I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or seen someone new to a real-life group of Northern religionists, or an email list or message forum of same, get themselves into the center of attention and start flyting away in Loki’s name, mostly with what they think are clever observations about others, or else generalized shots in the dark which they hope will hit a target. If you haven’t yet encountered this phenomenon, online or offline, hang around enough liberal Heathen or Pagan groups long enough and eventually someone like this will turn up. Almost always, they’ll claim a kinship with or self-identify as a “trickster.” They may actually be a devotee of another deity than Loki, or someone who has decided to take the label of “trickster” for whatever reason, but right now I’m discussing a specific sort of Lokean, not Discordians or other folks, because that’s with whom I have the most personal experience, and because that’s who annoys me the most, for reasons I’ll get into below.
Sadly, while many of these types are amusing and mostly harmless, and not everyone who uses “trickster” as a self-descriptor is necessarily obnoxious, many of them are. Some are unbelievably arrogant. “I’m here to show all of you your weaknesses,” one of them actually declared, to the amusement of a group of far snarkier and wittier fellow Lokeans, all of whom were strangers to this person. “It’s my job to break down other people’s illusions,” is something I’ve heard a few times as a justification for why someone makes generalized statements that make no sense. Then there are the half-assed attempts at provocative statements, supposedly for the sake of shocking people out of their comfortable ruts, whether they need to be shocked or not. Often, there is bragging about one’s “chaotic” deeds and how Loki-like they are. This sort of behavior, which is often unprovoked and usually ends up with the perpetrator being asked to leave or summarily banned by those who just want to socialize without some twit interrupting, is the biggest reason why Loki’s people in general have a bad reputation…and not just among more conservative folks who might be against the worship of Loki altogether.
I’m willing to bet that there are many people who would just shrug and say “Eh, whatever floats your boat” to the likes of us, were it not for those who believe that liking Loki, or feeling akin to Him, or even being tapped by Him, means that they have to immediately start acting like jackasses and talking smack — for the good of everyone else, of course. Now, I’m not going to deny that there are people out there who could use a good dose of reality, nor will I argue that anybody (Lokeans or not) should stand by and let real wrongs and injustices pass without comment or criticism. I’m not saying that rocking the boat is a bad thing, in and of itself. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. But there’s something important that many of these self-appointed bringers of chaos appear to be overlooking, with their posturing and smugness: being the person who points out uncomfortable truths usually makes you the one whom others are going to blame when trouble comes as a result, even if in the end they have to accept what you’ve said.
Understand that I am not talking about making fun of people just for the hell of it (which I have been guilty of doing), or having a much-needed talk with a close companion in the interest of working through problems. I’m not above poking people, and I’d rather be honest with those I love and admire than continue to let misunderstandings exist between us. When I say “pointing out uncomfortable truths,” I’m talking about the speaking of things that everyone knows but that no one is willing to say, things that must be recognized for the whole picture to emerge and for change to occur. I’m talking about pointing out when “common sense ” becomes insensible, and when the letter of the law is more important that its spirit, and when honesty and accountability are the first things to go out the window as people are running scared. I’m talking about things that, when spoken aloud, stop people in their tracks because they’re so shameful, unpleasant, embarrassing or upsetting, that even bystanders may not want to think about them.
Most people like to tell themselves that everything is just fine rather than admit that the system is broken, and they like to imagine that no one sees their weaknesses, unable to see for themselves how these drive their behavior as much as their strengths do. We all know this, mostly about other people. You can probably think of several examples right now, off the top of your head. It’s always easier to point out what other people’s problems are; we’ll get back to that later. For now, I’m saying that if you do find yourself with the sacred task of speaking strong truth — and it is sacred, mark my words — you aren’t going to get away with it unscathed.
Think about this: Loki didn’t get away with it. At all. It wasn’t even about killing Baldur, if you pay attention to the account in Lokasenna. It was about going into a hall full of people who were supposed to be His friends (whether or not They always acted in kind towards Him is another story), and metaphorically hanging out the dirty laundry of Asgard for all to see. That was the reason why Loki was finally captured and punished. Once the Aesir caught up with Loki, He was forced to watch the destruction of His family, confined to a cavern, bound with the guts of his own half-grown child, and tortured for endless seasons, mostly because He said things nobody wanted to hear, some of which might have even best been left unsaid. No, that wasn’t all to the dislike of Loki expressed by some of the Aesir, I’m sure, but it’s interesting that it wasn’t Baldur’s death, but Aegir’s ill-fated feast, which was the last straw for Them.
