Friday, January 4, 2008

Odin and Loki: A Comparison of Two Tricksters

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a psychopath as “A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.” Clearly, this is an apt description of almost every activity that the Norse god Loki participates in, always the consummate trickster figure. Odin, father of the Aesir gods and their self-proclaimed king, displays a remarkably similar pattern of behavior throughout the corpus of Norse mythology, being an equally fickle and untrustworthy being. Loki is consistently depicted in a negative light as a chaotic enemy of civilization, whereas Odin is king of the Aesir, and therefore the ruler of the natural order. While Snorri Sturluson and some of the other Christian redactors are advancing a post-pagan agenda throughout the extant corpus, the Aesir are generally depicted as the “Good Guys”, the noble warrior-sages wearing white hats and fighting the dark forces of the giants. While Odin is their leader and chief wise man, he is often as chaotic and perverted as Loki in his actions, choosing first one side in a conflict, then giving the secrets of war to their enemies solely to gain more recruits for his massive army of the dead. He hides his name, changes his shape, is constantly drunk, and in general creates a mess of things rather frequently. Loki is introduced by Snorri (p. 26, Edda) with a litany of how infamously evil he is, accusations most of which can be said to apply equally to Odin, although the redactors usually praise the exact same traits in Odin. Snorri accuses Loki of being erratic in his behavior, a trait that Odin takes equal part in. Loki causes numerous problems for the gods, but he almost always comes up with the solution himself, while Odin needs his son Thor to clean up his messes with his straightforward approach to problems. Loki and Odin, while ostensibly diametric opposites, are in fact practically the same as beings of elemental chaos with little to no concern for anyone except for their close kin.

In “Gylfaginning”, Snorri sets the lens through which both Odin and Loki are to be viewed throughout the rest of the mythology. Odin is presented to Gylfi as an omnipotent force to be worshipped above all others, while Loki is shown as a chaotic and evil being contrary to all life. This can be viewed with a little skepticism as Gylfi is getting this story from Odin in three of his guises, leading to a slight bias towards the Aesir. Snorri is trying to demonstrate the falsity of the old pagan religion, but it is also possible that he is subtly drawing parallels between the king of the Aesir and the most vile of demonic Giants, to further re-enforce the superiority of his own Catholic religion. Every charge that he lays at Loki’s feet is in some way applicable to Odin. Even the spawning of weird monsters on a Giantess is not thoroughly un-Odinic in nature. Odin spawns both Vidar and Vali solely for vengeance, a monstrous activity if there ever was one. Thor’s mother is also possibly a Giantess, and from a Giantish perspective, nothing could be more monstrous than the murderous thunderer himself. As for the other charges, namely being capricious and cunning troublemaker, these traits are manifestly part of Odin’s personality as well. Loki is shown to be a resourceful problem solver, rescuing Idunn from Thiassi, procuring many useful artifacts from the dwarfs in recompense for his pranks, and aiding Thor on several of his journeys. In fact, the only bit of mischief that Loki doesn’t help to amend is that of Baldur’s death, which the text credits him with making final beyond all repairs. Odin, on the other hand, often creates problems that need an outside force, namely his son Thor, to come in and fix due to his daring exploits in the quest to obtain all knowledge. Odin is credited with the creation of the cosmos through the murder of his maternal grandfather, Ymir. But again, Snorri is telling us this isn’t really so and that this revelation to Gylfi all a trick being pulled on the gullible Swede, which puts Odin even lower than Loki in a moral context as Loki never claims powers of Cosmogenesis. Without the moral superiority of being the creative force of the universe, which Snorri undermines every chance he gets, Loki is no worse than Odin, who is recast as simply a tribal chieftain possessed of especial aggression and violence against his neighbors.

The ever-fickle Odin is accused by Loki of giving what he “shouldn’t have given, victory, to the faint-hearted” (Poetic Edda, p. 88). Odin doesn’t even bother responding with a defense of his choices in favor, but counters by recalling Loki’s act of ‘ergi’. This is a broad range of interlinked negative concepts in Norse culture, constituting deceitfulness, treachery, witchcraft, and worst of all the ultimate humiliation within medieval Icelandic society, being the passive partner in a homosexual act. Odin’s lack of effective counter-argument suggests that Loki is in fact right, and Odin gives victory to those who don’t deserve it because it suits some other ends of his, generally the procuring of the best of warriors for his einherjar army in preparation for Ragnarok, as shown in Eiriksmal in dialogue between Odin and Sigmund over why he robbed Eirik Blood-Axe of victory despite his worth in battle. The story of the Langobards, although not technically part of the Scandinavian corpus, points to an inconstant and changeable nature for Odin, as he is arbitrarily convinced of the worthiness of the Langobards to win because their women show up with their hair in front of their faces. There’s not exactly a strong case against Loki’s accusations of underhanded dealings with his followers.

