Loki: Guardian of Sacrifice

One of my favorite myths about Loki is the one in which he kidnaps Idunn because it is the myth that I feel best demonstrates his character.

In the most common version of the myth, Loki, Odin, and Hoenir were traveling to Jotunheim and stopped to cook an ox they had hunted. A problem arose, however, as the fire refused to cook the meat.

Thiazi, in the form of an eagle, offered to help cook the meat if the gods would allow him to partake in the feast. The gods agreed, but when the meat was cooked, he took off with both hindquarters and both shoulders of the ox.

That angered Loki, so he struck at Thiazi with a stick (probably large enough to be considered a staff), but Loki ended up stuck at the end of the stick and dragged around until he begged for mercy. The only way Thiazi agreed was to force an oath from Loki that he would entice Idun to leave Asgard so that he could have access to her life-giving apples. Loki agreed.

Back in Asgard, Loki tricked Idunn into leaving the walls of Asgard by saying he had found apples that tasted better and were more life-giving than her own. She wasn’t convinced and insisted Loki show her the apples, which he agreed to do. Once they were outside of Asgard, however, Thiazi showed up in the form of an eagle and abducted her.

Once the gods noticed that they were aging, Odin threatened Loki until he agreed to rescue Idunn. Loki did this by transforming her into a nut while he wore Freyja’s falcon cloak, and Thiazi chased them as they fled towards Asgard. Once there, Loki navigated the fires but Thiazi was caught by the flames, fell to the ground, and Thor killed him.

Now, I generally utilize Sallustius’s five levels of myth interpretation to interpret myths but I just finished reading the last couple chapters of Volume II of the Culture of the Teutons by Vilhelm Grönbech, and he raised a couple of intriguing points specifically about the myth of Idunn’s abduction.

  • “The character of Loki is apparent in the myth: he is the stirrer up of strife and thus the provoker of victory (p.393).”
  • “This myth turns upon a later moment in the sacrifice and reflects a rite used at the lighting of the fire to ward off the influence of the demon [Thiazi] and to secure the preparation of the sacrificial meat (p.392).”

Addressing the first point, one of the most common counterpoints I hear that works to paint Loki as evil generally points out that Loki is the one who caused the problem in the first place, and that he is only trying to save himself. Essentially, Loki gets painted as inherently selfish when this myth is picked apart.

However, if Loki is viewed throughout the myths as the one who stirs up strife in order to make victory possible, that isn’t an inherently selfish behavior. It can certainly come across as selfish or seem self-serving in the moment, but the person exhibiting such behavior generally has the welfare of the entire group in mind.

For example, the gods agree to let Thiazi partake of the meal, but then the eagle tries to take over half the ox. There are three other people who need to eat. Loki strikes Thiazi out of anger, but does he do it because he himself wanted more food or because Thiazi taking so much of the ox threatened the ability of all the gods to sustain themselves in enemy territory?

There’s always more than meets the eye in every myth, and that’s a truth multiplied when Loki is present because he is such an ambiguous character. He defies all attempts at explanation; that’s a common complaint among scholars. Loki’s ambivalence is such a defining characteristic that it tends to make him, well, undefinable. It stands to reason, then, that none of his actions in a myth can be seen as straightforwardly what they seem to be at first glance.

The next action Loki takes is to beg Thiazi for mercy, who refuses and provokes an oath from Loki instead. Loki knows the consequences of the oath before he swears it, but he swears it to get out of enemy hands. He struck at an enemy he could not defeat, and that enemy took advantage of the moment to pin Loki into a difficult situation. Loki then has to fulfill his oath – in every myth where he swears an oath, he upholds it. Loki never breaks an oath. That is another defining characteristic.

So, thus far, the only things we really know about Loki is that he a) defies definition and b) never breaks his oaths.

After Loki coerces Idunn out of Asgard and is found out, he finds himself threatened by Odin to fix the problem. Loki not telling the gods immediately what had happened works to stir up strife; the gods’ ire is piqued – not just at Loki but also at Thiazi.

While the myth never details whether or not the gods strategize together what they will do when Loki returns to Asgard, it is telling that Thor is waiting at the wall when Loki returns with Idunn and Thiazi is unable to penetrate the wall of fire and falls to the ground where Thor slays him. The victory is twofold – the return of Idunn returns the health and vigor of the gods and it also allows the gods to slay one of their strongest adversaries.

Loki thus provokes strife to procure victory – or, put in a different way, he utilizes his own sense of strategy to procure a victory out of what seemed like an untenable starting position. He overcame the odds stacked against him, which indicates how he is involved with the very concept of Luck.

What is really intriguing though is the way that Grönbech discusses the fire at the wall as a fire meant to ward off evil influences from a sacrificial meal. Loki’s attempt to keep Thiazi from absconding with the meat (the sacrifice) is met with resistance. He nearly finds himself foiled in that because Idunn is tempted from Asgard and kidnapped. What becomes interesting there is that Idunn refuses to hand Thiazi any apples, and it is only the apples she hands to the gods that allow them to stay young. She refuses him access to the feast.

When Loki rescues her, he flies her straight through the fires of Asgard – flames through which Thiazi cannot pass, but he and Idunn can. Once back in the safety of Asgard, the gods are able to regain their youth and Thiazi – the giant that threatened the very sanctity of sacrificial offerings – is destroyed. With this understanding, Loki’s connection to sacrifice itself is underscored.

So, having incorporated these two new ideas from the Culture of the Teutons, what the myth of Idunn demonstrates about Loki includes the following characteristics:

  • Ambivalence
  • Cunning used as a strategy
  • The stirrer of strife to provoke victory
  • Upholds oaths made
  • Embodies Luck
  • Guardian of Sacrificial Offerings

Few myths about Loki delve quite this deeply into his character, and it bears continual and constant examination to discover new things about him. All the myths about him do. While it may be tempting for some to paint him as evil and be done with it, stories are never that simple and gods are far more complicated than they seem at first glance. Especially a god who seems to make it his business to evade the very process of being defined.

 

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