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Loki is the most infamous god in Norse mythology and arguably one of the most mischievous gods among all ancient religions. While Loki is known as Odin’s brother and an uncle to Thor, in reality he was not a god at all but either a half-giant or a full-giant who became a god by some trickery.
Who is Loki?
Loki was the son of the giant Farbauti (meaning Cruel Striker) and the giantess Laufey or Nál (Needle), depending on the myth. As such, calling him “a god” may appear inaccurate. However, he’s not the only god to have giant-blood. Many of Asgard’s gods had giant heritage as well, including Odin who was half-giant and Thor who was three-quarters giant.
Whether god or giant, Loki was first and foremost a trickster. Many Norse myths include Loki in one way or another, usually as a chaotic force that runs amok and causes unnecessary, and often fatal, problems. There are occasional “good deeds” that can be attributed to Loki as well but more often than not their “goodness” is a byproduct of Loki’s mischievousness and not its intent.
Loki’s Family and Children
Loki may have been a mother to only one child, but he was the father of several more. From his wife, the goddess Sigyn (Friend of Victory) he also had one son – the jötunn/giant Nafri or Nari.
Loki also had three more children from the giantess Angrboda (Anguish-Boding) who were destined to play significant roles during Ragnarok, the apocalyptic event that is fated to end the world as the Norse knew it.
These children include:
- Hel: The goddess of the Norse underworld, Helheim
- Jörmungandr: The World Serpent, who is fated to fight Thor during Ragnarok, with the two destined to kill each other. Ragnarok will begin when the serpent, who is said to be wrapped around the world, let’s go of his tail thereby causing a sequence of events that will end the world.
- The Giant Wolf Fenrir: Who would kill Odin during Ragnarok
Myths Involving Loki
Most of the myths involving Loki begin with him engaging in some mischievousness or getting into trouble.
1- The Kidnapping of Idun
One of the best examples of Loki being “forced” to do good is the story of The Kidnapping of Idun. In it, Loki found himself in trouble with the furious giant Thiazi. Angry at Loki’s misdeeds, Thiazi threatened to kill him unless Loki brought him the goddess Idun.
Idun is one of the lesser-known Norse deities today but she’s integral to the very survival of the Asgardian pantheon as her epli (apple) fruits are what gives the gods their immortality. Loki complied with Thiazi’s ultimatum and kidnapped the goddess to save his life.
This, in turn, angered the rest of the Asgardian gods as they needed Idun to stay alive. They forced Loki to rescue Idun or face their wrath instead. Once again on a quest to save his own skin, Loki transformed himself into a falcon, grabbed Idun in his claws and out of Thiazy’s grasp and flew away. Thiazi transformed into an eagle, however, and chased after the god of mischief.
Loki flew toward the gods’ fortress as fast as he could but Thiazi quickly gained on him. Luckily, the gods lit a fire around the perimeter of their domain just as Loki flew over and before Thiazi could catch him. The angry giant Thiazi was caught in the fires and died.
2- Tug of War with a Goat
Immediately after Thiazi’s death, Loki’s misadventures continued in another direction. Thiazi’s daughter – the goddess/jötunn/giantess of mountains and hunting, Skadi arrived at the gods’ doorstep. Angry because of her father’s death at the hands of the god, Skadi demanded restitution. She challenged the gods to make her laugh in order to improve her mood or if not, to face her vengeance.
As both a trickster god and the chief architect of Skadi’s anguish, Loki had to take it upon himself to make her laugh. The god’s ingenious plan was to tie one end of a rope to a goat’s beard and to tie his own testicles the other end to play tug-of-war with the animal. After quite a bit of struggle and squealing from both sides Loki “won” the contest and fell into Skadi’s lap. Thiazi’s daughter was unable to contain her laughter at the absurdity of the whole ordeal and left the gods’ domain without causing any more trouble.
3- The Creation of Mjolnir
Another story in a similar vein led to the creation of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. In this case, Loki had the bright idea of cutting off the long, golden hair of Sif – fertility and earth goddess and Thor’s wife. After Sif and Thor realized what had happened, Thor threatened to kill his mischievous uncle unless Loki could find a way to remedy the situation.
Left with no other choice, Loki traveled to the dwarven realm Svartalfheim to look for a blacksmith who could forge a replacement golden wig for Sif. There, he found the famous Sons of Ivaldi dwarves who not only fashioned the perfect wig for Sif but also created the deadly spear Gungnir and the fastest ship in all Nine Realms – Skidblandir.
With these three treasures in hand, Loki went on to find two other dwarven blacksmiths – Sindri and Brokkr. Even though his task was completed his mischievousness was never-ending so he decided to mock the two dwarves that they couldn’t create treasures as fantastic as the ones the Sons of Ivaldi had made. Sindri and Brokkr took his challenge and started working over their own anvil.
Not long after, the duo had created the golden boar Gullinbursti which could run on water and air faster than any horse, the golden ring Draupnir, which could create more gold rings, and last but not least – the hammer Mjolnir. Loki had tried to hamper the dwarves’ efforts by transforming into a fly and tormenting them but the only “error” he could force them to make was a short handle for Mjolnir.
In the end, Loki returned to Asgard with the six treasures in hand and handed them to the other gods – he gave Gungnir and Draupnir to Odin, Skidblandir and Gullinbursti to Freyr, and Mjolnir and the golden wig to Thor and Sif.
4- Loki – Sleipnir’s Loving Mother
One of the most bizarre stories in all of Loki’s myths is that of him getting impregnated by the stallion Svaðilfari and then giving birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
The story’s called The Fortification of Asgard and in it the gods charged an unnamed builder to build a fortification around their realm. The builder agreed to do it, but he asked for an overly steep price – the goddess Freyja, the sun, and the moon.
The gods agree but gave him a steep condition in return – the builder had to complete the fortification in no more than three seasons. The builder accepted the condition but asked that the gods allow him to use Loki’s horse, the stallion Svaðilfari. Most of the gods were hesitant as they didn’t want to risk this, but Loki convinced them to allow the builder to use his horse.
The unnamed man started working on Asgard’s fortifications and it turned out that the stallion Svaðilfari possessed incredible strength and would help the builder finish on time. With just three days before the deadline and the builder almost done, the worried gods told Loki to prevent the builder from finishing in time so they could forfeit the payment.
The only plan Loki could devise in such a short amount of time was to transform himself into a beautiful mare and to tempt Svaðilfari away from the builder and into the woods. As ridiculous as the plan sounds, it was successful. Upon seeing the mare, Svaðilfari “realizing what kind of horse it was”, chased after Loki and abandoned the builder.
Loki and the stallion ran through the woods all night with the builder desperately looking for them. The builder eventually missed his deadline and had to forfeit the payment, while still leaving the gods with a fortification that was almost finished.
As for Loki and Svaðilfari, the two had “such dealings” in the forest that sometime later, Loki gave birth to an eight-legged gray foal named Sleipnir, dubbed “the best horse among gods and men”.
5- Baldur’s “Accident”
Not all of Loki’s tricks had positive outcomes. One of the most absurdly tragic Norse myths revolves around Baldur’s death.
The Norse god of the sun Baldur was the beloved son of Odin and Frigg. A favorite not just of his mother but of all Asgardian gods Baldur was beautiful, kind, and impervious to harm from all sources and materials in Asgard and Midgard with just one exception – mistletoe.
Naturally, Loki thought it’d be hilarious to fashion a throwing dart made out of mistletoe and to give it to Baldur’s blind twin brother Höðr. And since it was a common joke among the gods to throw darts at each other, Höðr tossed that dart – not able to see that it was made out of mistletoe – toward Baldur and accidentally killed him.
As Baldur represented the Nordic sun which doesn’t rise above the horizon for months in the winter, his death represented the impending dark times in Norse mythology and the End of Days.
6- Loki’s Insults At Ægir’s Feast
One of the key legends of the god of mischief Loki takes place at the drinking party of the god of the sea, Ægir. There, Loki gets drunk on Ægir’s famous ale and starts quarreling with most of the gods and elves at the feast. Loki accused almost all women in attendance of being unfaithful and promiscuous.