Being a pervert, in the Icelandic concept of ‘ergi’, is a crime that Loki is most definitely guilty of, having given birth to Sleipner after having changed shape into a mare and engaging in intercourse with the stallion Svadilfari (Edda, p. 36-36). This is the ultimate act of ergi, but Odin is guilty of ergi on numerous occasions himself. He constantly lies about his true identity, a sneaky and cowardly thing to do by Norse moral standards, and part of the broader implications of ergi. His complete mastery of the magical arts of seidr manifest a deep and constant state of ergi, a charge which Loki makes directly to Odin in “Loki’s Quarrel” after Odin accuses him of another gender-bending childbearing experience on top of that of Sleipner:

‘But you once practiced seid on Samesey,

and you beat on the drum as witches do,

in the likeness of a wizard you journeyed among mankind

and that I thought the hallmark of a pervert.

This leaves Odin speechless, and he lets off to let the other Aesir have their turn arguing with Loki. Thus Loki beats Odin in a contest of words, the domain over which Odin had obtained mastery, the only such case I can find in the texts. Odin can’t honestly say that Loki is wrong in his accusations, and he also can’t defend his actions as being anything other than they are, blatant acts of ergi. Both Loki and Odin are depicted as perverted practitioners of unnatural magic. Since they are both blatantly guilty, the question of why Odin let Loki win the exchange arises. Since they are both guilty of ergi, why is it that Loki is allowed to keep on going, while Odin sits down with his tail between his legs? The answer is that what Odin did was even worse than Loki. Loki gave birth to Sleipner, and apparently three other children never named, which seems to be as bad as it gets. But Loki’s accusations are worse in that he can’t narrow it down to one or even two examples. The actions of ergi he accuses Odin of actually are consistent behavioral patterns that Odin never wavers from. He is always practicing seidr, like witches do, and he is always wandering among mankind in disguise as a wizardly figure. Brave and virtuous warriors fall in battle all the time due to Odin’s treacherous nature. He is just as guilty of being a beguiling Trickster as is his archenemy Loki, if not far more guilty.

Though they are set up as polar opposites on the moral plane of Nordic myth, Loki and Odin are essentially equivalent in terms of their deeds as agents in the world. Both are users of perverted magic, which requires them to take on female roles contrary to the masculine ethos of Norse society. Both play tricks on people of the very cruelest kinds imaginable, leading to the death of many, and in Odin’s case to the creation of a vast army of the dead. The image in the Edda of Loki and Odin staring each other down from their high halls after the murder of Baldur does not depict two diametrically opposed figures representing good and evil, or order and chaos. They both are looking into a mirror, showing that they are both essentially the same, power-hungry and chaotic beings out to get the best possible advantage from every situation without regard for others, the dictionary definition of psychopaths.

14 comments:

Liz said...

Yeah, Sam, you know what?? This is a FASCINATING post... which is why it jumped out at me a few weeks ago when I was looking up some stuff on Norse mythology, "ergi", etc... no time to post then, but I tagged this blog - though I haven't really got any idea of what "parmandur Quettaron" or "auta i lome" actually MEAN... care to fill us all in??

(I don't know why your site doesn't get more comments, actually ... it's interesting... maybe you don't promote it at all, on other blogs?)

The thing about your blog is that I don't know what it's actually dedicated TO - and the profile doesn't enlighten in this respect. I think that it seems to be a literary blog, basically. With certain specific interests - religion, mythology? (Am I right?) As to your viewpoint... again hard to make out... you're young, obviously?? Sceptical Christian?? Because you write poems about Lucifer and essays about Saul and Jonathan - yet link to Skeptical Brin! Wide interests, that's nice... What do you formally study, then, or have you been studying?

IF we were able to know your religious viewpoint, then essays like the one above comparing Odin and Loki would make more sense in my view, have more context. You're a very critical fellow - only you don't tell the reader from what standpoint you are doing the criticising!

That's what confused me about the above essay, which I found to be otherwise very well written, interesting. Though also somewhat "unfair" and mildly offensive to one of my pagan beliefs. And mythological sympathies, which include all Tricksters. (You JUDGE the archetype far too harshly! Well, you're young, you'll learn... They are NOT mere "psychopaths" - which is an out-of-date psychiatric term anyway.)

Anyway, I just though I'd leave you a comment. You provoked some thoughts in me, which I am currently trying to explore in greater detail on my own blog, http://oneoflokis.blogspot.com

Thanks!

