By Reva Sherrard
There was a time when words had power. Oaths and contracts bound their makers as securely as iron, curses flew truer than arrows, and on the slippery outer edges of words was a subtle magic.
In the North, the god Loki wanted gifts for the Æsir, so he sought out the dwarves in their caverns, master smiths who made wondrous things from the Earth’s ores. From the four sons of Ivaldi he commissioned a spear for Odin that would strike whatever the thrower aimed at and always return to his hand; a mighty warship for Freyr that could be folded away so small and light it would fit in your pocket; and living golden hair to replace that which he’d cut from the head of the goddess Sif — another story entirely. When Loki had these treasures he showed them to the dwarf brothers Sindri and Brokkr. They were rivals of Ivaldi’s sons, and their works and hearts were darker.
“Toys,” the brothers sneered. “We make things of real power.”
“Care for a bet?” asked Loki. “Make your own gifts and let the recipients decide whose work is best. If Ivaldi’s sons win, we keep your gifts for free. If you win, how much gold do you want?”
Loki was good at getting gold.
“No gold. When we win, we take your head for our price.”
It was an irregular bargain, but Loki agreed. Sindri and Brokkr set to work, and with secrets only they knew forged a savage golden boar to bear Freyr in battle — a gold ring for Odin that would give birth to nine more every ninth night — and Mjölnir, the invincible war-hammer, for Thor. Bursting with pride, Loki presented the wonders to the Æsir while they sat feasting. Odin, Thor and Freyr tested their new treasures as the other gods and goddesses looked on and the dwarf brothers peered from the shadows. Each gift was an incomparable work, but all agreed that Thor’s hammer was the best, for it gave him power to keep the lumbering creatures of destruction outside Asgard at bay.
No sooner was the judgement made than Sindri and Brokkr came forward to claim their payment. Loki offered them gold — they loved blood better. He ran — Thor caught him. But just as Brokkr was lifting his axe, Loki said slyly, “I wish I could see how you’re going to manage to cut off my head without harming my neck. The neck wasn’t part of our bet, remember?”
It was true. There was no way to sever a head without taking a little neck off too. Though that had never held Brokkr back from decapitating anyone before, because Loki had said it, the dwarf was bound. But the brothers would not leave without taking revenge. Dwarves are very strong; one held Loki down while the other punctured his lips with an awl and sewed them shut with a leather cord. Thus the business between them was concluded. With cunning words Loki had won great treasures for the gods — and learnt that dwarves have no liking for logical sleights.
This was neither the first nor the last time Loki’s tongue got him in trouble. A day came when rather than to work their powers in the world and help Thor fight giants in the east who threatened to destroy all order and beauty, the gods preferred to feast in a peaceful hall lit by gold instead of fire. When they were very drunk, Loki came in and started a terrible quarrel. All the secret things the gods hid from themselves and each other he exposed and mocked: infidelities, shames, and weaknesses. One by one, the feasters tried to cajole or threaten him into silence, but with bitter laughter he went on skewering their buried wrongs and vulnerabilities till Thor arrived, in an ugly mood from fighting giants all day. Now his threats of violence, Loki knew better than to ignore.
“I’ve said what I came here to say,” he snarled, and left knowing that after many adventures he would never again be welcome among the Æsir.
When the gods had slept off their feast they hunted Loki down. To punish him for disturbing their consciences and their peace, they bound him in a cave with a snake above him to forever drip its venom and burn his scarred mouth.
A certain mental flexibility, and the tricky words that go with it, are Loki’s defining feature in the Norse myths. He didn’t have the awesome power of Odin or Thor’s titanic strength, but both those gods found him indispensable whenever they needed an unforeseeable solution to an insoluble problem — which was often. In the Christian era, Loki was called a liar and assigned a darker character; the silverest tongue in the Bible is Satan’s, after all. So it bears emphasizing that Loki’s solutions always involved putting himself in situations ranging from the ridiculous to the extremely dangerous to benefit the Æsir. As an outsider (kin to the giants) and a shapeshifter who could be animal, man or woman at will, he saw things differently and sometimes found himself at odds with the other gods because of it.
His words proved a double-edged weapon. No one likes to feel they’ve been made a fool of or to have their darkest secrets publicly flaunted, and if Loki succeeded in shocking the Æsir out of their complacency he suffered cruelly for it. So perhaps the cleverest of the gods was too clever for his own good in the end; perhaps he thought the price was worth paying. Perhaps he was just making trouble. It’s an ambiguity the trickster himself would appreciate.
While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.