The Myth of Loki and the Master Builder

The Myth of Loki and the Master Builder



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Dive into the Norse myth of how Loki tricked a stranger into building the great wall of Asgard to keep the realm safe from giants.

Asgard, a realm of wonders, was where the Norse Gods made their home. There Odin's great hall of Valhalla towered above the mountains and Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, anchored itself. Though their domain was magnificent, it stood undefended from the giants and trolls who sought to destroy them. But a stranger appeared and made the gods an offer. Alex Gendler details the myth of the master builder.

Lesson by Alex Gendler, directed by Hype CG.

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The Myth of Loki and the Master Builder - History

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Loki, in Norse mythology, a cunning trickster who had the ability to change his shape and sex. Although his father was the giant Fárbauti, he was included among the Aesir (a tribe of gods). Loki was represented as the companion of the great gods Odin and Thor, helping them with his clever plans but sometimes causing embarrassment and difficulty for them and himself. He also appeared as the enemy of the gods, entering their banquet uninvited and demanding their drink. He was the principal cause of the death of the god Balder. Loki was bound to a rock (by the entrails of one or more of his sons, according to some sources) as punishment, thus in many ways resembling the Greek figures Prometheus and Tantalus. Also like Prometheus, Loki is considered a god of fire.

Who is Loki?

In Norse mythology Loki is a cunning trickster who has the ability to change his shape and sex. Although his father is the giant Fárbauti, he is included among the Aesir (a tribe of gods). Loki is represented as the companion of the great gods Odin and Thor.

What is Loki the god of?

Loki is considered a trickster god, known for being neither fully good nor evil since his main aim was always to create chaos. Despite his father being a giant, he is still counted a member of the Aesir—a tribe of deities including Odin, Frigg, Tyr, and Thor. Like Prometheus, Loki has also been considered a god of fire.

Where does the story of Loki come from?

Loki’s status in pre-Christian Scandinavia remains somewhat obscure. The medieval sources from which came much of what is known of Loki provide no evidence of a cult, unlike for other Norse deities, and the name of Loki does not appear in place-names.

Who are Loki’s offspring?

With the female giant Angerboda (Angrboda: “Distress Bringer”), Loki produced the progeny Hel, the goddess of death Jörmungand, the serpent that surrounds the world and Fenrir (Fenrisúlfr), the wolf. Loki is also credited with giving birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse.

Is the Loki in Norse mythology the same as the Loki character in the Marvel comics and films?

While the Loki of the Marvel comics and films does derive his cunning character from the Loki of Norse myth, the biggest difference is that in the Marvel universe, Loki is depicted as the adopted brother and son of Thor and Odin. In Norse mythology, Loki is represented as just the companion of fellow Aesir gods Thor and Odin.

With the female giant Angerboda (Angrboda: “Distress Bringer”), Loki produced the progeny Hel, the goddess of death Jörmungand, the serpent that surrounds the world and Fenrir (Fenrisúlfr), the wolf. Loki is also credited with giving birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse.

Loki’s status in pre-Christian Scandinavia remains somewhat obscure. The medieval sources from which came much of what is known of Loki provide no evidence of a cult, unlike for other Norse deities, and the name Loki does not appear in place-names.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


Esbern Snare and the Kalundborg Church

Denmark

The work now went on rapidly, and the troll set the church on stone pillars but when all was nearly done, and there was only half a pillar wanting in the church, Esbern began to get frightened, for the name of the troll was yet unknown to him.

One day he was going about the fields all alone, and in great anxiety on account of the perilous state he was in when, tired, and depressed, by reason of his exceeding grief and affliction, he laid him down on Ulshøj bank to rest himself a while. While he was lying there, he heard a troll-woman within the hill saying these words:

When Esbern heard this, he recovered his spirits, and went back to the church. The troll was just then coming with the half pillar that was wanting from the church but when Esbern saw him, he hailed him by his name, and called him "Fin." The troll was so enraged at this, that he went off with the half pillar through the air, and this is the reason that the church has but three pillars and a half.

    Source: Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H. G. Gohn, 1850), pp. 116-117.


7 The Eight-Legged Horse

If there was one thing that the Aesir hated, it was giants. The feeling was mutual, and it became obvious that Asgard was under a legitimate threat from giants who started fights for no particular reason.

Shortly after the nine worlds were created, the nameless &ldquomaster builder&rdquo showed up in Asgard. He threw down the gauntlet, claiming that he would build a giant-proof wall around Asgard in three years if marriage to Freyja was his main form of payment. For some reason, he also wanted the Sun and the Moon.

The gods eventually agreed to give the master builder only one year to complete the job, no assistance but that of a workhorse, and Freyja as his only payment. It seemed like a great bargain because the gods were convinced that the task could not be completed in one year. Asgard was huge.

But the builder was so highly motivated to &ldquowin&rdquo Freyja that he worked almost nonstop. So Loki decided to take charge of the situation. As proven by several myths, Loki was an adept shape-shifter. If he could turn himself into a woman, a salmon, and a hawk, he could easily turn himself into a horse. A lady horse to be specific.

Loki shape-shifted into a mare and lured the giant&rsquos workhorse from the job site. As a result, the wall was not completed when the year was up. Ultimately, Thor killed the master builder, who was a giant in disguise. Meanwhile, Loki was MIA for several months before returning with an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir.


The Building of Asgard’s Wall

After the Gods and Goddesses had built Asgard and were starting to go about their daily life, a Smith arrived. This smith was a master builder and he came from the lands of the giants. Since the Gods had not built any walls around Asgard, he offered to build the walls for them. He said they would be so strong, that no mountain trolls or giants would be able to break through the wall.

The master build said In payment for this, I want the Goddess Freya as my wife, and… he added, I also want the sun and the moon.

The Aesir looked at each other and talked among themselves…

After some time they look at him and said We agree on your terms, but you must build the wall around Asgard in one winter, and you are not allowed to get help from any other man. If any parts of the wall are unfinished on the first day of summer, you will lose your payment.

Then Loki said You can use your horse Svadilfari if you want.

On the first day of winter, the master-builder began to build the walls. He worked both day and night, during the day he worked on the walls, and during the night, he used his horse to haul in stones.

The Aesir were amazed at the size of the stones the horse could drag The horse was twice as strong as the master builder. But it was too late for the Gods to change the terms of their agreement. The Gods had also sworn an oath that he would not be harmed by any of the Gods while he built the walls. During this winter, Thor who really hates giants and trolls was not home, he was traveling in the mountains in the east, slaying the trolls.

As the winter days slowly passed, the walls around Asgard had become so tall and strong, that no troll would ever be able to climb or break through the wall. And with only three winter days left before summer, the master-builder only need to finish the entrance to Asgard.

The Gods and Goddesses were worried and sat on their thrones of fate, and tried to come up with a solution. We can not let the builder get married to the Goddess Freya and take her away from Asgard. And if we remove the sun and the moon from the sky, the world will become cold and dark.

Who of us is really responsible for this decision?

Slowly it became clear that, as in most other things, it was Loki the son of Laufey that had given the Aesir bad advice.

Then the Aesir said Loki if you do not come up with a plan to make the giant builder lose his payment, it will cost you, your life, and you will die a painful death.

The Aesir attacked Loki and began to hit him Loki became frightened and said no please stop, I swear, I swear that I will find a way to make him lose his payment, no matter what.

In the evening when the master builder drove out his stallion Svadilfari to gather stones, a mare leaped out from the nearby forest. When the stallion saw the mare, he became frantic and broke free from his chains and galloped towards the mare, but the mare ran back into the forest.

The builder ran after his horse into the forest. Because the two horses ran around in the forest all that evening and night, the work on the wall was delayed.

The next morning when the master builder finally caught his horse and came out from the forest, he could see that the walls would not be finished in time, he went into a giant’s rage. Yelling and screaming, he smashed the stones and trees around him.

The Aesir now for certain realized that the master-builder was a giant, so they no longer respected their oaths with him. The Aesir called upon the God Thor, who came immediately after hearing about the giant. When Thor arrived he threw his hammer Mjolnir at the giant and broke the giant’s skull into small pieces.

Because of Loki’s relations with Svadilfari, many months later, Loki gave birth to a horse, it was grey and had eight legs, this horse was Sleipnir, and it would become the best and fastest horse among all of the horses.


Pop Culture

Loki’s popularity saw a resurgence with the Germanic revival of the nineteenth century, when the mythic heroes and villains of yore were resurrected to serve the nationalistic ends of Germanic people in Western and Northern Europe. Loki appeared in many works of art, including Richard Wagner’s epic operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1874), in which he was a two-faced servant of Odin who betrayed the gods.

