Loki, in Norse mythology, is consistently referred to as one of the gods—never as one of the anti-gods. This is in spite of the fact that he leads the anti-gods at the final awful combat of Ragnarok, and that he has the ability to shape-change into animals, which makes him resemble the anti-gods more than the gods. The gods themselves, other than the two most morally dubious, Odin and Loki, aren’t said to take animal forms.
This uncertain identity, this duality between Loki as the author of evil and the goofy sidekick, is present everywhere we come across Loki’s name.
The contradiction was so ingrained in his character that we find echoes of it even from very late. For example, a story contained in a collection of traditional folk rhymes from the Faroe Islands, only published in 1822, still preserves some of the character of Loki in an unmistakable form.
Odin and Honir
In this early nineteenth-century story from a remote corner of the Scandinavian world, a farmer has lost a board game that he played against an unnamed anti-god. And apparently, the unwise farmer and his anti-god opponent had wagered the farmer’s son on the outcome of the game.
The farmer decides that his son must be hidden from this anti-god, and he prays first to Odin. Odin tries to hide the child by causing a field of tall wheat stalks to appear overnight, and then turning the boy into a grain of wheat on one of the wheat stalks.
But Odin has to bring the kid back to his parents when the anti-god begins to tear up the wheat.
Then the parents pray to the obscure Honir, who appears instantly. He turns the child into a feather on a swan’s head. But the anti-god kills the swan, and Honir has to summon the child back to him before he goes down the anti-god’s throat.
Now that both Odin and Honir have failed to hide the child effectively, the farmer and his wife call on Loki.
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Loki and the Three Halibut Fish
When Loki appears, he demands the farmer build him a boathouse with a large window that has an iron pole stuck in the ground just inside it. The reason for this strange requirement becomes clear only later.
From that boathouse, Loki launches a fishing boat with the child in it. Loki catches three halibut fish. Loki then turns the child into a single tiny egg of halibut roe, and throws the fish back overboard.
As Loki rows back to shore, the anti-god notices him. The two go back out to sea for fishing, and before long, the anti-god has caught the same three halibut fish Loki did and is counting out the roe from one fish, looking for the boy.
Loki turns the boy back into his normal form and casts him back on land, where he starts to run away. The anti-god leaps onto shore as well and tries to follow, but can only plod along in the deep sand drifts.
The Bulky Anti-god
The nimbler boy reaches the boathouse that his father built at Loki’s request, and jumps in. The bulkier anti-god tries to jump through as well, but gets caught in the tight space inside and impales his head on the iron pole set up within. Loki comes up behind him and cuts off a leg—but the leg grows back into the anti-god’s body.
Loki then cuts off the other leg, and stuffs stones and sticks between the leg and the rest of the body to prevent it from growing back. Now the anti-god dies of his injuries, and the boy is reunited joyously with his parents.
Loki and the Gods
Yet, as helpful as Loki might seem in the story, Snorri, in his Prose Edda, characterizes him in largely negative terms.
It is always made clear that though Loki is counted among the gods, he is never really ready to stop causing them harm. Loki is posited as a god who brings trouble even when he’s not actively malevolent.
Origin of Loki
Loki’s own origin is clouded in uncertainty. His father is said to be an anti-god. His father’s name means ‘dangerous striker’, which in Old Norse is Farbauti. Loki’s mother is said to be a goddess, with a name that means ‘leaf-island’, Laufey. Other details of Loki’s origin are entirely lost to the forgotten lore of the past.
Loki’s name itself is synonymous with his chaotic, destructive nature. In fact, one of Odin’s strange names in poetry is ‘Loki’s friend’. This name might be accusatory in nature, given the destruction Loki will one day reap.
Common Questions about The Duality of Loki
Odin tries to hide the child by causing a field of tall wheat stalks to appear overnight, and then turning the boy into a grain of wheat on one of the wheat stalks.
When Loki appears, he asks the farmer to build him a boathouse with a large window that has an iron pole stuck in the ground just inside it.
Loki’s father is said to be an anti-god. His father’s name means ‘dangerous striker’, which in Old Norse is Farbauti. Loki’s mother is said to be a goddess, with a name that means ‘leaf-island’, Laufey.