In comparative mythology there is no other example of a trickster changing shape and gender, getting impregnated and delivering an offspring? Or is there? As Varg Vikernes would say: “Let’s find out.”
Greek mythology has its fair share of gods and even people who are cross-gender. For one, we have Hermaphroditus who is the offspring of the union between the trickster god Hermes and the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite. This goddess should not be taken at face value because she has a much deeper role in the creation of the cosmos than modern neo-pagans give her credit for, very much like Freya in the Old Norse who in the cosmogony represent a cornerstone in the foundation universal creation. What we have here with Hermaphroditus is what in magical terms we would define a threshold being exisiting in the liminality between two different realms of existence. In this case the realms of existence are the two parts that make the human soul after, according to Plato’s Myth of Aristophanes, it split into anima and animus.
But let’s move on. In Greek mythology we also see the prophet Tiresias. Tiresias had the accidental misfortune to fall foul of Hera when spotting two serpent mating by the wayside, in moment of fright killed the female snake. Hera thus punished him by turning into a woman for seven years. After this time, he once again came across two copulating snakes but this time left them alone and he was granted back his masculine appearance.
Loki is undoubtely a masculine god and we can be fairly certain of it given that in Norse myths the other gods routinely mock him about it or do things that would have undermined it and trickled dishonour over it. I thought that the writers of the popular series Vikings made an excellent job in playing out this insidious emotional undercurrent between Loki and the Aesir through the evolving relationship between Ragnar Lothbrok and Floki: the rising King and the marginalised Craftman/Cunning Man behind his success and the interest of the tribe. Odin’s imagery is constantly dripped and dropped in the backdrop behind Ragnar Lothbrok’s every action and decision and the same can be seen with Loki/Floki character development. At one point these juxtapositions of myth-over-man themes are made blatantly obvious in this scene.
Loki is a liminal being at all effects because he embodies the extremes of duality on every level of his multiple manifestations. I will write about these manifestations in future articles. This is of no consequence to us as human beings unless we decide to engage with him through magical practices. Then, yes, we need to have at the very least a basic understanding of who he is, his purpose in the greater scheme and why he does what he does, so we can decide whether our engagement has a meaningful purpose for our magical practice and perhaps beyond that service, or we are merely swayed by neo-pagan thinking into being fancifully seduced by Tom Hiddlestone’s endearing personification.
Liminal figures have these characteristics in common: mediate between humankind and the gods, mediate between the gods and different worlds, shift between male and female, spirit and flesh, blind and seeing, past-present-future, connect with the Underworld. Loki is all this. He is also a male god who gives birth to a magical horse.
Before going any further, we need to look at the materia prima, go straight to the only source available to us and extrapolate some unbiased, undiluted mythical facts which may hold significant metaphysical meaning.
Enter Snorri Sturluson: medieval Icelandic lawyer, poet and politician. A Christian…yes, but a political one who fought for Iceland’s independence from Norway. A poet nonetheless and a very concerned one at that, he complained his contemporaries were beginning to forget the tales and the ways of old. I argue that many Jews forced themselves in swallowing the bitter pill and accepted Christianity because it was the only (smart) way in that political climate to avoid scrutiny, persecution and preserve their creed. It’s the sort of thing you do when you have no other choice but you want to live another day in the hope you might, one day, help tear down the system.
For the purpose of exploring Loki’s transformation, I will be pulling out some relevant points from the Gylfaginning poem also known as The Trickery of Gylfi.
In the poem we learn that at a time the Aesir wanted to fortify Asgard against the Vanir, a builder, offers to build a wall around Asgard, in exchange for Freyja, the sun and the moon. Following Loki giving his two cents on the matter, the gods agree with the builder’s terms and allow him to use his horse Svaðilfari.
The horse turns out to be stronger than anything they’ve seen before and they are worried they will have to pay up.
In discontent, they blame Loki for this decision and tell him to solve the problem. In fact, the Aesirs promise him a horrible death if he doesn’t fix the problem and Loki says he would do it whatever it cost him.
