Loki | Norse Mythology


Loki (also Old Norse Loptr, Hveðrungr) is a character from Norse mythology, especially known from the Eddic poetry of Snorri Sturluson.
The literary sources on the figure of Loki are the Prose Edda and the Song Edda, including, for example, the Lokasenna ("Loki's Quarrels"), as well as the works of Skaldic poetry. Loki's affiliation is disputed in research.

Some researchers count Loki, due to his paternal descent of a giant. The same could be said about Odin, who in turn descends from a giant on his mother's side.

Loki is nowhere assigned to the giants in the sources, but he is explicitly called an Aesir. Unlike the other Aesir, Loki was not worshipped. There was neither a Loki cult nor are place names referring to Loki known in Scandinavia.

Etymology of Loki

The meaning of his name is uncertain and is probably a short form to Loptr, which means "the airy one" or "air god" in Old Norse. However, this expression is more likely to be understood in the sense of "airy one". Perhaps it is also based on the Old Norse lúka, which means "to close", which points to his role at Ragnarok. 

Loki's Role and Function

Loki, unlike the other Aesir, was not worshipped. Loki is an exclusively mythological figure who has no relationship to humans. Within the mythology Loki's role is changeable.

His actions sometimes turn out in favor of the Aesir, resulting in the death of the giants, sometimes to the disadvantage of the gods and in the interest of the giants. According to the Snorra-Edda, he also kills the Aesir Baldr.

In the Lokasenna, Loki appears as the accuser. This is probably a story that originated under Christian influence, but is based on older myths and sagas. Here Loki points out various, from a Christian point of view, moral offenses of the gods, which was probably intended to reevaluate the morality of the gods.

In the 18th century, Loki was often ascribed the role of the devil, who pretends to be a friend of the gods in order to insidiously betray them at Ragnarok. This was also based on the erroneous equation between Logi, the fire giant, and Loki.

However, the equation of the fire giant with Loki builds on a misunderstanding, and the interpretation of Loki as the antagonist of the gods proves to be one-sided.

In many stories Loki appears as a useful ally and friend of the gods. To him the Aesir owe many of their objects and attributes, including Mjölnir and Sleipnir. It is only with the approach of Ragnarok that Loki's relationship with the Aesir deteriorates.

Yvonne S. Bonnetain interprets Loki's role as a "mover of history" who is neutral towards the gods and merely drives history forward. In this, it is not Loki who changes, but the gods' opinion of him.

Loki's relationship to others

In the Snorra-Edda Loki is the handsome and deceitful son of the giant Fárbauti and Laufey or Nal. His brothers are Byleist and Helblindi. His wife is Sigyn, his sons are Narfi (also Nari) and Vali.

Sigyn remains faithful to Loki even during his punishment. In the form of a mare he gave birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir to the stallion Svadilfari, which he gave to Odin.

Furthermore, the Lokasenna indicates that he is the blood brother of Odin. Often Loki accompanies Thor on his journeys. In the þrymskviða Loki helps Thor to recover his hammer Mjölnir.

While Loki's relations at the beginning of the world with the gods tend to be positive and with the giants tend to be negative, this changes towards the end-time events to the disadvantage of the gods and in the sense of the giants.

With the giantess Angrboda Loki fathered the goddess of the dead Hel, the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard serpent Jormungandr. In Ragnarok they rise up against the gods. In the Völuspá, Loki steers the ships of the sons of Muspel toward the Aesir. In the Snorra-Edda the giant Hrymr steers the ship Naglfari and Loki leads the inhabitants of Helheim and the Thursen.

Although he is not explicitly named as such, the Haustlǫng suggests that Loki was associated with the giants in earlier times.

Loki and Heimdall are enemies and will kill each other in the final battle at Ragnarok. 

Loki in Snorra-Edda

The Snorra-Edda, which is considered the common version of this myth, relates the binding of Loki because of the death of Baldr. According to Snorri Sturluson, the relationship with the other Aesir breaks down after he intentionally causes the death of Baldr. First he flees to a mountain on which there is a hut with 4 doors (one for each cardinal direction).

Through these 4 doors he can observe when his pursuers have reached him. During the day, he transforms into a salmon that hides in a waterfall or nearby stream. In the evening Loki develops the first fishing net.

One day he hears the Aesir (Odin, Thor, Tyr) coming. He throws the net into a fire and jumps into the stream as a salmon. The Aesir discover the half-burned net, recognize its meaning and knot a new one after its model. With this net they drive Loki (as a salmon) into a corner and finally Thor catches him.

They bring Loki and shortly after his sons Narfi and Vali into a cave. There the gods transform Vali into a wolf, which tears his brother Narfi apart. Narfi's intestines are used to create indestructible shackles covered with a spell.

The goddess Skadi, in revenge, fastens a poisonous snake over Loki, from whose jaws poison drips incessantly onto him. His wife Sigyn protect him from this only temporarily by holding a bowl over him. Every time she has to empty the bowl, the poison drips onto the helpless Loki, who rears up in pain so that the earth shakes.

With the beginning of Ragnarok, Loki is able to free himself from his bonds and fights the gods in alliance with the giants and the dead (from Helheim). Loki dies in a duel with Heimdall, the guardian god of Bifröst. Heimdal also dies in this duel.

Historical Interpretation 

Baldr's dreams and the Völuspá do not place Loki in the context of Baldur's murder. With the possible exception of the Lokasenna, only the Gylfaginning mentions Loki as the murderer.

Although most scholars attribute the role of murderer to Loki, Eugen Mogk criticized that this assumption is supported exclusively by the Snorra-Edda and is possibly based on Snorri Sturluson's own interpretation, which was composed of various prevailing myths.

The criticism of the idea that Loki was originally an antagonistic god is also shared by Anatoly Liberman. On numerous bracteates the image of three gods could be found, which are mostly interpreted as Loki, Baldr and Odin. Possibly they give information about an older role of the gods in the death of Baldr.

According to them, Odin did not watch the death idly, but approved of it. Since none of the gods was ready to carry out the sacrifice, Loki took over the killing of Baldu. Snorri's remark "Loki would not like this" could also be a rudiment of this older idea.

Loki in the Viking Society 

The god was generally not very popular; people did not name their children after him. Viking Age representations are accordingly rare. One was found as a pendant in the Gnesdovo hoard in Russia, another on the Snaptun stone.

Whether the 9th- or 10th-century image on the Gosforth Cross in the county of Cumbria, formerly Northumberland (Great Britain), really depicts Sigyn and the bound Loki is not certain.