Inevitably, within the greater Heathen community, the question arises of “why Loki?” I’ll admit I am often stumped by this question. Why Loki? Why Odin? Why any Deity? The question of why one is called or chooses to devote him or herself to a particular Deity or set of Deities is, I suspect, something that our ancestors would have classed under the category of a religious ‘mystery.’ It is a thing that must be experienced firsthand to be comprehended and until the experience has occurred words alone are simply not enough to bring about any understanding of the experience. Moreover, I find it a rather silly if not completely idiotic question (inevitably, it’s usually asked in my community preparatory to a theological attack or challenge). Why *not* Loki should be the question, in my opinion.
For those who may not know Who Loki is, I’d like to give a little background. With the release of the movies “Thor” and “The Avengers,” (as pleasant a visual diversion as they may be), I find myself growing more and more concerned that newcomers to the community may not necessarily always be clear on the difference between the fictional characters drawn (and lightly, I might add) from elements of Norse cosmology, and the actual ancestral Gods and Goddesses of the Northern Pantheon. What I find particularly disturbing is the preponderance of religious iconography—paintings, drawings, other artwork—some by new devotees of the Norse Gods, that more and more are starting to reflect elements of Marvel’s characters in their imagery, especially for Loki. Some of this may simply be the popularity of the actor who portrays him in the film, whom even I will admit is attractive, but I think more of this blending, stems from the tremendous hunger people have for images of their Gods, for images that reflect the many and varied ways that the Gods come to us, for images that reflect those Beings that we hold most dearly to be adored (yeah, I know. This is a case where I wish English used its participles the way Latin does. Allow me, just this once, to butcher and twist the English language into Latin participial formation here).(2) We’re hungry for an aesthetic that reflects our spiritual reality.
This isn’t too surprising given that our world, especially in America is staunchly monotheistic. Even where it is secular, in this country, that secularism is colored by Protestant Christianity, and of late, more and more Christianities of an evangelical shade. Is it any wonder our eyes crave a reminder of the sacred when that sacred is excluded from our daily world? We latch on to anything we can find; and perhaps it has always been this way: religious iconography reflecting pop culture influences and moreover cultural needs. Still, it is a point of some concern for me.
At any rate, because of this recent (and growing) blending of iconography I want to take a moment to talk about Who Loki is within our cosmology.(3) I’m not going to go into too much detail, mind you, as I have a rather thorough chapter on Loki in my most recent book, parts of which may be found online and would prefer not to repeat myself overmuch.(4) Still, suffice it to say, that Loki is A) the most controversial Deity within contemporary Heathenry; B) often viewed as a quintessential “Trickster” Deity; and C) deeply loved by a growing number of Heathens and Pagans.(5) Whether or not one honors Loki is the point of denominational dispute within the tradition. All of this is utterly inconsequential to those who know (in whatever infinitesimal way a human may know a God) and deeply love, this God.
So Who is Loki Laufeyson? (Laufey, by the way, is Loki’s Mother). Well, in the surviving lore, contaminated and problematic as it might be, He has many heiti, or by-names.(6) Contemporary devotees have added to this list. Amongst those I was able to collect, both from the surviving lore, folklore, and His devotees, we have the following: (7)
Benchmate of Odin
Blood Brother to Odin
Breaker of Worlds
Bringer of Gifts
Brother of Byleistr
Brother to Helblindi
Burden of Sigyn’s Arms
Cargo of Sigyn’s arms
Companion of Odin
Deep-minded retaining God of Plunder
Father of Hel
Father of Monsters
Father of Narvi and Vali
Father of the Sea-Thread
Father of Strife
God of a Thousand Masks
Harmer of Sif’s Hair
He Who lays out the life-nets of the Gods
Hot Stuff (needless to say, this is a modern appellation. LOL)
the hound of the roaring sea of corpses of the ale-Gefn
Husband of Sigyn
Loður (some people consider Loður and Loki to be the same God, though this is not a common view nor a commonly accepted one)
Loyal Friend of Hoenir
The Man with the Tattered Smile
