We all love us some Loki, amirite? Of course, we have Tom Hiddleston to thank for that, because his Loki — trickster god, son of frost giants, serious daddy issues — is the most well-known of the 21st century. Rightly so, because he absolutely nailed it on screen.
But Alis Franklin, author of Liesmith (out now!), begs to differ with our friend Hiddles and the good folks at Mighty Marvel. She argues that Loki is very much misunderstood, and she ought to know — Liesmith is all about the mythology, along with a good dose of queer urban fantasy besides.
So here’s Alis to tell us why we’re getting Loki all wrong, Hiddles notwithstanding:
Of all the Norse gods, perhaps none currently has more current favor than Loki, everyone’s favorite malicious villain and/or maligned victim. Never worshipped during the age of the Vikings itself, Loki has been a sporadic but reliable figure in pop culture in the thousand or so years between northern Europe’s conversion to Christianity and today. Which is funny, given primary source material about Loki—and, in fact, all of the Norse gods—is pretty thin on the ground. Actually, almost everything we know about them comes from two texts, called the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, both of which are dated at least several hundred years after the age of the Vikings itself.
Since their publication in circa the thirteenth centuries, the stories of the eddas have been interpreted and reinterpreted with wild abandon throughout the centuries. For whatever reason, Loki in particular seems susceptible these reimaginings, and what this means is that most of what we think we “know” about his character is often much more modern than we realize.
Which, yanno. Isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Loki is, if nothing else, a harbinger of change—but it is a thing. And, hey. I have to fill in some words for editorial space, so what better way of doing it than taking a look at the five top things we don’t know we don’t know about Loki.
Aside from the fact he apparently really, really hated pants.
#1 Loki is the brother of Thor
Low-hanging fruit first.
So. This is what we “know”: Loki, a jötunn (a.k.a. “giant”, though the implied height is optional) and member of the gods’ bitter enemies, was found at some unspecified time in infancy and raised by head Norse god Odin alongside his biological son-and-heir, Thor. Insert all appropriately Shakespearian tragedy here, including blood feuds, jealousy, musings on the nature of innate evil, and so on. Add some special effects and inexplicably British accents, and I’m sure someone, somewhere could summon up some sort of blockbuster movie franchise or whatever.
There’s just one “problem”: the Loki-as-Thor’s-brother trope is completely modern. As in, “20th century” modern.
So what do the sagas say? Basically, Thor and Loki are entirely unrelated.
To take a very generous, almost-certainly-also-modern interpretation of things, Loki is Thor’s sort-of uncle, depending on how much credence you give Loki’s claim in the Lokasenna (a poem compiled in the Poetic Edda, and which we’ll be seeing more of later) to blood-brotherhood with Odin. But that’s about it. In the sagas, and with a few exceptions discussed below, Thor and Loki’s relationship functions more like the protagonists in a buddy cop comedy than anything getting commissioned by the BBC’s drama division.
For the record, Loki does have two actual brothers, Helblindi and Býleistr, the former of whom may just be Odin, the latter of whom we’ll talk about more in a bit.
Where does the misconception come from? This guy.
Comics. It comes from Marvel comics, though it does occasionally crop up in other things. Probably other things written by writers who read Marvel comics.
While we’re on the subject, some other things that are Marvel-specific inventions include, but are not limited to: Mjolnir being un-liftable except by the “worthy” (anyone can, and does, pick it up); Thor being Odin’s heir (Odin’s other son, Baldr, is his successor); Thor being Frigga’s son (his mother is a jötunn); Laufey being Loki’s father (she’s his mother); and Loki being a frost giant. Which, in fact, brings us to…
#2. Loki is a fire god
Admittedly, this one hasn’t gotten as much traction since Marvel’s frost-giant-Loki outstripped his fire-giant alter ego in the pop culture popularity stakes, but the association persists nonetheless. Particularly in early 20th century art, where Loki is very often depicted with flaming red hair, often swept up in some sort of ridiculously anime-style peak.
Ironically, when he appears in an actual anime, his hair looks pretty normal.
So what do the sagas say? Not much.
