Who's Who in the Lore: Loki
©2005 Ingeborg S. Nordén
Thanks to comic books and role-playing games, most non-Heathens mistakenly see Loki as a kind of "Germanic Satan"--a totally evil, destructive figure who hates the other gods and wants them all ruined. It's true that Loki does some of the worst deeds in the lore:
· He tricks the goddess Idunn (keeper of the apples of longevity) into leaving Asgard so that a giant can kidnap her. Granted, the giants threatened Loki with death if he didn't produce Idunn...
· He tricks Thor into visiting a hostile giant without his magic hammer, belt, or gloves. (The giant had threatened to kill Loki then, too.)
· He extorts gold from a dwarf (who ends up cursing the whole treasure) so that the gods can repay the relative of someone they accidentally killed.
· He tricks Frigg into revealing the one thing (mistletoe) that can kill Baldr; tricks Baldr's brother into using the mistletoe against him; and refuses to weep for Baldr afterwards (which would have freed that god from the underworld).
· After Baldr's death, Loki crashes a party to which all the gods had been invited except him. He then demands drinks from Odin and the goddesses, gets stinking drunk, and insults each of the other guests in turn. (This party-crashing story forms one long poem in the Eddas--it's full of unflattering information about the gods which appears nowhere else!)
So far, all these stories make Loki look like evil incarnate (although the kidnapped-god ones aren't entirely Loki's fault). But what about these?
· Loki sneaks into Thor's hall somehow, and cuts off the hair of Sif (Thor's wife). Granted, there's a cultural context here--he may have wanted to frame Sif for adultery, since Norse wives who got caught cheating lost their hair as part of the punishment. I wouldn't call that evil, just mischievous.
Besides, he more than makes up for the deed with the gifts he offers to Thor and the other gods as compensation. (Thor gets new hair for his wife AND a hammer for himself; Odin gets a spear which never misses AND a self-duplicating arm ring; Freyr gets a golden-bristled boar AND a ship which can fold up to fit in a pocket. Considering that neither Freyr nor Odin was involved in the original dispute, I'd call Loki's actions pretty generous here!
· Loki saves the gods from a dangerously unreasonable bargain with a giant. (The walls of Asgard need rebuilding after a war; a giant comes there offering to do the job in exchange for the sun, the moon, and Freyja's hand in marriage. The gods were reluctant to accept the offer at first, but Loki talks them into it--"IF the giant gets only half the time he asked for, he won't finish the work and we'll get part of our walls done for nothing." Unfortunately, the giant works much faster than anyone had expected: one day before the deadline, only a few stones need to be set in place. The gods blame Loki for talking them into the deal, and threaten to kill him if he can't find a solution. What does he do? He transforms himself into a mare, seduces the giant's work-horse (which had been hauling rocks before), and manages to get "himself" pregnant in the process. That's how Odin ends up with Sleipnir, to connect this story with my older article on Odin...
· When Thor gets his hammer stolen (the story never says how!), Loki finds out who has it--and learns that the thief wants Freyja's hand in marriage in exchange for the hammer. The real Freyja is understandably furious and says no; so the gods are stuck having to disguise Thor as a bride and Loki as a bridesmaid. Without Loki's clever explanations for "Freyja's" odd behavior at the wedding, the whole plan would have failed.
Judging by the evidence above, I'd call Loki a double agent instead of a demon: he works either with or against the gods, whichever side is better for him at the time. Some people label him as a trickster-god, which is true--but Loki has a darker sense of humor than tricksters in other cultures. (If you need a modern parallel to Loki, the Joker in the recent Batman movies has a similar attitude.)