And now it’s time for Round 3 of the September mythology series. I’ve been looking forward to featuring one of the Norse deities since I’ve grown to love them over the past decade. Thor is my favorite Avenger, and the Asgardians rock! Odin from American Gods is amazing, and Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman may officially be one of my favorite books on myth.
But who is truly the fairest of them all when it comes to the legendary Norse gods?
Well, that’s easy for me – it’s Loki, the Trickster.
As I mentioned during the intro to this series, I am a huge fan of Joseph Campbell. The Trickster God is a subject he discusses at length during various interviews and The Power of Myth. According to Campbell, the Trickster is a force of chaos whose role is to break down systems – an agent of change who brings destruction, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The Trickster is often associated with jokes, funny situations, or mean-spirited pranks which make a myth more engaging and relatable, even a bit spicy.
For writers, the Trickster might be the villain or simply an antagonist opposed to the main character. The Trickster may break laws and social norms, but he/she is not always inherently evil. We love these characters because they bring what everyone craves – the conflict. It’s the storm of upheaval, back-stabbing, unexpected moments of humor, and epic fights that keeps us turning the pages especially if the writer also succeeds in building sympathetic main characters.
The Trickster archetype is a timeless figure in pop culture and myth. Europeans love their legends of Loki, Hermes, Prometheus, Eris, Lugh, and Gwydion (to name a few). Campbell calls Yahweh of the Old Testament a Trickster figure, who in a fit of pique will destroy all life on the planet when humans push him too far. It’s like when you misbehave in the car with your siblings, and Dad yells from the front seat, “I’ll turn this car right around!” even after hours of driving to a much-anticipated destination. When Yahweh gets pissed, the earth is wiped down to the bedrock and life eventually totters back to its feet to try again. Except this time, Father, they totally promise to be good.
But the gods, trickster or no, don’t always appear like us humans. In some cultures, animals can be trickster gods. The West Africans have Anansi, the keeper of stories who is also a spider. The Native Americans assign this role to three main animals – Hare, Coyote, and Raven – which, maybe not coincidentally, are also notorious troublemakers on Looney Tunes and early Disney cartoons. Think of Bugs Bunny always dancing a few steps ahead of poor Elmer Fudd. Sounds like the perfect story an irritated Native American hunter might create to entertain his tribe, attributing supernatural powers to the wily prey who manages to constantly elude him.
The Tricksters come in all types, from entertaining clowns to dangerous criminals who commit dastardly deeds against gods and men. However, no one compares to Loki.
As a general warning, the “real” Loki is not quite identical to his Marvel character. He is not Thor’s brother. Instead, he’s a sort of blood brother to Odin who brings him into the Aesir. And while many of Loki’s machinations seem aimed at undermining or hurting Odin personally, he has made a fair share of trouble for all of his fellow gods.
Unlike the true Aesir of Asgard, Loki is born from a frost giant and a woman of indeterminate background who may have also been a giant. He is a god of mischief and strife, thought to be related to the fire element, and similar to the Devil/Lucifer in Christian mythology. At his darkest moment, he’s the mastermind behind Baldur’s treacherous murder which leads to his own downfall and binding. After cheating on his wife, Sigyn, he finds a wicked creature to help him spawn monstrous children. With the dread giantess, Angrboda, he fathers Fenrir the Great Wolf, Jormungand the Dragon, and Hel the dread goddess of the Underworld. Loki is fated to oppose Asgard at Ragnarok, the battle at the end of times, and his children play key roles in the ultimate destruction of the gods and their home.
Loki is also a shape-shifter, which includes transforming into animals and even switching genders. In a hilarious story about a giant building a wall around Asgard, Loki attempts to prank both the gods and the giant. But, once the gods tire of his games he’s forced into a desperate act to save his skin. He transforms into a mare, woos the giant’s horse, and gives birth to Sleipnir – the famed eight-legged horse who becomes Odin’s legendary mount.
Another epic but sad tale is Loki’s betrayal and murder of Baldur. It’s a long tale to share in a blog, so I heartily recommend reading the version in Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Killing the beloved god of light and beauty through treachery damned Loki forever in the eyes of the Aesir. He led them on a merry chase, but the gods eventually captured and trapped him. Loki was bound in a cave with a poisonous serpent hung over his head. His devoted wife, Sigyn, holds the bowl to catch the nasty venom. But when she leaves to dump the full bowl, Loki is exposed to the venom’s virulent sting on his forehead. His agonized torment shakes the entire earth. And there he will remain, until he escapes to begin Ragnarok.
Loki is punished for his multiple tricks, and each account is more brutal than the last. But, that’s often the fate for Tricksters. Eventually they have to pay for their crimes. Some, but not all Tricksters. Sometimes they continue doing whatever they want without consequences, their interference pushing the same story forward without an end in sight.
Whenever I read Loki’s stories, I often laugh out loud. He’s wild and unpredictable, like watching a god-like version of Jackass. I’m especially fond of his adventures with Thor, who’s also pretty funny for a hero. Loki can be humorous or wicked, but he’s always compelling. How could he treat divine beings, members of his adopted family, with such breathtaking irreverence? It’s almost sacrilegious, a mockery of the divine. But, the more Loki acts like a jerk then the more the other gods shine with nobility in comparison. I never rooted for Loki (much), but I always kept the pages flipping ahead to see what that crazy guy would do next.
And Loki continues to gather fans thanks to comics and film. Marvel’s Thor film adaptation premiered in 2011, and Tom Hiddleston knocked my socks off with his performance as the Trickster. In the movie, Loki and Thor are brothers, sons to the mighty Odin and the lovely Frigga. And Loki discovers he is, in fact, not an Odinson but the son of Laufey the terrible frost giant. He always felt he lived in Thor’s shadow, and he grows certain none in Asgard could love him because frost giants are despised by the Aesir.
The movie version of Loki is vicious, deceptive, and poisoned by jealousy. But at the same time, Hiddleston’s performance offers stunning moments of vulnerability. Despite his horrible behavior and betrayals, you can’t help but feel some sympathy for a powerful god who feels like a total outsider. A truly multilayered villain, Marvel’s Loki is definitely not someone to root for…and yet, I find myself doing just that.
It was difficult for me to go on after the end of Thor: Ragnarok. I managed to watch Avengers: Infinity War but I have yet to see Avengers: Endgame because I need my Loki! I love Thor, but without Loki, it feels as if something’s missing.
It’s Loki’s schemes and machinations that lead to the apocalyptic events of Thor: Ragnarok (my favorite Marvel movie). But, even at his worst in Thor: The Dark World, his adopted mother Frigga loved him. She never gave up hope on the quiet, lonely orphan she opened her heart and home to. And back to Thor: Ragnarok, when Thanos tortures Thor it’s Loki who steps up and takes a shocking death blow for the brother he’s been undermining since the beginning. As far as I know, Loki is still dead after his brave and unexpected sacrifice. I refuse to give up on Loki, because I’d like to see the finish of his redemption arc. And after that, maybe he can resume some lighthearted mischief to keep the Avengers and Thor on their toes.
Loki is a towering figure of legend who’s managed after thousands of years to stay relevant. It’s definitely in vogue to create sympathetic villains, and Loki is one of the best modern examples of this. There’s something frightening but magical about watching a morally gray character go the opposite way of the hero, taking a fall into darkness and transforming into the Other. Villain, outcast, loner – Loki is all that and more. But, we still sympathize with him because we’ve all felt like an outcast at least once.
That is a core feature of quality fiction, the creation of a character that the audience cares about – even when sometimes they know the character is wrong. We should hate Loki because he’s a troublemaker on his good days and a monster on his worst. I unabashedly wept for him in Thor: Ragnarok, and I yearn for his return to the Marvel Universe.
The Trickster is not a pure and admirable hero, but the changes they affect are necessary. It’s Loki’s betrayals which lead to the destruction of Asgard. Forced to retaliate against every one of Loki’s plots, Thor’s weaknesses are knocked away one by one. Fighting against Loki makes Thor stronger, a sight to behold as he’s one of the most brilliant and unstoppable heroes to ever exist. Without Loki, we wouldn’t have Thor’s transformation from spoiled prince to magnificent king. And that would indeed be a shame, a world without the Thor we’ve come to know and love.
Thor was forged in adversity, and Loki was the proud author of that misery. And as humans reading or watching these stories unfold, there’s an important lesson for us. People say all the time to value struggle because it makes you stronger, and I believe this is true. Of course, in the moment it’s hard not to despair and hate the hurtful things which threaten to break your spirit. But if you never give up and keep fighting, you might emerge from the flames a stronger and wiser individual. So, swing your savage hammer and shout a victory cry. But don’t forget to thank that mischievous Trickster for testing you, forcing you to stubbornly push ahead and unlock true greatness. You know you’re a warrior now, a survivor – and so does everyone else. Skol, friends.