Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Loki Laufeyson 2. Myth vs. pop-culture: The Trickster

2. Loki as a trickster

When talking about Loki, the name trickster comes up several times. What does it mean exactly? True to his very entity, there is no uniform definition despite the fact, that you can find the figure of a trickster in almost every culture and religion (or at least figures which share several of its characteristics). According to some scholars a trickster is an archetypal figure, who is a primary stage of a type later developed into a culture hero. 
Loki and his children (by Audrey Koch)

(You can find the first part- mythology- here)

In any case there are some distinct signs with which you can define a trickster. He might, but doesn´t have to possess all of them:

1. A trickster is double-edged, anomalous (ambiguity). That means for example, that he is fertile, but at the same time he is threatened by impotence. He is an outsider, he is different, outside of law, of morale, of normality, he is without shame; he never stays in single place but is in constant movement through liminal and marginal realms.

2. He is a liar and deceiver, but he can be deceived as well.

3. He is a shape-shifter. He often disguises himself, cross-dresses, but is able to change shape as well, he is the master of metamorphosis.

4. He creates and inverts situations: bad can become good, the good becomes worse, worse becomes better. He is a profaner and disrupter of beliefs and so making obvious how much value a society sets in this belief. The more sacred the belief, the sooner you find a trickster defiling it.

5. He is a messenger and emulator of gods. He is often of uncertain or impure origin; he is a psychopompos (he leads souls to the Other world) and he is associated with skeletons, death and is a Messenger of Death. Through a trickster humanity can often gain access to sacred powers reserved originally for gods, because he breaks taboo, he profanes the sacred. A trickster is a culture transformant, he carries out the act of creation with the death as its inevitable outcome/result.

6. He is a charlatan profaning everything sacred. He can find perversity in the sacred and sacredness in the perverse and a new life in both. Actions associated with a trickster are often gastronomic (gluttony), fecal (excremental), sexual and phallic (penis).

A trickster seems to be urged inwardly to violate every taboo, above all gastronomic, sexual and scatological. He often carries with him a fallic symbol- for example a staff (or his own detachable penis).  A trickster breaks also one of the biggest taboos of cultures generally- the blood taboo, respectively the taboo connected to menstrual blood, blood by childbirth, from afterbirth, abortion etc. Female blood connected to reproductive functions was (and to a certain degree still is) perceived as potentially dangerous, the trickster however isn’t afraid to use such blood even for magical activities. He has also mesianistic traits, he often takes upon himself the sins of mankind and absolves them through the well known act of redemption: because it is the trickster who gets punished, not the man. And just so the result of violating the taboo is an inevitable punishment and physical deformation that is however inflicted not upon the human, but upon the trickster. He is important because he enables people to survive, or bear things which even gods cannot. At the same time he demonstrates the absurdity of human existence: how, for example, is the language used in a way to construct a truly incomplete kind of reality. Trickster has a multicultural background, in his person the masculine and feminine way always comes to demonstration; and after all, he is a representative of absolute freedom- but he is way more than a mere rebel. On the other hand the trickster lives in the present, he focuses on satisfying his own needs and doesn´t consider the consequences of his actions. From our viewpoint, western culture it is interesting to note that we are taught to refuse almost automatically the notion that a figure, according to our culture morally corrupt, can bring about good- but as we have already seen, it is possible, exactly because of the trickster´s ambiguity What is interesting as well, is that the trickster is almost always primarily a male figure- sporadically we stumble upon a female trickster (like the trickster of some native American tribes), but it´s a rather rare phenomenon.