That is what happens to the liminal figure who reinforces the dominant paradigm by pointing out its insufficiencies — basically, to anybody who walks the archetypal road of the Trickster, which so many of Loki’s own fondly imagine we are doing. It’s a thankless job, really. Nobody likes a tattletale, especially when you’re tattling on everyone at once and exposing their complicity in keeping the lie alive. Nobody likes to have their fears, prejudices, or cowardice exposed where they cannot hide or deny it. So there is always fallout. At best, the Trickster is made into the Fool, who is laughed at, mocked, and only taken seriously in the privacy of one’s own innermost thoughts, when there is no hiding from the Self. At worst…well, Lokasenna describes the worst that can happen, because it isn’t just Loki who suffers for His actions, in the end; it’s also His innocent wife and sons, one of whom is uncontrollably slain by the other right before Their horrified parents’ eyes. That’s a drastic and uncommon example for most humans…but that’s the kind of price you might have to pay, depending on what you say, and to whom, and how true and unwanted it is.
If people who aspire to be like Loki think for one second that they can say whatever they want, do as they want, and make the kind of accusations that Loki does, and escape without some kind of reckoning, they clearly aren’t getting it. I would also argue that they haven’t really accomplished what they think they’ve accomplished, because all too often, the only way you know that your actions or words have made a real difference is by how much inconvenience it causes you afterwards. There’s always backlash of some kind, small or large. You cannot escape that. It’s a part of the Trickster’s mojo, part of the responsibility of living that role. It sucks, and if you’re really one of the people whose fate or wyrd it is to say to others the things they are unwilling to even admit to themselves, then you’re eventually going to suffer just for doing your job.
I’ve had to do this myself, unwillingly and sometimes unknowingly. I don’t like it. It hasn’t been very humorous or even very fun. It has cost me friendships, respect, and many sleepless nights. It isn’t because I’m “doing it wrong,” though. I’m willing to accept responsibility for my own behavior when I have been wrong, but otherwise, seeing things from the other side of this role that so many people think is just a clever reason to act naughty, I can’t help but feel sad, shortchanged, angry, and appalled at how unjust it can be to actually walk in Loki’s shoes, even in a small way. It doesn’t make you more popular or more loved, and the knowledge that it is necessary often doesn’t compensate for what you have to give up in return.
Anybody who goes around bragging about how they leave an aftermath of chaos behind them, just like Loki, either isn’t as original and controversial as they think they are, or hasn’t really stood in the place that Loki (and others like Him) occupies in myth and in society. People who really have had to do this don’t brag about it much. They may admit to it, they may even discuss it with others, but it isn’t a point of pride with them, if they’ve really been paying attention. They know that few people are going to understand, anyway. It isn’t something that you wear like a badge in order to get other people to fear and respect you. In fact, you don’t get to take much credit for it because it’s not something you control. Loki certainly does things just for shits and giggles — bad or annoying or unnecessary things — but there is much about His story, if you read it closely, that reveals less manipulative behavior on His part than is often assigned, in hindsight and from the hostile point of view that nothing good can come from having someone like Him around.
Part of the Trickster’s contrary power lies in having good intentions, and we all know where that gets you. Part of that power is based on something like innocence or naivete, a kind of giddy trust that seems to be peculiar to people who serve this function. What touches me most when I read what’s in the primary sources about Loki is how sincere He seems, throughout much of His story, about winning over the Aesir, and how hapless He is when the results of His snap decisions come back to bite Him in the ass. Take, for example, the promise to bring Idunna and Her apples to Thiazi, and the end result — Loki bringing both of Them back to Asgard, the one returned and freed from captivity, the other slain. I don’t see a cunning plot on Loki’s behalf there so much as the Trickster doing what tricksters do — breaking the rules, making everybody suffer for it along with him, but ultimately making things better in the end.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Loki, both from knowing Him as my beloved fulltrui and husband, and from reading His stories in the primary sources, is that if you’ve got the mojo, no matter what you do to either avoid or enable change, you don’t necessarily get to pick and choose when or how you trigger people’s issues or show how seriously screwed the system is. Guess what else? You also aren’t exempt from having to deal with your own baggage along the way, or from having someone else hold a painfully clear mirror up to your own face. In fact, if you go around trying to point out other people’s faults and all the things they are unwilling to acknowledge, you had better make damned sure that your own inner house is in order, and that you are keenly self-aware. Otherwise, you’re in for a rude awakening. This is why, when I was asked to write “Loki’s Lesson” for Raven Kaldera’s Jotunbok, I wrote about how you’d better be honest with yourself even if you’re never honest with anybody else. I may be full of hubris for saying this, but to me, the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve seen about Loki is that, until He was finally imprisoned after his ill-advised speech in Aegir’s hall, He seemed not to understand His own motives were about the desire for love and acceptance. Being a Lokean means having self-knowledge if you want to avoid Loki’s fate, whether you’ve got the Trickster thing going or not — and that means not deciding you’re there to point other people’s human weaknesses when your own, like pride, insecurity, or the desire for attention, are there on display from the get-go.
