In stanza 144 of Hávamál, the speaker asks the reader about their knowledge regarding a series of religious ritual steps. The seventh question, “Veistu, hvé senda skal?” (do you know how to send?), which comes right after “Veistu, hvé blóta skal?” (do you know how to sacrifice?) is the topic of this article. The word “senda” in Old Norse means to send something somewhere, sometimes in the context of sending a gift. Its place in the series of questions in stanza 144 suggests, that after something (whether an animal, an object, or a human) has been sacrificed to the gods, the next logical step is to send that gift to the gods. But how does one go about doing that? What is needed to send a sacrifice into the liminal world of thea gods? For the Old Norse people, there seem to have been two primary vehicles: Water (as reflected in the many widespread bog-finds) and Fire. It is the second of these which I believe holds the key to understanding Loki’s function in Old Norse religion, and reveals the constructive role he could be playing in modern Heathen ritual today.
Before I continue, it is important to make a distinction between the sacramental fire I will be speaking about vs mundane fire. In many ancient societies (those of Scandinavia included) there was more than one “species” of fire. The wildfire was not the same entity as the hearth fire or the fire that healed. Just as certain bodies of water and earthly locations were held in high esteem, some fires were holier than others. For example, Grimm describes a ritual which was enacted to create a very specific kind of fire in Germany called the “need fire”. In the ritual of the need-fire, every fire in the village must first be extinguished. Then a flame is kindled by drilling with a wooden roller, and sick cattle and horses are driven through the resulting fire three times in order to cure their illnesses.1 This demonstrates that different kinds of fire with different functions existed in the Germanic world.
In Old Norse literature and archeology, there seems to have been at least three major functions for sacramental fire: purification (as when fire is carried around the perimeter of a new land to purify it in Lándamabók), cremation (as demonstrated in Baldr’s funeral as described in Gylfaginning), and the sending of sacrifices to the gods as burnt offerings. Though the latter has very little evidence in the way of literature, there is a great deal of archeological evidence to suggest that burnt offerings were conducted in the Old Nordic/Germanic religion:
“Burnt offerings in Old Norse religion are a kind of ritual activity that – as far I know – practically unknown in the literary sources. We know very little about whether they were practiced at all, or if so, in what forms. In the archaeological sources, however, the (sometimes) vast systems of hearths that occur, mostly in southern Scandinavia and in continental Europe as well, have been interpreted as remains of cremation offerings. Sometimes these hearth systems are located on conspicuous hilltops or even mountains and the burnt bones that they contain are usually from cattle, sheep/goats and pigs.”2
In Vedic religion (the Indo-European cousin of the traditions of Germany and Scandinavia) sacramental fire is also used in rituals of sacrifice, purification, and cremation and is personified by the god Agni, who is both the messenger of the gods, and symbolically is the “mouth” through which the gods receive their sacrificial offerings:
AGNI, well-kindled, bring the Gods for him
who offers holy gifts.
Worship them, Purifier, Priest.
Son of Thyself, present, O Sage,
our sacrifice to the gods today.
Sweet to the taste that they may feast.
Dear Narasamsa, sweet of tongue, the giver of oblations,
I invoke to this our sacrifice…”3
He is also the fire of cremation that carries the dead to the world of the gods. A closer look at Loki’s mythos reveals a function that mirrors that of Agni in the Vedic tradition, and not only clarifies Loki’s position in the Norse cosmos but also gives larger meaning to pre-Christian Norse fire rituals. But before Loki’s position as the personified sacramental fire can be defended, I first have to make a case for Loki’s association with fire in surviving Norse literature.
Loki as a Fire God
Because there is no primary source that places Loki directly in the role of a fire god, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether this was truly one of his original functions. Many people have discounted this as a possibility entirely, and some scholars barely broach the subject in their studies of Loki. However, there are still many sources which point to Loki’s fiery nature, and when viewed together they greatly strengthen the hypothesis that he is a god associated with fire.
