Loki is a trickster god of legend capable of changing his sex at will. He is also the closest thing the old Norse narratives come to queering gender. No wonder he’s Thor’s arch enemy in both Marvel movies and comic books and yet one of the most engaging figures in the Marvel cinematic universe. Part of that is the actor playing him’s unmistakable charm. But the truth is, there something bracingly fey about the character, wherever you encounter him. Recently, as part of Marvel’s Dark Reign storyline, Loki takes female form for most of the narrative. His bisexuality in terms of the objects of his desire is only hinted at.
As such, it seems a necessity to devote an article to Loki for this website. Intriguing figure of myth and legend, a reflection of ancient LGBT history, comic book villain. Loki checks all of the boxes and still eludes easy understanding. Loki is initially an amusing figure in Norse legends, though he is ultimately blamed with the destruction of the old order of Asgard, the sacred realm of the gods. As will be seen, much of the ambivalence towards Loki in the Norse saga seems related to his androgynous aspects and involvement in a woman’s form of enchantment.
Early on, though, most of Norse tales about Loki emphasize his trickster aspects. Loki cut Sif’s hair, stole Idunn’s apples and Freyja’s necklace, and managed to get Thor, the burly thunder god, into a dress, disguising himself as “her” handmaiden. This last trick, however, was conceived in a positive effort to regain Thor’s hammer and he turned into a mare to help save Freyja from marriage to a giant.
As can be seen in even this preliminary review, Loki showed a persistent interest in women’s things and the feminine in general. He also transformed himself into a woman and/or became pregnant on a number of occasions.
In one brief yet intriguing passage in the Song of Hyndla, Loki is described as having found a half-cooked witch’s heart in the embers of a dying fire and then eating it. Eating the heart of an animal was viewed by the pagan peoples of Europe as a way of obtaining the wisdom and powers of that animal. By eating the heart of a bird, for example, one might learn to fly. In Loki’s case, by eating the heart of a witch, he became pregnant, thus obtaining one of the feminine mysteries. Loki gave birth to the first ogress, from which all other female ogres were descended. It may be this brief vignette reflected the first time Loki sought to obtain women’s magic. He would use it frequently throughout his adventures. He is also referred to as loptr in this brief vignette, “he who flies aloft,” an ability he is variously assigned due to magic shoes or cloak.
In the ancient poem, Loki’s Quarrel, Odin revealed that Loki lived as a milkmaid for eight winters under the earth in the land of the dead. Others describe him as a witch. In any event, as a woman, Loki gave birth to a brood of witches, one each winter. Eight appears to be a meaningful number to Loki, as we will see in the nature of his most unusual pregnancy.
The trickster’s feminine side was also evoked in his involvement with the death of Balder. Loki turned into a woman to trick Balder’s mother Frigg into revealing her son’s only vulnerability to mistletoe. After Balder’s death, which he reputedly engineered, Loki took the form of the elderly giantess Thokk and refused to weep for his rescue from the realm of the dead.
Loki’s Most Unusual Pregnancy
But the most famous example of Loki’s sex and shapeshifting abilities was demonstrated in the story of Freyja and the giant. When the gods were interested in building a wall around Asgard, Loki helped them enlist the aid of a giant at the task. When the giant balked, Loki suggested they set an impossible completion date that if the giant met, he would have Freyja’s hand in marriage.
What Loki and the gods didn’t count on was the giant’s use of his mammoth horse in pulling rocks from the earth and otherwise aiding in the construction. When it looked like the giant would finish right on schedule, Loki turned himself into a beautiful mare to distract the giant steed. It worked. The giant finished behind schedule and Freyja was saved.
Loki, however, was pregnant. He remained in mare form for the length of the pregnancy, giving birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. The horse was truly remarkable, able to traverse the heavens and even fly to the land of the dead and back. Loki gave the fowl to Odin as a gift.
It is worth noting at this juncture that amongst medieval Norseman, to accuse a man of “having the nature of a mare” was to say that he was an agr, that is to say in modern parlance, a coward and feminine homosexual. This accusation was often directed by one warrior against another, and was used by Gudmundr and Odin among others. There seems little question that the phrase originated from Loki’s episode as a mare.
The impression should not be given that Loki was in some way exclusively homosexual in behavior or overtly feminine in presentation. He is repeatedly described as a handsome man who fathered, by the giantess Angrboda, three monstrous children: Hel—goddess of death, Fenris the wolf and the Midgard Serpent. Loki also boasted he’d seduced the wives of Thor and Tyr. As a trickster, he defies proper behavior of any sort. He is simultaneously a womanizer and a woman!
Loki’s Seasonal Significance
Loki’s feminine aspect is used in more than one legend to convey subtle secrets about the passing of the seasons. One tale tells how the winter goddess Skadi was grieving her father’s death, a death Loki had indirectly caused. Odin called Loki in to make her smile. To do so, Loki tied his testicles to the beard of a goat, with a resulting humorous tug of war. Some sources suggest that Loki’s testicles were torn off by the goat’s tugging, and the resulting castration and sacrifice of blood brought about Skadi’s laughter, as well as the coming of spring. Loki as eunuch would remain consistent with his pattern of gender variance.