As mentioned above, Loki is a jötunn, and jötnar come in various flavors, including “fire”, “frost”, “mountain”, “unspecified”, and so on. Loki’s particular flavor is never actually given, and the names of his family members have more associations with lightning than they do with fire, including his father, Fárbauti (“cruel striker”, generally associated with a lightning bolt), and brother, Býleistr (“bee-lightning” or “wind-lightning”). In the sagas, Loki himself has more affinity with air than any other element, including in his aliases, such as Loptr (literally “air” or “sky”), and association with birds and flight.
In fact, about the only time Loki is associated with fire is when he loses an eating contest to a guy who is literally a personification of the stuff, and the entire point of the encounter is that Loki, yanno. Isn’t that.
Where does the misconception come from? Wagner and a spelling error.
Loki appears as a character in Richard Wagner’s 19th century opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. You know, this opera. There, Loki appears as Loge (he’s a tenor, if you’re wondering), and is summoned by Wotan (a.k.a. Odin) to create a ring of fire around the magically sleeping Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, basically to prevent her rape by anyone who happens by.
So you remember how, above, I mentioned Loki supposedly lost an eating contest to the personification of fire? That guy’s name—and, in fact, the Old Norse word for “flame” in general—was Logi. It’s worth pointing out at this point that “g” and “k” were the same letter in some versions of Old Norse, and that things like “standardized spellings” in general are modern inventions.
The result? At least two hundred years’ worth of etymological confusion. And also badass fire powers, so I guess it balances out.
#3. Loki is a cunning schemer
Most modern depictions of Loki have him as a trickster, the originator of long cons and devious pranks. At best, he’s a wise mentor, guiding and goading a protagonist or point-of-view character through a series of blinds and bluffs ultimately designed for their benefit. At his worst, he’s a supervillain’s supervillain, plotting world domination and the downfall of the hero and/or heroes, foiled only at the last minute by the power of friendship, or whatever it is kids are using these days.
There’s just one problem…
So what do the sagas say? Actually, Loki’s kind of an idiot.
No one with a moustache like this is anyone with skill in long-term planning.
Far from being a plotter and a schemer, the Loki of the sagas is much more likely to be an impulsive brat whose malicious whims get him—and everyone around him—into trouble as often as his groveling obsequiousness and outright blagging (with props to KJ Charles for the word) get him out of it. In the Völsungasaga, Loki’s impulsive murder of one dwarf, and pointlessly vindictive beggaring of a second, is what sets in motion the events that cause not just the ruin of the eponymous Völsung clan, but which Wager would, as mentioned above, later write a three day long opera about. In the Gylfaginning, Loki’s laziness at assessing contract law nearly cost the gods the sun, moon, and the goddess Freyja. And in the Skáldskaparmál, Loki decides to cut off the hair of Thor’s wife Sif for, one assumes, the Viking age equivalent of “the lulz” without, one also assumes, considering the consequences for himself when Sif’s notoriously violent, jötunn-murdering husband discovered the cause of his wife’s distress.
There are more examples, but you get the point. In fact, the one Cunning Plan™ that is usually attributed to Loki—that is, dressing himself and Thor up as women in order to retrieve the stolen Mjölnir in the Þrymskviða—actually wasn’t his idea at all. It was Heimdallr’s.
Where does the misconception come from? This one’s partly attributed to comparative mythology studies equating Loki with other, more forward-thinking, Trickster-archetype deities, and partly due to Loki’s modern popularity as a supervillain. Supervillains need good plots to foil heroes, and trickster-hero archetypes… well. The conflation of Loki into the (largely Native American and African) trickster role is another essay in itself, but needless to say that kind of comparative mythology, popularized by Western scholars in the 19th century, has waxed and waned a bit in subsequent decades.
Loki, meanwhile, is still doing what he wants, when he wants, and bugger the consequences. Which brings us to…
#4. Loki murdered Baldr
Baldr, son of Odin. Baldr, heir of Asgard. Baldr the Good, Baldr the White, Baldr the Thinly-Veiled-Jesus-Expy. Basically, if it was good and pure and beautiful in the often bloody and brutal world of the Vikings, Baldr was the one to personify it.
That is, until Loki murdered him. Except for the little fact that he didn’t.
So what do the sagas say? Baldr’s brother Höðr murdered Baldr. He was even tried and sentenced to death by the other gods for doing so. So there. Case closed.
Where does the misconception come from? Well… okay. Maybe I’m stretching the definition on this one. Just a little.
