This article is intended to be a bit of a word study, regarding the exact words that Snorri uses to describe Loki in Snorra Edda. By examining these words we can draw some conclusions about what Snorri himself may have believed about Loki’s nature, or at the least the qualities he wanted to paint him with as a character in the stories he was about to tell. These are the qualities Snorri wanted his readers to assume about Loki upon their first introduction to him, which can tell us a bit about the role Loki plays in Norse cosmology according to Snorri.
There’s no way to tell whether or not Snorri’s portrait of Loki resembles the Loki that would have been known to practitioners of Old Norse religion, so we can’t assume that Snorri’s Loki is a prefect representation of the deity of Loki. However, it could give us some clues to think about.
In Gylfaginning 33 Snorri gives us his first description of Loki:
“Sá er enn talðr með ásum, er sumir kalla rógbera ásanna ok frumkveða flærðanna ok vömm allra goða ok manna. Sá er nefndr Loki eða Loftr, sonr Fárbauta jötuns. Móðir hans heitir Laufey eða Nál. Bræðr hans eru þeir Býleistr ok Helblindi. Loki er fríðr ok fagr sýnum, illr í skaplyndi, mjök fjölbreytinn at háttum. Hann hafði þá speki um fram aðra menn, er slægð heitir, ok vélar til allra hluta. Hann kom ásum jafnan í fullt vandræði, ok oft leysti hann þá með vélræðum. Kona hans heitir Sigyn, sonr þeira Nari eða Narfi.”
“Also numbered among the gods, is one called rógbera ásanna and frumkveða flærðanna ok vömm allra goða ok manna. He is named Loki or Loptr, son of the jötunn Fárbauti. His mother is called Laufey or Nál. His brothers are Býleistr and Helblindi. Loki is fríðr and fagr sýnum, illr í skaplyndi, mjök fjölbreytinn at háttum. He surpassed other men in that wisdom which is called slægð, and vélar for all occasions. He would bring the gods into great hardships, and then he would get them out with vélræðum. His wife is named Sigyn, their son is Nari or Narfi.”
– Rógbera ásanna: “Slanderer of the gods”. Róg = slander, strife, or quarrel. Rógbera = slanderer
– Frumkveða Flærðanna ok vömm allra goða ok manna: “Originator of deceit and disgrace of all gods and men”. Frumkveða = originator. Flærð = falsehood, deceit. Vömm = disgrace.
– Fríðr: Beautiful, handsome, fine
– Fagr sýnum: “Fair to see”. Fagr = fair (in the sense that something is beautiful, rather than pale), fine, beautiful
– Illr í skaplyndi: “Ill in character”. Illr = Evil, ill, bad. Skaplyndi = mind, temper, disposition.
– Mjök fjölbreytinn at háttum: “Very changeable in behavior”. Mjök = very. Fjölbreytinn = Changeable, whimsical. Háttum = mode of life, habit, custom, behavior.
– Slægð: Cunning. From Slægr = sly, cunning, crafty.
– Vélar: Guile. From Vélinn = wily, guileful
– Vélræðum: Trickery. From Vélræði = Guileful design, deceitful act.
From the get-go, Snorri wants to establish that Loki is the “slanderer of the gods” and the “originator of deceit”. The first description in particular puts me in mind of the literal translation of the Hebrew word satan (שָּׂטָן) which is “adversary” or “accuser”. Calling someone a slanderer is obviously a synonym for an accuser: someone who attacks the reputation of another person by accusing them. Notably, the Greek word diabolos from which the english “devil” derives also translates to “slanderer”. While Loki does indeed play the role of an accuser in Lokasenna, it may also be that Snorri is purposefully attempting to create an association in the minds of his Medieval audience between Loki and the Christian figure of Satan by choosing this word. In either case, according to Snorri, Loki’s role is firstly that of a slanderer of the holy powers.
