Thor, Loki and Freya: are we laughing at or with them?

Incidents like the tug-of-war in the Njord-Skadi myth, the various humiliations meted out to Thor (being peed at by giantesses, having to hide out in a giant’s glove, forced to disguise himself as Freya, and being seriously cheeked by Odin in Harbardzljod) and of course the insult-fest that is Lokasenna has made many people wonder how on earth anyone took these gods seriously.

The Greeks, faced with a similar problem, tried to rationalize their deities. The only hint we have of any discomfort with some of the Norse gods’ antics comes from Snorri’s and Saxo’s attempts to euhemerize them, as if disgraceful acts by humans would be less embarrassing than if done by gods. (Since both were Christians, they would have denied that Odin and Co. were gods, and of course their ideas about what was appropriate behaviour for a deity would be rather different than a heathen’s.)

So one answer to the problem of the deities looking ridiculous and undignified is that the people recording the myths were Christianized, and could not or would not take the Norse gods seriously. Also, the mockery may have been deliberate, just as the famous verse against Freya was clearly meant to degrade her. Calling a goddess a bitch, (in the sense of ‘female dog’) and doing it at the Icelandic thing, implies that you feel that Freyja can’t defend herself, and has no followers to do it for her.

Gurevitch responds to this by pointing out that while Thor, for example, comes in for his share of abuse, he also has a central role in defending the world against the giants and the World Serpent. As Thor himself says: “The giants would rule all, if all were alive // All men lie dead under Middle Earth”1 (Harb. 23); significantly, this is his defense against Odin’s derision. Again, while Loki out-talks Thor in Lokasenna, it is the threat of Mjollnir that gets him to leave. Gurevitch feels that all the Eddic poems, whether serious or not on the surface, all express the same philosophy, and the comic must be viewed in this light.2

Certainly, even the most burlesque bits of the myths of Thiazi and Skadi have had a serious underside, and their reference towards the eventual fate of Loki, the conflict between gods and giants, and the effect both of the Aesir’s separation from their giant kin, and their refusal to enter into exchanges with them. All these things are there, and not hard to find.

Gurevitch sees Lokasenna, of course, as an example of this humour with seriousness, since the charges Loki levels at the gods are serious ones, oath-breaking, betraying kin, and other taboos. But even incidents which seem playful always have that level of seriousness behind them. Gurevitch focuses on the fettering of Fenrir, which is described in Gylfaginning in a very playful manner, with the Odin character clearly outwitting the king, but:

…the joking description of the improbable fetter with its paradoxical properties should be understood in the context of the enmity between æsir and Wolf and the coming ragnarok. The ludicrous and the playful are woven into the gods’ tragic fate. When the Wolf tried to break out of the fetter and it cut deeper into his body, the gods burst out laughing. But this laughter was not joyous, for it was known to everybody that the Wolf would be Oðinn’s murderer. And Tyr lost his hand.3

In this context it is remarkable that most readers focus on the broad humour and horseplay, and miss the irony. There is a great deal of irony in Norse myth, as fate turns in unexpected but often contrary directions, and the stoic and laconic humour that it elicits in both gods and men a main feature of both myths and sagas. For the Aesir, it’s Marx in reverse; what now comes across as farce will later come again as tragedy.4 As Kries remarks, laughter in the hall was the sign of sociability, good cheer, and social stability.5 That is why Loki provokes laughter from Skadi; to restore social stability and end the bloodfeud begun with the murder of Thiazi.

Later, Loki enters another hall, and deliberately sets out to disrupt this harmony, at a time, after Baldr’s death, when the want of these things is deeply felt. He mocks the Aesir and their companions mercilessly, but this time no one is laughing. If Sørensen is correct, and the feast was an attempt to reach out to the giants through Aegir, then Loki seems determined to foil it.6

1. Gurevich 1976: 127.
2. Gurevitch 1976: 127-8.
3. Gurevitch 1976: 133.
4. I suppose the same reasoning could be applied to something that has always puzzled me – why would anyone enjoy bouncing weapons off Baldr? But if you look at it this way, the laughter celebrates the fact that he’s still invulnerable.
5. Kries 2002: 3.
6. Sørensen 1988: 257-8.


References:

Gurevitch, Y. A. 1976: “On the nature of the comic in the Elder Edda, a comment on an article by Professor Höfler,” Medieval Scandinavia 9: 127-37.
Kries, Susanne, 2002: “Laughter and Social Stability in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Literature,” in A History of English Laughter: Laughter from Beowulf to Beckett and Beyond, ed. Manfred Pfister, Rodopi: 1-15.
Sørensen, Preben Meulengracht, 1988: “Loki’s Senna in Aegir’s Hall”, in  Idee, Gestalt, Geschichte: Festschrift Klaus von See. Studien zur europäischen Kulturtradition, ed. Gerd Weber, Kulturtradition, Odense University Press.: 239 – 259.

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