By Ben Galley
Who in Hel is Loki?
Loki. The now-infamous god of mischief. I grew up reading about him in books of mythology and fairytales when I was knee-high. A little older, I read Marvel comics that featured Loki, and always there was a twinkle of something special and different about the character, even if it was just the unwieldy horns. And then came Marvel: Loki’s entry into the modern zeitgeist. Even if you’ve avoided any MCU content, then the fan art, the cosplay costumes, the funkopops, or the Fortnite skin might have forced Loki into your eyeline. But Loki’s story didn’t begin in the 1900s, but in Norse mythology.
There are various sources that we draw our knowledge of Norse mythology from, such as the Prose and Poetic Eddas, but all agree that Loki is a trickster god.
Originally the offspring of jötunn (giants) called Fábauti and Laufey, Loki was “reckoned among the Aesir”, otherwise meaning he was included amongst the gods of Norse mythology, the Aesir. This didn’t mean in any way that Loki and the gods got on. In the Gylfaginning, a tale of the Prose Edda, Loki was described as “the Aesir’s calumniator”, the “originator of deceits” and also “the disgrace of all gods and men”. Which is, to be frank, some heavy shade to throw. While other sources suggest that Loki could also be the Norse god of fire, there is story after story of Loki’s lies, trickery, capriciousness, and otherwise mischief.
Most of his trickery comes in the form of shapeshifting. Loki’s true form is purported to be fair and handsome, yet behind this visage is nothing but tricks and lies. Throughout the sources of the Norse myths, Loki changes shape to suit his purpose. In various accounts, he has turned into a salmon, an elderly woman, and a fly, of all things. Disguised as a mare, Loki gives birth to the eight-legged steed of Odin, Sleipnir. By the jötunn Angrboda, the mother of monsters, Loki sires not only the Odin-killing wolf Fenrir, but also the entire Midgard serpent and Thor’s doom, Jörmungandr. AND the ruler and goddess of the dead, Hel. Those are some pretty mean-looking children, and I also think it’s best that we quietly agree that nobody delves too deep into how Loki birthed a world serpent, and just say “magic”.
Based on these traits, it’s evident that Loki is a villain of the Norse canon. More so, he’s often the villain, especially in the Poetic Edda. In the poem Lokasenna, Loki is present at a feast at the hall of Aegir, where the gods and elves are making themselves merry. Once Loki is turned out of the hall for bad behaviour, he returns with a vengeance, promising to stoke a quarrel between the gods; quite literally to “mix their mead with malice”. Loki promptly re-enters the hall and begins to dole out some incredible drama, insulting every god until Thor turns up and threatens to kill him. Even then, Loki retorts to Thor with the promise of Fenrir swallowing Odin. (Who, of course, is right there in the room). For his insults, he’s forced to flee, and hides as a salmon until the gods catch him. His punishment was to be tied to a rock with his son Nari’s entrails, and have a venomous snake drip venom upon him until the day of Ragnarök. It’s highly reminiscent of Prometheus’ fate in Greek mythology. Oh, and one of his sons names, Narfi, translates to “Corpse”. Hands up who said mythology wasn’t dark enough?
Not convinced Loki should be thrown on the villain pile? He openly admits to causing the death of Baldur. And in Ragnarök, Loki sides with the jötunn, the Aesir’s mortal enemies. He’s even nice enough to captain a ship full of the bastards into battle.
Loki is scheming, self-serving, cowardly, nihilistic, malicious, and cares only for his own self-preservation or reward. He’s a villain, through and through. By all rights, he should be despised. And yet quite the opposite. How does Loki, from mythology to MCU, cast a spell over us? Why the hell do we like him?
Why by Odin’s beard do we find Loki so fascinating?
