A colleague posted this image on facebook and it got me thinking and I’m going to share some of those thoughts with you now. The statement in the image implies that since at some point Loki was bound, He cannot now be an active part of the pantheon. The corollary to that of course calls into question the integrity and veracity of those who claim devotion to Him. That’s what this meme is clearly stating.
Loki is a polarizing figure in contemporary Norse and Germanic traditions. Some denominations venerate Him, some don’t, some excoriate Him, and some will pour out offerings to Him when Odin is given offerings but only because of a single line from the Lokasenna.(1) They pour them out, but they don’t like it. I think it fair to say that no other commonly recognized God evokes such strong feelings (one way or another) as this one. (2)
Assuming however, that because Loki was once bound, that He is always bound, or that in being bound, He loses His capacity to act in our world is a bit problematic from a theological point of view. It makes for nice apologetics for those who detest His veneration and want an excuse to mock those who hold Him dear, but theologically it doesn’t quite hold up.
Firstly, to make the assumption described in the photo is to assume that the Gods are bound by substance, corporeality, and temporality in exactly the same way that we as human beings are bound.(3) We know that the Gods are outside of these things because They created them, existing before these substantive things ever were. This is all the more so if Loki and Loðúrr are indeed the same Being. While not all Gods may have been involved in that particular moment of fixing the materiality (and by extension temporality) of the worlds, there are Three Who were: Odin, Vili, and Vé or Odin, Hoenir, and Loðúrr, the latter of Whom I hold with the skalds to be Loki. If temporality then has no hold on Them, in the way that it does for us as human beings, if Their nature as Holy Powers is by necessity different from ours (which I’m going to assume for sake of this discussion it is. If you want a proof, I can play Anselm later), then it follows that Loki, like Schrödinger’s Cat can be at once bound and unbound. Time would not be a mitigating factor here.
That is the key to something called ‘mythic time.’ Perhaps part of Loki is always bound as part of Odin is always hanging on Yggdrasil –but here we veer into the realm of Mystery. He is bound and not bound. Loki devotee Kenaz Filan says, “For me the binding of Loki is one of the greatest sacred Mysteries of our cultus, and Sigyn’s loyalty to Her spouse one of the greatest examples of piety the Nine Worlds has ever seen. It’s not something to be joked about.” (4)
In the Eddas, Snorri, writing as a Christian two centuries after conversion carefully euhemerized the Gods. In other words, he presented the stories he was telling as though the main figure, the Gods, were at one ancient time, people. He stripped the sacred from our tales because he was not Heathen. He was writing a guide for poets who were, having been Christian for two hundred years, forgetting the meaning of the various kennings employed in Norse poetry. He was not a devout man and though we owe him a debt for preserving what he did, it would have been better had we never been exposed to Christianity in the first place. We have fragments of what was once invariably complex and nuanced body of regional practices. Snorri reduced our Gods to human. Why are we so eager to do the same? Mythic time is not our time. The Gods are not people.(5)
Nor are our stories morality plays. So much of medieval Christian literature served as morality plays for the listeners, readers, or viewers. That is not the case with our sacred stories. They were never intended to be taken as a guide to life or to inculcate values.(6) They were intended to teach us something about the Gods. They were keys to the Mysteries of the Gods.
Loki is, whether some Heathens like it or not, a key figure in our cosmology. He is a catalyst – the enemy of entropy. He is a helper to the Gods, essential in acquiring for Them Their primary attributes (Odin’s spear, Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s boat, etc.). If He is indeed, as the skalds maintain, Loðúrr, then He likewise has a powerful cosmological role in re-ifying creation within our mythos again and again and again. He carries the holy, the numinous into our world and along the rainbow bridge to all the worlds, traveling with Thor, Protector of Midgard. Given the strength with which His cultus has grown over the past decade, across denominations, even across religious boundaries, it may be that the question of whether or not He is still bound, is effectively moot. Res ipsa loquitur.
- Lokasenna, stanza 9.