As mentioned before you can find a trickster figure in every culture- or at least a figure with some of the trickster traits.
Prometheus bound
In the classical Greek culture it is Hermes, Prometheus and Odysseus (Ulysses). In this case however you cannot talk about ultimate tricksters- Hermes is a god and although in the beginnings of his godly career he shows several trickster traits, he later acts rather as a messenger of gods and a psychopompos. Nevertheless, there is some ambiguity left: he is the god of thieves and at the same time the god of travellers (protecting them from thieves) and trade. Prometheus is a titan who brought fire to the humankind (violating of a taboo) and bamboozled the gods in favour of people regarding the animal sacrifice (to the gods goes bones and sinews in fat and people can keep the meat and skins)- therefore he can be better characterised as a culture hero/culture transformant. Oddysseus as well shows some trickster characteristics, although he is but a mortal man (I strongly recommend to read about his adventures when trying to return home after the Siege of Troy- Homer´s Odyssey).
In Asia we find tricksters in Japan: Susa-no-o, the brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu causes a great deal of trouble, for which he is punished and finally banished to the Underworld, where he becomes the Ruler of the Dead. You can also find many tricksters among the folklore figures called youkai: they are liminal figures, they trick and cheat people often but can be tricked themselves. In China lives the monkey god Sun Wukong (most widely known in its popular incarnation as Songoku from Dragon Ball), Hanuman in India (known from the tale Ramayana) and in Polynesia we find Maui the god-creator (or a mere human- his characteristics change regionally).
Africa is the cradle of many trickster figures of whom the most well known are Eshu-Elegba/Legba and the spider god Anansi (recommended to read Gaiman´s Anansi boys). In Europe the trickster is not such a dominant figure, but you still can find examples (rabbit, fox, the Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood).
From Africa many tricksters travelled to America with the boom of slavery and together with the native Indian trickster figures they flowered into a unique culture (the best known are the coyote and the raven, or the native Wadjunkaga of the Winnebago and many others), which actually represents the basic spine of trickster studies (Radin). Tricksters invaded even popular Christianity: St. Peter has several trickster traits, although filtered by Christian morale (total lack of sexual and scatological hints), and the Medieval period brings to the scene the chronically famous figure of the court jester and fool (a jester could for example voice things which would earn death to another person, or at least a severe punishment).
Finally, the image of trickster is so alluring and dominant that some of his traits survived in the modern popular culture: who could forget Buggs Bunny, Toma and Jerry? Some traits show as well figures like Puck from Shakespeare´s The Midsummer night´s dream,  PeterPan (a liminal figure, nor a child neither an adult, he refuses “normal” life), Joker from Batman, Beetlejuice, Q of Star Trek TNG,  to name but a few.

Now let´s return to the main theme of this article, namely to Loki. What I noticed when reading about tricksters and trickster cultures was, that Loki is mostly ignored, or mentioned only marginally when talking about tricksters. I don´t know the reason of this, because according what I read, I think Loki possesses most of the mentioned trickster characteristics (maybe it´s just my opinion, but generally Nordic Mythology doesn´t get attention it ought to get- except the scholars and philologist) like for example the Greek Mythology- in spite of that Norse myths had an impact on our culture that runs very deep, although maybe not so ostensibly, at least regarding our folklore ant fairytales.

So, how many cited trickster traits do fit for Loki?

Loki flattering the dwarves (by Audrey Koch)

1. Ambiguity, anomaly: Loki is an outsider (the other gods don´t like him very much), he if a half-giant, a parvenu (his mother is possibly a goddess, his father is a giant. He comes to Ásgard from Jötunheim). He is fertile (he has many children), but he endangers his fertility for several times (for example in the episode with Skadi and the goat). He can move freely through the Nine Worlds.

2. He is a liar and deceiver: I don´t think I have to explain this one. He can be deceived himself- when he almost loses his head after betting on against the dwarves, after which he ends up with his lips sewn.

3. Shape-shifter – as we saw, Loki can change into several animals: a horse, salmon, fly, eagle; but he can also change his sex (he changes to a mare which then seduces the stallion Svadilfári; when he waits upon Thor on his quest for his hammer by Thrym, maybe he even shifts into a real woman, not only dresses up as a maid; and finally, after Baldr´s death he changes into Thökk,  a giantess who refuses to weep for the young god and so bring him back to life).

4. He inverts and creates situations (the double bet with the dwarves- actually wholly pointless, but for the outcome in the form of Thor´s hammer, Mjölnir). Loki is often the cause of things being set in motion- be it good or bad ones (Ragnarök, the Death of Baldr, Völsunga saga- better known here under the name of the Nibelungs)

5. A messenger and imitator of gods- he came to Ásgard of his free will, although he was not an Áss. His origin is impure- his father is a giant and his mother possibly a goddess. Loki acts for the Aesir as a messenger on several occasions. He is also the mediator between the gods and giants, who are the image of untamed nature. He is associated with death through his daughter Hel, who, herself half-dead, is the Ruler of the dead in Niflheim.

6.  Charlatan- he meddles in affairs just for the sake, he wants to try everything. He violates the biggest blood taboo- he bears children and suckles them. He employs magic traditionally associated with women. He breaks gastronomic and sexual taboos- he gorges himself at Útgardlokis, he eats the heart of a giantess, he sleeps with just anyone (and anything). Lucky for us, he avoids flatulency and scatology ;)

The feminine side of the trickster Loki

One of Loki´ s aspects that fascinates both scholars and lay people, is his openly demonstrated feminine side. His very surname is suggestive of this fact. Nordic surnames were usually constructed with the name of the person´s father adding a –(s)son, -dottir (meaning son, daughter respectively). So Thor Odinson, Gudrun Gjúkadottir (Gjúka was the name of her father). However, Laufey was Loki´s mother. How can we explain this curiosity? It can be an expression of Loki´s queer character, but there is a historical explanation as well: if a woman lost her husband and brought up her children by herself as a widow, they could bear her name instead of the dead father. Farbauti as Loki´s father is mentioned only casually, therefore it is probable, that Laufey played a more significant role in the life of her son and so he took her name. This also supports the theory about Laufey being originally a goddess, and therefore in the Nordic mythology of higher status then Loki´s father- a giant.
Loki eating the giantess´ heart (by John Bauer)
Besides his surname, the affinity of Loki towards the feminine took form in his actions as well. He obviously enjoyed dressing up as a woman and he didn´t even mind doing female work (in Lokasenna, Odin accuses Loki of milking cows). He even changes his sex, when he transforms into a mare and in this form conceives and bears Sleipnir, the eight legged horse of Odin. After consuming a giantess´ heart Loki gets pregnant (the motif of a pregnant male after eating something (forbidden) is not exclusive in Norse mythology, but you´ll find it in many tales of Europe and the wide world, under motif Aarne-Thompson 511, 511.6.1) and bears the race of wolves. We don´t know, if he bore them in female or male form (if male, it is one of the first evidences of man pregnancy- short manpreg). This episode brings us to another universal taboo that Loki violated: that of cannibalism. We mustn´t forget that Loki was originally of giant stock, and thus in eating the heart of a giantess he committed cannibalism.

Loki probably committed far more audacious deeds, as Odin hints in Lokasenna. We already know that he didn´t have any sexual inhibitions and although never clearly pronounced, we can assume that he had intimate relations to women as well as men. Here, I think, a short explanation is needed: homosexuality by Vikings was not condemned by itself. What was condemned, however, was submissivity, bottom, the “female” role. Submissivity was ever connected to “weak” women and thence a man who willingly assumed this lesser role committed an ergi: an offence of manhood. This allegation was so serious that if you accused someone of ergi it could led to court. Ergi wasn´t concerned only with passive role in homosexual affairs, but also with things associated with female reproduction: bearing and suckling children, doing of female work, employing of magic and above all magic that was connected to female menstrual blood/blood by childbirth, the aborted foetus etc. (generally menstrual blood and the blood by childbirth constitute one of the biggest taboos in every culture in the world, even the modern ones; such blood was taken to have strong magical attributes). As we already know, Loki violated all these things. Maybe this was the main reason, and not his giant origin, why the gods disliked him from the very beginning (on the other hand, it is interesting to note, that in the myths the most frequent originators of evil are giants, and evil is connected to women- which means, that the cause of hatred doubled in Loki as he was half giant and had to do with femaleness more than enough). Not to mention that Loki willingly exposed himself to the castration risk in the thug-of-war episode with the goat. It is interesting to note that this story is often left out, or mitigated in the recounting of myths. On the one hand, it is understandable- this tale must have had, and still does invoke uneasiness by respected scholars- who were of course mostly men and probably didn´t know how to explain this episode without endangering their own manly pride.  On the other hand, this tale perfectly fits into the imagery of a trickster, to whom nothing is sacred enough, even his own genitals, symbol of manhood and male pride. Loki, the originator of tricks and jests, now finds himself on the receiving end of a joke and becomes the target of mockery. There is some symbolism as well in the act, in which Loki falls into Skadi´s lap after he escapes the painful conjunction: it is a submissive position, one that normally children occupied in the laps of their mother- and so Loki once again brings to ruins the sacred walls of machismo.
Concerning all this, it is interesting that the primal form of Loki is that of a male. Although he could change his gender of his free volition and could have decided to function as a woman, he decided to live as a man. Even in the Viking society it was better to be a man, although one of blemished reputation, and retain his freedom of choice and movement, as to be a woman and thus confined to the walls of domesticity.