Loki costume design by Carl Emil Doepler for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), 1889. Parsifal07030

More recently, Loki featured prominently in the Marvel comic books and cinematic universe, where he was portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. In these works, Loki was presented as the adopted son of Odin and half-brother of Thor, with whom he had a conflicted love-hate relationship. Loki resented Odin for showering love and attention on mighty Thor, who was beloved by everyone, especially the people of Earth (Midgard).

This version of Loki was still quite the trickster, and his mischief often drove the plot forward. In The Avengers (2012), Loki helped an alien race obtain the Tesseract, a powerful talisman, in exchange for an army with which he attempted to conquer Earth. For Loki, the conquest of Earth was a way of delivering a personal blow to the mighty Thor, who has assumed the role of Earth’s protector.

The Marvel works also presented Loki as a master shapeshifter. Rather than assuming animal forms, however, as he did in mythology, here Loki often took the forms of human beings.


The Master of Mischief, Part III: The Many Faces of Odin

Spear Shaker, Wanderer, Feeble Eye, Grey Beard, War-Merry, All-Father―Odin had as many names as faces. He was the god of both war and poetry he sought knowledge and wisdom but used devious or coercive means to acquire it and, although he was the respected and powerful chieftain of the Aesir, he openly defied deeply rooted social norms for self-serving ends. What are we to make of such a being?

All in the Family

Recall that Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve, slaughtered their great-grandfather 1 Ymir and constructed the worlds from his body. Odin’s first act of seizing power was the brutal murder of his own kin, which set the tone for the future relationship between the Aesir and the Jötnar, and for Odin’s relationships with other family members.

Although the three sons of Bur created the worlds together, it would appear that Odin was in charge. As stated in chapter three of Ynglinga Saga, Odin left his brothers to govern in his stead when he travelled, 2 which it seems he did frequently. Then, when he disappeared for so long that everyone believed he was dead, Vili and Ve decided to divide his belongings 3 between themselves and took Frigg as a shared wife. When Odin returned, he took back his wife and re-established his position as chieftain, but it’s not entirely clear what happened to Vili and Ve after that. They may have simply fled…or perhaps Odin drove them away or killed them. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

Whatever the case, Odin maintained his leadership of the Aesir and his sole dominion over the worlds. His mighty son Thor protected both the Aesir and the humans, in part by frequently touring Jötunheim and killing and taking whatever—or whomever—he pleased. He was honoured and admired in his own right, but his defense of the Aesir was really quite instrumental to his father. Nonetheless, in “Harbard’s Song”, Odin saw fit to cause his revered son grief by disguising himself and mocking his strength and masculinity while refusing to ferry him across the river, 4 hardly a fatherly act.

When Thor gave his powerful three-day-old son Magni the horse of the slain Jötun Hrungnir, Odin grumbled that Thor should have given it to his father rather than to the son of a giantess. 5 Had the horse been an inheritance of sorts, this might have been reasonable [see footnote 3], but the horse was a reward for lifting Hrungnir’s massive leg off Thor (Hrungnir was, perhaps, an actual giant.), so it was sensible to reward Magni. Still, Odin’s wounded pride and sense of entitlement shone through, despite the fact that he stirred up this trouble in the first place by challenging Hrungnir to a race. According to Lindow, this myth highlights the rivalry between Odin and Thor. 6

Clever but Callous

Among others things, Odin was a god of poetry, a position he shared with Bragi, and is credited with bringing the mead of poetry to the Aesir.

As part of the settlement of the Aesir-Vanir war, 7 the two groups spat in a kettle and fashioned a man out of it. Kvasir, as he was called, was the wisest of beings and dispensed wisdom wherever he went but was killed by two devious dwarves, who mixed his blood with honey and fermented it into the mead of poetry. The mead was acquired by the Jötun Suttung, who hid it in a cave with his daughter, Gunnlöd. Odin disguises himself and causes the “accidental” deaths of nine slaves that belonged to Suttung’s brother, Baugi, then promises Baugi that he will do the work of all nine slaves in exchange for a drink of the mead. He fulfills his duties, but when Suttung won’t allow him any mead, he has Baugi drill into the mountain. At first Baugi only drills partway through, but Odin calls his bluff. When Baugi drills all the way through the rock, Odin turns into a snake, slips into the cave before Baugi can kill him, and spends three nights with Gunnlöd, who allows him three drinks of the mead. In three draughts, Odin consumes all the mead and flies back to Asgard as an eagle, regurgitating the mead into a barrel as he passes overhead. However, Suttung had pursued him with such speed that Odin urinated some out, and that became the mead that the bad poets consumed. 8

In this case, the name Odin chose for himself was Bölverk, or “Evil-Deed”, 9 so you know we’re already off to a good start. He caused the deaths of nine innocent slaves and then seduced Gunnlöd to get the mead. According to Snorri Sturluson, he seduced Gunnlöd to get what he wanted and then departed 10 in “Sayings of the High One” stanzas 104–109, the wording is a little more ambiguous, but it is very clear that Odin cruelly used Gunnlöd for his own purposes.

An Officer but Not a Gentleman

Odin’s mistreatment of women is a relatively common theme in the myths. Stanzas 97–101 of “Sayings of the High One” relay the story of “Billing’s girl” (presumably the wife or daughter of a Jötun), whom Odin finds “on the bed”. It appears that Odin had crept into her room. (Creepy much?) When she wakes up and sees him, she tells him to come back that night to get what he desires, but when he returns, he is barred by the warriors, who are awake and apparently waiting for him. He comes back again in the early hours of the morning when everyone is asleep and finds a dog tied to the woman’s bed. In her notes on the poem, Larrington suggests that the woman may have been trying to avoid Rind’s fate 11 .

Two versions of Rind’s story are extant. According to the tenth-century Icelandic skald Kormák Ögmundarson, Odin apparently used magic to bind or bewitch Rind, 12 thus coercing her into having sex. Thirteenth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus provides a much more detailed version of the story in Book Three of Gesta Danorum. Here, Odin tried to trick Rinda, the Ruthenian princess, into accepting him by entering the service of her father three times, each time in a different disguise, including a soldier or military officer. Each time he was rebuffed—twice, physically. On the third incident, Rinda pushed him away hard enough to make him totter and fall in response, he touched her with bark enchanted with runes to make her seem mad. Dressed as a woman, Odin went to the king and called himself a physician. Thus, he was allowed in to see Rinda and said that the cure was so noxious that she would need to be tied down to take it, and the king complied. Once she was bound, Odin raped her 13 and the king did nothing to stop him.

You may think that this behaviour would not be abnormal for the Vikings—after all, the idea of the raping, pillaging Viking barbarian is still common. However, many Vikings lived in societies bound by strict laws and social norms. According the Icelandic law book Grágás, a man convicted of restraining a free woman to force himself on her could be sentenced to full outlawry if he dressed in female garb to “beguile” a woman or kissed her without consent, he could be sentenced to lesser outlawry. 14 If he was caught in the act of raping or lying next to a woman he intended to have “wrongful intercourse” with and the man who caught him had the right to kill on behalf of the woman, the transgressor could lawfully be killed by that man in that time and place. 15 Although Grágás was recorded post-Viking Age, it is possible that these provisions were holdovers from the Icelander’s pagan roots as they accord well with the behaviours and laws described in other Viking Age materials.

On the other hand, raping, pillaging, and murdering people of other societies was not considered blameworthy, and may even have earned the perpetrators respect and money. Viking raiders were ruthless to those they attacked and commonly enslaved women, who were either sold for profit or kept as slaves or concubines. Whether Odin can be classed as a criminal or a conqueror depends on how you interpret the relationship between the Jötun and the Aesir. If you consider the two peoples to be members of distinct societies, then it’s hard to imagine that the Vikings would have batted an eye at this behaviour indeed, they may have praised Odin’s power and domination. However, if you look at the two groups as being different strata in a single society, then Odin is a rapist and a criminal, even by Viking standards. Not that this would have diminished his power in any way. His Machiavellian tendency to use even shameful means to get what he wants (cross-dressing, deceit) ought to have lowered his status among the Aesir in the mythology and among the Vikings in real life. The fact that he was revered despite this behaviour is a testament to his authority, demonstrating that he could do as he pleases and still command love and loyalty because of the power he holds.

Saxo, too, emphasizes the shamefulness of Odin’s behaviour and the fact that the king allows it to go on after he catches Odin in the act, but this may be an effort to denounce the old gods and way of life for the benefit of his Christian audience. Additionally, the Gesta Danorum is a “history” of the Danish people, who had their own laws and social norms, while Grágás is the Icelandic law book, and both texts were committed to paper after the Viking age. Nonetheless, there is some reason to believe that the laws of Grágás or similar laws were in use in parts of Norway, which had strong trading ties to Denmark, and the mythological aspects of both versions of this story others arose from similar cultural roots.

Knowledge and Power

Maintaining status and power was always Odin’s primary goal, and often he did this by seeking information, sometimes by unsavoury means, or by humbling others with his already impressive knowledge.

In “Vafthrudnismal” (“Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”), Odin deliberately seeks out Vafthrudnir despite Frigg’s concerns that Vafthrudnir is the most powerful Jötun she knows of. Odin goes to Jötunheim in disguise (because of course he does) and challenges Vafthrudnir to a contest of knowledge in which competitors test each other with questions to which the questioner already knows the answer. According to Larrington, some scholars believe that Odin’s purpose was to confirm his own fate, for as soon as Vafthrudnir says that Odin will be killed by Fenrir and avenged by Vidar, Odin rapidly ends the contest by asking a question only he could possibly know the answer to. 16 (Sound like any tricksy hobbitses we know, Precious?)

In addition to running around harassing seeresses and facing off with Jötnar, Odin speared himself to Yggdrasil for nine days and learned the runes and their magical uses, plucked out his own eye to gain wisdom from the Well of Mimir, and shamed himself by using the feminine witchcraft of seidr to obtain knowledge. Odin’s two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”) brought information to him each day. For one who is supposed to know so much, Odin spends an awful lot of time acquiring or confirming his knowledge. While this is a praiseworthy activity in itself, there is little doubt that his primary goal is to maintain his position and power, and this compels him to strive against the inevitable, including the destruction of the Nine Worlds.

The general consensus is that Loki and Odin were blood brothers, and Lindow indicates that this was most likely a way to bring the wily Jötun onside to prevent Ragnarök. So, right from the beginning, their relationship is based on a power imbalance, as Odin brings Loki to Asgard as a means of serving his own purposes. In one myth, he directs Loki to steal the Brisingamen (aka the Brisings necklace) from Freyja. In the myth concerning the wall around Asgard, Loki was blamed for the builder demanding the sun, moon, and hand of Freyja as repayment the Aesir demanded that Loki interfere so that the builder would lose the wager. Loki turns into a mare to lure the builder’s horse away and gifts the product of this seduction, the eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, to Odin. 17

In both of these cases, Loki was expected to serve the desires of Odin and the Aesir in neither case, is he rectifying a situation that he created in the first place (although he does plenty of that, too). Indeed, in the story of the wall of Asgard, the Aesir behave in bad faith by demanding that the builder finish his work in an unreasonably short period of time and then by forcing Loki to break the deal for them.

Loki’s status among the Aesir is as complex as his character. Next, we’ll take a peek behind the mask of the master troublemaker himself.


Contents

Beginning

Loki Bound by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1890

In the beginning, Loki was merely a personification of Hate. As the stories went on, he became a devil. Sources indicated that Loki was originally a demon, or a Jotunn, since he born to two giants. Loki, as a result of sharing blood with Óðinn, became an Aesir, making him Óðinn's brother. In contrast with Marvel comics version of Loki, Loki is actually Þórr's step-uncle, not his brother.

Ásgarðr's Wall

It is said that when the brick mason, giant builder of Ásgarðr's walls, demanded an unreasonably high price for his work (he requested the sun, the moon, and Freyja as his wife), it was Loki's idea to give him six months to build the wall. Thinking that surely the man would fail, and that Loki's plan was infallible, the gods all agreed all except Freyja, who was part of the bargain. When the brick mason and his stallion, Svaðilfari, had made much progress on the wall before his time expired, the gods all turned to Loki, threatening him with death if he didn't find a way to make sure the wall wasn't finished within the sixth month. Fearing for his life, Loki took the form of a young mare and enticed Svadilfari away from his master, causing the mason to lose the bet. The union of Loki and Svadilfari brought Óðinn his eight-legged steed Sleipnir.

The Three Chaos Monsters

Some time after the wall was built, Loki, discontent with his faithful wife Sigyn, went to Jötunheimr where he wooed the giantess Angrboða. In the time they spent together, Angrboða gave birth to three children as terrible as their father: the first, the wolf Fenrir, whose mouth reached from the heavens to the earth the second, Jörmungandr, the serpent that encircled the earth and the third was the goddess Hel. After hearing of their birth and the prophecies surrounding them, Óðinn had them brought to him. Once they arrive, he retains custody of Fenrir, has Jormungandr thrown into the ocean to grow and gives Hel dominion over Niflheimr. In the tale of "The Binding of Fenris", we find that the eldest son of Loki and Angrboða was the wolf which ate Týr's hand.

The Dwarfs

It was Loki who tricked the two dwarf sons of Ívaldi and the dwarfs Brokkr and Eitri to work against one another to create the gods well-known weapons and mounts. He betted his head that Eitri and Brokk could not make gifts superior to Skíðblaðnir, Gungnir and replacement hair for Sif, whose golden locks had been shorn by Loki as a prank (for which he was punished by Sif's husband, Þórr). Eitri made the ring, Draupnir, the hammer Mjöllnir and the boar, Gullinbursti. These objects were judged to be superior and Loki lost. However, when it came time for his head to be cut off, he protested against it, as any action could damage his neck, which was not part of the deal. Instead, Brokk had Loki's lips sewn together for a while.

The Theft of Idunn's Apples

Loki was also responsible for the theft and return of Iðunn (from the clutches of Þjazi, father of Skadi) and her apples. He also appears beside Þórr during many of his outings to Jötunheimr. He even shared Þórr's shame when Þórr dressed as Freyja to retrieve his hammer (Loki was dressed as a nurse).

The Death of Baldr

It was Loki who talked Höðr into throwing the mistletoe branch at his twin brother Baldr, and therefore he is the true murderer of the god of light.

In the Lokasenna

After Baldr's death, Ægir, god of the sea, invited all of the gods to his home so as they may forget their woes. It is here that Loki commits his final offense before his binding. Here he insults Bragi, calling him a coward and a poor man. He then goes on to insult Iðunn, Gefjon, Óðinn, Frigg, Freyja, Njörðr, Freyr, Týr, Heimdallr, Skaði and finally Sif. After this, he is chased away by Þórr.

The Binding of Loki

After Loki had been chased away by Þórr for insulting all the gods and goddesses, Loki was then sought out and bound to a rock by the entrails of his son Narfi, who had been torn to pieces by his son, Váli, who had been transformed into a ravenous wolf. The faithful Sigyn kept watch over her husband, catching the poison from the serpent that Skaði placed over Loki's head. It was said that, when Sigyn left to empty the bowl, the poison would drip into Loki's eyes. His writhing from the pain caused earthquakes.

He was chained until the day of Ragnarök, the end of the gods, where he will fight amongst the jotnar and face Heimdallr. Upon the field of Vígríðr, the two will slay each other.


The Master of Mischief, Part IV: Loki’s Charms

In the modern day, Loki is occasionally drawn up as being power-hungry and possibly psychopathic, but this interpretation obscures the complexity of his original character. While the mythological Loki does some truly horrifying things (he does bring about the destruction of the Nine Worlds, after all), he is mostly just a troublemaking pain in the arse and he often gets kicked around for it.

It’s hard to know quite where to start discussing the master of mischief, but as usual, it’s best to start at the beginning—in this case, with the early myth of Mjolnir’s creation. 1

Getting Hammered

For reasons unknown, Loki gives Thor‘s wife, Sif , a surprise haircut, so Thor threatens Loki until he agrees to fix it. Loki seeks help from two dwarves simply known as the sons of Ivaldi, who produce golden hair that will grow like natural hair, plus a spear (Gungnir) and a ship that folds up small enough to fit into a man’s purse (Skidbladnir).

But Loki isn’t done. He spots two other dwarves, Brokk and Eitri, 2 and wagers that they can’t make any items finer than the ones he has just received. If he loses, they get to keep his head. The game is rigged, of course, and while the dwarves work, Loki turns into a fly and bites them. They keep working, and when they are done, they present a boar with golden bristles (Gullinbursti), a gold ring that drips eight copies of itself every nine days (Draupnir), and a hammer that if thrown, will return to the thrower’s hand (Mjolnir). One dwarf says that Mjolnir’s handle is shorter than intended because a fly bit his eyelid and the blood obscured his vision while he worked the bellows.

Loki and the two dwarves take the lot back to Asgard to be judged and, wouldn’t you know it, the dwarves win the wager. Loki tries to flee, but Thor thwarts his efforts. Finally, Loki calls up a technicality, saying that the dwarf can have his head but not his neck. Of course, you can’t really cut off someone’s head without taking part of their neck, so the dwarves stitched Loki’s lips together and left.

It was Loki’s mischievousness that caused the problem, and his willingness to make amends saved his life—at first. But when his mischievousness (combined with greed and possibly a desire to win favour from the Aesir) got him into more trouble, his cleverness very literally saved his neck.

