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
Now that you’ve got the rundown, here’s a rating scale from Trickster to Evil that will really help slam that home.
Loki helps rescue a child from the bad guy
Loki gives bad advice and is impregnated
Loki helps find Thor’s hammer and helps murder a bunch of enemies
Loki commits a break-and-enter and does a thieving
Loki contributes to Thiazi’s death and gets his nuts yanked by a goat
Loki cuts off Sif’s hair and has his lips sewn shut
Loki straight-up murders Baldur
Loki insults everyone in a room
Loki is bound to a stone and then commits a Ragnarok
You see that big leap between assault and essentially killing his own nephew? Am I the only one that thinks that’s weird? So what piece of the puzzle are we missing?
Loki as Retaliator - What were the Circumstances?
As you can see, we have a nice roadmap leading from benign trickster to one pissed-off World Breaker.
Loki’s tricks become nastier, and the Aesir abuse him further, which only makes him grow darker. Reading the progression of myths can actually be quite chilling when viewed in this way.
Of course, the real kicker that sends Loki into direct opposition to the Aesir concerns the gods’ treatment of his children.
Not only are the three children he has with Angrboda (Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr) banished, chained, and tormented, but so are the two children he has with Sigyn, in the most brutal way imaginable. Odin and Co. turn Vali into a wolf who then disembowels his own brother Narvi. The Aesir use Narvi’s guts to bind Loki to a rock deep in a cave, and Sigyn is forced to hold a bowl over his head and catch the venom dripping from the mouth of a snake.
These are oathbreaking, violent, and beyond cruel acts and only solidify Loki becoming what the gods fear most: The Breaker of Worlds and bringer of Ragnarok.
It’s no surprise that when Loki finally breaks free of his prison, he brings vengeance to the Aesir, burning all the Nine Worlds with the help of his children Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr.
What interests me most here, however, is how Loki’s three children seem to actually be a personification of his binding and revenge against the gods.
Hear me out.
Loki was “entombed” in earth and darkness, essentially “dead” to all the worlds. This connects to his daughter Hel, the Goddess of Death and ruler of Hel--the Norse underworld. And, it is with Hel’s army of the dead that Loki fights Odin’s army of Valhalla on the battlefield of Vigridr at Ragnarok.
Loki was bound and chained to rock with the entrails of his own son, which were magically turned into iron. This connects to Fenrir, who was also bound and chained with the magical cord Gleipnir. Once Fenrir is freed at Ragnarok, like his father, he faces Odin and consumes him.
Loki was tortured with the venom of a snake hanging over his head. This connects to Jormungandr, who spits and spills venom all over Thor at Ragnarok, killing him.
As you can see, Loki achieves his revenge in a very symbolic way through his children, and even more so, it is the gods getting their comeuppance for the abuse and cruelty due to their fear that they showed Loki and his family. Had they left all alone, Ragnarok wouldn’t have happened.
Loki as the Devil - What’s Christianity Got to do With It?
This section is a summary of a much deeper topic than either of us wants to go into right now, so if you’re looking for more information about Christianity, check the Further Reading section or look up your own. For now, suffice it to say that when a religion demands allegiance to One God, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for others.
Christianity was both slow and forceful in its takeover of the north. Since going viking often took Scandinavians to what is now the UK, they were frequently exposed to Christian ideals. In fact, in many pagan cultures, adding a new god to the existing roster was a normal enough occurrence, and there were people in Scandinavia that were fine with adding the Christian God/Jesus into their lives.
Except that Christianity didn’t feel the same. Over time, the people of the church devised ways to co-opt pagan tradition and make it more Christian, and after a while, the leaders of major settlements were forcing their people to convert. King Olaf I of Norway actually razed temples, tortured and killed pagans, and destroyed artefacts across Scandinavia. Efforts like this contribute to why we’ve lost so much of the history and culture of the Viking age and earlier.
But what does that have to do with Loki? Possibly a lot.
Because Scandinavia didn’t do a lot of writing, there’s very little recorded history, including the preservation of the mythology. In fact, the stories we have today were written down during the 13th century, well after Christianity moved into the north, and the writing was done by a Christian man. It’s hard to say how much of what we know was changed into something more Christian-pleasing over the years, and how much was altered by the authors themselves. We do have some hints, though.
First of them being that the opening line of the Prose Edda is “In the beginning God created heaven and earth and all those things which are in them; and last of all, two of human kind, Adam and Eve, from whom the races are descended.”
I feel like I can rest my case.
When it comes to Loki, it’s very easy to imagine Christian writers positioning him as the Norse Devil. During the stories, there’s a dramatic change in his demeanour as the myths move forward, as we’ve already demonstrated. One of the most interesting elements to me is the two different versions of Baldur’s death that we have. In one, Baldur’s brother Hod kills him. In Snorri’s version, Loki kills him. At some point, the narrative shifts to blame an entity that wasn’t even in the room before, or the other way around. This is essentially the moment where the mood of the mythology chance from funny, inspiring stories told around the campfire to one of inevitable doom.