Odin vs. Loki

Odin and Loki (by Audrey Koch)
As mentioned before, there is a theory about Loki as being only a secondary figure added to the myths in later times, and that originally he was but one aspect of Odin, his “shadow”. This theory finds some validation because Odin himself has many trickster characteristics: just like Loki, Odin was a shape-shifter. He often disguised himself and didn´t hesitate to dress up as a woman either. Odin was mighty of seid, a magic ritual usually executed by women (or strangers). Loki was Odin´s blood-brother, yet another connection. In contrast to Loki however, Odin never transgressed certain limits as compelled by his dignity as the supreme ruler of the Nordic Pantheon (like bearing children). This aspect- absolute violation of taboo, transgression of limits with no return- was supplemented by Loki. Therefore he is sometimes taken as Odin´s alter-ego (Radin, trickster as an archetype) in his most primal, carnal form.
To acquire wisdom and the skill to read and cast runes, Odin sacrificed his own eye and for nine days he hung himself by his skin on the ash Yggdrassil and pierced his side with a spear (sharp messianic traits, self-sacrifice for the better good of humankind). Loki sacrificed himself as well- namely his own manhood- when he lured Svadilfári away from the walls of Ásgard, and when he exposes himself to mockery to avert Skadi´s anger from the other gods. Yet Loki lacks the distinguished characteristics of a culture hero like Prometheus (who was also bitterly punished after he broke the taboo and brought fire to mankind). Loki was propelled in the first place by his own interests and the greater good happened often only as a side effect.

Is Loki really that evil?

In most tales Loki is described as “the bad one”. Seemingly right, but if you take a closer look this certitude disintegrates. Firstly we shouldn´t forget that the majority of myths were captured in writing in a period, when Christianity was already the ruling religion of the Northern Europe. The same goes for Island and Snorri, who was a convinced Christian himself. That means, even if the main theme of the myths is pagan, they cannot avoid christian bias regarding the morale, which is put forth very well in the figure of Loki. For this reason there exists the tendency to interpret all his deeds as propelled by evil and a particular or absolute identification with the christian Lucifer (or Satan, or Antichrist) best manifested in the Baldr incident and Ragnarök.
Sköl and Hati (by Willy Pogany)