Calling Loki the originator of deceit would imply that Loki is the original source from which all deceit in the world came. There’s no way to know whether this was considered to be a theological reality in Old Norse religion (deceit being introduced into the world by Loki like it sometimes is by other trickster figures), or if he’s simply trying to drive home just how deceitful Loki’s character is: deceit and lies of course being more trademarks of the Christian Satan: perhaps intended to strengthen this association. Snorri also describes Loki and his behavior and character as “disgraceful”, i.e shameful, unacceptable, immoral etc. He also wants us to see Loki as the disgrace of all disgraces among gods and humans (welcome to the roast).
Much in alignment with Medieval ideas about Lucifer, in contrast to his character Snorri describes Loki as a being that is notably handsome or beautiful. Perhaps it’s Snorri’s intention that we would infer from this that like Satan, Loki is a being who excels at deception because his beauty puts the unwary at ease. To the Christian mind, things that are beautiful can also be seductive: leading the unwary into sin. According to Snorri Loki is essentially evil in character despite his appearance. He also describes him as very changeable in his habits. One could infer from this that he means that Loki isn’t a reliable or trustworthy personage. He may be considered flippant and disloyal: helpful one minute, harmful the next. His changeable nature could be considered literal as well, considering how many times Loki is portrayed as a shapeshifter.
Lastly, Snorri drives home that Loki is sly, crafty, cunning, and guileful: all of these traits being dependent upon Loki’s ability to deceive.
Looking at these words, it seems very likely to me that Snorri was purposefully attempting to paint Loki’s character using his audience’s knowledge about Satan/Lucifer. While Loki’s image as a bound fire giant bears more resemblance to the Indo-European Prometheus in my mind, this image could just as easily have been conflated by early Christians with Satan bound at the end of days. The tone in these two interpretations are drastically different: Prometheus is being punished for defying the will of the gods to help humanity. Satan is being punished for defying the will of God to destroy humanity. It seems obvious to me that Snorri wanted Loki and Satan to on some level be perceived as one in the same for the purpose of forwarding his story about the gods in the direction in which he wanted to tell it: taking fragments of old poetry he had at his disposal and weaving them into a single narrative with whatever morality or overall lessons he chose to portray.
The intentional pairing of Loki and Satan seems to follow a pattern that missionaries tended to follow when they were attempting to convert a region: specifically conflating Satan with a culture’s trickster figure. The Nigerian Eshu and Mexica Tezcatlipoca both suffered the same fate as Loki, in that they were both identified as Satan by missionaries.
I tend to blame the conflation of tricksters with Satan in particular because in the Christian tradition, so much emphasis was placed upon Satan as an attractive deceiver. In that world view, deceit is a sin that isn’t usually portrayed as being desirable or beneficial. If Christ is truth then deceit is evil, and therefore those who deceive are evil. There’s no wiggle room for the deceit that tricksters deal in: the kind that accidentally or purposefully creates culture, brings light, brings fire, brings life. In the pagan worldview, beautiful and good things can often times come from deceit, greed, accidents, and chance: the playing field of the trickster. In the Christian worldview creation can only come from God, who is all powerful, all good, never makes mistakes. The Christian worldview has no room for any auspicious deceivers.
While we may never know how much of Loki’s original character is actually being portrayed by Snorri, what is important to note is that Snorri was himself steeped in a spiritual worldview that had no capacity to respect a trickster in the way that indigenous cultures do. In polytheistic tradition the trickster is a being that is unpredictable and changeable and should be feared because of this; but the trickster ultimately demands respect and even affection. Worshippers delighted in their tricks and triumphs, and often saw them as a force to be appeased rather than rejected. Therefore, I feel that more modern readers of the Eddas should remember that when they are reading Snorri, they are viewing the gods through the lens of Snorri’s own mind, values, interests, and personal worldview. They aren’t seeing the gods through the eyes of a worshipper.
Zoega, Geir T. A concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. University of Toronto Press, 2004