In Völuspá, there are a few stanzas that suggest that Loki may be directly related to the Muspilli: the word now commonly used to describe fire-giants from the world of Múspellheimr, which Snorri describes as a world that is guarded by a fiery being named Surtr (“black”). It is possible that the word “Múspell” was borrowed from continental Germany by the Scandinavians, as “Muspilli” is the title of an Old High German poem from the late 9th Century, and is the name for the Christian end of the world by fire.4 Turville-Petre speculates that it was borrowed and misunderstood by the Scandinavians to mean that it was the name of a fire-demon who would destroy the world.5 “Múspell” is the owner of the ship Naglfar (“nail ship”) and his children are known only as “Múspell’s sons”. However, rather than being a literal personage, “Múspell” could just as easily mean something like “fiery destruction”. Múspellheimr would therefore be the world of fiery destruction, and the “sons of Múspell” are the sons of that world. According to Snorri, come Ragnarök , Surtr will be at the front of the advance against Ásgarðr.
Amid this turmoil the sky will open and from it will ride the sons of Muspell. Surt will ride in front, and both before and behind him there will be burning fire. His sword will be very fine. Light will shine from it more brightly than from the sun. And when they ride over Bifrost it will break, as was said above. Muspell’s lads will advance to the field called Vigrid.6
Snorri also tells us that Surtr is a being who is stationed at the border of Múspellheimr in order to defend it, and seems to be Múspellheimr’s guardian:
There is one called Surt that is stationed there at the frontier to defend the land. He has a flaming sword and at the end of the world he will go and wage war and defeat all the gods and burn the whole world with fire.7
This obviously bears some resemblance to stanza 3:24 of Genesis, in which an angel with a flaming sword guards the gates to paradise, and it’s hard to say whether Surtr guarding Múspellheimr with his fiery sword is a late invention or not.
In Völuspá, there is more than one stanza in which Loki seems to be counted among the Muspilli, and even more significantly as a high ranking force therein. Though Snorri places Surtr at the front of Múspellheimr’s attack, Völuspá names Loki as the captain of Naglfar (the ship which Snorri states is owned by Múspell) who actually leads the fire-giants (including Surtr) from Múspellheimr.
51. A longship ferries from the East,
Muspell’s people are coming
over the waves and Loki steers;
Sons of the giant fare forth
with all of the devourers, [kenning for fire?]
the brother of Býleist travels with them.
The fact that Loki sails the Muspilli to Ásgarðr from Múspellheimr suggests that he himself should be counted as a fire-giant; for according to Snorri, only someone who is native to Múspellheimr is able to enter this world without perishing, which Loki obviously doesn’t since he steers Naglfar from this fiery world.
Then spoke Third. “But first there was the world in the southern region called Muspell. It is bright and hot. That area is flaming and burning and it is impassable for those that are foreigners there and are not native to it.”8
Though many people have presumed Surtr to be the “king” of Múspellheimr, this is never explicitly stated in any source. Rather, the evidence presented by Snorri andVöluspá point to Surtr as the guardian of Múspellheimr, but not necessarily its ruler. As Loki is the only being who is actually described as leading the Muspilli, it is possible that it is Loki, not Surtr, who might be regarded as their leader. Rudolf Simek also tentatively makes this observation.
“Loki will be the helmsman of the ship Naglfar according to Völuspá 51 and with this ship the powers of Muspell will cross the sea. It is not certain whether because of this Loki should be seen as their leader.”9
The idea that Loki could be considered Múspellheimr’s ruler may shed some light on Óðinn’s pact of blood-brotherhood with him. Perhaps this bond was not a simple blending of blood between friends, but a blood truce between kings. Njörðr has often been viewed as a king within Vanaheimr, while his son Freyr is the king of Álfheimr. Both of these individuals are brought to live in Ásgarðr as hostages in order to keep peace between their nations. Identifying Loki as a hostage king of Múspellheimr may explain his presence in Asgard, as the Muspilli demonstrate no threat to Ásgarðr until after Loki and his children have been imprisoned, thus breaking the truce between the two nations.