The christian God is morally absolute, omniscient and infallible, which stands in a sharp opposition to the pagan gods. Aesir (and Vanir) were not the model roles for morality and they were not supposed to be perceived like ones. Before we condemn them as wicked however, we should rather employ the term amoral. They were outside the principles of human morality, because they were above humans, apart from their world. The same held true for Loki, in his case multiplied by his trickster character.
Therefore, although Loki is entangled in the murder of several figures (for example Thjazi, although there he played only a minor role; he killed the dwarf Ottr in the form of an otter- there were other gods present, but the blame always fell on Loki´s head), this argument is not valid: Thor and his hammer were responsible for far more killings and none ever entertained the idea of complaining about it (except the giants). It is also Loki who often saves the godly asses (and although often, it is not always his fault that he has to save them at all). That he is selfish and thinks firstly about his pleasure is not a true reproof in consideration of the behaviour of the other gods.
But what about his meddling in the case of Baldrs death and his “betrayal” in Ragnarök? Even here there are several different interpretations (although none is entirely certain, as we have only a fragment of the mythological material that originally existed).
The story of Baldr´s death could have been originally about fratricide, in which the argument of Baldr and his brother Hödr ended with the death of the former. Mistletoe got into the story by mistake after misreading the word mistil that means spear. It means that Hödr hurled at Baldr not a mistletoe twig but a spear and killed him. This version is possible in consideration of the reality, where arguments among relatives were frequent and often ended with the death of the blood or in-married relatives and consecutive revenges (the Viking society functioned by the principles of saving the honour and blood revenge if damaged). But this version doesn´t validate Hödrs blindness (the blindness could be the underlining of Odin´s half blindness, as he had only one eye- as sacrificing part of the body in favour of obtaining something of value).
The circumstances of Baldr´s death also bear elements of punishing the hybris, or undue pride- the gods are totally over the top of the fact, that they can hurl and throw at Baldr everything without harming him whatsoever; and this, at last,  is his undoing. Loki´s aid in the murder is in fact not at all at odds with his trickster nature (he inverts situations, violates taboo, sacred codes or  oaths; the trickster shows the absurdity of human existence because it relies so much on codes/beliefs/taboos).

Loki chased away by Thor, Lokasenna (by Willy Pogany)
Another theory considers an alliance between Odin and Loki. As we know, Odin possessed the ability to get hold of information regarding the future (although he didn´t see the future himself, contrary to popular beliefs; but he did know where to get the information he needed: he could speak with the dead who seemed to have access to things of this sort, or he spoke with the völur, the seeress). Frigg as well could foretell the future and probably consulted with her husband, above all when it concerned her beloved son Baldr and after he had nightmares about his own fate. Odin knew that none of the gods would be able to escape his doom in Ragnarök, so far as he participated in the last battle. Therefore he needed to get Baldr to a safe place, like Niflheim (the Realm of Death was not subjected to the Doom of Gods). But how to accomplish that Baldr would give up his life other than on battlefield? So that Odin wouldn´t become the murderer of his very own son? Enter Loki, who acts as the mastermind of the plan- to get Baldr into Hel, because then, after Ragnarök, Baldr would be able indeed to resurrect and rule the new, better world that would arise from the ruins of the Last Battle.
In Lokasenna Loki seemingly randomly kills a servant of Aegir and therefore gets expelled by the gods from the banquet. This text, however, is strongly influenced by Christianity and Loki is depicted here as a clearly malevolent element. It is more probable that the feast in Lokasenna takes place after Baldr´s death and that´s why the gods act hostile towards Loki. His accusations towards the others are truth in fact and it is not so important here that Loki is guilty of most of them as well. But only with the arrival of Thor Loki is menaced with real death threat. Here as well Thor thinks mostly through his manly device and not brain and the only thing he does is repeating again and again that he smashes Loki´s head with his hammer. Loki escapes and when the gods recapture him, he is notably punished. Here the gods commit an act of cruelty that transgresses even Loki´s worst rampages- they bind him with the entrails of his own son, who got torn to pieces by his other son changed by gods in a wolf. What worse can possibly happen to a parent, be it a trickster or not, as to be the witness if the death of own children and not to be able to do anything about it? (and his other offspring are banished into exile or bound deep underground). Not to mention the dire agony in which Loki spends his days bound and when he suffers so much it causes earthquakes.

So, it is still so unintelligible that Loki, after he broke free, stood side by side with his giant family and not the adopted one? 