Mother of Sleipnir
Mother of Witches
The Raven-God’s Friend
Son of Farbauti
(with Odin and Hoenir): the stratagem-sparing defenders of the gods
Thief of Brisingamen
Thief of Giants
Thief of Idunna’s Apples
Thought-trier of Hoenir
Tree (aka ‘man’) of deceits
The Unquiet Thought
Visitor and Chest-trapping of Geirrödr
Each of these precious by-names taps into a particular facet of Loki’s nature. Each name contains within itself a powerful mystery related to this God (and that holds true for the heiti of every Deity—and They all have Their heiti). Contemplation of a God’s individual names is one very powerful way to draw closer in devotional care to that Deity. Certainly Loki is immediately present in my heart, mind, and before my being when I call into the hard and secret fastness of my heart, one of His sacred names. “Sin-Sly” my being whispers and He is there; and He is there as Loki Sin-Sly, sweetly cunning and deft at calling forth all of one’s hidden desires; skilled at slipping free of any trap, oh so talented at finding the loopholes in the lives we so desperately lead. I call Him as Husband of Sigyn and if He chooses to come and show that side of Himself it is tender, loving, passionately devoted to His family, willing to do just about anything –even allow Himself to look the fool—just to make Sigyn smile.(8) If I call upon Him as Breaker of Worlds, He comes mad and anguished, raging, and very, very dangerous (and I will pay a price for the calling). It is all Loki, but I have found that often, with the Gods, They will come through the doorways of mind and heart and spirit via the portals we provide and heiti are such portals. It is all Loki though, and in the end, through contemplation of His heiti the devotee has the opportunity to come to greater understanding of the manifold and ever quixotic nature of this particular God. Through such contemplation, it is very hard not to fall in love with this God, and with the joy of honoring Him.
Of all the Gods save perhaps Odin (and I have to admit, this is a very, very close thing with me), it is Loki that has pulled me into the broadest shifting expanse of emotion: His and mine. This God holds such tremendous joy, and loves so passionately those whom He claims as His own. He is as coldly calculating as Odin, and as ancient. He has suffered anguish enough to tear the worlds apart, and His rage is a thing one truly ought not to waken. He is the Father of Fenrir after all, and His Wolf-son did not inherit all of His dangerous fury from His Mother. Loki’s story within the sacred cycle of myths is one of amusement and wit, but also tragedy, horrific tragedy, and tremendous suffering. Many of the gifts the Gods hold most dear came through His hands: Gungnir, Skidbladnir, even Mjolnir.(9) He is the friend and traveling companion of Thor, and (though scholars debate this given lack of etymological evidence) some contemporary devotees are certain that Loki and Loður are the same, making Him one of the three primal creator Gods Who slew Their ancestor Ymir to form the worlds. This would make Loki the God who blessed the first humans with warmth, with fire in the blood, passion, and the gift of our sensorium. (10) He is a wild Jotun, a shapeshifter, skilled in bitter, biting wordplay, yet He is a tender father and husband. More than any other God that I have encountered, Loki likes to involve Himself in Midgard. I have even known Him to extend a certain amount of attention and protection over those belonging to other Gods, even other pantheons in instances where the individual had no other support.
Georges Dumezil in his book “Loki” refers to Him as the ‘unquiet thought.”(11) That is the essence, in many respects (or part of it anyway) of Loki’s “medicine.” That is what He brings to the proverbial party; and that’s good. We need our paradigms shaken up now and again. Or torn up, shat on, and crushed underfoot. Loki does that. The one sure thing in maintaining a devotional practice to Loki is that He demands absolutely honesty with yourself and with Him. He will not allow His devotees to get by with what is comfortable, unchallenging, untrue. He takes the ancient Delphic maxim “Know thyself,” to extreme lengths, though necessary ones. He is one of those Gods mind-blowingly adept at ferreting out and cutting through our bullshit, even when we’re not aware of being mired in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual crap ourselves. He brings an often frightening clarity. He makes one unquiet: unquiet in our assumptions, in our blindnesses, our prejudices, our preconceptions. He challenges it all. One thing Loki does not abide is stagnation.