You could ask the same question of the gods. Depending on the source, Loki isn’t always the bad guy. In the tale of Gylfaginning, a hrimthus (jötunn) builder and his impressive steed seek to trick the Aesir. The gods call on Loki’s shapeshifting abilities to save the day. Granted he might have got them into the mess, but he also helps fix the problem by turning into a mare and luring the steed away. Loki is the progeny of jötunn, and yet sits amongst gods due to a value of power. Not only is Loki referenced as the companion of Thor, Loki at one point says to Odin:
Do you remember, Odin, when in bygone days
we mixed our blood together?
You said you would never drink ale
unless it were brought to both of us.
The first answer is that Loki is not an anti-hero, but a true anti-villain. Antiheroes wrestle with their lack of morality, courage, and their heroic traits. They often display negative characteristics but still get the job done and save the day, be it theirs or others’. Loki’s true form of anti-villain means that he occasionally displays a capricious kindness or morality, yet ultimately becomes the villain he and others know him to be. Case in point, Loki and Heimdall are doomed to kill each other at Ragnarök. I believe we enjoy Loki because we know his fall is coming, and yet we can hope or chase after the glimmers of redemption. While a little thinner on the ground in Norse mythology, it’s a powerful element of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the MCU. We forgive the lapse into villainy in the hope of eventual heroism.
Villains break the codes of morality and law, but on the reverse side of Loki’s villainous coin, we have his self-serving, rebellious nature becoming a hook we also want more of. Loki doesn’t adhere to boundaries, rules, or stereotypes of sex and gender, all the way from Norse mythology to the MCU’s Loki series. It’s safe to say Loki basically has little if any f*cks to give. At the feast in the Poetic Edda, he speaks his mind outright and without care for consequences, a private wish for many a mortal. Like telling that horrid boss to go fornicate with themselves, for example. It’s this rebellion that is alluring. An enviable freedom of action, speech, and being, whilst, for the most part, having the capacity to tackle the consequences.
And here lies another reason we are drawn to Loki. As well as a hope for heroism, we enjoy watching villains go about their business. It’s a peek over a moral line the majority of us don’t cross. It doesn’t mean we have dark minds and intentions, but we can’t deny we like to watch dark subject matter. Why are true crime and crime dramas so popular, or horror? Why do we watch and enjoy gore in action, or want to see Deadpool go on a rampage? It’s the darker side of life that fascinates us, and Loki’s character serves this up on a platter for us. Just like when Thor starts twirling that Mjölnir.
True to a protagonist’s role, Loki is also impressive as a villain. His lies work, his shapeshifting is impressive, he’s a fighter, and his insults are clever and frankly hilarious. At one point he calls the bard god Bragi a bench ornament. And let’s not forget he appears smarter than most in a mead hall. He’s even quite the looker, judging by other descriptions. Loki is no malformed Voldemort, or gullible warrior villain. Again in Gylfaginning, Loki battles wildfire itself in the giant Skrymir’s challenges.
Loki’s capriciousness is a characteristic that runs through him like a spine. By his very nature he is dualistic. From Icelandic and all the way to Danish sources of Loki, he varies between a god, a giant, or something else entirely. Much like his mother. Through Norse mythology, Loki’s arc changes and wanders before it reaches Ragnarök. In the MCU and comic universe, his unpredictability is accentuated along the central role of his selfish nature. That, at its basic level, provides entertainment. The tension of “what the f*ck is Loki going to do or say now?” is yet another hook in the story of why Loki is fascinating.
Perhaps this is why Loki is far from the only capricious trickster god in our world mythologies. Many cultures feature the idea of a dualistic entity or deity, one that exercises both good and evil. A “balanced” god, such as Huehuecóyotl in Aztec mythology. Anansi is another example from West African, Caribbean, and African American mythologies. As are Coyote and Raven Spirits in First Nation mythologies. Maui in Polynesian mythology. Fairies. Huli jing or Kitsune. The list goes on. We seem to be obsessed with the characteristics of Loki, from the impressive wit and skills, to admirable liberty, to treading the line of evil and villainy, and mischief. That’s the key here.
