I have started a collection of mythology buddies. I have done this not only for my sanity, but the sanity of my friends who occasionally stare at me like I’ve grown horns when I get excited over figuring out the relationship between gambanteinn and laevateinn. (spoiler: there is none.) One of my mythology buddies is actually herself Lady Loki. This post is the alternative to screaming wildly on her facebook feed.
The aforementioned Loki-friend mentioned, the last time we saw each other, that she had a theory regarding Loki and Odin. She pointed out that supposedly Odin only drank wine when Loki was served as well. He would only sit when Loki was seated. What if, she suggested, the reason Loki was never worshipped was because he and Odin were two sides of the same deity? What if they had once been the same god–chaos and order in one form? There was no evidence for this theory, she concluded, and a real mythologist would probably laugh at her. But I was intrigued. I thought it had possibilities. So I kept an open mind as I continued to read my way through the never-ending stack of books on the subject.
The thing about theories is that if you go looking for evidence to support them, you will eventually find it. That’s why it’s so hard to prove or disprove anything, especially in fields like science and mythology. I’ve found an overwhelming amount of support for Nicole’s hypothesis, and I thought I’d collect it all in one place. I should point out however, that I personally am disinclined to agree with the theory. I think Loki’s character is too complex and, more important, too critical to the role of storytelling. I think his existence (and status as a non-worshipped being) is much more likely to go back to the need for an antagonistic force in the songs and tales of the northmen.
The first evidence I found was in Viktor Rydberg’s “Teutonic Mythology.” Rydberg is obsessed with proving the influence of greek and roman deities on the Norse pantheon, and vice versa. He brings a very classical view to the chaos of the Norse mythology, devoting an entire volume to the structure of the underworld, to the point of addressing points of similarity with Dante. But he isn’t completely making things up. In his first volume he talks about the Norse Gods and their similarities to greek ones. Most importantly he says that Mercury was the principle deity known in Germany. He supports this with evidence from Tacticus and other Roman scholars at the time, and seems to think that it’s very likely that the concept of Mercury that we have today was very much borrowed from the German Wotan, not the other way around.
While the similarities between these two gods is unmistakable, there is another Norse deity who is also associated with Mercury or, as he is more commonly known as, Hermes, and that is the wily Loki. Hermes is known always as the trickster, so is Loki. Hermes travels through the air, so does Loki. The fact that both Loki and Odin have strong ties to the same Roman deity is very, very interesting. But the similarities between Norse and Classical mythology is never straightforward enough to count as proof, so we need more than that to prove this dualistic hypothesis.
Now we come to the works of Gabriel Turville-Petra, specifically his “Myth and Religion of the North” which I highly recommend if you’re into this kind of stuff. He’s not into comparative mythology as a science, but he does a very good job giving an overview of what everyone else has done on the subject. He references a lot of books that haven’t been translated into English, and he gives the fairest treatment of the Loki question that I’ve ever seen. The first thing to catch my attention was this:
“Loki’s relations with Odin were closer [than Thor’s]; he was Odin’s companion, friend and foster-brother. Both of them were shape changers, sex-changers, and deceivers.”
All of this is true! You don’t realize it until someone lists it off like that, but Odin’s disapproval of Loki’s behaviour is rather hypocritical. It’s also interesting to note that Loki is the only one who behaves like this. Thor, Tyr, Frigg, Freyja–none of the other deities are given to sneaking around in disguise the way Loki and Odin are. They’re perfectly happy to sit in Asgard and behave like proper gods. But Odin’s behaviour, when you look at it, is suspiciously Loki-esque.
But it gets better. Most mythologists are more than willing to make Loki the scapegoat for everything wrong in creation. He is credited with everything from sour milk to the existence of death and the plague. But Turville-Petre takes a more rounded view of the issue. He points out that Loki occasionally betrays the gods, yes, but he also helps them. He points out that Odin’s hands aren’t exactly clean either. He ends the chapter on the trickster god with this observation:
“Nor is it possible to dismiss the hypothesis that Loki, as well as Hod, were, in origin, aspects of Odin. Snorri said it was Loki who caused most evil but, according to the Helgakvida Hundingsbana II, Odin causes all evil.”
That is interesting.
Luckily I have two or three copies of the Poetic Edda on hand at any given moment and I looked up the verse in question.
“Bereft of reason, raving art thou
To wish they brother such baleful fate
Of all evil is Othin father
He strife did stir among staunch kinsmen.”
–The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, translated by Lee M. Hollander
What does it mean that Loki is credited with being the father of monsters and bringing all evil into the world, but that Odin is considered the source, father even, of all evil?
To finish off I looked through the bibliography to write down any titles I wasn’t already familiar with. And I find this reference:
“F. Stom (Loki, 1956, German) against studied Loki primarily from ancient literature and found him an hypostatis of Odinn, his foster brother. This view has been much criticized but cannot be lightly rejected.” –G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North
Hypostatis is surprisingly hard to define, but Wikipedia says: “The concept of hypostatis as the shared existence of spiritual and corporal entities has been used in a number of religious and intellectual settings” which seems to mean what I think we want it to mean in this context. Unfortuanately, any further pursuit of this question has been stymied by the lack of an English translation of the scholar in question. If anyone is interested in translating this is the book in question: Loki : ein mythologisches Problem and it’s available at a surprising number of university libraries.
So, could Odin and Loki once have been two attributes of the same deity? Could a character such as Mercury have split into opposing protagonistic and antagonistic forces? Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know. But at least we will no longer feel crazy for thinking it!