… and the question of morality and slander in Lokasenna and Skáldskaparmal.
I’m back from my slightly longish blogging hiatus — it was necessary and “urgently recommended” by the Bossman. I’m taking the new year as an opportunity to boost the presence of the less mystical aspect of my worship of Loki on this blog. Because there is such an aspect, and it’s important for my practice.
I have been wanting to write about the light in which I view the Lokasenna, and Loki’s role within it and during the events following it. The role or “spirit” of the Lokasenna is subject to much controversy among scholars. Even dating the poem has proven notorious, although there are two main reasons that favour a late dating (around 1200):
- the Christian, superelevated moralistic appraisal of the Gods’ misconduct
- influences of classical symposia of Gods that were probably unknown in Iceland before 1200
There are several scholars who have argued a Heathen authenticity of the Lokasenna. Most of this discourse took place around the middle of the 20th century: Dumézil discusses a “Heathen spirit” of the Lokasenna, and even writes: “probably, the poet of the Lokasenna was a good Heathen who did not want to question the maiestas of the Gods, which has, even during times of unchallenged Heathenry, always been accompanied by pittoresque minora” (p. 114). As an example for such a “pittoresque minorum” — a sort of droll story — Dumézil mentions the Hárbardsljóð in a footnote.
Dumézil’s argumentation can be understood especially considering that he needed Loki’s authentic(!) guilt of a (posited) murder of Baldr for his analysis of the parallels between Loki and the Ossetian antihero Syrdon. Lokasenna 28 provides an admission (well, claim rather) of guilt on Loki’s part. Dumézil’s argumentation hinges on the murderous nature of Baldr’s death, and Loki’s guilt of it: he cannot but postulate Heathen authenticity for Lokasenna, as Lokasenna provides the latter, which in turn supports the former as implied in Gylfaginning 50. Take away heathen authenticity from Lokasenna, and Gylfaginning 50 becomes vulnerable; take away the murderous nature of Baldr’s death and Dumézil’s argument crumbles.
More recently, the interpretation of Lokasenna as Heathen comedy has been strongly contested. Y. Bonnetain elaborates: “[It] should by now be obvious with what kind of explosive material Lokasenna really is dealing, despite the strong language that may seem comical from today’s perspective. On no account is Lokasenna to be interpreted as comedy. For that, the issues addressed are way too serious, their association with the ragnarök partly only alluded to [Note by me: for instance via the use of the kenning “wolf’s father” by Odin in Lok. 10], but partly even blatantly spelled out […]” (p. 296).
Obviously, Loki’s quarrel provides ample ammunition to quarrel over… but against common misconceptions among modern-day Heathens, a causal link between Loki’s punishment (if punishment is in fact what it is at all) and Baldr’s death cannot be established via Lokasenna.
In my opinion it is obvious that Loki’s essential role in Lokasenna is holding up the mirror to the Gods and drag unloved truths into harsh daylight — and truths they are, as it would otherwise have been easy to accuse Loki of lying and silence Him. The moralist tone of the poem does not surprise, given its late dating; however, an argument can be made that Lokasenna was specifically used to morally re-interpret the ragnarök themselves (namely, painting them in the light of “just deserts”). The moralist interpretation was just as artificial then, as its modern-day reversal and the spiteful hatred levelled at Loki among American Heathens is today. In fact, it can be said that in Lokasenna, Loki was used as an agent for “the Christian re-interpretation” (Bonnetain, p. 303) of Norse myth.
This of course creates a personal spiritual question that I have to ask myself, and likewise everybody who seeks access to Loki the God via analysis of the sources and research: How much of this role in Lokasenna is even essentially LOKI? And while many contemporary Heathens (those with friendly attitudes towards Loki anyway) see this role as particularly central and essential for Loki, I have personally come to a slightly different conclusion: I fully acknowledge that Loki does have the character trait of creating disturbance by making explicit that which is unspoken and blocked out; however, I absolutely object to a moral interpretation of this trait. In my opinion and experience, the role of disturbing the peace — such as it is or isn’t — is completely subordinated to Loki’s role as “mover of stories” (Sagna hrœrir, cf. Haustlöng); and He acts where He can fulfil this role to the fullest effect, namely where things are seemingly safely locked away by both social and individual taboos.
