Loki as Concept - What is a Trickster anyways?
Loki seems like a unique, interesting being. Certainly, his story and adventures are one of a kind, however, he also falls under the umbrella of the Trickster archetype.
Like a stunning number of mythology archetypes, the trickster shows up across the world over the span of centuries, and in cultures that had no real connection to each other. Loki is one, but you may know other tricksters such as Coyote, Hermes, or Anansi. They tend to act like little shits for a good portion of their journey, but are actually the catalyst that moves the mythology—and the culture—forwards somehow.
The trickster tends to enter into a calm scene and do something that serves their own purposes, which acts as the catalyst. The trickster is then often called on to fix or assist with fixing the mistake they’ve made, and when the issue is resolved, the story often stands as an important lesson for us to live by, or as an explanation as to why the natural world works the way it does.
But most people don’t think this deeply about Loki.
If you ask the average person what they know about him, you’ll get some accurate-ish answers, like that he’s the god of mischief in Norse mythology. Some people will tell you he’s Thor’s brother. But what most people don’t understand is how deeply connected he is with the myths and how his story carries him from a wily trickster to a disturbed, desperate world-ender.
Come with us, won’t you?
Loki as Trickster - Why is Loki always so...Loki?
Throughout the mythology, Loki is essentially the main character. He’s in the majority of the stories and often has a key role in them. But not all of his stories are equal in intensity. Some occur because he brought problems about all on his own and is absolutely to blame for them. Others feature him as a scapegoat for other people’s bad choices. And in both cases, some stories feature acts of trickery, while others are full of deep malice. After years of exploration of the mythology on both our parts, we’ve come to the same conclusion: Loki starts out quite tame, and escalates his behaviour as the story progresses. But what drives that progression? What changed for Loki?
When the Scapegoating pushes a Trickster towards becoming a Monster:
The Aesir are grade A a-holes, and let me tell you why.
Loki’s a known shithead, that’s something we can agree on. But across the stories that are left to us, his role doesn’t become that of the villain until the end of things. In stories like the one about Asgard’s wall, Loki gave Odin some advice and when it didn’t end the way they had all hoped, Odin accuses him of colluding with the enemy. He could have, sure. But we don’t know that he did, and he certainly denies it. In order to make it right, Loki then lures that builder’s horse away and disappears for the length of some baby horse gestation. Depending on how you read this myth, it can come off as comedic punishment of the local weirdo.
Loki once again ends up with the short stick when it comes to stealing Freya’s necklace, depending on the version you read. One posits that he stole it himself, which is more than plausible, while the other says that Odin put him up to it. Then Heimdall kicks the shit out of him and all is well again.
Still not very evil though, is it?
Just you wait.
One day Thor woke up and was angry, or so begins one of the most famous myths, Thrymskvitha, where Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is stolen. This is one of the happier myths (except for the murdery part at the end), and is one where Loki escapes relatively pain free. However, it is interesting to note that it is Loki who is sent to save the day, not Njord, not Idunn, and especially not Balder. No, the gods send the “trickster,” and Freya even loans him her falcon cloak, which is very trusting. Of course, Loki locates Mjolnir, and surprise, surprise, it was stolen by Thrym, a giant. Loki graciously accompanies Thor to Jotunheim to retrieve said magical hammer, both of them wearing a fabulous amount of silk and tulle. A little feasting happens, a bit of mass murder, and Thor gets Mjolnir back, and Loki is actually allowed to be a kind of hero. For five minutes.
One could say this myth, as concerns Loki, is the essence of the saying: “One ‘Oh Shit' Can Erase A Thousand ‘Attaboys’.” Why? Because...well...you’ll see as the downward spiral begins with a bit of a haircut.
The gods being not big on pranks, were not pleased at the vision of a bald Sif courtesy of Loki’s nighttime shenanigans where alcohol was most definitely not involved. After a few threats by Thor, Loki was given a chance to fix the mischief he caused and went to the Dwarves Brokkr and Eitri (sometimes Sindri) to get new hair made for Sif.
All was well enough, except this is Loki and he never can pass up an opportunity to level up the trickery. He bet Brokkr his own head that they couldn’t possibly make better creations than their competition, the Sons of Ivaldi. Brokkr accepted the terms.
And this is where things get dicey.
Flash forward and you have the gods looking at all their new free treasures, including Mjolnir and Sif’s new hair. Sadly for Loki, the gods chose Brokkr and Eitri’s creations as best, meaning Loki lost his bet with Brokkr and owed him his head. Ouch.
Sadly for Brokkr, he forgot you never make deals with trickster gods, and did not appreciate being hornswoggled out of his prize after Loki pointed out he could only have his head if he did not damage his neck. The gods decreed this valid, and told Brokkr to deal and to mosey on back to Svartalfheim.
Brokkr was so furious he sewed Loki’s lips shut, and all the gods just stood there and watched it happen. They did nothing to stop this punishment, even though it was undeserved. Loki had “repaid” his debt by providing Sif new hair, his debt was cleared.
This is one instance of many where Loki grows a touch darker. The gods could have chosen to show him mercy, but they didn’t. Sure, he cut off Sif’s hair, but he also brought them back some seriously amazing gifts, items that protect Asgard and made Asgard not only safer, but better.
And this is how he is repaid. Treatment like this is bound to give anyone a bad case of the grumpies.
The gods further this narrative along when Loki is tasked with making Skadi laugh after the death of her father. Now, it may be easy to say that Loki is responsible for all the events leading up to Thiazi’s death, he was the one to come up with the idea to turn him into BBQ after all, BUT...the fact remains that Thiazi initiated everything by *takes breath* forcing Loki to steal Idunn to get the golden apples, which made the gods force Loki into retrieving Idunn, which resulted in Thiazi chasing Loki and dying in a freak bonfire “accident.”
When Skadi steps on the scene demanding recompense, it is the gods who agree to Loki’s plan to give her a husband.
And it is the gods who then force Loki (do you see a trend here?) to make Skadi laugh so all will be forgiven. And he must do this by tying his *sigh* testicles to the beard of a goat. Does this work? Sure does! But, what it also succeeds in is humiliating Loki, and further cements him into being the Aesir’s scapegoat.
This is where we take a drastic turn for the worse. We’ve added a section below that explains why we think this could canonically be possible and why it might never have happened at all. But if the mythology is to be believed, Loki tricked Frigg into telling him what could kill the invincible Baldur, and then he killed him. Murdering your blood brother’s son in cold blood is a pretty far departure from haircutting and thieving.
We escalate again to Lokasenna, which is only an escalation if you understand that insults used to be punishable by death. Loki decided that he’d crash a party that all the gods were invited to and he wasn’t, then proceed to admit to Baldur’s murder while Viking-Rap-Battling every god in the hall. He also slit a servant’s throat out of “jealousy” which seems a bit weird, but we’re expected to believe that morally, this dude is long gone.
Loki runs away, is caught, and is bound to a rock with the innards of his own children. When he someday arrises, he’ll bring on Ragnarok, thus ending the nine realms as we know them.
Loki’s Escalating Violence - The TL;DR