Loki’s motivation for cutting Sif’s hair is unclear. I’ve heard one person suggest that it may be related to Sif’s infidelity, which Loki exposes at Aegir’s feast while claiming to be the other party to the, ahem, dirty deed. This is an interesting hypothesis, but it’s also quite possible that he was just being foolish and impetuous, or that he found it amusing to embarrass Sif and/or Thor, who is responsible for safeguarding the women in his life. Of course, Loki would have known that upsetting Sif would get him in deep trouble with Thor (which it did), and at that early stage he hasn’t yet developed the vicious streak that shows up in the later myths. But (if you will indulge my speculation) perhaps we’re missing part of the story and Loki acted under compulsion. It would certainly fit the pattern established by several other myths.

Promises Made, Promises Kept

One of the core values of Viking society was honour, and one of the most honourable things you could do was follow through on your oaths. The Vikings often lived in relatively small communities, were highly social, and their daily lives were primarily taken up with work from morning until night. They had animals and crops to tend, kids to raise, food to cook, and clothes to make—from scratch. 3 Winter was coming and things just had to get done. Oath-keeping was critical for the members of these societies to just survive, so trustworthiness and reliability were highly prized traits.

Knowing this, would you be surprised to learn that Loki consistently makes good on his promises? Well, he does and, ironically, it’s one of the reasons he lands himself in so much trouble.

Consider the story of Geirröd’s attempt to kill Thor. In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Loki flies to Geirrödgard in Frigg’s falcon cloak 4 and sits up in a high window of the hall. Geirröd spots the “bird” and sends his servant to retrieve it. Amused by the servant’s struggle to climb the wall, Loki sits and waits because he thinks he will have time to escape. However, when he tries to take off, his feet are stuck to the ledge and he is captured. Geirröd interrogates him but gets no answers, so he locks Loki in a trunk and starves him. After three months, Loki finally tells him his name and, under threat of harm, agrees to bring Thor to back to Geirrödgard without his hammer or belt of strength.

The Prose Edda does not elaborate on exactly how Loki convinces Thor to leave Mjolnir behind, but it is implied that he uses some rather crafty means. Indeed, it seems that Thor doesn’t know much about Geirröd, because when he visits Gríd, one of his father’s mistresses, she tells him that Geirröd is dangerous. She then lends him her belt, steel gloves, and staff to protect himself.

Granted, Thor’s not the sharpest sword in the armoury, but one would think that being persuaded to visit a land full of enemies without a weapon would set those warrior instincts a-screamin’. Apparently not. But it’s a good thing Thor had some kind of weapon on hand because Geirröd and his daughters all try to kill him and instead are all killed by him.

According to Sturluson’s version of the myth, 5 Loki goes back to Geirrödgard with Thor, although he doesn’t seem to play an active role on the journey. You could ask why Loki accompanies Thor this time, but perhaps the question should be why he even complies with Geirröd’s demands in the first place. If Loki really were as duplicitous as some popular conceptions would have it, then it would be much easier for him to make the promise to save his own skin and then break it for the same reason.

The most reasonable answer to both of the above questions, however, is likely that Loki was very simply keeping his oath. Geirröd trapped and starved him, then extracted information and promises from him under duress. Since Loki had no known relationship to Geirröd outside of this story, it’s extremely unlikely that this was a relationship Loki would care to maintain. He did have a relatively close relationship with Thor, however, and had Thor realized that Loki had delivered him into enemy hands under false pretenses, he could easily have beaten the tar out of Loki. Additionally, if Thor had been killed and the Aesir discovered Loki’s treachery, Loki most certainly would not receive a warm welcome at their dinner table ever again.

Perhaps Loki hoped that Thor would kill Geirröd (Loki certainly had reason to hate him), but then why lure Thor with deceit? Surely, Asgard’s ultimate alpha male would be more than willing to prove his dominance, especially if he knew that an enemy was itching for a fight. Geirröd stipulated only that Thor was not to bring his hammer or belt, so another weapon could have been—and was in fact—allowed. Loki could have turned on Geirröd or played Thor and Geirröd against each other to save his own hide. Instead, he did what he promised and nothing more.

But by no means is this the only case where Loki gets himself out trouble by promising to do things that cause further mayhem.

An Apple a Day … Attracts Hungry Jötnar

While travelling with Odin and Hoenir, Loki loses his temper with the Jötun Thjazi (who is in eagle form) and strikes him with pole that mysteriously fastens itself to both parties. 6 Thjazi flies away, dragging Loki along for a rough ride that only stops when Loki promises to help Thjazi kidnap Idunn and her apples of youth.