Liz said...

Well hello again, Sam: I finally found your answer on my blogspot, left over a year after I left the above on yours& not noticed by me till months later: better late than never for both of us! I've checked out your religious blog as well. Do you have one for your fantasy or rpg interests? Well what made you leave that harsh quote by Hjalti the Banished: I mean OK, if you don't like paganism or its gods you don't - but what caused the hostile tone? Of the original essay too? Some pagan kid annoy you at uni? Beat you at WoW? C'mon. Also: this notion of "disgust": it's not always the best guide to judgement. C S Lewis (another Norse fan!) had something to say about this I believe: like in Christian thought humans are halfway between animals and angels: so that is why we laugh about bodily functions and are afraid of death, or the other way around (and the Norse myths illustrate this well): our disgust is part of our cognitive dissonance. The character Superbia in his allegory The Pilgrim's Regress

Liz said...

is a warning against jumping up too much on the high horse. And why do you denigrate my citing the Loka Tattur? As providing an example of Loki helping humans? It's legit: it's on Wikipedia; and if you click on the link you'll see I've found a full version on another research site in two related languages, and a somewhat clumsy English translation; also details of the poem's provenance. Beat that! And why do you.. anyway, it's going to take me ages to create posts to respond to all of your distortions and like I say, don't blame me if once it's up and finished and my heathen friends see it all they flame you! Be sure to visit that earlier post in the interim (while I get to a better computer) and respond to comments I made about tricksters. You might even find some of them interesting. ONE final fair question: you know you said that John Lindow wrote the essay *with* you? What exactly does that mean (and why isn't he credited then?)

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odinbloss said...

Wow...This is mind Blowing! My Birthright first name is Odin & I am still fighting with Loki after all these years he is still on my back. Unfortunately lately it seems like i am causing the fight by being myself. Like a game of chess sometimes i make a good move and sometimes he does, equally the same to the negative. I respect the hell out of this article and there has obviously been some good research, all though every once in a while i feel what seems to be memories i can't remember clearly..Is Loki my blood brother or just the other side of the mirror trying to get out?

Maria said...

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Brandon said...

I remember a show on the discovery channel, where now with a tomography of the brain on children they can tell if a person is going to be a psychopath or not.
For me that is a great discovery, they can be treated from an early age.
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Old Crow said...

Interesting...
By the definition of a pyschopath,
most politicians,lawyers CEO's of
fortune 500 companies fall into that category,not to mention the RCC,and the god Jahweh( I am a
vengeful and wrathful god)

Ever step on an ant hill ? A god's conscious is cosmic where a humans
isn't.

Gods have to contend with all of creation, if shit happens tough.

Liz said...

Good point, Old Crow - about gods' consciousnesses being cosmic... *And* about the top lawyers and CEOs (although I think many of those qualify as what they call "narcissists": also see Trump! ��); *and* about the god Yahweh! (Jealous monotheistic gods tend to remind me of "The Right Man" psychological theory invented by sf writer Van Vogt and developed by philosopher Colin Wilson...)

Hope you see this comment even over five years later!

And I've got a smartphone and I'm finally going to start properly updating my blog! I've done a lot of reading and learning since; so I'm sure I have some interesting things to say and points to make! I know I'm going to review Neil Gaiman's latest Norse foray for a start; (though that'll take a while as I'll have to buy it first and I don't even know if it's out yet! ��)

So you'll have to watch this space, oneoflokis.blogspot.com, during the next couple of months. Cheers, Liz, aka @oneoflokis! Hat tip also to my old adversary Sam! (The Baldursman malgré lui, heh heh! �� And owner of this blog of course - which has attracted quite a lot of interested, interesting comments! Maybe also because it got featured on author Joanne Harris' site. She has also written at length about Odin - and Loki! �� Hail to all the gods.)

Liz said...

That's interesting Old Crow! I agree with your definition of politicians, *and* lawyers, *and* CEOs! (I think that a lot of those latter especially more fit the term "narcissist" though: I think it was in the book The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. See also loads written on Donald Trump! 😄)

I also like what you said about a god's consciousness being cosmic.

I hope you get to see this even over five years later! (I have a smartphone so I will finally be updating my oneoflokis blogspot with some more interesting stuff! I've learnt a lot and gained in confidence in the interim...)

Yes - this article has gradually attracted a nunber of interested, and interesting comments, hasn't it? It was featured on the site of author Joanne Harris, who has herself written rather a lot about Odin - and Loki! Hail to all the gods. 😊

Sam Urfer said...

O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols;
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in holy array;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth

Sam Urfer said...

O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols;
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in holy array;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth