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’.
Sleipnir was the eight-legged horse born of Loki, and belonged to Odin. Loki gave birth to Sleipnir after turning himself into a female horse when his father demanded he sabotage the work of a craftsman from being able to complete the fortification of Asgard in one season.
In the early days of Valhalla, a craftsman came to visit. He offered to create a citadel around Asgard which could keep out the giants who may attack from any direction. The man claimed he could complete the fortification of Asgard in three seasons, and for payment demanded that the goddess Freyja be his bride and that he receives the sun and the moon also. The gods however thought his choice of payment was steep and negotiated that he would be paid in full, if he completed the wall in just one season and that he receives no help from any man. The man accepted this with the condition that his stallion, Svadilfari, could help. The gods were unsure, but Loki convinced them that even with the help of his horse, the man would not be able to uphold his end of the bargain, so Freyja, and the sun and moon were not at risk at all.
And so the man set to work on the first day of winter, yet it was his huge stallion that did all the work, effortlessly hauling huge boulders. The progress of the citadel progressed swiftly, and it was so tall and strong that no enemy would be able to take Asgard. Three days before the winter was over the gods sat down for counsel and discussed how they could avoid giving the man payment. Whilst discussing this the gods began to question who had agreed to the man’s terms in the first place. The consensus was that Loki was to blame. The evil Loki was demanded to obstruct the craftsman from completing the last part of the citadel so that they would not need to pay him. Loki would face violence and death if not, so he swore oath that he would stop the man and his horse from completing the citadel.
The Tale of Loki Bound
The sagas tell many tales of Loki and his tricks, but he really incurred the wrath of the other gods when he murdered Baldur. The gods were enraged and demanded vengeance. The tale of what happened to Loki, found in the Prose Edda, is a rather unpleasant one.
First Loki ran far away. He hid himself in a mountain, and built a house with 4 doors – one facing each direction so that he could always see his enemy approach. To pass the time, Loki took on the form of a salmon, and then hid himself in a place called Fránangr- Falls. Here he would ponder what tricks the gods would try and use to capture him at the waterfall. At night, Loki would sit in his house with four doors, and use linen thread to knit fishing nets.
Odin had seen from Hlidskjálf where Loki was hiding, and sent the Aesir to capture him. When they arrived, Loki cast the nets into the fire, turned himself into a salmon again, and leapt into the river to escape.
The wisest of the Aesir who had come to apprehend Loki was Kvasir, so he entered the four door house first. He saw in the fire white ash from where the fishing net had burned away, and deduced that this must be something used to catch fish. So the Aesir made a fishing net, based upon the pattern in the ashes, and took it to the waterfall to catch Loki.
Thor took hold of one end of the net, and all the Aesir, the other, and they stretched it out. Alas, Loki managed to dart ahead, and hid between two stones. So the Aesir tried again, but this time they used a rock to weigh down the bottom of the net so that Loki could not swim under it. Undeterred, Loki jumped over the net this time, and made for the waterfall. The Aesir split into two, to try another time to capture Loki with the net, but Thor waded up the middle of the river. Loki panicked, he had but two choices: to flee to the open sea, or jump over the net again. He chose the net, and leapt gracefully over it, but Thor snatched him mid leap. The salmon slipped through Thor’s fingers, however, the tail stopped him from losing his grip, and his hand stopped there. This is why salmon have a tapered back.
Captured, Loki was taken by the Aesir into a cave. Here they took 3 flat stones, drilled holes in them, and stood them on end. The Aesir brought in Loki’s sons, Váli and Nari, turned Váli into a wolf, and watched as he ripped his defenceless brother asunder. They took Nari’s entrails, and used them to bind Loki to the three stones – one stone under his shoulders, one under his groin, and the last under his legs. The bonds were turned to iron, and Loki lay immobile upon the rocks.
Skadi took a venomous serpent, and tied it above Loki so that it would drip onto his face. His wife, Sigyn stood beside him with a bowl to catch the venom, though when the bowl became full, she would have to empty it out. At this moment, the venom would fall onto Loki’s face, and cause him to writhe in pain. This would cause earthquakes to shake the world. And so there lies bound Loki, tended to by Sigyn until Ragnarök.