He insults Freya of having slept with men outside of her marriage, at which point Freya’s father Njörðr steps in and points out that Loki is the biggest sexual pervert of them all as he has slept with all manners of beings, including various animals and monsters. Loki then shifts his attention to the other gods, continuing to insult them. Finally, Thor comes in with his hammer to teach Loki his place and he leaves off insulting the gods.
7- Loki is Bound
However, the gods had had enough of Loki’s insults and slandering, and they decide to capture and jail him. Loki ran away from Asgard, knowing that they were coming for him. He built a house with four doors facing each direction on the top of a high mountain from where he could watch for the gods coming after him.
During the day, Loki transformed into a salmon and hid in the water nearby, while at night he wove a net to fish for his food. Odin, who was far-seeing, knew where Loki hid so he led the gods to look for him. Loki transformed into the salmon and tried to swim away, but Odin caught him and held on tightly while Loki thrashed around and writhed. This is why salmon have slender tails.
Loki was then taken into a cave and bound to three rocks by chains made out of the entrails of his son. A venomous snake was placed on a rock above him. The snake dripped poison onto Loki’s face and hissed around him. His wife, Sigyn, sat next to him with a bowl and caught the drops of poison, but when the bowl became full, she had to take it out to empty it. A few drops of poison would fall on Loki’s face which would cause him to shudder, which caused earthquakes in Midgard, where humans lived.
Loki and Sigyn are fated to remain in this way until Ragnarok begins, when Loki will free himself off is chains and help the giants to destroy the universe.
Ragnarok, Heimdall, and Loki’s Death
Loki’s role in Ragnarok is significant has he fathers two of the biggest threats to the gods in the final battle. Loki takes things even further by personally fighting on the side of the giants against the rest of the Asgardian gods.
According to some Norse poems, he helps get the giants to Asgard by sailing them there on his ship Naglfar (Nail Ship).
During the battle itself, Loki faces against Odin’s son Heimdall, the watcher and guardian of Asgard, and the two kill each other.
Symbols of Loki
Loki’s most prominent symbol was the snake. He’s often depicted together with two intertwined serpents. He’s also often associated with mistletoe, for his hand in Baldur’s death, and with a helmet with two horns.
Symbolism of Loki
Most people view Loki as a mere “trickster” god – someone who runs around and causes mischief with no regard for others’ thoughts and feelings. And while that much is true, Loki was more than just a trickster.
Even in the stories where Loki would do something “good”, it’s always shown explicitly that he does so only for his own benefit or as an additional joke on someone else’s expense. All of Loki’s actions are inherently self-centered, nihilistic, and irreverent even to his “fellow” Asgardian gods who had accepted him as one of their own. In short, he is the ultimate narcissist/psychopath.
When we add this to the severity of some of his tricks, the message is clear – self-centered egotists and narcissists will cause destruction and havoc to everyone regardless of the efforts of others.
Importance of Loki in Modern Culture
Together with Odin and Thor, Loki is one of the three most famous Norse gods. His name is virtually synonymous with mischief and he has appeared in countless novels, poems, songs, paintings and sculptures, as well as movies and even video games through the centuries.
Some of Loki’s most modern incarnations include his portrayal as Thor’s brother and Marvel comics and in MCU movies with him played in the latter by the British actor Tom Hiddlestone. Although he’s famous as Odin’s son and Thor’s brother in the Marvel comics and MCU movies, in Norse mythology, he’s Odin’s brother and Thor’s uncle.
The god of mischief has been featured in several modern works including Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, in the video game franchise God of War as Kratos’ son Atreus, the 90s TV show Stargate SG-1 as a rogue Asgardian scientist, and in many other artistic works.
Loki remains one of the best-known gods of the Norse pantheon of gods, famous for his trickery and the many disruptions that he caused. While he appears harmless and even amusing, it is his actions that ultimately will lead to Ragnarok and the end of the cosmos.