Tales of Insult in Norse Mythology


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

The tales of Norse mythology are woven from the threads of the personalities of the Norse gods and goddesses, and also from the threads of their injuries. Many of the gods have sustained distinctive, life-altering losses of limb or function. The gods are not wholly good—not in character and not in body. And not in their family relationships, either. Even in our own lives, one may find that people are often in conflict with other people they know the best and are most closely related to, and the gods are no exception.

Viking Helmet and Valknut Ring, Silver
The god Bragi initially offered Loki three gifts—a fine horse, a sword, and a ring—in exchange for not further slandering any of the gods. (Image: Alf Staaf/Shutterstock)

Gefjun’s Truth

In the Poetic Edda, there is a poem titled ‘Lokasenna’. It roughly translates to ‘Loki’s truth-telling’, and that’s what it was. It is set around a feast of the Norse gods and goddesses, where, after killing a servant and being thrown out, Loki returns and declares that he would go inside and insult the gods.

During this slander, Gefjun, an obscure goddess, tried to ply Loki with compliments, and said he was a cheerful fellow beloved by everyone. But Loki told her that he knew about a time she slept with a man in exchange for a necklace.

One-eyed old Odin called Loki crazy for insulting Gefjun and said that she could foresee the fates of all living things.

Odin’s Accusations

Odin also added that Loki was guilty of worse, that he had lived for years among human beings as a cow, and as a woman, and that he had given birth to children. Odin said this is the way of living of a pervert—of a man who in Old Norse is called argr, an adjective that implies unmanliness in any and all respects, but especially in sexual proclivities.

Loki responded, however, that Odin was guilty of the same thing: that he also had practiced the quote ‘pervert’s way of living’, as Odin had practiced womanly magic, and lived and dressed as a witch, among the humans, on the magical island in eastern Denmark that in modern times is called Samso.

It is important to notice that the gods and even Loki himself, don’t ever deny the bad behavior they’re accused of and very likely, it is to understand that these imputations are true.

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Altercation between Loki and Njorth

Now the god Njorth spoke up and he tried to deflect the shame back to Loki, because he was the god who had borne children after all.

Loki told Njorth to shut up, and he said that on one occasion—in a story unknown to us—Njorth’s mouth was used as a urinal for the daughters of one of the anti-gods. Njorth tried to deflect by drawing attention to the son he was proud to have fathered, the god Frey.

Loki rebuffed even this attempt to save face. He said that Njorth’s son Frey was the child of incest, of Njorth and his own unnamed sister.

Thor Threatens Loki

A photographic reproduction of the painting, showing the two mythological figures during Loki's bondage that goes by the title Loke och Sigyn
In one of the Norse tales, we are told that the gods tied up Loki. They then tied up a venomous snake over his face to drip its poison over his face. (Image: Mårten Eskil Winge/Public domain)

Now the gods’ great fighter Thor entered the hall. Thor is described traditionally as a big red-bearded man equipped with his great hammer, with which he fights the gods’ enemies and safeguards the homes of gods and humans alike.

Thor threatens to smash Loki with the hammer, prompting Loki to remind him of an occasion in which Thor embarrassed himself by hiding inside an enormous glove.

Loki Tied up by the Gods

It is told that Loki hid himself in a waterfall disguised as a salmon, but he was caught by the gods. The gods turned one of his sons into a wolf, and made Loki kill another of his sons, and then they tied Loki up with the intestines of that murdered son.

Then a venomous snake was tied up over Loki’s face to drip poison onto him below. Loki’s wife, Sigyn—who has no other known role—would sit beside him and catch the poison in a large container, but she would now and then need to empty it, and when she would do so, Loki would tremble and this would cause earthquakes as the poison dripped onto his trembling face.

Interpretation by Contemporary Readers

Modern readers sometimes wonder if a tale in which the gods are all insulted and made to seem less than perfect could actually be a relic of the pagan era. Some have suspected that this poem must have been composed by a Christian who was contemptuous of all the old gods.

But there is a rich tradition in many polytheistic societies, including India and ancient Greece, of acknowledging the imperfections of the different gods, especially since different worshippers will favor different ones and perhaps have friendly or not-so-friendly ideas about why their particular favorites are the best.

Plus, the language of the poem in which this tale is told is, in fact, archaic enough that it was likely to be composed in the 900s AD, before the conversion to Christianity. So believers in the Norse gods seem to have had a complicated relationship with their gods, just as their gods did with one another.

Common Questions about Tales of Insult in Norse Mythology

Q: What does Loki accuse Gefjun of?

Loki told Gefjun, an obscure goddess, that he knew about a time she slept with a man in exchange for a necklace.

Q: Does Thor appear in the feast of the gods and goddesses?

Yes, Thor appears at the hall while Loki was insulting the gods. Thor threatens to smash Loki’s head.

Q: Who is Sigyn?

Sigyn is Lokis wife who appears in the tale of Loki where he was tied up by the gods. She has no known role other than sitting beside him and catch the poison in a large container that is dripping on his face.

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