- To the point that some Heathens even question whether or not He is a God. The most common refrain along this line of thinking is “He’s nowhere called a God, He’s a Jotun!” Actually, for those who need a reference from the surviving skaldic materials, Loki is actually referred as ‘Ás’ in Gylfaginning, chapter 20. (The cry then goes up from some Heathens, ‘well, Snorri didn’t mean that!” And thus interpreting out of the material all the inconvenient facts that would make your religion something other than polytheistic Protestantism begins. * sarcasm *) Ás of course, refers to a member of the dominant pantheon of the Norse, the Aesir. We could say that it means ‘god’ but that’s not exactly its primary translation (there are other words in Old Norse that one could use for that). It implies one of the holy Powers, specifically one associated in some way with the Aesir, that tribe of Gods responsible for ordering the cosmos.
Of course the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jotnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jotnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás’…unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers (of Whom Loki may be one – more on that in a moment) decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order (and there’s enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumezil certainly thought so), then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable (all Aesir having begun as Jotnar perhaps?) and we likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, Whose cosmological focus is different. One wonders at the mutability of membership in these divine clans.
In the creation story, Vili and Vé are sometimes called Hoenir and Loðúrr. The identification of Loki with Loðúrr is not universally accepted but there is skaldic evidence. As Dagulf Loptson notes in his article here:
Þrymlur I-III 21
“The identification of Loki as Loðúrr is one that has been highly debated, though in reality becomes perfectly blatant if one reads the Icelandic rímr, which are epic ballads from the 14th century. One of these ballads, Þrymlur (which was written roughly between CE 1300-1400) follows the same basic storyline as Þrymskviða. Both stories are an account of how Þórr’s hammer Mjöllnir was stolen by the giant Þrymr, who demands Freyja as his bride in exchange for it. Þórr is then persuaded to disguise himself as Freyja in order to reclaim his hammer, and Loki accompanies him disguised as his bridesmaid. In the Þrymlur account of the story, Loki is directly referred to by Þrymr as “Lóður” when he comes to visit him.”
- It is also to assume that we possess the full canon of sacred stories. We know that we do not. We likewise know that the stories we do possess were, to one degree or another, Christianized. This has been an ongoing problem within Heathenry. Because most of us grow up in religions bound by “scripture,” I think there’s an instinctive desire to have the same type of written authority and written legitimacy in our polytheisms. It doesn’t work that way though and for our ancestors never worked that way. One may use the lore to provide something of a scaffolding for one’s practice, to keep one from going off the rails (see here or here) but to assign it the authority of the Bible or Koran is stupid, anachronistic, and ultimately deleterious to the traditions. It is a source of information, information that must be carefully picked apart and analyzed. It is not the word of the Gods.
- We don’t, I think, see the Gods interfering with and specifically undoing the work of another God. That would be a violation of Their sphere of influence, a breach of cosmic order. The question may be thus raised of how much of Loki’s power to act is bound when He undergoes this ordeal, as well as for how long. In Greek mythos we have one story of Apollo violating cosmic order to avenge His son. He is banished and has to serve a mortal for a specific period of time. The banishment and service is temporary however which raises the question of the imbalance that might be created by permanently binding a God’s power, as well as the question of whether or not such a thing is even possible for the Gods to do.
- To reify Snorri is the equivalent of treating some fanfiction on tumblr authored by someone who can’t tell the difference between a marvel character and a Norse God as scripture; or let me correct that, perhaps it’s better to say the equivalent of treating Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” as scripture since Snorri did , unlike most on tumblr, have talent.
- Almost without exception in polytheistic cultures that role was taken by philosophy. We don’t know what type of philosophies the Northlands would have developed, had they been left unmolested by Christianity. But we do have the examples of Greece and Rome, as well as the Celts with their Druidic class, not to mention Indian traditions, that point to a differentiation between religion which is about relating to the Gods, and wisdom traditions like philosophy which are about developing oneself as decent human beings. There’s no reason to think that the Norse, amongst all the extant IE traditions, would have differed in this regard.