If all this sounds scary, well…it is, kind of. If it makes you think that people are better off not having anything to do with Loki or Tricksters of any sort, good luck avoiding them. Gods (and people) like Loki are necessary. The ancients recognized this. That’s why Loki appears in more tales in the Eddas than any other god. It isn’t because everything bad that happens is His fault, or that there needs to be a guy in a black hat versus all the guys in the white hats, or even because He is simply a folkloric figure added by later writers to make the old tales more interesting, as I’ve heard some people argue. It’s because the ancestors, with all their careful rules and customs for maintaining a healthy tribal society organized around family lines, still knew that if someone isn’t around to be the catalyst for constant evaluation and resultant, necessary change, the whole system might fall apart. It’s because they understood that the gods are not perfect, and that someone — one of Them, not one of us — needs to be around to point it out, lest both They and we forget. It’s because they knew all too well that somebody has to dwell in the place between innangardh and utangardh, which isn’t a clear, sharp line but rather, a gradual shading from one thing into another. If you live in that place as well, you already know all this, and you’ve probably been shaking your head at certain other Lokeans for a while now, too.
So, you might now be saying, is there anything good and not-sucky about this? Yes, there is. Sometimes you get to see positive change happen and know that you were a part of instigating it. Sometimes you go through the tears and arguments and come out on the other side with better relationships and new perspectives. Sometimes, admittedly, there is just the sheer, selfish joy of watching your enemies squirm around and finally have to give in and admit that you were right. More than any of these, however, there is is knowing that your words are needed, that the things you’ve said are what helps things evolve and stops them from imploding or just fading away. Many kings and queens had fools around, people who jested and used humor to make their point, who were allowed to say things for which others would have been hanged or exiled. The best of them knew how to wield their power wisely and well, so that the criticisms imparted were received in the same spirit they were given — sincerely and in goodwill. It is a wonderful thing to be able to do that, and a worthy skill to cultivate, because it makes the telling less difficult for all concerned.
There is also this: no one understand better than Loki how frustrating it is to be honest and yet be resented for it, or to make what you think is an ordinary observation and have disapprobation heaped upon you, or to finally work up the guts to say what you know is right but have been too afraid to say aloud, only to have your worst fears justified. Loki knows about all of this. It’s what He has done, what He still does, even now. He understands both the power and the pain inherent in being a catalyst, a critic, a dweller on the fringes, a Fool, a Trickster. If this is what you must do, as His devotee or just because it’s in the cards for this lifetime, remember that there is Someone out there who knows exactly what it’s like. You can find comfort in that, a good deal of wry humor, and fellow-feeling there, too. Loki may not always be gentle or polite, and He is certainly not honest at all times, but in this case, when you find yourself unable to do other than speak what others will not speak out loud, there is nobody better qualified to guide you — whether you’re doing it in His name or not.
Reading back over this, I think I’ve done a crappy job of showing Loki and Lokeans, including myself, in a good light, and I haven’t made a convincing argument for the acceptance of His worship in modern Northern religion. I haven’t backed up my claims with any sources, academic or otherwise, and I’ve probably left some things hanging without much of an explanation. But I didn’t write this for people who don’t understand or like Loki, who need a citation for every statement made, or for those who are content to see Him merely as a Norse “bad boy.” I didn’t write it to convince anybody who is determined to remain unconvinced.
I wrote it because I was feeling lonely and sad, thinking of some of the things I’ve talked about above. However, I’m fairly certain I’m not the only person who’s had these sorts of thoughts, either about walking the Trickster road or about Loki Himself. Nor do I believe I’m the only one who’s personally experienced what it can be like to do His job, even in a minor way. I wanted you to know, if Loki or someone else hasn’t already told you, that it isn’t just you. You aren’t alone, but you do have to take what strength and goodness you can from it despite being ignored, mocked, castigated, or vilified. You won’t always get it right — even He doesn’t, not every time — and you won’t always be able to see where anything good came from all the fuss, but the function is needed anyway. Just like Loki — necessary, no matter how difficult to cope with. My hope is that I can learn to love this occasional Job as much as I love Him, and that I can keep my ego out of it when I find myself in that situation one more time. I don’t know about you, but I have a long way to go.