Loki goes about to distract Svaðilfari and we get a sense it’s not easy task and may have to take a special something to stop the horse from working. Loki shapeshifts into a mare. That night, the builder drives out to fetch stone with Svaðilfari, and out from a wood runs a mare. The mare neighs at Svaðilfari, and “realising what kind of horse it was,” Svaðilfari becomes frantic, neighs, tears apart his tackle, and runs towards the mare. The mare runs to the wood, Svaðilfari follows, and the builder chases after. The two horses run around all night, causing the building work to be held up for the night, and the previous momentum of building work that the builder had been able to maintain is not continued. (Faulkes 2008:36)
The magical powers of sex are made apparent by providing the only successful expedient to hold back the horse from getting his master to succeed and demand payment. Just as with Hera’s snakes, the two go off and mate. This union of male and female is an interaction of two polarities or sides of the same coin coming together as one on the axis of balance. But let’s go back to the tale.
Back in Asgard, while Loki is busy keeping the horse entertained, the builder, now without his horse and facing defeat, reveals his true identity: he is a Hrimthurs, otherwise known as Frost Giants, the same race as Loki. Thor flies in a rage and kills him.
Whilst in the shape of the mare and during the whole drama unfolding in Asgard, Loki falls pregnant and gives birth to another horse who is endowed with the sum of his mother and father’s legs – eight in all. This horse combination resulting from Loki and Svaðilfari is Sleipnir and it is fastest than any other to travel to and fro the worlds.
Outer layer interpretation: Human Perspective
Nowdays, we say “Take responsibility for your own actions!” In this poems we see the Aesir unable to come to a decision among them. Loki put forwards his suggestion and because everyone then ends up going along with it like a herd, when things go wrong he becomes the crucible of the situation. Rather than pulling together, it’s much easier to blame Loki who is then threatened with his own life and forced to choose between his life and his dignity. He opts to live another day and essentially (for argument’s sake let’s hold masculinity as the privilege he forsakes within that particular culture) prostitutes himself and later has his child taken from him by his pimp. Forced in such situation what would you or anyone be likely to engender? I leave the question open for the reader to answer.
The poem has also been used by those who have an interest in using Loki as an icon for LGBTQ politics. This is of course another human perspective and as all human perspectives it involves projecting whatever feelings and values are prominent in an age and culture as a filter blanket over mythology. I do not condemn it but I do believe it is a new disingenuous narrative that leads us astray from the deeper impliacations. Not because of the prejudice of pre-Christian and Christian civilisations before us but for the reason I will give in the concluding line in the following section on mythology.
Second outer layer interpretation: Mythologycal Perspective
Up to this point Loki’s close relationship to Odin has been going for some time and had him counted as one among the Aesir. In chapter 20 of the Gylfaginning referred to as the “`as called Loki”. Also important to remember that his legitimisation in the Aesir comes from maternal lineage, unlike historical and mythological Old Norse custom of paternal lineage, thus he’s know as Laufeyson.
The Aesir took him in their fold and follow his advice because he’s already known for possessing guile and cunning to a greater degree than others. When things don’t seem to be going according to plan, the Aesir do not waste time to plot against Loki to get rid of him or put him in the way of his own dawnfall. In spite of Loki being officially listed among their kin, he is not one of their own and never fully accepted. There are those, who like Thor harbour suspicion and hatred of the ‘other’ just the same. This would be the perfect pretext to kill and be rid of Loki, save the blood pact obligates the Aesir, Odin in particular, to grant Loki the possibility to make reparations. It also forces the Aesir into finding a way to overcome a bigger problem: have their wall and save Freyja, the Sun and the Moon, which are essential for sustaining life and balance in the universe. Through this troubled course of events, the Aesir not only achieve their onjective but also pre-empt a Frost Giant’s attack and Odin acquires a horse that allows him to travel to the world of the dead. This event is possibly the catalyst which sets in motion a series of incidents between Loki and the Aesir which will culminate in the fulfillment of the Ragnarok prophecy. Other poems indicate the Aesir will not let Loki live down this debasing experience and remind him of being the Father of Monsters, an ergi, who gave birth to Odin’s horse. It must be remembered Loki deeply resents being reminded and the such only further inflame him with more spite and anger. If you want to make an enemy of Loki, now you know how.
