Loki is an odd character. He lives among the Gods in Asgard, the realm in Norse mythology where Gods such as Thor and Odin reside. But Loki is, quite literally, a different breed. His parents are giants, Asgards eternal enemies, and at the end of times, referred to as Ragnarok, he will fight on the giants’ side. That’s right, he will fight against his fellow Gods. He’s known for his tricks, deception and treachery.
So, according to the literature, what did the character of Loki try to convey to the world?
According to Norse mythology, the wickedness and evil in the world is created by Loki and his offspring. Who are his children? Well, there is Hel, Goddess of the underworld. Yes, the term ‘hell’ is indeed a pagan term absorbed into Christianity. Then there’s Fenrir, a massive wolf that will fight and kill Odin. And the great serpent Jǫrmungandr that is wrapped around the world – it would appear the Vikings knew very well the world was a globe. There is also Sleipnir, a mythical eight-legged horse that Odin rode on. This horse is perhaps Loki’s only child that is not some sort of representation of evil.
Yet, for all the evil that he committed, there is one act that stands out. One act beyond forgiveness.
Baldur, God of Joy
Baldur, the Bold, son of Odin, God of light, joy and summer. Three things that make an obvious match in the sun-deprived areas of Scandinavia. It is hardly surprising that Baldur brought joy and happiness to all that were near him. His radiant personality was literally radiant, as he is said to shine like the sun.
Yet, dark storms were brewing and Baldur kept having nightmares. More than nightmares, they were visions of his own death. All the gods were concerned about, none wanted to lose his joyous presence. As a solution, they decided to approach everything in the cosmos, and have it bless Baldur. No longer could anything harm dear Baldur. The Gods entertained themselves by throwing any spear or rock that they could find at Baldur, and gleefully watched as they bounced off him. The Nordic Gods had quite the sense of humour.
Baldur, so it appeared, was saved from certain doom.
The one exception
Loki went to Baldur’s mother to ask him if he had really been blessed by every single thing in the cosmos. Yes, she said, except for mistletoe. How could mistletoe ever hurt my beloved Baldur? Surely, such an innocent plant could do no harm. And so Loki went and collected all the mistletoe he could find. He crafted the mistletoe into the shape of spear, a heavy spear with a sharp tip.
As all the Gods were having fun throwing their spears at Baldur, there was one God that stood idly by. The blind God Hodr, meaning slayer, had not joined in on the fun. Loki approached him and handed him the spear made of mistletoe. He assured him he would guide his hand in the right direction, so that he wouldn’t miss Baldur. Hodr was elated to be able to join in on the fun and eagerly accepted the spear. Hodr took aim, with Loki’s support. He threw the spear. The spear landed in Baldur’s chest, killing him instantly. The laughing of the Gods abruptly ended, only Hodr’s giggling could be heard. As Hodr became aware of the silence, he too stopped laughing and asked ”Guys, what happened?”
It didn’t take the Gods long to realize that Loki had played another trick on them.
Journey to Hel
Desperate as the Gods were to regain the joy in their lives, they tried to bring Baldur back to the living. Hermod, another son of Odin, travelled to Hel. He told Hel how they all loved Baldur, and how much they longed to have him back. Hel gave them a challenge: if every being cried for Baldur, it would prove how much they all loved him and he could return. Soon, all creatures were crying for Baldur, except one.
A female giant, called Thokk, refused to cry. Now, since Loki could shape-shift, it is generally believed that this giant was Loki in disguise. Loki didn’t only play the trick, but he refused to set it straight! Unforgivable.
This is how Loki ended up chained inside a cave, with a serpent hanging above him. The serpent had venom leaking from its fangs, hitting Loki in the face with every drop. Okay, not every drop. Loki’s wife took care of him and tried to catch the venom in a bowl before it could reach him, but from time to time the bowl would fill up and she had to go out to empty it. Every time she left to empty the bowl, Loki was left alone in excruciating pain. As he shook his chains, the earth trembled.
Loki would stay chained inside that cave until the end of times. Only when Ragnarok came would Loki return, and he would return to fight against the Gods.
Suffering versus Joy
Firstly, Loki is quite a prick. Yet, there may be more hidden in this myth. Loki inflicted countless sufferings on the Gods, but he was always forgiven. Either he would help in setting it straight, or forced to help, or the Gods would forgive him because his tricks were sometimes useful. But not this time. The suffering and hardships they could endure, yet taking away the light and joy of their lives, that went too far.
This is an interesting shift from the modern-day perspective. Today, politicians campaign on taking away suffering and increasing comfort. They never, or rarely, campaign promising more joy in life. Despite people in general living more comfortable lives than any time in history, we are promised even more comfort. It is generally accepted that sometimes we need to surrender some joys, to simultaneously get rid of suffering.
A tolerant bunch
Moreover, Loki was seen as guilty even though he had not thrown the spear into Baldur’s chest. Nobody blamed Hodr as he was clearly tricked into doing what he did, punishing him would not have been fair. On top of that, Loki could have likely escaped his punishment if he had simply cried for Baldur’s death. That way, he could have left Hel and rejoin the living. But Loki did not cry, and damned Baldur to wait in Hel until the end of times.
Overall, the Gods were very tolerant of Loki. They did not trust him. They did not like him. Most of all, they certainly did not respect him. But they did tolerate that he lived among them in Asgard. It’s a bit of a stretch, but a fun thought; perhaps this is where the Swedish high degree of tolerance originates? Were the Vikings more tolerant of evil and wrongdoers than we would ever have expected? How will the Swedes respond when the joy is taken from their lives?