The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 15 It’s Beginning to Loki a Lot Like Christmas

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It’s Beginning to Loki a Lot Like Christmas

What’s Christmas if not the time to sit around, besotted by questionable nog, and listen to tales of Norse gender/species swapping?

Whether to explain evil in the world, or just to add a splash of narrative tension to an otherwise pedestrian parable, theistic religions seem unable to forego the subversive pleasure of creating compelling Bad Guys—tricksters who are supposed to represent the summit of greed and malevolence yet retain our interest and become our heroes in a way that their monotonically virtuous counterparts can’t. There’s Lucifer, the laughing lord of hell who is the secular patron saint of intellectual rebellion, blood-soaked Kali, whose primal violence is tinged with compassion, and always and forever, Loki, the grand god of mischief.

LokiFor a century and a half now, Loki has reigned as our favorite polytheistic foil to religious pretensions. In his persona of Loge, he judges the vain gods and their haughty attempts to build a self-serving paradise in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. While Wotan and his family march into their newly constructed Walhalla, bought through blood and deception, Loge lingers outside, offering the final word: “Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu.” They hasten to their end, he sneers, fantasizing about wiping them out in a grand conflagration before pulling himself back to reality with a very Lokian shrug: “Bedenken will ich’s. Wer weiss, was ich tun?” (I’ll think on it—who knows what I’ll end up doing?)

Loki is a mystery, even to himself. He sympathizes with the Rhinemaidens whom the gods ran rough shod over, and mocks his divine brethren with delicious malice as they droop and slacken from the lack of Freia’s golden apples. Between the Ring’s thick-skulled heroes, blustering dwarves, and impotently flailing deities, Loge stands out as the sharp voice of reason, the audience’s representative and touch-stone, pushing the gods on through guile and deceit to their ultimate, well-deserved destruction, their elaborate power broken on the rocks of absolute love.

Wagner took more than a few liberties with the Norse sagas when constructing the Ring, changing characters around to make events overlap, and suffusing the whole thing with his own ideas about redemptive sacrifice. But the character of Loki is more or less on the money, his destructive nobility a fair representation of the Norsemen’s own conflicted accounts of Loki’s part in the pantheon. In one ancient story, a peasant couple is desperate to hide their son from the giant Skrymsli. They appeal to Odin, who gives it his best shot, fails, and leaves. Next they turn to Hoenir, who also tries, also fails, and also leaves. Then, finally, out of desperation they call on Loki, who tries to hide the child by disguising him as an egg in the womb of a fish. When Skrymsli finds the egg, instead of giving up, as the other gods had done, Loki tells the child to run and erects a trap for the pursuing giant, finally subduing and slaughtering it, securing the child’s freedom. Loki is the god who kept trying, who would use his last resource in the pursuit of what he promised to do, while the higher gods couldn’t be bothered with anything more than their first efforts.

He was the jealous villain responsible for the death of Baldr, most beloved of the gods, but at the same time he was the oddly heroic savior who was willing to get impregnated by a wild stallion to protect the sun and moon.

Perhaps that story needs some filling out. And what’s Christmas if not the time to sit around, besotted by questionable nog, and listen to tales of Norse gender/species swapping?

So, the gods wanted to build a palace to house their splendor, but the only architect willing to undertake the task demanded as payment Freia, the sun, and the moon. Odin was all, “Dude, palaces are cool, but come on… the sun?” But then Loki convinced him to strike a deal to the effect that payment would only be offered if the palace were built in thirty days, using only one horse to do the work. Seemed like a good plan, except that the architect had a wicked-good horse, and the palace was in danger of finishing easily on schedule. So, Loki did the only thing he could reasonably do. He changed himself into a mare, went to the building site, shook his/her alluring horse nethers a bit, and then took off into the forest, with the architect’s work-horse in hot pursuit, only stopping with the coming of morning and thus the end of the period allotted by the bet. The workhorse got it on with she-horse-Loki, and Loki would eventually give birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-footed mount. If there is a Norse reward for Taking One For the Team, Loki wins it easily, even if you don’t count the time he tied his testicles to the beard of a goat to try and coax laughter out of a vengeful Skadi.

Everything about Loki is divine contradiction, humanity’s tortured self-assessment painted in epic strokes. As the husband of Glut, he was the god of the hearth, and the being responsible for creating humanity’s manifold passions, and therefore the source of our entire emotional life. Yet, as husband of Angur-boda, he was the father of Hela, goddess of death, the Midgard serpent, and the wolf Fenris. The gods loved him for his humor, and his ability to always come through in the end with some impossible scheme for victory. And they hated him for slaying Baldr and then preventing his return to the world of the living. He was Thor’s beloved companion, and ended his days lashed with the guts of his children to a stone beneath a perpetually poison-leaking snake, attended by one of his wives by way of mercy, there to remain until Ragnarok. The classic image of Sigyn, standing with a bowl raised above Loki’s head to catch the dropping snake venom, only leaving her husband’s side to empty the bowl and thence to renew her station, is one of the great pictures in the mythological canon, a piece of wisdom from our Norse friends that nobody is beyond love, and nobody need resign themselves to being alone. Put next to the Christian willingness to chuck entire continents into the pits of everlasting torture, it is little wonder that we can’t stop telling stories of Loki and his doomed guile.

Which brings us to Loki as he is known now, as a comic book super villain. First appearing in 1962 in Marvel’s Journey Into Mystery #85, he was a typical Stan Lee villain—jealous and power obsessed, given to making grandiose speeches, and foiled a little too easily by his hammer-wielding brother, Thor (one time Thor defeats him with popcorn. Really.) But Loki and Thor both have evolved over the years, and the two of them are now the focal point of Marvel’s biggest storylines involving the dubious worth of the race of gods, and the basic nature of goodness. While Thor waged war against Gorr, the God Butcher, Loki was given a chance to start over again as a child, knowing everything of his past, of what people expect him to become, fighting against the compulsions of his nature and wrestling in the grey areas of morality and determinism in a way unthinkable to the cackling Loki of the ’60s. In the world of comic books, if not yet completely in the world of film, Loki is again the most human of the gods—a little vain, a little deceptive, and always struggling to navigate the space between good intentions and natural selfishness.

A thousand years ago, Norsemen listened to the crackle of flames, and told each other, “Hear, Loki is beating his children again.” As a god, Loki was the focal point for real moral questioning, and in the contradictory pages of the Eddas devoted to him there is written a whole people’s twisted self-congratulation and thrumming doubt. They couldn’t quite figure out what, ultimately, to do with this slippery god, and I suppose we never shall either.

And so the stories go on.


Further Reading

For classic Loki, Snorri Sturluson’s twelfth-century The Prose Edda is a good place to start, or for a more modern collecting of Loki lore, H.A. Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas to the Sagas is a nice, very readable accounting of some of the greatest tales of Norse mythology. For Wagner’s Loki, there is none better than Gerhard Stolze’s interpretation on the old Herbert von Karajan recording of Das Rheingold. Alternately cunning and noble, mocking and sympathetic, it might be my favorite operatic performance, period. Some people can’t stand it. Those people are wrong. Then, for Marvel Loki, Kieron Gillen’s recent reimagining of the character, beginning in Journey Into Mystery 622, is a great hopping-on point, and the tradition continues strong with twenty-something Loki in Al Ewing’s current run of Loki: Agent of Asgard, available at a friendly comic book vendor near you!