Inner layer interpretation: Metaphysical Perspective
The Aesir (new gods/new religion of the Iron Age) are struggling in a war with the Vanir (indigenous local cults from the Bronze Age); much as they have made substantial conquests (Freyja was taken hostage from the Vanir, Sun and Moon are cosmological building blocks of order/life/balance) and advances, opposing forces do not only come from the Vanir (yet to be conquered) but also from the realms of chaos (Frost Giants).
Here Loki is caught in the liminal tension between his ancestral origins (Frost Giants) and his family of adoption, the old and the new, the past and the present/future. The masculine/active/solar side of his lineage pulls him to behave according to his Frost Giant chaotic nature. In order to bring resolution, Loki must anchor himself to the polar opposite, the feminine/passive/lunar matrilinear side that connects him to the Aesir. This is where shapeshifting comes into play. In order to immerse himself totally into the feminine, Loki must first surrender (in a sense sacrifice on the Aesir’s demands) his masculine side and thus, chaos. He must also assume the same form of the polar opposite he is inteding to attract –
Svaðilfari. It must be remembered that Svaðilfari is another Frost Giant’s horse and that in metaphysical terms we are talking about a familiar spirit (fylgjur) of such nature unlike anything the Aesir had seen before. Loki assumes the form of a mare and goes forth as Odin’s fylgiur to distract the giant’s, whose work at this point can be compared to that of a magician sitting out (Utiseta). A practice that by the way was associated with battle magic. Loki has access to those same powers of the Frost Giant/builder and he is going to bridge them into the Aesir and, by default, empower the Aesir. The mare acts as a fylgjur for Odin and the whole clan but belong to neither. It is interesting to note a recurring theme in Norse mythology: familiar spirits of sorcerers always come in the form of horses. Perhaps this is why spirit possession is also known as horsing.
Loki’s expedient (and stealth) is in transforming himself into a female/passive counterpart of Svaðilfari, using the same form/different polarity formula first to attract and then to vibrate at the same frequency – Svaðilfari responds frantically with neighs and tearing away. Loki steps into action by leading the other giant’s fylgjur into the woods (uncharted astral territory) where his master cannot longer control it and loses it, no matter how hard he chases after it. to re-merge and loop back to masculine side, where he absorbes some of Svaðilfari’s into himself.
Sexual union lock Svaðilfari and Loki in a close circuit. Three things happen here as a cause and effect of each other: Loki loops back to the masculine side in full circle, re-merges with it by absorbing the excess whilst keeping the flow running around the circuit, this mechanism (akin to how electricity works) sparks the creation of a third masculine familiar spirit who is separate in identity, Sleipnir. Sleipnir is even more powerful than Svaðilfari because he embodies both Loki’s divinity and the fylgjur’s attributes.
But there’s more. Loki’s intrusion short circuits the giant and knocks him right off balance when his work (Utiseti) is abruptly interrupted. By driving Svaðilfari into the woods, Loki pretty much pulls the blanket off and runs away with it. As soon as it’s done, the giant loses power and unravels fast. Without a fylgjur to protect him his true self is vulnerably stripped bare, and it is then Thor kills him.
I am no electrical engineer, so when I wrote this I had to went to double check my facts to make sure I wasn’t re-inventing science. In the process I came across this interesting clip on You Tube where Maria Kvilhaug exposes very interesting theories. I don’t agree with all of them but that’s just a matter of different perspectives that reflect different backgrounds and possibly different spiritual experiences. Regardless of that, she is a scholar and spiritual ambassador for Norse spirituality who has my respect. It’s good to know that if I’m bonkers, at least I’m in good company! Enjoy the clip (shortcut here).
Second inner layer interpretation: Magical perspective
This myth finds several applications in scenarios where you are actually in the shit either because put the foot in your mouth, you are in a group situation where people lose their nerve and blame each other, you are under group pressure, you are under magical attack or a combination of all or any of the three.
Chaotic as you might be you have to reach out for the polar opposite. The same goes if you are a very Apollonian magician. Go in the opposite direction and stay put. This serves to confuse your astral footprints and it’s especially important if you suspect to be the target of a magical attack. Acting out of character puts you in a safe place. E.g: always late? Be punctual. Or, if you are a routine person, break it and change it to make it as unrecognisable as you can. Very important: unpredictability is not synonymous with reckless stupidity. It’s going to be hard because for the change to have an authentic neutralising impact, it has to occur on patterns that are so hard to break, they are actually as you as it’s your digital imprint. Even better if what you’re breaking is an addiction or a compulsion. It could be, breaking free of victim mentality and leaping to self-acceptance and assertion. It can be dangerous but only if we misjudge what the other extreme is. It is a form of sacrifice of the self to oneself which, if you are thinking of drawing on Loki’s assistance, will set you on the right frequency to make contact.
At this point, intent as you light a candle and going perfectly still, is all that you need to get the ball rolling. Stillness is great for keeping the emotions quiet which also gets you off the astral radar. On this token, the inner contact with Loki does not occur on the astral plane, so beware of cheap imitations popping into the neck of the wood of your imagination at this time. Loki pertains to a category of giants, like Mimir, who are Keepers of Knowledge and acts primarily in the intellectual sphere where strategic thinking formulates. The effects of the contact may not be immediately apparent but over the space of few days they should make themselves manifest with a swift response to a situation you might have not normally have thought, said or done. You might be well chuffed with how wittily, effectively, cunningly you handled it. Or maybe the cover has just blown off something or someone putting you one step ahead of a situation. For Loki’s sake, if that happens, don’t be tempted to point it out and let people know that you know. It would cease to be to your advantage.
The next step is to sit out and that means going still and flip yourself in vision, if you know who your fylgjur is and what it looks like.
If you don’t know your fylgjiur, then you should sit out with the purpose of meeting it. How it’s done will have to go in another article.
If you’ve did the first steps of this excercise correctly, you are ready to shapeshift your fylgjur in the best fit that will allow you to observe your attacker from where it works. Ask Loki for assistance in finding the best shape. He might appear as anything because of the nature of the work you’re about to do, so if you’re sensitive to unsettling images, approach as you would a goetic demon and ask he makes his presence known in fair form but try to avoid going for anything resembling human and that could stir up emotional desire, seduce you or distract you or you’ll end up as the Svaðilfari of the situation, with disastrous repercussions. In your vision, you should receive a sign or be brought one by something, an animal or person. It could be a symbol, a rune, or some object of sort. Whatever it is, is what is needed. Take it and hold it in front of your fylgjur. Do not attempt to put it on them, just wait for as long as it takes and observe what happens without forcing your vision. Take note of the transformation as it will provide you with many clues about the nature, the source, the strength, to whom and where the attack is directed. Instruct the fylgjur to seduce and cause the attacker’s familiar spirit away from them but do not flavour your instructions with what you think it should happen next, for two reasons: your fylgjur is under the direction of the magical guise that was given to you. The guise has the additional purpose of bridging Loki’s power to transmute and enliven to the fylgjur. It will do what it needs to do, but you must not interfere and let it run its course. From now on, all you have to do is observe for your own education. The problem will resolve itself as if by magic – pun intended; the worms will come out of the woodworks before your eyes and may even give you a good laugh; it catches your opponent by surprise and blows their cover away causing a considerable kerfuffle. They’ll be chasing and wondering where it got to. At some point, and it can happen symultaneously out of space and time, your fylgjur might bring you back something. That something contains part of your opponent’s familiar, a bit of its soul, and part of your fylgjur. Take it. Do not even contemplate refusing it. Make good use of it as it will sure serve you well but always treat it with the utmost respect and only for the purpose it serves. You will have to figure out what it is for yourself. That’s called responsibility, which goes hand in hand with magic. I’ve had to learn it myself over the years and for all that I’ve described above, I’ve a few examples in my inner portfolio.
It is also time to return shed the guise, so in vision, go back to the place where you handed over the object to your fylgjur and hold out the hand you gave it with. Once the object is back in your hand, return it to the being that gave it to you in the same way it was given. If it was left in a place for you to find, put it back in the same spot.
You don’t need to say thanks or give sacrifice. You made sacrifice at the very beginning and as the myth goes, once some things have been done, there is no talking about it, not even and perhaps especially not, with the gods.
- Faulkes, Anthony (Trans.) (2008). Edda. Everyman. ISBN 0-460-87616-3