A further connection between Loki and the giants of Múspellheimr can be found in the Eddic poem Svipdagsmál. This story makes mention of a mysterious figure named Sinmara (“pale nightmare”), who is generally believed to be Surtr’s wife. In the course of this poem, Svipdagr asks the giant Fjölsviðr what weapon can kill the rooster Víðófnir who resides in Ásgarðr. Fjölsviðr responds,
26. Lævatein it is called,
and Loptr, knowledgeable in runes, forged it
before Nágrind [the gate of the dead] below;
In an iron chest Sinmara keeps it
and holds it with nine strong locks.
The name of the sword which Loki forges in Helheimr, Lævateinn, literally translates to “damage twig”, which itself is actually a kenning for sword and may not actually be the sword’s name. The fact that Sinmara guards the sword for Loki is interesting, and one might suppose that as she is the guardian of Loki’s sword, her husband Surtr is the guardian of Loki’s realm while he is away in Ásgarðr.
Further evidence for Loki’s power over fire is found in Lokasenna. Once Þórr has sufficiently threatened Loki into leaving Ægir’s hall, at the end of the poem, Loki leaves Ægir with a curse.
65. Ale you brewed, Ægir,
but never again will you hold sumbl;
All of your possessions, that are inside here,
fire will play upon it
and burn you from behind!”
This would be a rather strange curse for Loki to pronounce if he had nothing to do with fire at all, and as Völuspá and Svipdagsmál both imply, many poets of the elder Edda indicate an association between Loki and fire.
Other evidence for Loki as a fire god must be sought outside the elder Edda, and can sometimes be found in the scattered remains from other Indo-European cultures. At both the end of Lokasenna and in Gylfaginning, there is a story in which Loki transforms himself into a salmon in order to escape the wrath of the Æsir; and it is while he is in this form that they eventually capture him. In Snorri’s account, Loki invented a fishing net and burned it when he thought he was about to be discovered. The gods used the pattern of the ashes left behind to make a new net.
“After that they went and made themselves a net just like what they saw in the ashes that Loki had made. And when the net was finished the Aesir went to the river and threw the net into the waterfall.”10
When Loki tries to jump over the net and escape, it is Þórr who eventually captures him.
Though it may be tempting to attach an aquatic symbolism to Loki’s salmon form, there are other Indo-European sources which argue otherwise. The 48th magic song from Finnish Kalevala bears a strong resemblance to Snorri’s account, and describes a fish as the vessel for the fire which Ukko (the sky god) lost. Väinämöinen (the hero of the Kalevala) and the people of the Kaleva District join forces to catch the fire-fish, making a flax net in order to capture it. Once captured, the spark escapes and starts to wreck havoc on the landscape. Väinämöinen finally convinces the fire to calm down and come with him to bring fire to the homes of the people, transporting it on a piece of birch bark. Like Loki and Agni (the Vedic personification of sacramental fire), the fire must be captured from the water in which it was hiding in order to become useful to the people again. 11
De Vries suggests that the red color of the salmon may have led to the idea that it is a fish that holds fire, and also points out that there is a Native American legend in which fire is extracted from a red salmon.12 Tales of the salmon as a fiery creature also are found in the Celtic regions. In Ireland, there is a story of a salmon that ate nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the well of wisdom in which it dwelled. It was said that whoever ate the salmon would ingest all of the knowledge in the world. The poet Finn Eces captured the salmon, and instructed his apprentice Fionn mac Cumhaill to cook it for him. As Fionn was cooking the salmon, his thumb was spattered by some of its hot oil. He put his thumb in his mouth to soothe it, and inadvertently swallowed all of the knowledge that the salmon held. In this story, not only are the salmon and fire dimly connected, but so is the Celtic conception that fire is symbolic of knowledge.
Tales of fire trying to hide in water aren’t unique to Europe, and are also found in Vedic mythology. The Vedas tell how fire (Agni) constantly withdraws from men, goes into hiding in water, plants, or other elements, and must be repeatedly recaptured. It is said that Agni has a great fear of death, as his elder brothers had succumbed or disappeared under the weight of their sacrificial function. Agni flees and takes refuge in the water, and the gods must lure him back into sacrificial service by promising him a share of the sacrifice and immortality.13 This clearly resembles Snorri’s tale of the gods having to capture Loki from a river, and also dimly echoes the story in which Loki recaptures Iðunn and restores immortality to the gods.
That Loki should be the inventor of the fish net is also significant, in that this accomplishment is also attributed to other Indo-European fire gods. In Greece, the smith god Hephaestus is credited with inventing the fishing net, with which he captures his wife Aphrodite and Ares in an act of adultery. In Rome, a strange sacrifice was offered to Volcanus, the god of destructive fire. In these sacrifices, the violent opposition between fire and water (possibly also exemplified by Loki and Heimdallr) was expressed through an offering of small live fishes, (in place of human souls) which were thrown into Volcanus’s fire at his temple at the Volcanal14. In India, Agni is also known as the enemy of fish, and as inventor of the fish net Loki himself is an obvious enemy of fish. It is also worth mentioning that the name which Snorri gives to the thong Brokkr uses to sew Loki’s mouth shut (Vatari) is a name for “fish” in the Þulur.15
Aside from this literary evidence, There is a small piece of archeological evidence from around the year 1000 CE, now called the Snaptun Stone, which may be further evidence of Loki’s fiery nature. This somewhat famous image (which has generally been accepted to be Loki) was carved onto a soapstone bellows-guard found on a beach in Jutland, Denmark. The figure has a series of gashes across his lips, and is believe to portray Loki, after his lips had been sewn shut by the dwarf smith Brokkr.
A bellows-guard such as this would have been used to shield a bellows from the heat of the forge, and it’s possible that Snaptun Stone’s creator may have been attempting to enlist Loki’s help in transforming and shaping their metals with his fire, and in this way Loki would have borne a resemblance to another Indo-European forge and fire deity: Hephaestus. As Loki forges a sword in Svipdagsmál, perhaps he once had a stronger association with forges then surviving evidence about him implies.
In addition to the pagan customs surrounding fire that parallel Loki’s lore, we also have post-conversion folk sayings about an entity named Loki or Lokke in Scandinavia. Axel Olrik remarks that many of these traditions support the picture of Loki we have from the Eddas, and it is notable that many of them present him as a being of light and fire.16 Just as the faery gods of Ireland were made the harmless and diminutive “little people”after the Christian conversion, perhaps Loki received similar treatment post-conversion and was transformed into a smaller entity within Scandinavian folk culture. The following is a list of fire-related folk sayings organized according to the region in which Olrik collected them. It should be noted that far from supporting the malicious figure that Loki becomes in Völuspá and consequently at the end of Gylfaginning, these whimsical and even affectionate images of Loki reveal that in the minds of the common people of Scandinavia, Loki was still considered a mostly harmless (albeit somewhat annoying) entity.
“Lokke is reaping his oats” Refers to air shimmering with heat or flickering lights.
“Lokke drives his goats” Describes the same phenomena.
“Lokke the playing man” Describes the sun glimmering off water and creating flickering lights.
“Loke drinks water” When sunbeams break through clouds and touch the land or sea.
“Lokke watches his goat herd” When heat flutters from the ground like leaping goats.
Sweden and Norway:
“Lokje beats his children” When the hearth fire makes a loud, cracking noise.
People in Tlemarken throw the skin from boiled milk into the hearth fire as a sacrifice to Lokje.
In Sweden, a child who loses a tooth throws it into the fire and says: “Locke, give me a bone-tooth for a gold-tooth”.
“Lokadaun” or “Lokalykt” Used to refer to a sulfurous odor.
“Lokabrenna” Refers to the heat of summer.
Iceland’s association with Loki and the odor of sulfur is extremely relevant to the famous Icelandic hot springs, which actually do smell strongly of sulfur. Icelanders may very well have associated Loki with the fire under the earth that heats the hot springs, as Völuspá places Loki “under the hvera lundi”, sometimes translated as “cauldron-grove” (I.e the hotsprings):
She saw lying captive under the cauldron groves,
yearning to do harm,
someone similar in shape to Loki.