In fact, it’s not even clear if Baldur is an entity of pure Norse mythology or if he, god of all things light and good, was also influenced by Christianity. Suspiciously enough, Baldur is one of the only deities that is supposed to be magically resurrected at the end of everything, to lead the few remaining beings into a new, golden age.
Christianity tends to pose things in terms of good versus evil, and since the Norse pantheon was typically entirely morally grey, it stands to reason that they needed to position someone as Jesus and someone else as Lucifer. It’s impossible to know whether or not Loki was always meant to have a malicious villain character arch, or if it served the purposes of the church for him to gain one, but I bet you can guess where I fall.
There’s a lot of reading that can be done on this subject, so I encourage you to dig deeper into how Christianity changed the landscape for the north, as well as pretty much any other culture it became part of.
Loki as Himself - Aren’t we Made of Multitudes?
Trying to pindown who Loki “is” is like trying to nail jello to a wall. But, I am going to try my best by focusing on one consistent point that arises through all the myths, and that is his seemingly “soft spot” for children, and even as a potential protector of the home.
You see, Loki was more than just a guy who occasionally cut off women’s hair for shits and giggles and threw down epic burns in verse.
Not only does Loki canonically have a lot of children himself, there is actually more than one myth where it is Loki who saves a child in danger. In The Tale of Utgardr-Loki (no relation to our Loki, I double swear it), Loki convinces Thor to spare the life of a boy who ate one of Thor’s goats, which was a serious no-no.
Loki didn’t have to do this. In fact, it would have been far easier to just let Thor go hammer happy on the kid, but he made a choice to step in and intervene.
Another occasion of Loki saving a child’s life is in the Faroese ballad of the Lokka Tattur. Long story short, there is a rather hangry giant who wants to kill a farmer’s son for giant reasons. Odin tries his best to outwit the giant, but fails and then is like “peace out, good luck everybody else,” and then the mysterious god Hodr also gives it a shot. Surprise, he also fails and basically just shrugs and walks away.
It is only Loki who actually makes a plan, sees the plan through, and succeeds, saving the boy’s life and winning the day.
These stories show a different side of Loki, and paint him as having a warmth to him, a protective nature, if you will...almost as if he was a “hearth” spirit. Loki being a spirit of the hearth, or at least having a connection to the hearth, is a theory I quite like and feel resonates throughout many of the myths he features in. Fires in hearths can be mischievous things. Helpful and life-giving, but if left untended—well, the consequences can be dire.
Hmmm...sounds like a tricky trickster we all know, doesn’t it?
Was Loki viewed as a protector of the home, family, and of children? We will never know for sure, but I think there is plenty of evidence that backs this view up, whether you find this in the Scandinavian languages and culture, where they will throw a baby’s teeth into the hearth as an “offering” to protect the child, or through the mythology.
Loki as Modern Deity - Where is he Headed?
Despite the best efforts of some pagan circles and writers like Snorri, Loki and his family have found a modern place in both pop culture and pagan worship. They even have a name; Lokeans. And much like some people imagine Satanists to be deviants who are desperately seeking to end the world, some people imagine Lokeans as just that. Admittedly, there are some that fit that bill, but it takes all kinds of people to make a world.
No, the majority of practising Lokeans are simply seeking something that is difficult to find in other gods. Over and over, the people I see who seek him out are young LGBTQA+ people who feel discarded and underserved. They identify with the pain, loss, and ostracization, with being different in a world that will hurt you for it. They identify with Sigyn, who is a pillar of strength, and Angrboda who takes no shit. Many are angry and lost, and need someone who understands that. According to his followers, he also loves sugar and caffeine, and seriously, I can’t blame him. Those are two pretty fantastic things that spice up one’s life.
They also seek him out as a catalyst. As the person who will thrust difficulty upon them and encourage them to learn and persevere. In the same vein that “God only gives you challenges that you can handle” Loki will see you sitting on your ass, not working to improve your life, and will slash your tires until you do something about it.
Loki is also a god who is the very essence of the phrase “when one door closes, another opens.” He is a god of opportunity, and while he will definitely throw your life into chaos, it is only through chaos that we can change. Loki helps you reach your highest potential. He makes us face the truths about ourselves we don’t want to face. And while that journey may not always be easy or fun, you will come out on the other side stronger.
There is a true peace to be found in the chaos Loki represents. It’s a knowing that the chaos has a purpose, and that there is a lesson to be learned. It’s not punishment, but potential. He helps us face our fears and grab life by the throat and live it to its fullest. Loki urges us to take a “leap” and is always on the other side waiting.