During Ragnarök (meaning the Doom of the Gods, The Judgement, and not the Twilight of the gods, popularized by Wagner) Loki executes his last deed when he kills Heimdall (and is killed by him): it is significant, that it is exactly Heimdall, although we lack further details. The deaf god was namely said to be the son of nine giant mothers, which means there had to be some connection to Loki, we just don´t know of what kind (and we probably won´t either). And just as was foretold, the old gods perish and the new world will be ruled by Baldr, who in this regard gets partially identified with Jesus: a father sacrifices his own son, who dies but returns to the world after the Judgment day and will be the ruler of the new, better world: this whole picture was heavily influenced by Christianity and we don´t know exactly, which elements of Ragnarök were preserved from pagan times and which were inserted later by Christinanity.
Loki and Fáfnir (by Arthur Rackham)
And one afterword: the duality of good and evil like we know it from christian worldview was not so distinctive by pagans. In the figures of gods the good and bad elements conjoined, because the immortals didn´t serve as the moral example and code of behaviour for the mortal (similarly as the Greek gods). To Hades happened just the same thing as to Loki: his identification with the evil. I do not recall a single modern adaptation of Greek myths, where Hades would have been introduced other than the Bad guy, The Villain, Satan.
The assumption that Loki is a late addition to the Norse Pantheon doesn´t stand its ground either. In the figure of Loki there are demonstrated old principles, at first maybe unspecific, impersonal, but present. Just as well the one-sided consideration of Loki as “the bad one” is obsolete: you could rather say that he stands outside of good and evil, outside the morale as a trickster, a shape-shifter, a liminal and provocative figure who ever escapes an exact definition and in whom all the opposites harmonically merge into unity.

One thing is for sure: Loki was different from other gods. Firstly, there isn´t preserved any cult regarding Loki- the Vikings haven´t worship him (which actually makes lot of sense: worshiping means establishing a system by creating rules and therefore everyone who attempted to bring order into chaos automatically negated the latter). Secondly, there are no place- and personal names derivate from Loki´s name in contrast to other gods and goddesses (Thursday- Thor´s day, Wednesday- Odin´s day- Odin was called Wotan by Germans; Friday- Frigg´s day- Frija by Germans; personal names likes Thorsten etc). However, Loki´ s name is preserved in some herbal nomenclature (which is interesting as well, as herbal lore was also more in the scope activities of women) and in a few proverbs (for example a phenomenon of dense spring vapours rising from forests and earth in the spring is involving his name).

What´s interesting, the contemporary neopaganism, regarding Norse myths the ásatrú, incorporates a cult of Loki as well. His followers are called lokeans and worship him in conjunction with his wife, Sigyn (if you´re interested in finding out more, you can read f. e. the book from Galina Krasskovska: Feeding the flame- A devotional to Loki and hisFamily- an anthology of prayers, poems and rituals).

Literature for further study of Tricksters:

Paul Radin, The Trickster: a study in American Indian mythology, NY 1976, ISBN 0-8052-0351-6

Hynes William (ed): Mythical Trickster Figure, Tuscaloosa 1993, ISBN 0-8173-0599-8

Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Trickster lives, Athens 2001, ISBN 0-8203-2277-6

Felicitas Goodman, Die andere Wirklichkeit: Das Religiöse in einer pluralistischewn Gesellschaft, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-923804-61-X


http://culturepotion.blogspot.de/2011/11/deconstructing-seid-form-of-magic-in.html ( a great blog, if you´re interested also in folklore)

Kremer, Jürgen: Tricksters of the trans personal, in ReVision. Winter2005, Vol. 27 Issue 3, p34-43.

Ström, Folke: Níd, ergi and old norse moral attitudes: The Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies delivered at University College London, 10 May 1973

 Wanner, Kevin J: Sewn Lips, Propped Jaws, and a Silent Áss (or Two): Doing Things with Mouths in Norse Myth, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Volume 111, Number 1, January2012, pp. 1-24

Raminem, Sami:  Queer Vikings? Transgression of gender and same-sex encounters in the Late Iron Age and early medieval Scandinavia (pdf)

The third part of the article- Loki in popculture- can be found here

 A very good source of various studies is Jstor- but to read the most articles you have to log in. You can, however, log in via your institution (University, or library). The same goes for Project Muse.

And if you still cannot access the articles, but you absolutely would like to, write me a message an I send you the article in pdf :)



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