The actual story, as recounted in the Gylfaginning, is that Baldr, because of Reasons, is invulnerable to harm. Loki, also because of Reasons, finds the one thing in the entire universe (mistletoe, as in the plant we now kiss under at Christmas) that can harm him, and fashions an arrow and/or spear and/or wand (accounts vary) from said material. Meanwhile, the rest of the gods have taken to trying to kill the invulnerable Baldr as a kind of game. A game Baldr’s blind brother, Höðr, is feeling left out of.
The Vikings also enjoyed a version of baseball that mostly involved beating each other with the bats, so… yanno. Go figure.
So it is that Loki approaches Höðr with the arrowspearwand, promising to help him “join in” with the “game” of “pretend” “murder” the other gods are “playing” with Baldr. Loki helps Höðr aim and, well. Safe to say Superman wasn’t the first invulnerable guy to have a Death Of story arc.
Which brings us to…
#5. Loki was imprisoned for Baldr’s murder
This is the part with the poison. Loki, chained to three stone slabs, a snake dripping venom into his eyes until the end of this world. He’s held there, or so the story goes, in punishment for the murder of Baldr.
Except, oh wait.
“Look, can you just—It’s right there. Just beat it to death with the bowl or something, would you dear?”
So what do the sagas say? We literally only just covered the fact that Loki wasn’t directly responsible for Baldr’s murder which, in the legal-minded world of the Vikings meant… he wasn’t responsible for Baldr’s murder. Or, at least, wasn’t punished for it.
But he was punished. So what was it for?
Technically, for the events of the Lokasenna. This is the one where Loki crashes Baldr’s wake (for the lulz), murders a servant (ditto), then proceeds to insult all the assembled grieving gods (ditto). (Also refer point #3, above.)
The murder of a servant is one thing—in the Viking age, this would usually have been paid off with money rather than hard time—but the specific sorts of insults Loki engages in, called flyting, were in contrast considered really freakin’ SRS BIZNESS. Though these insults—mostly about the gods’ deviant sexuality and hypocrisy—tend to be treated humorously nowadays, it’s unlikely the poem itself was considered funny in its time.
(For what it’s worth, the “veracity” of the insults is also debatable, given truth-telling in flyting wasn’t as important as the reactions from onlookers and one’s opponent.)
Where does the misconception come from? It’s worth noting at this point that, as with the previous factoid, this one is maybe a hair-splitting worthy of Loki himself. Though in the Lokasenna, Loki’s imprisonment is in retaliation for his insults, the Gylfaginning does, in fact, attribute it to him going unpunished for his involvement in Baldr’s death, if not for outright murder.
Either way, the rest of the story is thus: Loki is captured by the gods, bound with the intestines of his son (murdered, in another indirect sort of way, by Odin), and left to rot in a cave until the end of time. Once the gods have patted themselves on the back and left, the goddess Skaði hangs a serpent above Loki’s head to drip venom in his eyes. Loki’s only comfort in his punishment is his wife, Sigyn, who stays with him and catches the venom in a bowl (or possibly shell… look, translations are tough, okay?). Except, occasionally, she has to empty the bowlshell. When she does, the venom drips in Loki’s eyes, and his agonized screams are supposedly the cause of earthquakes.
(What the gods would’ve done had Sigyn not decided to help out her husband and, therefore, one would assume we’d be having earthquakes like 100% of the time was never, to my knowledge, raised as a concern.)
According to another poem, the Völuspá, Loki will stay bound like this until the Ragnarøkkr, a.k.a. when the gods go to war and the current age of the world ends. During the Ragnarøkkr, the freed (and, one assumes, pissed off) Loki rides into battle at the head of an army of zombies, which is something totally awesome that for some reason everyone nowadays seems to forget about.
Seriously, people. Zombies.
Still. Despite his zombie horde backup, Loki is fated to face Heimdallr in this final battle, with the two ending up in a mutual K.O.
And that, so the sagas say, is that: the official End of Loki. When the dust of war clears and the surviving gods reassemble, neither Loki nor any of his descendants are listed amongst their number.
So the sagas say, anyway. But, I mean. One of the guy’s daughters is the goddess of death.
And maybe there’s always room for one last con.
For more about Liesmith, click here for a summary and a heap of links where you can buy it ASAP.