Loki’s presence as a pregnant milkmaid in the land below during winter furthers this seasonal symbolism. This vignette has also been described as a nature myth. Loki is seen as the subterranean fire that endures the winter, giving birth to new growth in spring. Cow’s milk is regarded as the warm waters of spring. This interpretation seems a stretch, though its parallels to the Skadi-Loki encounter are intriguing. Loki’s patronage of fire seems stronger in earlier sources.
Loki as a Practitioner of Women’s Magic
In the famous banquet of the gods that preceded the end of the world, Loki verbally sparred with all the gods and goddesses gathered there, revealing all their darkest secrets. In turn, Odin accused Loki of being an agr, that is to say, a cowardly, feminine man. Odin referred to Loki’s years underground as a pregnant milkmaid as evidence.
In response to Odin’s claims, Loki didn’t dispute them, only countered that the lord of the gods was no stranger to change of sex sorcery nor the feminine magic called seidr. Seidr was once practiced by men as well as women, though the evidence suggests that seidrmen were feminine in manner and took the passive role in sex with other men. They may have dressed as women, or at least wore some article of women’s clothing. This type of magic was practiced by the indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. Transgendered, homosexually inclined shamans were common among healers of Siberia and the far North of Europe.
When Thor’s hammer was stolen, as told in Thyrm’s Poem, the thunder god turned to Loki for help. Together they went to Freyja to see if he could borrow her falcon feather cloak, which allowed the wearer to become a bird, or at least to fly, all the better to conduct a search. Freyja and the trickster were apparently on good terms at the time. “Even if the cloak were made of silver, you could use it,” Freyja told her friend. “Even if it were made of gold.” While Loki was never described as wearing women’s clothes (as a man, at least), his borrowing of Freyja’s cloak is suggestive.
When wearing Freyja’s feathered cloak, Loki was able to fly. Freyja was the patron of shamanism and the power to flight is a frequent attribute of shamans; taking on Freyja’s shamanic role gives the trickster that power as well. One of Loki’s praise names is Loptr, or Skywalker. Other sources describe him possessing a pair of shoes that granted him the ability to fly.
On other occasions, Loki transformed himself into a fly, a flea, a seal and a salmon. But it is only Freyja’s feathered cloak that he wears on three different occasions. Other shamanic-like qualities of the cloak are the power to transport its wearer to anywhere including the underworld and return with it with the secret destinies of gods and men. And a shaman’s attire frequently included androgynous dress. The most powerful shaman’s in Siberia underwent a total change of sex. Remnants of cross-dressing shamanism remain among the indigenous Sami of Northern Scandinavia who wore a woman’s hat while divining.
Taken collectively, Loki’s androgyny, trickster qualities, and shaman-like powers suggest the mythic equivalent to a gender-variant shaman. Such figures were once valued as well as feared, but the medieval sources available to us suggest that the practice of seidr by men had become increasingly viewed as something shameful.
The Demonization of Loki
The increasing animosity towards Loki is consistent with the notions of late pagan Scandinavia. The power of gender-changing was still acknowledged but viewed with suspicion by the more militaristic Viking culture. The association of seidr with the older order of Norse deities, the Vanir, confirms the impression that gender-variant priests were likely part of the religious beliefs of a defeated stratum of medieval Scandinavia.
The arrival and victory of Christianity in the region was probably the final straw. An overlay of Christian values was yet another layer of negativity that appears to have completed the process of Loki’s demonization. His evolution from mischievous trickster and deceiver to chief devil of the Norse pantheon was complete. He is said to have fathered (or mothered, with Loki one can never quite be certain) three figures central to the devastation of Asgard: Fenrir the wolf, Hel–goddess of the underworld, and the World Serpent (all portrayed in the opening image of this article).
Even so, if the gods had to die, it made sense that Loki presided over their passing. His associations with death, and frequent journeys to the land of the dead (Sleipner, his daughter Hel and his liberal use of the falcon skin suggest he had easy access) all make Loki a god of transition as well as of fire and mischief.
Loki’s Popularity as an Anti-Hero Today
Loki’s prominent role in the Thor and Avengers movies has already been noted. There have been over twenty issues of Loki comic books (comics featuring him and not Thor), including the most recent, playfully titled Loki, Agent of Asgard. The trickster was also featured in a successful novel length treatment by the Chocolat author, Joanne Harris, entitled The Gospel of Loki. Harris hues closely to the source material, all the while infusing Loki with all the charm and unpredictability that make him relate-able to modern audiences. I could have wished she had played up his gender rebellion, which is of greatest interest to me. That said, it was a very enjoyable read. The same goes for Neil Gaiman’s beautifully rendered Norse Mythology. While not singularly focused on Loki, and an adaptation of existing myth, not an original novel, Gaiman grants the trickster the full and even sympathetic presence on the stage he deserves. I’ve written a short story featuring my own take on Loki that I hope to see published at some point.
Public domain image is Carl Emil Doepler’s 1882 book illustration, “Loki and his Children.”
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