Better Know a Trickster: Loki

So, as some of you know, I'm a bit of a mythology buff. I have always loved reading the stories and myths of other cultures. It's exciting, illuminating and damn fun to read what various societies have believed and weave together a tapestry of human belief.

Now, when I say "mythology" I use that as a blanket term for all stories used by cultures to explain the origins of life and to teach the values that culture holds dear. Myths entertain, sure, but they paint a picture of the people telling them. Myths are everything from the Bible, to traditional Greek tales to Spiderman comics. Myths preserve the status quo while also explaining how that status came to be.

In calling them all myths, I am not saying they are untrue. If you believe that the world was created in 6 days by a supreme deity or that Thor brings thunder, that is for you to decide. I am not looking for truth or fact when I read myths nor am I saying that any one system of belief is true. It's all mythology and that's not a bad word or a slam. What I'm looking at/for are the stories and to get a glimpse of the people who told them.

One thing that stretches across many cultures and myths is the Trickster.  The Trickster is the magic monkey wrench that fucks up the hero's day and giggles about it. S/he is the avatar of chance and chaos, the explanation for why things can't go the way we always plan. The Trickster is often reviled by his/her own kind, the villain you love to hate. In many cases the Trickster is gifted with a silver tongue and the skills of illusion, shape-changing and such. He often serves as the foil to the chief deity in the pantheon. A serpent in a garden or a wild dog, the Trickster moves apart from his fellow immortals.

I am enthralled by Trickster myths. Tricksters are fantastic, deep, sympathetic characters. They are the comic relief, the madness in worlds of method and they do not discriminate. So, I'd like to take some time to honor these jackals and thieves with a series of blogs that introduce you to them in their various forms.  Join me after the jump for the first installment of Better Know A Trickster.

I figured we could start with Loki as his name is rather ubiquitous at the moment. Now, there are several versions of Loki. The most popular right now is (rightfully) Tom Hiddleston being fucking awesome as Loki Laufeyson in the Marvel movies. That version of Loki takes off from the comic books (obviously). That comic book version takes liberties from the Norse myths. Then there are all the other Lokis in movies, books. Even my own Etudes in C# series features a version of the Norse god of Mischief.

Pop-culturally speaking, Loki is kind of a big deal.

Now, I could--and have--spend hours dissecting Loki's characterization in Thor and The Avengers. I think he's brilliantly written in both films and the acting is beyond reproach. The ways the films treat Loki intrigue me and are enough to get me going on rambling diatribes about fascinating antagonists. I am not as familiar with his comic book cousin--while they are the "same" character, liberties are always taken, so Hiddleston has created something new with his portrayal. What I want to focus on, though, is the root. The being out of Norse myth.

Born This Way Among the various peoples in Norse mythology are the Aesir, Vanir and Jotunns. One of the easiest ways to think of these groups would be to liken them to clans. Many of the gods we've all heard of (Odin, Freya, Baldur, Thor) come from the Aesir. The Jotunns, while not on the whole thought of as gods, are giants and of comparable power to the Aesir and Vanir. While Loki hangs out with the Aesir often, he is a Jotunn. Some trace his lineage to both a god and a frost giant, putting him equally in both houses while simultaneously being in neither.

According to the Prose Edda (13th century, Snorri Sturlson), Loki is thought to be the son of Farbauti--a male Jotunn associated with wildfire--and his wife Laufey. While the stories tell of Loki's parentage, there is no defining moment that pushed him to the Dark Side or made him decide to take up this role. There is no Fall from on high, no great battle and no quarrel with Thor. Loki seems to be born into the life of a prankster and takes it upon himself gladly.

 Loki - 18th century Icelandic manuscriptOne of the difficulties in capturing this Trickster comes with his name. Loki itself does not seem to have any translation or specialized meaning. Some scholars link it to the Old Norse word for "close" while others suggest its etymology comes from the word Loptr, or air. Either way, this is rather telling of the character himself.

Loki is slippery. He rides the back of the wind itself and ingratiates himself with those in power. Like many Tricksters he is kept close not just because others want an eye on him, but because he just appears there. Loki is the kinda guy that sidles up to a group of people at a bar or party and an hour later you find yourself hanging on his every word and following him to the next stop on a bender but thinking, Wait, when did he get here? He is breath, a phantom scent. He is the very spirit of charisma and charm when it suits him, and is equally at home in the shadows. He is smooth and slick and able to slide right into the cracks near Odin's throne.

