Loki is a god in Norse mythology who is often simply described as the ‘trickster’ god for his love of playing pranks on both his fellow gods and his or their opponents. Sworn brother of Odin and often the one to dig the other gods out of inconveniently deep holes, Loki’s name nonetheless has many negative connotations due to his deceitful nature and especially the hand he had in the death of the god Baldr, thus setting in motion the coming of the Ragnarök (the ‘final destiny of the gods’ in which the world is destroyed). With no cult attached to him and no clear function in Viking Age belief, yet being one of only three gods who headlines in more than one myth (the other two being Odin and Thor), Loki takes up a unique spot in the Norse pantheon.
The richest amount of information on Loki can be mined from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (c. 1220 CE, one of our main sources on Norse mythology) – albeit seen through the goggles of a 13th-century CE Icelandic mythology geek from a time Christianity had already taken hold of the island. Loki also pops up in some very early skaldic poems (Viking Age, pre-Christian poetry mainly heard at courts by kings and their retinues) composed between the late 9th and early 11th centuries CE as well as in the Lokasenna and the Þrymskviða poems from the Poetic Edda (c. 1270 CE, but containing material which probably dates back to before the 10th century CE in the Viking Age proper). However, he is loud in his absence from arguably some of the oldest poems from this work, the Vafþrúðnismál and the Grímnismál. Coupled with this, Loki’s similarly surprising non-existence in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum (‘Deeds of the Danes’, composed in the early 13th century CE), a Danish work which otherwise extensively discusses Norse mythology, might indicate that Loki was more of a regional feature rather than being omnipresent throughout the Germanic World. Indeed, sources on Loki are limited to the northern Germanic regions and Loki himself has no direct parallel in broader Germanic mythology (while a lot of the other Norse gods do).
Tying in with the fact that Loki had no cult attached to him, there is really no proper archaeological record featuring Loki. What we do have relies mostly on guesswork regarding the identity of figures depicted on stones or artefacts; the most convincing one is an image on the Snaptun stone carved around 1000 CE showing a face with stitched-up lips which reminds of a story preserved in the Prose Edda where Loki’s lips are sewn up. Although this stone was found and is on display in Denmark, the stone itself originates from Norway or western Sweden.
Family & main features
In terms of family, Snorri’s Prose Edda has Loki down as son of the giant Fárbauti and a mother named Laufey or Nál. Býleistr and Helblindi were his brothers, and with his wife Sigyn he had a son named Nari or Narfi. Not satisfied, Loki fathered three more (and rather unusual) children by the giantess Angrboda: the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard Serpent who coils around the world, and Hel, goddess of the Underworld (who unlike the first two is likely a later Christian addition rather than an original component of Viking Age mythology). There is even a strange tale in which Loki shape-shifts into a mare and gives birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir fathered by the giant stallion Svaðilfari.
Shape-shifting is actually one of the recurring motifs in tales about Loki, being recorded by various sources as changing into a hawk; a fly and a flea; as well as water-based creatures like a salmon and a seal; and even switching gender to become a young maiden, an old hag, and the above mentioned mare. Loki is also often mentioned in connection with air, wind and flight. He is said to have been impulsive, with a quick but often malicious tongue and a wily, cunning sort of wisdom, and Snorri describes him as ‘beautiful and comely to look upon, evil in spirit, very fickle in habit.’ (Gylfaginning, 33).
The Bad – Loki’s malicious tongue
The Lokasenna (‘Loki’s blasphemies’) poem from the Poetic Edda lays any doubt about Loki’s tongue to rest. As all of the gods are drinking in the hall of Ægir the giant, Loki, after killing a servant but being allowed back into the hall because he is Odin’s blood brother, goes on an insult-spree in which he slanders and accuses many of those present. Loki appears to enjoy getting reactions out of people, also in a practical way by setting events in motion, as seen in the Þórsdrápa (written in Iceland at the end of the 10th century CE). This poem clearly spells out Loki’s manipulative side; it relates how Loki tricks Thor into butting heads with the giant Geirrǫðr – which luckily ends up releasing Thor’s strength and ending well for him (and less so for the giant).
The Good? – Loki the hero
Despite Loki’s above-mentioned track record, however, there is actually a fairly broad silver lining. For one, his trickster-abilities are also used to get the gods out of sticky situations, like in the myth of the master builder. It relays that after Asgard was destroyed home renovation is called for in the shape of a giant, who among others demands the goddess Freyja as payment. Cunning Loki plays a trick to delay the giant causing him to miss his deadline, after which he throws a hissy fit and threatens the gods, but is slain by Thor, leaving Freyja free. (Gylfaginning, 42).
What is more, in the story surrounding Skadi, daughter of the giant Thjazi, known from the 9th-century CE Haustlǫng tale which also features in Snorri’s work, Loki is actually the hero. Thjazi ends up getting killed by the Æsir (the main family of the gods), and after realising his daughter Skadi is now very angry and ready to take revenge they grant her compensation; she chooses one of the Æsir, Njordr, to be her husband, and also demands that the gods must make her laugh (thinking that this is impossible in her current state). The Skáldskaparmál records the outcome: