Tag Archives: fire

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.

 

Prometheus and Coyote: The Theft of Fire

I was recently approved and selected as the editor of the Bella Online website for the Folklore and Mythology section. My first article has been posted: Prometheus and Coyote: The Theft of Fire. I will be adding at least one article per week, more if time permits. If there are any specific folklore related questions you’d like to have answered or just articles you’d like to see, please feel free to let me know, and I will add them to my list for article ideas.

 

Loki: Catalyst and Fire God

I’ve found that the best way to comprehend Loki is to view him as the catalyst for change. He creates major upsets in people’s lives, leading them down new paths. And since few people adapt well to change, Loki’s reputation suffers. But every change that happens in someone’s life is for the better. Every change. No matter how negative or horrible it seems at first, all changes are beneficial ones. It’s learning to see the beneficial side of change that is hard for a large majority of people.

As for me, change is less something to be feared and more something to be sought. Perhaps it’s because I have an incredible amount of fire in my astrological chart (yes, I do believe in astrology), and fire is a catalyst for change in itself. And that may be why Loki is so often associated with fire, despite there being no “lore” to support the idea.

But think about fire – fire is comforting and terrifying, depending on the situation. On a cold winter’s night, curling up next to the fire to get warm is beneficial. Fire provides us with the means to stay alive during the hard frosts. But in a dry season, when a brush fire escalates quickly into a wildfire, fire is terrifying. In that situation, fire destroys life. So fire is both a creative force and destructive force, and it is one of the most intense elements (out of earth, air, fire, and water) that we face.

Earth, air, and water – all of these can be terrifyingly destructive as well, but we don’t immediately associate destruction with any of them. Most of us immediately view earth as nurturing and life-giving, and we often forget that mudslides, earthquakes, and cave-ins can cause an incredible amount of destruction. Air we view as life-giving – after all, we need oxygen to live. So we don’t immediately rush to think of the tornadoes or hurricanes that use air for incredible destruction. And then water, of course, we view as life-giving before destructive, because, like air, we can’t live without water. But floods, typhoons, and tsunamis are some of the most destructive storms we can face.

Yet it is fire that we always turn to as destructive first and beneficial second. Because fire is vibrantly alive with the force of life – the red-orange of the flame both bewitches us and terrifies us, so we often forget that it is fire that is the source of passion. When we say we have a flame inside us, or a spark of divinity, or anything else referring to light, we are talking about fire. But fire still terrifies us  – after all, the sun is the biggest fire we face.

How often have we been warned about sunspots and solar flares and terrified into thinking that the sun is close to burning out? The sun, though we don’t think about it as much as the ancients did, is the center of our world. We need the light of the sun to live because without the light of the sun, nothing can grow. And if nothing can grow, then nothing can produce the air we need to breathe – to stay alive. There is a reason that sun gods were the central gods of most ancient faiths – the people then knew how vital the sun was to their existence. Today, we have all but forgotten this truth.

Fire, however, is often more constructive than it is destructive. Even if we don’t think of that being true immediately, it’s easy to see the creative force of fire when we examine it more closely. The most obvious example is that the sun generates the heat needed to warm the ground to a point that life becomes possible. Fire is an initiative element – it gets things started. But it becomes a catalyst as soon as the earth takes over because the earth does all the hard work of actually growing the plants – the earth pulls the heat of the fire into the ground and spreads it around so that plants can grow. And fire is a destroyer – when the sun stops providing the heat necessary for growth during the winter months, the earth cannot conduct the heat into the plants anymore, and so they wither.

To understand why fire is a catalyst, rather than a cause, you have to understand what catalyst means. In science, a catalyst is a substance that causes change without undergoing change itself. When it comes to life, a catalyst is a person or event that precedes a larger event – a herald, if you want to look at things in that light. And I’ve learned that catalysts always exist – you always have warnings ahead of time, if you know what to look for.

Here’s an example: About a week ago, I stopped at a gas station to get gas, and a woman approached me and told me that my back driver’s side tire looked low on air. It was a very odd thing for her to do, and when I examined my tires, there was no problem with the air in them. However, I kept the occurrence in my mind (I tend to keep such things in my mind, as I have learned they tend to be indicators of future events), and a couple of days ago, as I was coming home, I felt the tread on my car slip a little. I had my dad check my tires – sure enough, the back tire on the driver’s side was low – it had an astounding 10 lbs of pressure left in it.

In combination with that, I had an online friend who continuously insisted that I needed to stay away from orange shirts. I thought that was rather arbitrary, but her insistence on it was weird. Granted, I chose to ignore this advice, and, ironically enough, the day I felt my tire slip like that I was wearing an orange shirt. Coincidence is rarely ever coincidence, and if we listen to the world around us, we can see the patterns of events approaching us. We just have to be willing to open our minds.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Loki? Well, in a word, everything. Loki is change. Loki is fire. Loki is a catalyst. Of all the Gods, he is, perhaps, the most predictable – in that he will always act in an unpredictable way. Change is bound by the law of change. So getting upset with Loki when change happens in your life is the wrong way to approach change. Because Loki is also the God who is perhaps the most benevolent. He doesn’t go out of his way to cause disaster – it’s a natural consequence of who he is.

A lot of people like to point out that Loki is the one who caused Baldr’s death, but it is in that story that we see his catalytic nature most clearly. Loki does not kill Baldr. He does not make Hod throw the mistletoe at Baldr. Hod is the one who says he wishes he had something to throw at Baldr. Loki simply provides him with the tools to do what Hod has expressed a desire to do. Loki initiates Hod’s actions – he works as the catalyst. But Hod is the one who throws the mistletoe. Yes, Loki guides Hod’s throw – Hod is blind. But Loki does not force the throw. 

There is a world of difference between forcing and guiding someone’s actions – Loki did the latter, not the first, so the responsibility for Baldr’s death should be laid squarely on Hod. Yes, Loki went out and found the mistletoe. He provided the artillery. But saying that the person who provides the weapon is the person who shoots the weapon is equivalent to blaming the man who sells a shotgun to an 18-year old who takes the gun home and kills his father for the death of the 18-year old’s father. A catalyst is not a cause.

And that is why Loki is so misunderstood, because he is a catalyst – and catalysts often bear the brunt of the blame. The shotgun seller I mentioned may not deserve the blame for the death of the kid’s father, but there are plenty of people in this world who will lay the blame squarely at his feet, whether doing so is reasonable or not. And that is why Loki is often considered the scapegoat of the gods.

Some Lokeans play this up far too much, however, and turn Loki into a pathetic, sniveling, whining figure, and that is beyond disrespectful. Loki is powerful, cunning, clever, honest (seriously, try to find one instance in a story where he ACTUALLY lies), adaptable, and funny. He is always aware of his purpose – the catalyst – and he embraces his identity without fear. He takes the path of least resistance because that is how change works. Whatever can change will change – and little changes occur more rapidly than large changes, unless a large change is easier to initialize.

When people get over their fear of change, they will get over their fear of Loki. And that is a hard sell for most people, because it is a rare individual who can handle the chaotic whirlwind of change that happens when Loki is around. For me, I love change. Maybe, like I said, it’s because I have so much fire in my chart (7 fire, 4 water, 2 earth, 1 air) that I can handle the whirlwind that Loki is, or maybe it’s because I have ADHD (which means I cannot tolerate boredom). Either way, Loki is a huge part of my life, and I have never experienced any change that has not ended up being a change for the better, in the end.