Who is Loki anyway?

Dedicated to Professor David L. Miller


Father of Monsters. Father of Hel.

Bloodbrother and Benchmate of Odin.

Clever. Deep-minded god of plunder.

Giant’s Son and God of 1,000 Masks.

Such are just but a few of the many kennings for Loki the famous and (it seems to me) quite popular god of Norse mythology.

But who is Loki?

“Hardly a monograph, article, or encyclopedic entry,” writes professor Stefanie von Schnurbein, does not begin with reference to Loki as a staggeringly complex, confusing, and ambivalent figure who has been the catalyst for countless unresolved controversies and has elicited more problems than solutions” (109).

Is there a better description than Loki than one that explicitly states that even discussions of him result in controversy and more problems than solutions? Does that not exemplify Loki to a tee?

While scholars debate Loki, Loki is, in the popular imagination, a typical trickster figure.

But defining Loki as such broad strokes is too general and does not help in understanding Loki.  Other interpretations of Loki include Jacob Grimm’s interpretation of him as a god of fie, Folk Strom’s as a hypostization of Odin. Others link Loki to a medieval development and see him as a Norse appropriation of Lucifer. Still another sees him in the role of spider.

Now I will not pretend to solve the problem of Loki, but what I would like to offer is an alternate way of looking at Loki. While the various interpretations mentioned above are but a few, one thread connects them: each sees Loki in relation to a thing. Whether that be Odin, fire, a spider, etc., all are things, phenomenon.

I see Loki as a “non-thing.” I see Loki in relation to space. In particular I see Loki as a personification, or embodiment, of play.

Not your typical definitions of play, either as a “dramatic composition/performance”  or “activity for amusement or recreation,” but play as the following:

-Elusive change or movement
-Space in which something, as a part of a mechanism, can move.
-Freedom of movement within a space, as of a part of a mechanism  (dictionary.com)
      The first is simple in that trickster figures are, by nature, quite elusive and are often shapeshifters. Loki, for instance, shifts his shape into that of a salmon, a mare, a seal, a fly, and maybe even an elderly woman named Thokk. But limiting Loki’s relationship to play in these regards would be again to relate him to things.
      While Loki may be most recognizable in his human form he is, as a shapeshifter, essentially shapeless, formless–a non-thing. Loki is that process, that change, that movement. Such brings me then to the next two (related) definitions.
     Think of a bike chain. If a bike chain is to loose, the wheels won’t turn. Likewise if too tight. Now when the chain is on the gears just right–when there is a little play–the bike will work just fine. That is the kind of play I see Loki as.
      So how? First we must explore, albeit briefly, his mythos.
      While Snorri Sturluson counts Loki as “numbered among the aesir,” he is, considering the “principle of reckoning kinship along paternal lines only, Loki is no god but a giant” (Lindow 216).
      Now as much as Loki enters bloodbrotherhood with Odin, he being recognized by the aesir as the father of monsters–Hel, Fenrisulf, and Jormungardr (the Midgard Serpent), Loki must be considered as having fathered his offspring prior to entering into his relationship with Odin. using the bicycle metaphor, in this role Loki is the chain that is “too loose.”
      In entering into a relationship with the aesir, Loki not only works for the gods in helping them, say, retrieve stolen items such as Thor’s hammer, he also works against them, as in, say his tirade in the poem Lokasenna and, perhaps most significantly, his role in the death of Baldr. But to such a role as “helper/hinderer” to the gods I shall return in brief time.
      The Norse mythos ends with Ragnarok, the final battle between the gods and jotuns (giants) when the cosmos meets its end prior to a rebirth of a new generation of gods and a new earth. Loki plays not only an essential role in the battle between god and giants itself, but in the drama’s unfolding, for it with Loki’s involvement in the death of Baldr that sets the events in motion.
      Long story short, Loki is bound for his role in Baldr’s death. He is bound to a rock over which a serpent looms. Now Sigyn, Loki’s wife, holds a bowl over Loki’s head to catch the venom dripping from the snake’s mouth. But the bowl eventually fills and in the time Sigyn empties the bowl, the venom drips upon Loki’s face, causing him to writhe in pain; hence the earth quakes. But I digress.
      What is key in the present discussion is the fact that Loki is bound. Key because the binding of Loki is soon followed by Fimbulwinter, the mighty winter, which immediately precedes the events of Ragnarok. Loki being bound grinds the world to a halt–Fimbulwinter, three consecutive winters which puts an end to life on earth.
      To return to the metaphor, Loki bound is the chain too tight. The bike doesn’t move. Fimbulwinter comes. There is no change and the world’s demise is inevitable.
      Loki loosed equals Loki fathering the monsters–two of whom will play essential roles in the final war between gods and giants: Fenrisulf kills Odin and the Midgard Serpent is responsible for Thor’s death.
      What we are left with is the in-between: the time when Loki both helps and harms the gods and it is often Loki, says professor John Lindow, “whose actions set the complications of a story in motion” (217). Yup: Loki is that–the essential ingredient in making the mythos work. For it is this in-between space–not too tight, not too loose–that Loki is given play. Loki is that play. With Loki the bike gets moving.
      Touching again upon the quote at this essay’s onset, Loki  “has elicited more problems than solutions.” Why? Loki is hard to categorize.
Why? Loki, being both giant and aesir, is therefore neither. Loki resists such categorization. He is “in-between,” the liminal. The necessary space though which Norse myth not only moves, but requires in order to proceed and unfold.
      But Loki is not the only figure in Norse myth who cannot be confined to one or the other (giant or aesir). Odin is son to Bor, grandson to Buri, the primordial being revealed by the cow Audhumla’s licking of the primeval salt blocks. Now Bor married Bestla, a giantess and together the two gave birth to Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve. In other words, Odin is half giant/half aesir by blood. In other words, he is, while like Loki “counted among the Aesir,” neither one nor the other. Of course there are difference between the two for while Odin is both by blood, Loki is recognized as an aesir after entering into a bloodbrotherhood with Odin. He is an aesir by proxy, not by birth. To delve into this discussion would take the present too far afield and while I look forward to writing specifically on Odin (one of my favorite gods in all of mythology) now is neither the time nor place.
      Suffice it to say that this ambiguity embodied in both Odin and Loki seems a necessary component to Norse mythology and perhaps the significance of Loki’s entering into bloodbrotherhood with Odin is not so much due to Odin being the king , but because both embody this central ambiguity.
      Loki cannot be properly placed in the category of giant or aesir. He resists adequate definition because he cannot be defined. Hm…To define: to set limits to, to bind with meaning. The myths themselves tell us what happens when Loki is bound. Loki cannot be placed in either category because Loki is no thing.
      Loki is space, the in between space. Thanks to him, the story has movement. Loki is the creative space. To bind him is to kill that creative space–that space that needs a little play. That play itself is creative.
      Perhaps Loki is not all that different from Ginnungagap, the primeval void that existed prior to creation–the center of the universe within which the universe was created.  Perhaps it is no wonder then, that the binding of Loki results in the cosmos’s death.
      To bind Loki is to rent creation asunder.
      To be creative and to create we need that space–that play.
      To be creative and to create.

Works Cited

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

von Shnurben, Stefanie. “The Function of Loki in Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Edda.'” History of Religions, vol 40. 2, 109-124.

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