It seems apparent that some memory of Loki as a fiery entity survived in Scandinavia, and this may reflect opinions of him that were held at an earlier time.
Stay tuned for Part II!
Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. Anthony Faulkes. Everyman, 1995
Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Tr. A.H. Smith. Dover Publications, Inc., NY, 1990
Tacitus. Agricola and Germany. Tr. Birley, A.R. Oxford University Press, 2009
The Kalevala: or, Poems of the Kaleva District. Tr. Francis Peabody Magoun Jr., Ed. Elias Lönnrot. Harvard University Press, 1963
Consulate General of Denmark in New York. Factsheet. http://web.archive.org/web/20060113013845/http://www.denmark.org/about_denmark/factsheets_articles/factsheets_vikings.html. (accesssed April 25, 2001)
James Chisholm, Grove and Gallows: Greek and Latin Sources for Germanic Heathenism. Runa-Raven Press, TX, 2002
E.O.G. Turville-Petre. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. Greenwood Press, CT, 1975
Douglas J. Davies. Encyclopedia of Cremation. Ed. Davies, Douglas J. and Mates, Lewis H. Ashgate Publishing, VT, 2006
Jan de Vries. The Problem of Loki. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Kirjapainon o.y, Helsinki, 1933
Jacob Grimm. Teutonic Mythology: Volume One. Tr. Stallybrass, James Steven. Dover Publications, Inc., NY, 1966
Jacob Grimm. Teutonic Mythology: Volume Two. Tr. Stallybrass, James Steven. Dover Publications, Inc., NY, 1966
Rudolf Simek. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S Brewer, Cambridge, 2007
Axel Olrik. Loke in Younger Tradition. Tr. Eli Anker. Saertryk af Danske Studier 1909. http://www.freewebs.com/harigast/archive/olri_01.html
H.R. Ellis Davidson. The Road to Hel. Greenwood Press, NY, 1968
H.R. Ellis Davidson. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books, 1990
Dumezil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion: Volume One. Tr. Philip Krapp. The University of Chicago Press, 1970
Frits Staal. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Volume One. Motilal Banassidass Publishers, Delhi, 1983
Frits Staal. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Volume Two. Motilal Banassidass Publishers, Delhi, 1983
Wolf-Dieter Storl. Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy. Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT, 2004
Sacred Writings vol. 5. Hinduism: The Rig Veda. Tr. Griffith, Ralph T.H. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT. LTD. Quality Paperback Book Club edition, 1992
Anderson, Gunnar. Among trees, bones, and stones: The sacred grove at Lunda. “Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives: origins, changes, and interactions”. Ed. Andrén, Anders, Jennbert, Kristina and Raudvere, Catharina. Nordic Academic Press, 2006
All translations of stanzas from the Elder Edda by Dagulf Loptson.
1 Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology: Volume Two. 604
2 Anderson, Gunnar. Among trees, bones, and stones: The sacred grove at Lunda. Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives: origins, changes, and interactions. 197
3 Tr. Griffith, Ralph T.H. Sacred Writings Volume 5. Hinduism: The Rig Veda. 7
4 Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. 224
5 Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North. 284
6 Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Tr. Faulkes, Anthony. 53-54
7 Ibid, 9
8 Ibid, 9
9 Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 223
10 Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Tr. Faulkes, Anthony 51
11 Kalevala: the Epic Poem of Finland – Volume 02. Ed. Lönnrot, Elias. Tr. Crawford, John Martin. (Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2003-2010. Web)
12 De Vries, Jan. The Problem of Loki. (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Kirjapainon o.y, Helsinki, 1933) 156
13 Staal, Frits, Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Volume Two. (Motilal Banassidass Publishers, Delhi 1983) 77-78
14 Dumezil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion: Volume One. Tr. Philip Krapp. (The University of Chicago Press, 1970) 321
15 19. Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. 353
16 Olrik, Axel. Loke in Younger Tradition.