idun’s apples of youth.

Perhaps, the death of Baldr was not Loki’s intent.  After all, could Loki count on blind Hodr inflicting a lethal wound with a thrown dart, even with Loki himself to guide his aim?  Doubtful.  Simply attempting to bring Baldr down a peg, by having him wounded would be more in keeping with Loki’s previous character.  And only horrible luck–or fate perhaps, the gods were a subject to the pronouncements of the Norns as any mortals-led instead to Baldr’s death.

Or maybe not luck or fate, but a curse.  And this leads to the part of the surviving Lore that I believe explains the change.  In the Volsung saga, Loki kills an otter with a thrown stone.  That Otter turns out to have been a shapeshifting dwarf named Ótr.  The dwarf’s father claimed blood-price for his slain son equal to enough gold to first fill the skin, then cover it completely.  Loki is sent to fetch the gold, which he accomplishes by robbing another dwarf, Andvari.  Andvari tried to hold onto his last piece a ring called the Andvarinaut as it could allow him to regain his wealth.  When Loki demanded the ring as well, Andvari cursed it so that it would bring misfortune to all who possessed it.  Much of the latter part of the Volsung saga details the working out of that curse in all it’s horrific awfulness.

However, the first individual who would be affected by the curse is Loki himself.  The Lore does not seem to go into this but as the lore has shown, the gods are vulnerable to things like magic.  It would be clear that Loki would be equally as much under the curse as would Hreimdar, Fafnir, Regin, Sigurd, and the Nibelungs.

So, Loki, intending merely to deflate Baldr’s ego a bit, instead inadvertently kills him.  This sets in motion a series of events that in the end will bring about the end of the world at Ragnarok.

This makes Loki, although not a “good guy” in any sense of the world, not so much as a villain as a tragic figure, complete with tragic flaw in his own hubris at his own cleverness.

10 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Loki”

  1. In Lester del Rey’s “Day Of The Giants”, Loki wasn’t the betrayer of the Gods but did have a “bad reputation” because he was the smartest of the Gods and wasn’t afraid of letting the other Gods just how much smarter he was than them. 😉

    As for Loki being under a curse that lead him into evil, Eric Flint & Dave Freer use that idea in their second Pyramid novel. 😀

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  2. I’ve read arguments that think that this later story of Loki was a Christianization of the Norse myths and that the good-evil theme including Armegeddon was added later. I don’t know. I do know that Baldur seemed a bit like a “dick” from the stories– a perfect warrior– like a high school quarterback. Plus the idea that Loki wanted to take him down a peg … would fit with his character. I noticed to that when Odin wanted something dirty done, he’d get Loki to do it.

    I’ve seen this in real life with close male friends– smart, intelligent, and pranksters. They can get into trouble with a few “what ifs.” Sometimes if there isn’t a sane voice, these pranks can lead to tragic consequences.

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  3. In Baldr Draumar, Odin travels to the gates of Helheim and raises a dead seeress from her grave. The seeress confirms that Baldr is indeed going to die. It is only towards the end of the conversation that he finally realises he had been talking to Loki all along. When Odin gets back, he finds Baldr dead. I’ve always been fascinated with the obscure origins of this god and although there not enough evidence to confirm his origins, what most mythologists tend to neglect is that Odin’s travel was essentially a shamanic journey. These journey should really be looked through the lenses of animistic societies rather than neopagan practices, so we could expect that the shaman’s ‘travel’ may last days to get as close as possible to death. Loki’s daughter Hel is incidentially the ruler of the realm and the story goes she was cast out there by Odin to rule over the dishonourable dead – all those who died of sickness and old age and therefore did not qualify for Odin’s hall. So, if you consider the fate of all of Loki’s children, including Tyr’s oathbreaking to Fenrir, then we begin to see another pattern which may well explain Loki’s intent behind Baldr’s death. I tend to go with Snorri’s euhemeristic view of the gods, since we have plenty of evidence that long before the Eddas were written, in the Bronze Age and the Neolithic, Kings were elevated to god status – think of pharaohs, Roman emperors, and so on – and it happened more or less across most cultures. The way I see it, and it’s strictly personal specuation, is that Loki was potentially a renown holy man of Scandinavian indigenous tribes (saami, finn or rus) that hooked up with the chief of the migrating tribes which settled on the land. It’s worth remembering that these indigenous tribes were viewed with as much a mixture of fascination, distrust and inferiority as Europeans viewed less civilised people back in the day. The gift of Sleipnir (the horse taking Odin on shamanic journeys) might have been an initiation of sort which sealed a blood brotherhood and brought Loki into the Aesir. However, because of some irreconciliable bias on both sides, something went wrong. In the myths, there is often a sense that he is held captive – in the treatment of his children and also in the anger displayed in Aegir’s hall when he murders his servant Fimafeng for the excessive praise the Aesir pay him. Aegir is Loki’s uncle by lineage and therefore there is a sense of bubbling resentment at watching a family member preparing a feast at the drop of a hat as the Aesir turn up uninvited. Loki’s final words in Lokasenna are to the effect, “this is the last party you’ll ever have because next time we’ll meet I’ll torch it”. Always through euhemeristic lenses, the casting (cast is the actual tern used) of Hel to rule among the dishounorable dead could indicate human sacrifice. Perhaps she suffered of some imperfection of sort and was deemed unacceptable. Same as with Jormungandr, he was cast in the sea abyss and then you have Fenrir who after being nourished when he got too big he was tricked into imprisonment. I think that could be pretty enough to dishonour a man and tip a parent over the edge, no matter how royal and divine the hand that delivers it. So, guilty of murder yes, but tragic nonetheless because behind the anger there seems to be a long story of betrayed friendship, unreciprocated loyalty, ingratitude and pain.

