Loki: The Humanizer of Norse Gods


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

In the Poetic Edda, there is a poem called the ‘Lokasenna’, which roughly translates to ‘Loki’s truth-telling’. However, the truths in question are not pleasant, and some might be exaggerated to have a more caustic effect. The scene in this story is set during a feast of the Norse gods. It is much like that in a celebrity roast, where all the participants know one another and take ‘digs’ and jabs at each the other.

Two silhouettes of armed Old Norse Gods who are fighting in guise of Vikings against sunset sky with circle of clouds and red decorative pattern
For a high-status being such as the god Loki, to murder a mere servant wasn’t really even a notable crime. (Image: drumdredd777/Shutterstock)

Loki: A Murderer

One evening, all the Norse gods and goddesses were gathered together for a great feast. But here in the peaceful realm of the gods, with gold as the very light for their banquet, was the dark figure of Loki. He is a shape-changer who might take many forms.

During this splendid feast, Loki took exception to the generous praise the gods were heaping on their waitstaff, and he kills one of the servants. The gods got a little upset, and they shook their shields at Loki, shouted at him and drove him out into the forest before returning to the feast.

But, in the night, Loki returned to the door of the hall, and there he met a waiter, who told him that if he went inside once again, the gods would take whatever slanders he spoke about them and wipe those slanders right off on him.

Insulting the Norse Gods

Loki, however, declared that he would go inside and insult the gods, and so he barged in. The gods fell silent when they saw who it was in the doorway.

Here is what Loki said:

I come thirsty

into this hall,

I, Loki, after a long road,

to ask the gods

to offer me

just one drink of their famous mead.

Why are you so silent,

you proud gods,

why do you say nothing?

You ought to show me to my seat

at such a feast,

or else order me to leave.

Notice the sarcasm apparent in the statement here, with Loki, the recently cast out murderer, taking on the role of a poor wanderer seeking hospitality. This hospitality is, in fact, an essential and sacred tenet of Norse society. But the obligations go both ways—as certain behavior is expected from the guest as well, including not murdering the waiter serving one at a feast.

So he is enacting a trope not unfamiliar in Norse or modern literature, where the defiler of a virtue takes a stand for the rightness of his own entitlement to others’ virtues.

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Loki and Odin

The first one to respond to Loki’s taunt was the god Bragi, a minor figure associated with poetry. He told Loki that there was no seat for him at the gods’ banquet, that the gods knew who they wanted to share an evening’s drinks with.

During Loki’s speech, he attested the pact that him and the one-eyed Odin had made at some point for unknown reasons. Whatever the motivation for this pact, it may be the reason why Odin keeps Loki around in the first place, for Odin survives on wine alone. So, if Odin honors this pact, then perhaps Odin would starve without this resented blood brother.

Later, Odin speaks to his son, Vithar. Odin already knows that Vithar will avenge Odin’s own death by killing Loki’s son, the great wolf Fenrir, at Ragnarok. Thus Odin bowed to his agreement with Loki, but at the same time Odin was clearly reminding his fellow gods of Loki’s ultimate position as an enemy within the hall of the gods.

Disdainful Behavior of Loki

And so the always silent Vithar stood and served Loki a drink. But before he took the first sip, he addressed the gathered gods with these words:

Hail gods and goddesses,

All the high and holy Æsir! except for that one god who sits farthest down the bench, that one there—Bragi.

Despite the taunts, Bragi offered Loki three gifts—a fine horse, a sword, and a ring—in exchange for not further slandering any of the gods.

Loki only found a new opportunity to insult for this, asking where a coward like Bragi could have got such fine treasures to bestow on him. After all, it is the brave man, the ready fighter, the reckless raider, who acquires fine treasures and might seek to increase his standing by giving them to powerful men. Loki was implying that Bragi was a coward, by implying that he did not actually had such honorable gifts to give.

Loftiness of Loki

An illustration to Lokasenna. The list of illustrations in the front matter of the book gives this one the title Loki taunts Bragi.
Bragi’s wife, Ithunn, told him not to slander Loki at the divine feast. (Image: W.G. Collingwood/Public domain)

Bragi threatened Loki in response, asking him if he’d like to ‘take this outside’ in terms not unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever witnessed a barroom brawl. But Loki called him a benchwarmer, a man who’s ‘brave while he’s sitting’. Loki said that Bragi ought to go ahead and take a swing if he was brave enough.

No swing got taken, and Bragi’s wife, Ithunn, told him not to slander Loki at the divine feast. Ithunn was known as the one who kept the gods’ magical apples which they ate, like the Greek gods’ ambrosia, in order to remain youthful.

But here she was merely the first of several goddesses to withstand Loki’s insults. For all the goddesses, Loki’s insults were materially the same—he accused them all of promiscuous sexual behavior.

Now, there is evidence from other preserved myths to back up Loki’s specific taunts of the male gods—he may be pointing out real failings of theirs. But the generalized and repetitive sexual insults that Loki made about all the goddesses may just be bluster.

Common Questions about Norse God Loki

Q: What does Loki do during the feast with the gods and goddesses?

During the feast, Loki took exception to the generous praise the gods were heaping on their waitstaff, and killed one of the servants.

Q: Who are Vithar and Fenrir?

Vithar is the son of Odin and Fenrir is the son of Loki. Odin knows that Vithar will avenge his own death by killing Loki’s son, the great wolf Fenrir, at Ragnarok.

Q: Who was Ithunn?

Ithunn was the wife of Bragi and she is known as the one who keeps the Norse gods’ magical apples that they ate in order to remain youthful.

Keep Reading
The Poetic Edda and the ‘Prose Edda’
How Odin Got the Mead of Poetry
Understanding Viking Cultural Values through Norse Mythology