In Teutonic mythology Loki plays a considerable role, whether he seeks to aid or undermine the power of the Aesir, the gods of Asgard. He represents the archetype of the divine trickster, and his nimble mind as easily hinders or helps the Aesir. In this he shares many traits with Prometheus. A major element of his mischievous nature is his ability to use stealth, cunning, and thievery. In this he is similar to the god Hermes. Indeed, in some stories he possesses magic shoes that can carry him across vast distances. The stories of Loki are numerous, but only a few observations may be made here.
The root of Loki’s name means “flame,” and in his earliest conception he may be a fire-god. As his role in mythology grows, he assumes, as we have noted, a darker cast; there is an element of the demonic in his nature, perhaps because many of his most famous exploits are developed late, and associations with the medieval Christian notions of the devil color the myths, told by later medieval authors.
In one tale Loki gives assistance to Thor, the powerful god of thunder and battle. A giant named Thrym had stolen Thor’s hammer while the god slept, hiding it within the earth. Now the hammer of Thor was the most potent protection of the gods against their enemies. Without it the Aesir were vulnerable. Loki decides to go and find out the identity of the thief and the location of the stolen hammer. With the feathered robe of the goddess Freyja, Loki flies to the abode of the giants. There he encounters Thrym, and with cunning he interrogates him and discovers where the hammer is concealed. After some negotiation Thrym agrees to return the hammer, but only on the condition that he be given Freyja as his wife. When Loki returns with Thrym’s offer, the gods at first are hesitant to approach Freyja. When finally they ask her to consent to Thrym’s condition, Freyja is overcome with such a furious rage that her neck swells and breaks her necklace—the necklace that she had slept with four dwarfs to obtain in the first place.
The gods then decide to retrieve the hammer with a ruse. Thor is disguised as Freyja, concealed behind a bridal veil, and sent to the giants with Loki as his handmaiden. When they arrive at the home of the giants, they are lavishly welcomed with a great wedding banquet. At table, Thor displays such an appetite, consuming an ox, eight salmon, and three barrels of mead, that Thrym is a bit apprehensive about his bride-to-be. He is also alarmed by the fiery eyes peer out from behind the bridal veil. Loki, quick-witted as usual, dispels Thrym’s alarm by saying that the bride’s behavior can be attributed to the nine-day fast she observed in anticipation of becoming Thrym’s wife. At this Thrym’s growing passion cannot be blunted any longer; he is eager to begin the wedding ritual, which included, it seems, placing a hammer on the lap of the bride. When Thor regains the possession of his hammer, he destroys the giants.
At other times Loki works to subvert the happiness of the gods. Baldar, the son of Odin and Frigg, was the most beautiful and sagacious of the gods. All the gods loved him, but Loki. It happened that Baldar began having unsettling dreams of destruction. To be sure, his dreams are premonitions that extend far beyond his own personal fate and encompass the general doom of the gods, but at the moment Baldar was concerned with what they portended for himself. He brought his apprehensions to the other gods, who, because of their love for him, were solicitous to help him. In response to Baldar’s worries, his mother, Frigg, travels the world and asks of everything she encounters—every creature, every tree, and every stone—to swear an oath to commit no injury upon her son. Everything in the world consented to take the oath, but one.
All the gods, including Baldar himself, now believed him to be virtually immortal. It should be remembered that the gods in Teutonic mythology are not immortal nor is their rule eternal. So Baldar’s achievement is something unusual. After a time Baldar’s original, dream-inspired fears were allayed to such an extent that, as a kind of dinnertime entertainment, the gods would think of things to hurl at Baldar to see if he could, in fact be killed. No harm ever came to him.
But Loki hated Baldar. He disguised himself as an old woman and went to Frigg. He engaged her in idle conversation about this rather curious banquet entertainment of the gods. After some questioning Loki succeeded in discovering the one thing that that Frigg had not been able to bind with an oath—mistletoe. Loki immediately went in search of the plant, gathered some branches, and returned to the gods. Now as the gods were again enjoying themselves by flinging objects at Baldar, Loki noticed the god Höd, who was blind, was not taking part. Loki asked Höd the reason and he replied that was blind and had nothing to throw. Loki suggested he try on the mistletoe branches, which Höd did. The branch, sometimes described as if it had been fashioned into a kind of dart, struck Baldar and killed him.
The story continues on at some length, relating Loki’s success at thwarting the gods’ hopes of restoring Baldar to life. The death of Baldar, as his dreams indicated, signals the beginning of the time of great upheaval known as Ragnarök or Götterdämmerung (“twilight of the gods”). After Baldar’s death, the gods imprisoned Loki for what he had done. Loki, however, would manage to escape and give aid to the enemies of the gods.