I believe this is the true wisdom behind Loki’s behavior after Baldr’s death. Once the shining God was compelled to make His journey on the Hel-road, His Mother Frigga, journeyed throughout the nine worlds. So focused was She on freeing Her son from the Underworld, that She received a promise from Hel: if every single living thing wept for lack of Baldr, then Baldr would be permitted to return to the living realm. Everything did weep, save for one ancient, withered old crone, who instructed Frigga to allow Hel to keep what She has. Because this crone did not weep, Baldr was not freed. Most sources agree that crone was Loki.
With praise and honor to Frigga, I shall continue my tale. Popular Heathen opinion falls heavily in Frigga’s favor. A mother’s grief is a powerful thing after all and death is often frightening. Plus, with Loki involved, many Heathens lose their ability for rational thought and automatically assume the worst, casting Him as the villain. My opinion, however, falls with Loki and I’ll tell you why.
Firstly, in going into the Underworld, Baldr was holding that space for those of us who will of necessity follow Him. Like the Egyptian Osiris, He walked the death-road ahead of us, and so Who better to greet us upon our arrival and sooth our fears and journey-worries. He is a God Who knows---unlike His kin—precisely the journey each human soul must take. This is a powerful, sacred role. But more to the point, death is not something we can subvert or undo. It isn’t something we should subvert or undo (something I very much wish modern medicine would try to comprehend). Dying is as natural as the first breath a baby draws upon being born. We are all traveling toward our death from the moment we escape our mothers’ wombs and there is something very unnatural—though fully comprehensible—in a mother’s seeking to subvert that natural order. The worlds cannot function if even (or perhaps most especially) the Gods are allowed to subvert the debt and flow of wyrd.
Show me one who has not suffered a loss of some kind, even amongst the Gods. Show me someone who has never known grief. It is the way of things, as painful as it might be: a mother cannot call her children back from the dead. Frigga too holds a powerful role here: She is a Goddess (along, ironically, with Sigyn) Who I think best understands what it is like to lose a child and the suffering that accompanies that, and therefore, through having opened Herself to one of the most painful experiences of humanity, has become One to Whom parents may turn for sustenance in the face of similar loss. I think we owe Her a tremendous debt for this, Her sacrifice.
I also believe, however, that in shapeshifting into the old crone, who denied Frigga’s wish, who denied tears, Loki was pointing out that sanctity of death, a good death, necessary death. The Goddess of the Underworld is also His daughter and I personally suspect that there was an element of reinforcing that Hella too is entitled to Her portion. All the worlds pay a teind to Hela.(12) There are tales amongst spiritworkers of sacrifices willingly given amongst the Alfar and Svartalfar and other Divine races of beings to Hela in honor of this cycle. We ourselves die and are reborn. This is the way of things. It is the necessity of things. Were nothing to ever die, our world would be a horror. Even the Aesir are not exempt from that. Baldr was Their teind to Hel.(13) Why would any God or Goddess do this? Well, we are Their descendants and ancestor work functions both ways.
Now, can Loki be cruel? Absolutely. All Gods can be cruel—at least from the paucity of our human, flesh-bound perspective. I have served Odin and Loki for over twenty years and of the two I have found Odin the harsher Taskmaster. Is Loki dangerous? Forgive my bluntness, but: Fuck yeah. Every God is dangerous. It is foolishness and hubris to think otherwise. It takes tremendous devotional courage to say – and truly mean--- “I love You kind, and I love You cruel.”(14) It takes tremendous courage to embrace the vulnerability inherent in opening to the experience of a God –Beings any One of Whose presence is like gnawing fire or eating a whirlwind, Whose attention will forever, utterly and irreparably change your world. Devotional work is not “safe.” The space that Loki holds is not safe either. I have found in His mythic cycle, that Loki embodies a very particular type of courage, and models it for others, even paying the price for doing so. He speaks what must be spoken and does what must be done even at great harm to Himself. We, who are awake and rooted in our indigenous ways are called to precisely that kind of courage. That is my interpretation of His tales.
How should one best honor Loki? I would say with integrity, humility, and an open heart—just as I would suggest one approach any Deity. Most of all though, have the courage to make up your own mind about Him based on your own thoughts, contemplation, and experiences. Only a coward lets others define the nature of his devotional life.
