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. An 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. Baldr 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 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 Flyting). He escaped from there (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 invincible. 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, as the gods were as 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.