Thus, I believe that a moral interpretation — be it unfavourable or favourable — of Loki’s confrontational course in Lokasenna completely misses the point. However there is another aspect of Loki’s role that I haven’t addressed yet, and that is that of consequences, and specifically why they happen.
Lokasenna‘s prose frame gives an abbreviated account of Loki’s flight, His capture and the subsequent enchainment. A longer version of this tale is found in Snorri’s Gylfaginning (ch. 50), albeit not linked to the quarrel in Lokasenna. However, that isn’t of much concern. The unclear placement of the Lokasenna prose frame within the greater mythology becomes secondary if one considers that it is not the only — and probably not the oldest — myth dealing with binding Loki, and Loki’s accountability for His (slanderous) actions.
Skáldskaparmal 35 tells the story of the cutting of Sif’s hair, Loki’s subsequent wager with the dwarves that ultimately provides the attributes of the Gods: Gungnir, Draupnir, Skídbladnir, Gullinbursti, Sif’s golden hair, and of course Mjölnir. As events proceed, there is a vote which of the acquired objects are the best. The vote fails (well, this is a slight matter of perspective) due to Thor and Mjölnir, which eventually leads to the violent incapacitation of Loki’s mouth.
In both this myth and the Gylfaginning 50 mentioned above, as well as the prose frame of the Lokasenna, it is Thor who makes an appearance as Loki’s capturer and the one who restrains Him, holds Him down. In Skáldskaparmal, the dwarf Brokkr uses Thor’s action to sew together Loki’s lips with an awl and a leather thong.
This is approximately the tool that did it, btw. Not exactly surgical precision material, is it? [Image source: Wikimedia Commons]
Of course this raises the question whether Loki’s action in the myth of Skáldskaparmal 35 can indeed be considered slanderous (as I hinted above). On first sight, it doesn’t really look like that at all: Loki snips off Sif’s hair, Thor is angry on Her behalf and thus denies Loki His support. Still, considering the scary tools depicted above, and especially considering that the Gods just made an incredibly fortuitous deal, Thor’s reaction appears somewhat over the top, almost unnecessarily relentless.
But in this context, an entirely different text provides an interesting potential clue, namely Tacitus’ Germania. Therein, we find the following information:
“[…] adultery is exceeding rare; a crime instantly punished, and the punishment left to be inflicted by the husband. He, having cut off her hair, expells her from his house […]” (Germania, 19).
Now, it must be said that Loki’s cutting off Sif’s hair cannot be definitively placed in a context of adultery. In disfavour of such an interpretation, mention must be made of the temporal and geographic distance, as well as the differences in function of the texts in question (namely Germania on one hand and the Edda(s) on the other).
HOWEVER: considering adultery as a possible context for the Skáldskaparmal 35 myth immediately shows the whole affair in a completely different light. Because if Loki, by cutting off Sif’s hair, accuses Her of adultery — which He repeats in Lokasenna 54, and which is also a taunt that Odin uses in Harbardsljóð 48 — then His action can indeed be called slanderous.
First and foremost however, Thor’s denial of support for Loki would become a lot better understandable: the fact that Mjölnir, despite its somewhat shortened handle (*ahem*) is still… quite the tool, would only ostensibly be the reason for the failure of the vote. The same would hold about Thor’s wrath on behalf of Sif. Ultimately, following this theory, Loki isn’t silenced for a possibly reckless wager that He lost, nor for a prank He pulled on Sif out of mischief (as Snorri puts it). He is silenced because He humiliates Thor by publicly cuckolding Him.
1.) Poetic Edda; translation by Henry Adams Bellows.
2.) Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson; translation by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur
3.) Germania, Tacitus; translation from Internet Medieval Sourcebook
4.) Loki, Georges Dumézil. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1959. German translation by Inge Köck.
5.) Loki — Beweger der Geschichten, Yvonne S. Bonnetain. Edition Roter Drache, 2012.
Translations from 4.) and 5.) into English are my own.