We praise the best-born Son of Jotunheim,
Sigyn’s Secret Sweetness.
We praise this God who gnaws on courage,
spitting forth truth though some may call Him Father of Lies.
We praise the Flame-haired Sky-Treader,
with His brilliant mind and cunning tongue,
and that wit – most wondrous of weapons.
We praise His tenderness, and His kindness,
He who turned female to bear Svadilfari’s son.
We praise His passion, His love, His commitment.
Most of all we praise Him, Loki, for Himself alone.
May You be hailed in all Your magnificence, with all of our joy,
on this day and each day forward, Loki Laufeyson.
- I’ve already covered the “why Loki” question in some depth here: http://krasskova.weebly.com/1/post/2012/05/j-is-for-jotnar.html)
- That is not to say that Loki wouldn’t or couldn’t present Himself any damned way He wishes, including coming to a devotee in a way that mirrors the Marvel character. I think the Gods are wonderful opportunists and will use whatever mental and emotional windows we give Them. Still,...this trend on the human end of things troubles me.
- Not just blending. Try doing a google search for Loki. The first few pages are almost *all* Tom Hiddleston as Loki from The Avengers. It’s rather difficult now to find images of the God Loki without knowing for Whom you’re searching. A newcomer to the religion, who may have had his or her interest piqued *by the movie* may not know where or how to do that search.
- Essays in Modern Heathenry, available here: http://www.asphodelpress.com/specialty.html. Excerpts of the Loki article may be found here: http://krasskova.weebly.com/1/post/2010/05/new-article-on-loki-at-oak-and-holly.html.
- There are those who would argue the ‘trickster’ attribution, often (at least within Heathen circles) I believe because of the worry that this would allow Him too much legitimacy within the Pantheon. Regarding reasons why Loki is controversial: He’s Jotun, He gender-bends, by one account He contributed to Baldr’s death, and supposedly (according to lore) leads the forces of the Jotnar and the dead against the Aesir and Vanir at Ragnarok.
- Much of the surviving lore was either written centuries after conversion by Christians or was written in the twilight of pre-Christian Heathenry.
- A big thank you to everyone who emailed me their favorite kennings.
- A huge thank you to DM who mentioned in a fb group for Loki that He said He’d “make an idiot out of Himself just to see Her [Sigyn] smile.” My adopted mother, a fervent devotee of Loki and Sigyn had a similar UPG, as have I, as have several others who honor Them both.
- Odin’s spear, Frey’s ship, Thor’s hammer respectively.
- The sensorium is comprised of sight, smell, sound, taste, touch.
- The scholar in me says I should go hunt up the reference, but the very tired human being says I’m too tired to re-translate the book tonight. Lol. Unfortunately, the book has not been translated into English. While I can read French, I’m slow at it. Truthfully speaking, however, the only useful thing that I was able to cull from this particular text, was that one appellation: Loki as the “Unquiet Thought.”
- A teind is a debt, sacrifice, portion given in rightful payment, a toll. Some of you might be familiar with this term from the Ballad of Tam Lin.
- To be a willing teind, as I personally believe Baldr was, carries with it tremendous honor.
- These words come from a devotional prayer written by Fuensanta Arismendi.
Some recommended sources for learning more about Loki:
Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (a good, basic overview of the major Norse cosmological stories).
Norse Gods and Giants (republished as “D’aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths”) by Edgar and Ingri d’Aulaire (for the illustrations. It’s also a delightful children’s book).
Jotunbok by Raven Kaldera
Trickster, My Beloved by Elizabeth Vongvisith
Sigyn, Our Lady of the Staying Power by Galina Krasskova
Feeding the Flame by Galina Krasskova
“The Problem of Loki” by Jan de Vries
“Loki” by Georges Dumezil (in French).
Cawley, Frank Stanton, (1939). The Figure of Loki in Germanic Mythology. Retrieved October 2006 from http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0017-8160%28193910%2932%3A4%3C309%3ATFOLIG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L
About the image: the picture of an illustration by A. Rackham for Wagner's Ring cycle. It depicts Loki and the Rhine Maidens.