Who is Loki? Many people are familiar with the Norse god Loki from modern depictions, but what does Norse Mythology say about the identity of Loki?
Æsir or Jötunn, friend or foe, Loki is many things, often at the same time. Read on to find out more about Norse mythology’s most mischievous god.
The identity of Loki
Once in a lecture on Viking artefacts, my professor asked us why we have not yet found any statues that are thought to portray the god Loki. After a short discussion, she provided her own theory:
“Loki is a chaos god. You wouldn’t pray to Loki; you would pray to the other gods to keep Loki away.”
While Loki may not have been favoured among the pagan Scandinavians, his popularity has increased in recent years along with a renewed interest in Norse mythology (something no doubt helped by Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of the character in the Marvel movies).
While modern depictions of Loki can vary from the sinister in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to the misunderstood in Joanne Harris’ Runemarks, they generally follow the same blueprint. Loki tends to be portrayed as mischievous and self-serving, yet lovable and charming. He is also often framed as an antagonist, although he is rarely a stereotypical “bad guy”.
However, while Loki’s characterisation is consistent in popular culture, there is very little consistent about Loki in Norse mythology.
Loki: a trickster God
In Norse mythology, Loki is best known as the trickster god. A lot of the time, he uses his cunning to help the Æsir out of trouble – other times, he’s the reason they’re in trouble in the first place.
However, other than being a trickster, it is difficult to say exactly what else Loki is. He is both Æsir and Jötunn. He is generally male – and sometimes female. The Æsir are infuriated by him and dependent on him. He helps the Æsir and marches against them in Ragnarok.
Confused? Don’t worry – so are we. Strap in – this is going to be a bumpy ride!
Æsir or Jötunn?
While there are lots of characters within Norse mythology, the two main groups are the Æsir (the gods) and the Jötnar (often translated as “giants”). The Æsir and the Jötnar have a literal love-hate relationship: they are just as likely to fight as they are to marry and/or have children.
When they do have children, this union is generally between male Æsir and female Jötnar, and even Odin himself has a Jötunn for a mother. Despite this, he is still classified as an Æsir as Norse mythology is patrilineal, which means that bloodlines run through the father.
Like Odin, Loki is also the child of an Æsir and a Jötunn – with a marked difference. Loki’s father is Fárbauti, a Jötunn, and his mother is Laufey, who is thought to be an Æsir (though this isn’t specified).
Therefore, Loki should technically be classified as a Jötunn. However it’s not quite as simple as that.
In Viking times, it was common for children’s surnames to be made by taking their father’s first name and adding “son” or “daughter” onto the end. This practice is still common in Iceland today. Loki however takes his mother’s first name for his surname, “Laufeysson” (lit. son of Laufey), instead of his father’s.
9. “Remember, Othin, in olden days
That we both our blood have mixed;
While we don’t know why he received his mother’s name or how the blood pact with Odin happened, these factors suggest that Loki chooses his allegiance to the Æsir over the Jötnar, in spite of his bloodline – even though this choice eventually changes.
Was Loki male or female?
Loki’s parentage is not the only instance of him defying the gender norms of Norse mythology. His own gender changes throughout the stories.
In both myths and popular culture (as well as in this blog post), Loki is generally described as being male. But this is not always the case.
In Þrymskviða (or Thrymskvida, “the Lay of Thrym”), Thor and Loki must pretend to be Freyja and her handmaiden in order to get Thor’s hammer Mjölnir back from a Jötunn king named Thrym.
When Thor is in disguise, the text keeps his male pronouns. However, when Loki is in disguise, the text switches to female pronouns, suggesting that his transformation into a handmaiden is much more… thorough:
20. Then Loki spake, the son of Laufey:
“As thy maid-servant thither I go with thee;
We two shall haste to the giants' home.”
26. Hard by there sat the serving-maid wise,
So well she answered the giant's words:
“From food has Freyja eight nights fasted,
So hot was her longing for Jotunheim.”
In addition, while Loki fathers the majority of his children, he also mothers one of them. In one of the stories told in Gylfaginning (“The Beguiling of Gylfi”), Loki turns himself into a female horse in order to lure the stallion Svadilfari away from his work.
When Loki returns, he is pregnant and he later gives birth to an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, who becomes Odin’s steed.
Therefore, while Loki is often in a male form, he is not bound to a single gender like the other Æsir – nor to the gender norms that follow.
Friend or foe?
As mentioned at the beginning, Loki is a god of mischief and often causes trouble for the Æsir, even when he’s on their side. For example, he cuts off Sif’s hair for seemingly no reason other than it amuses him.
However, he always fixes his mistakes, often at an added benefit to the Æsir. To replace Sif’s hair, Loki has the Dwarves make her new hair out of pure gold – as well as a spear (Gugnir) and a ring (Draupnir) for Odin, a hammer (Mjölnir) for Thor, and a boar (Gullinborsti) and ship (Skidbladnir) for Freyr.
Loki is also frequently called upon to help the Æsir when he hasn’t done anything wrong. In Skáldskaparmál (“The Language of Poetry”), the Jötunn Skadi travels to Asgard to avenge her father, Thjazi, who was killed by the Æsir.
After some negotiations, she agrees to accept compensation for his death instead – and one of the terms is that the Æsir have to make her laugh.
In the end, Loki succeeds by means of a goat, some rope and his own *ahem* extremities. The Æsir rarely ask this level of sacrifice from each other and barely acknowledge what Loki does for them.
However, throughout the myths, Loki gradually changes from an ally to an enemy. In Lokasenna, he storms into a feast held by the Æsir and insults them one by one, only leaving when Thor arrives and threatens him. In Gylfaginning, he tricks the blind god Höðr into killing Baldr and then stops his release from Hel by refusing to cry for him.
By the time of Ragnarok, it is clear that Loki is no friend of the Æsir, as he leads the army of the dead out of Hel into battle against them. However, whether he was always destined to be their enemy or whether he was pushed into this role due to how the Æsir treated him is up for debate.
Father of victims or father of monsters?
Of all Loki’s children, the three he fathers with the Jötunn Angrboda are the most monstrous: Fenrir, the giant wolf, Jörmungand, the world serpent, and Hel, who rules over the realm of the same name in Niflheim, where all those who die of sickness or old age go.
While these three technically have an Æsir father and a Jötunn mother, they are not counted among the Æsir. In fact, two of them lead to the death of two important Æsir: Fenrir kills Odin, and Jörmungand and Thor kill each other.
However, much like their father, it is unclear whether these three were destined to be the downfall of the Æsir – or if they became that way because of the Æsir.
In Gylfaginning, it is said that when Odin found out about Loki’s children, he “kastaði” (literally “threw or cast”) Jörmungand into the sea and Hel into Niflheim. Even Fenrir was originally a friend of the Æsir and lived among them in Asgard – before they became fearful of his size and bound him, putting a sword in his mouth so he couldn’t bite.
Did Loki father monsters? Or did the Æsir create monsters?
Hero or villain?
So we come to the final question: “Is Loki a hero or a villain?”
We know that Loki becomes one of the main antagonists of the Æsir – but that in itself does not mean that he is a villain. According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word “antagonist” means “A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary”. The Æsir are Loki’s main opponents – and by all accounts, their behaviour is pretty terrible. Not only do they treat both Loki and his children badly, but they frequently lie, cheat, steal and kill – often for their own interests.
Furthermore, it is clear that Loki, due to his love of mischief, is a god of chaos – but that does not make him automatically bad either. Chaos is bad in Norse mythology because it goes against the order set by the Æsir. However, they do not keep order because it is good – they keep order because it benefits them.
Therefore, whether Loki is a hero or villain depends on your perspective of the Æsir. To find the answer, I think we should instead ask: “Are the Æsir heroes or villains”?
So, what is Loki? The short answer is: we don’t know. We can say that he is a trickster, but other than that, it’s difficult to put any definite labels on his identity. Perhaps this is what makes him such a good trickster in the first place!
As with most things concerning Norse mythology, it’s difficult to gain any exact answers from the source texts. Loki’s identity will therefore probably differ from person to person, depending on how you view both Loki and the Æsir.
Ultimately, when it comes to Loki, there is only one thing we know for sure: it’s complicated.
What do you think about Loki? Would you like to see more investigations into Norse Gods? Let us know in the comments!