"I'm not wearing the grass skirt this time."

Exploits Part of Loki's very specific skillset is the ability to change his shape. He has been--at various times--a fish, a raven, a horse, an old woman, a seal and a fly. His mastery of illusion and disguise is well documented in the Eddas.

When Thor lost his beloved Mjolnir, Loki hatched a scheme to recover it from one of the Jotunns. He put Thor in drag, dressed himself as "her" lady-in-waiting and together the two delivered themselves to the Jotunn as a bride and her maid. Mjolnir made it safely back into Thor's hands and Loki discovered the joys of cross-dressing.

This is something Loki seems to enjoy, actually. When Baldur, the favored son of Odin, was blessed with nigh invulnerability, the Aesir celebrated by inviting all who would come to feast. Loki was jealous of Baldur's blessing and the attention lavished upon him, so he took on the aspect of an old woman and tottered up to Frigg--queen of the Aesir, Odin's wife and Baldur's mother. In this shape, he gets Frigg to admit the one thing that will kill her son. Loki takes this information and sees it to the end, slaying Baldur in the very hall of the Aesir.

He does seem to love danger. Not only did he kill the shining son of Asgard, but he hit on Thor's wife, insulted everyone within the sound of his voice, and challenged the god of thunder to a drinking contest (and slipped him a roofie that contained the entire ocean). It's not all murder and mayhem for Loki, though. Sometimes the gods get in a sticky situation and they need a wetworks man to take care of things. Enter the red-headed stepchild of the pantheon. The Trickster gets the dirty work.

For example, this one time Odin wanted to make some changes to Asgard and hired a contractor to do the work, like you do. Well, this particular stone mason, a giant, was a master of his craft and demanded that Odin pay him the Sun, Moon and the lovely Freya in marriage. So Odin--being a bit of a joker himself--says he'll pay up if the giant can do things in some ungodly amount of time. The giant takes the deal and gets to work. Turns out the giant wasn't bluffing. He really was that good. He had this horse, Svaðilfari, that could hold Odin's outlandish pace. Odin wasn't too thrilled with this and said, "Loki, help a brother out." Loki didn't even take the time to say, "I've got this" before turning himself into a mare (there's that cross-dressing thing again) and shoving off to distract the giant's horse.

Spouses/Children As with many mythical characters, the flow of lineage can be distorted from one source to another. Loki fathered more than a few beings to further unleash havoc on the worlds.

According to the Poetic Edda, with the giantess Angrboaa ("she who brings grief"), Loki sired Hel (goddess of the dead), the world serpent Jormungandr and the mythical wolf Fenrir who lent his name to JK Rowling's fierce werewolf. His wife Sigyn bore him sons Nari, Narfi and Vali.

One of the stranger couplings for Loki comes from the myth of swindling the stonecutter. When he went to distract Svaðilfari, apparently Loki did a good job. Who knew that he was such a sexy lady-horse? Soon after that little tryst with the stallion, Loki gave birth to an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Odin thought this was a pimp ride and took Sleipnir for his own.

 "The Punishment of Loki" - Louis HaudWhere Are They Now? After Loki killed Baldur with an arrow made of mistletoe, he led the Aesir on a merry chase across the realms. Eventually, however, the pissed off gods cornered him in an alley and trounced the bastard. Odin felt that death was too good for him and had him chained to a rock. The gods hung a serpent over him to drip acid on Loki's naked body for all of eternity. His wife, Sigyn, couldn't stand to see him suffer. She held a bowl beneath the serpent and caught the venom. When the bowl fills, however, she has to dump it into the sea and while she does the venom burns Loki.

He will remain there until Ragnarok, the end of days, when he will be part of the world-breaking festivities.

The stories of Norse myth are among the most difficult to pin down. The Eddas we have were compiled by Christians trying to translate and piece together oral traditions of a culture centuries dead. What has survived goes beyond specific myths and legends. We have these rich characters from this pantheon and a new way to look at archetypes. Perhaps the reason comic books seem to thrive with Norse characters is because they are more fertile ground, because the lack of specific history makes them easier to mold.

The Marvel franchises have used Thor, Loki, Odin and others for their purposes and created new versions of these gods. Right now Loki's star is high because of The Avengers, it's true, but at the end of the day, it's because he's a classic trickster. Someone we love to hate and a dark horse we can root for from time to time.