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    1. From what I’ve seen the dualism in the fate of the Dead–those who die in battle going to Valhol and those who don’t going to Helheim–largely comes to us from Snorri. Frankly, I do not consider Snorri a reliable source. When he starts from the proposition in which he claims the entirety of Norse myth was a retelling of the battle and fall of Troy corrupted over the course of many retellings and when the bulk of the Prose Edda is, literally, “the Beguiling of Gylfi”–the whole set of stories was a trick being played on Gylfi–well, I’m not so sure I trust him to faithfully render the original (or as original as we can find) beliefs for his contemporary readers. My own study of the Lore indicates that there are plenty of hints that things were more complicated back when the beliefs were actually practiced (both Snorri and the compiler of the Elder Edda lived well after the Christianization of Scandinavia and Iceland). Just a couple of examples:

      The first is from several poems in the Elder Edda and the Volsung Saga. In them, it’s very hard to see Sigurd as not having died in combat. He was struck treacherously in his sleep, but he managed to wake up and kill his killer–cuts him right in half with a thrown sword. And yet, Brynhild seemed quite certain that with her suicide she’d be joining Sigurd in Hel. And nobody gainsays her. Perhap that Sigurd was an oathbreaker (inadvertent but still an oathbreaker) trumps “died in combat.”

      Second, the assumption that Valhol is “good” (i.e. “Heaven”) and Helheim is “bad” (“Hell”) might not have been quite accurate. The Gjallerbru, the bridge over the Gjaller river at the borders of Nifleheim, was thatched with gold. Hardly what one would expect at the gates of a grim, depressing place.

      I strongly suspect that the authors of these longer collections of tales, which compose most of what has survived to come down to us, let their own Christian beliefs color their rendition.

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      1. Even if not deliberately, the chances that Snorri’s renditions are somewhat Christianised is highly probable. In his introduction to the Prose Edda, he stated that these poems were about to be forgotten, as one of the reasons for writing them down. I’m not sceptical as many scholars about his integrity as a historian and he would have been in his interest to write them down as he heard them in order to retain the poetry meter. The poems would have undoubtely undergone changes in 200 years of Christianisation. The afterlife was even more complicated with another six places where the dead could end up. Oathbreakers and murderers went to a place called Nastrond. I’m not sure of the specific terms used in the poem section you’ve mentioned but I do know that ON language can be problematic with the interpretation of sagas, especially in its poetic form where fitting with the style and meter take precedence over content accuracy. It wasn’t my intention to mean Helheim ‘bad’ as in the Christian concept of bad, but in the culture of the time (long before Snorri ) among the elite royal/warrior, going to Helheim would have been a loss of status and probably being forgotten. It worked in Baldr’s favour in the end which suggest Helheim was, as you say, not a bad place. The version of Baldr’s death in the Gesta Danorum, which is only about 100 years later shows just how much myths can change. We’ll never know how this lore would have been retold 200/300 years before Christianity.

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        1. Oh, I’m not even saying that he did it deliberately. But he did have a viewpoint and a worldview and that would color his intrepretation of anything he read. Translation can be hard enough when you don’t have fundamentally incompatible world views between the translator and the thing being translated. The assumptions he would bring to it would be every bit as much a part of the result as the original text itself.

          Also, I do believe the either-or of Helheim and Valhol was a late Christian interpolation. Most forget that there’s also Folkvangr (Freja’s hall) and there are hints here and there that other gods and goddesses had halls of their own. This is an idea that I play with in The Chooser ( https://amzn.to/3aKDDYS ). Part of the problem is so little of whatever the Germanic and Norse people actually believed and practiced has survived to the present day. Most belief systems have a lot of complexity accumulated to them over the centuries. The tales that remain are but a pale shadow of whatever the original was.

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    1. Bilskirnir. I’ve heard some interpret it as a part of Valhol, others as a separate hall. I don’t recall any specific surviving Lore that gives it as an abode for the dead, but what else are they going to do with 540 rooms? 😉

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      1. Store books and other things that reproduce when you are not looking? “I thought the gun closet only had two shotguns.” “It did, both twelve gauge.” “Well, there are now two twelve gauges and two ten gauges.” “. . .”

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