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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
May 2013

Loki Loki, from an Icelandic manuscript


Punishment of Loki
"The Punishment of Loki" by Louis Huard
 

Loki, did someone say? Isn't he the satanic being in Norse mythology who is responsible for most of the bad things that happened to the gods—the worst being the murder of the most beloved god of all, Odin's son Balder? Well, yes... and no. The part about killing Balder was true enough—and he did cause a lot of other trouble as well—but before we write Loki off as being purely evil, we need to take a closer look at his history

Who—and what—is Loki? Despite his apparently being the same size as the gods (but remember that Loki is a gifted shapechanger), Loki is one of the giants! We are told that he is the son of the giant Farbauti and his wife, Laufey. Often referred to as Loki Laufeyjarson, he seems to be unique in the ancient Norse world in being named after his mother rather than his father. However, because of Loki's close association with fire, the fact that the chief Fire Giant Surt's wife, Sinmara, keeps Loki's sword under lock-and­key for him ("Svipdagsmal," Poetic Edda), and a statement that Loki will steer the ship carrying the forces of Muspellheim to the Final Battle at Ragnarök ("Voluspa," Poetic Edda), I have long wondered if Loki might not actually be a Fire Giant—perhaps the son of Surt and Sinmara—and that he had been fostered by Laufey and Farbauti. And that premise lies at the root of four of my short stories, "The Ragnarök Quartet" (Theft of the Sun).

    Due to circumstances not recorded in any surviving document, Loki became Odin's blood-brother (not his adopted son, as the movie Thor would have it) and took up residence in Asgard—where he became, for all intents and purposes, one of the Aesir. Loki is, in fact, often referred to as the Trickster God, and surviving stories from the Viking Age clearly demonstrate that Loki's calling in life was to be a trickster (a cultural figure who keeps a society from becoming too set in its ways by acting contrary to its rules, often in an outrageous fashion). Tricksters can be uncomfortable—if not downright dangerous—to be around, yet in the end they usually set things right and, in doing so, often reward their societies with important gifts (e. g., Thor's hammer, Odin's spear, Frey's golden-bristled boar) or new and different perspectives on their world.

Among other things, tricksters are often sexually ambiguous. . . and Loki is no exception in this regard. In his own form, he fathered two Sons (Vali, Narfi) by the goddess Sigyn, and three children (Jörmungand, Hel, Fenris Wolf) by the troll-woman Angrboda. When the Aesir needed a distraction to prevent a master mason from winning a wager that would have cost the gods the presence of Freyja, the sun, and the moon, Loki took on the form of a mare in heat and succeeded in coaxing away the powerful stallion that the mason depended on to drag the dressed boulders up to the wall he was constructing. Eleven months later, Loki showed up again in Asgard. . . leading an eight-legged colt. Thus was Odin's great gray stallion, Sleipnir, introduced to the Aesir and—save for Thor's hammer—he was perhaps the Trickster's greatest gift of all!

Despite Thor's hostile attitude toward most of giantkind, he and Loki were often traveling companions in the earlier myths. One memorable story, however, tells of their being at odds. As Thor's wife, Sif, lay sleeping, Loki lopped off the long golden hair that was her pride and joy. Thor was red-faced with anger and demanded that Loki make things right. To do so, the Trickster traveled to Svartalfheim where he persuaded two dwarves to make new tresses of living gold for Sif. While they were at it, they also created some marvelous presents for Odin and Frey. In a rare blunder for so cunning a fellow, Loki bet his head with another dwarf, Brokk, that he and his brother could not make finer gifts for the gods than the first set. Among the precious wonders Brokk and his brother created was Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir, which caused Loki to lose the wager. Through a clever legal maneuver, the Trickster did manage to save his head, but in compensation, Brokk won the right to sew Loki's lips shut!

This public humiliation was extremely painful to Loki—both physically and emotionally—and may even have been the event that marked the Trickster's turn away from merely annoying mischief and toward destructive wickedness. Eventually he even brought about the death of Balder. To punish Loki, the gods bound him to a boulder in Niflheim, and the giantess Skadi fastened a viper above him to drip venom on his bare chest. Whenever it hits his flesh, he shudders in pain...and the Nine Worlds experience earthquakes. Loki's faithful wife, Sigyn, tries to catch the venom in a basin—and does succeed in intercepting most of it—but she has to empty the basin from time to time.

It is prophesied, however, that even Loki's bondage will come to an end one day. In the time of Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods (as well as of almost everyone else in the Nine Worlds!), the bindings of Loki and his wolf-son, Fenris, will cease to hold them and the two will be free to join the forces of Chaos in their final assault on Asgard. In that battle both Loki and Fenris are fated to be destroyed—the wolf by Odin's son Vidar (to avenge his father's death), and the Trickster by his old nemesis, Heimdall (who does not survive the encounter either). Thus shall end Loki's storied and complex career . . . .

     May each of us learn to recognize—and gain control over—the trickster-self (what psychologist C. G. Jung called "the Shadow") that dwells within our own psyche.

    
© 2013  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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