In their pure forms a trickster can be described as one who crosses boundaries, breaks rules, or put simply, causes a tonne of mischief. That can be distilled to one who mocks authority and the status quo, playfully or maliciously. In Loki’s case, especially in Norse mythology, it leans towards the latter half of that spectrum. Mischief and mockery are elements we can all enjoy, especially given the kinds of authority we deal with in the modern world. An entity that stands up to those who seek to oppress will always be seen as a hero, even if they are, just like Loki, a villain.
About the Author
Ben Galley is a British author of dark and epic fantasy books who currently hails from Victoria, Canada. Since publishing his debut Emaneska Series in 2010, Ben has released a range of fantasy novels, including the award-winning weird western Bloodrush and standalone novel The Heart of Stone. He is also the author of the critically-acclaimed Chasing Graves Trilogy.
Ben’s love of fantasy and tall tales comes from a childhood spent devouring the works of greats such as JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and the Brothers Grimm. Combined with a keen interest in mythology, a passion for creative writing was spawned that occupied most of Ben’s early life and teenage years. By age 13, he’d written three books about anthropomorphised monkeys. They shall go forever unpublished due to reasons of hideous spelling and grammar, but were a good foundation of practice.
After briefly pursuing a career in the Royal Air Force (and bailing out almost immediately after realising he was not cut out for military life), music distracted Ben until age 20, when he decided to turn back to that early dream of being a professional author: the dream of being paid to make up stories. After 18 months of writing, all the while working jobs in bars, restaurants and one pasty kiosk, he produced a debut book – The Written – and was ready to publish. After a truckload of research, Ben realised he could apply his knowledge of the music industry and being an independent artist to working as an independent author.
In 2010, The Written was published in paperback and ebook. Throughout its life, The Written has been an Amazon bestseller twice in the Nordic Myth & Legend categories. 10 years on, and Ben has 12 fantasy novels to his name, as well as a crowd-funded graphic novel and non fiction title, Shelf Help. From the epic, nordic world of Emaneska, he moved onto western fantasy with the Scarlet Star Trilogy, and then wrote a standalone novel about the emotional journey of an immortal golem – The Heart of Stone. In a rapid release over 98 days between December 2018 and March 2019, Ben launched the Chasing Graves Trilogy, a dark fantasy epic set in an Egyptian-style world where ghosts are bound as slaves for the rich. He’s currently releasing The Scalussen Chronicles, a follow-up series to Emaneska.
Ben’s immensely proud to have received critical acclaim for his writing, The Heart of Stone won Best Self-Published Novel in the 2017 Booknest Fantasy Awards. In 2016, weird western Bloodrush was the Bloggers’ Favourite of Mark Lawrence’s inaugural Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO), and it also won the Library Journal’s Indie eBook of the Year award for Fantasy. In 2019, Ben achieved a life goal of writing for the brilliant Black Library and wrote a story in the world of the Age of Sigmar, featured in Inferno! Volume 5.
When he isn’t conjuring up strange new stories or arguing the finer points of magic and dragons, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant, helping fellow authors from around the world to publish their books. Ben is a frequent guest speaker on the subjects of writing, fantasy, self-publishing and marketing. Ben has worked as a Guardian Masterclass tutor, and has spoken at Book Expo America, the London Book Fair, Warwick, Kingston and Southampton Universities, the London School of Economics, the London Screenwriters’ Festival, and multiple prestigious book fairs across the UK. He’s incredibly zealous about helping his fellow authors and writers any way he can.
Aside from writing tall tales, Ben still plays bass, and has a love for photography, making videos, gaming, cinema, flying drones, and travelling. Ben also apparently owns an acre of the moon. Originally from the south of the UK, he has now emigrated to Victoria in British Columbia, where he’s thoroughly loving life exploring the wilds.
Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter and YouTube @BenGalley, or on Facebook and Instagram @BenGalleyAuthor. You can also get involved with Ben’s journey as an author by signing up to The Guild, his monthly newsletter, or by joining The Elite Circle, Ben’s Patreon.