Just as in the story of Geirröd, Loki keeps his promise, but this time the Aesir find out what happened and demand that Loki set things right, which he does. He manages to retrieve Idunn, but Thjazi flies after him. The Aesir build a fire, and when Thjazi flies overhead, his wings are burned and he crashes to the ground where he is killed. When Thjazi’s daughter, Skadi, arms herself and comes to Asgard, she demands that the Aesir compensate her with a husband and with someone to make her laugh. 7 The second job falls to Loki, who ties his testicles to the beard of a goat in a most absurd game of tug-of-war. Needless to say, he gets the job done.

Of course, all this misery (and much more besides) could have been avoided if Loki had learned to manage his impulses, but that was just not his way. However, there are also cases where Loki is not at fault for some awful situation but the Aesir put him on clean-up duty anyway.

An Eight-Legged Boy and his Mother

A builder came to Asgard and offered to build a protective wall that would keep out all enemies, asking for Freyja and the sun and moon as payment. He said he could do it in three half-years, but as much as the Aesir wanted the wall, they did not want to make this payment. Their counter-offer required him to do it in one winter (six months) with no help from any man. The builder asked if he could still employ his horse, Svadilfari at Loki’s suggestion, his request was granted.

However, Svadilfari was no ordinary steed. He worked night and day to bring boulders back to his master, who came worryingly close to fulfilling his end of the bargain. The Aesir rather conveniently concluded that Loki must have been behind all this and threatened Loki with a terrible death unless he could find some way to thwart the builder. Clever Loki turned himself into a mare and neighed to attract Svadilfari’s attention. The ploy worked: Svadilfari came running and the two disappeared, to the builder’s dismay. Unable to complete his work on time, the builder showed himself to be a Jötun and was subsequently killed by Thor. Loki returned sometime after giving birth to Svadilfari’s foal, the eight-legged Sleipnir, whom Loki gave to Odin.

What’s curious is that there are no winners here. Really, everyone comes off looking pretty bad. The builder offers a reasonable service, albeit for an unreasonable price and possibly for malevolent purposes. The Aesir set him up to fail by making a deal that looks fair but which they don’t believe can be fulfilled. They blame Loki for their conundrum, but there is no evidence that Loki actually colluded with the builder. Why Loki prodded the Aesir accept builder’s request―whether it was to deliberately assist the builder or whether Loki just figured that this would make the deal appear more acceptable so the Aesir would get their wall―is an interesting question. But regardless of Loki’s intentions in the matter, the Aesir broke their oath. When the builder came close to earning his pay, not only did they create a crisis that would cause him to fail, but they also had him killed when they found out who he was. The Aesir reneged on their deal, the builder died a swift and brutal death, Odin got “the greatest of all horses”, 8 and Loki did the Aesir’s dirty work, becoming a “pervert” 9 in the process.

The mythology turns tragic, however, when Loki ceases to be a friend to Odin. In Part V: Ragnarök, I will deconstruct the end of the world and how it represents the inevitable breakdown of society.


Pop Culture

In many ways, Thor’s popularity persisted from the pre-Viking Age to the present era. According to Joseph Grimm, the nineteenth-century folklorist who popularized various Germanic myths and fairy tales, folklore about Thor was common among contemporary Scandinavians, who believed that his lightning frightened off trolls and other creatures of the jötnar.

During the nineteenth century, when Germanic and Scandinavian myth resurfaced to reinforce nationalist agendas, Thor was brought to the forefront of emerging national cultures in Western and Northern European countries. He was commonly depicted in paintings of the period, and writers and poets ranging from Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger (a Dane), to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (an American), to Rudyard Kipling (an Englishman) used Thor as a character in their literature.

Thor costume design by Carl Emil Doepler for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), 1889. Parsifal07030

Thor’s popularity surged in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the emergence of the Marvel comic book franchise and the ensuing Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel works took certain liberties in adapting the thunder god to their fictional worlds. Thor, for example, was always noted to have red hair and a red beard in Norse mythology. In the comics, Thor was portrayed with blonde hair and beard, and this look was maintained for the film adaptations of the character. Additionally, while Loki was portrayed as Thor’s adopted brother in Marvel products, their relationship was less certain in myth. Loki was often portrayed as Thor’s uncle in traditionally Norse mythology, though there were times where his role was more ambiguous.

In many ways, however, the Marvel comics and movies remained true to the mythic Thor—he was brave, powerful, and violent. So too, he was filled with fondness for his hammer and enamored with beer. In other words, Thor maintained his status as the perfect Norse hero.


Watch the video: God of War - How Atreus Will Cause Ragnarok. Loki Brings End Times