Loki: the Icelandic God of Mischief
By Dr. Helena Bassil-Morozow - Glasgow Caledonian University
Loki is a trickster – i.e., a figure representing chaos and regularly challenging the existing order of things. Mythological and folkloric narratives portray the trickster as a figure challenging the civilizing forces of society and attempting to destabilize or renew the system. The trickster’s task is to shake up the system, to ensure that it does not go stale or complacent. Gods of the Norse mythology pantheon are afraid that Loki will cause Ragnarok – the end of the world, ‘the twilight of the gods’.
The original trickster Loki appears in the Elder Edda (a book of anonymous poems without a definitive publication date) and its younger sibling, the so-called Prose Edda (published around the year 1220, and compiled (or possibly written) by the historian, politician and author Snorri Sturluson.
Most trickster narratives (mythological, literary or cinematic) share a number of stock themes and motifs that serve as the backbone for the plot. Usually, a trickster narrative starts with the cunning creature being or feeling restricted (often physically), goes on to describe the trickster’s escape and its adventures, and ends with the dissolution/transformation of the trickster. The most common structural elements of trickster narratives are being trapped, boundary-breaking, licentious behaviour, scatological humour, bodily transformations, the presence of animals (which I prefer to call ‘the animal connection’), multiple names and identities, loss of control over one’s body and mind, and the trickster’s dissolution/death/transformation at the end of the story.
Stories about Loki contain all these elements. For instance, in one of the stories in the Prose Edda, Loki the trickster is famously captured by the Aesir, tied to a stone and locked in a cave to prevent him from unleashing Ragnarok – a chain of apocalyptic events which would end the gods’ rule. Prior to his capture, Loki kills Odin’s ‘perfect’ son Baldr and gatecrashes the gods’ feast with the intention to insult the guests and to remind them of his powers to trigger chaos. Odin and Co. have no intention of risking their future, and the future of the world, and ‘repay him in a way that he will long feel’ (Byok, 2005: 70)
Predictably, Loki tries every trick in the book to avoid capture. When the Aesir are looking for him, he builds a house on a mountain in order to be able to see any approaching danger quicker, and transforms into a salmon to hide in waterfalls and rivers. Neither of these tricks help as the gods manage to collectively catch him by using the net that he himself had invented:
Loki was captured and with no thought of mercy he was taken to a cave. They (the Aesir) took three flat stones and, setting them on their edges, broke a hole through each of them. Then they caught Loki’s sons, Vari and Nali or Narfi. The Easir changed Vali into a wolf, and he ripped apart his brother Narfi. Next the Aesir took his guts, and with them they bound Loki on the top of the three stones – one under his shoulders, a second under his loins and the third under his knees. The fetters became iron.
The Skadi took a poisonous snake and fastened it above Loki so that its poison drips on to his face. But Sigyn, his wife, placed herself beside him, from where she holds a bowl to catch the drops of venom. When the bowl becomes full, she leaves to pour out the poison, and at that moment the poison drips on to Loki’s face. He convulses so violently that the whole earth shakes – it is what is known as an earthquake. He will lie bound there until Ragnarok.
(Byok, 2005: 70-72)
Having a stable, definable identity is a prerequisite for belonging to a social structure. By contrast, trickster are good at transforming into other people, animals and inanimate objects as well as at changing sex. The shapeshifter Loki transforms into an old woman in order to catch the goddess Frigg off guard, and find out from her what object might hurt the otherwise invincible Balder (it is mistletoe) (Byok, 2005: 66). On other occasions, Loki transforms into a fish, a falcon and many other things. He also has shoes that allow him to race through the air, which he uses to escape dwarves. His modern version also enjoys changing shape, which he uses to mislead his opponents and escape from the numerous prisons to which he is regularly confined by the gods.
References and Further Reading:
Bassil-Morozow, H. (2014) The Trickster and the System: Identity and Agency in Contemporary Society, London: Routledge.
Bassil-Morozow, H. (2012) The Trickster in Contemporary Film, London: Routledge.
Byok, Jesse L (translated and edited by) (2005) The Prose Edda, London: Penguin.
Orchard, Andy (translated and edited by) (2011) The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, London: Penguin.