In Skáldskaparmal Snorri gives a list of names for Loki. The last is “the wrangler with Heimdall and Skadi.” He also tells us that Loki and Heimdall will fight at Ragnarök, and kill each other.
As you can see from the picture above, Heimdall and Loki are enemies, opposed forces, order and chaos. I can see how Loki fits into this, but why Heimdall in particular? (Although considering what Loki gets up to in the Thor and Avengers movies, “mischief” seems a very mild description of his activities.)
Trickster vs. Guardian
Loki is, as most of us know, the trickster god of the Norse, the “rouser of tales” who stirs things up and causes trouble. Up until the final confrontation between gods and giants, Loki can usually be trusted to end up on the right side, but he is always being pulled between his ties to the gods and his paternal kin, the giants.
Heimdall, on the other hand, is the guardian of the gods, who stands ready at Himminbjorg, Heaven-Fort, near the rainbow bridge between worlds. While Odin tells us in Grimnismal that Heimdall lives there and “guards the cult places” and “drinks the happy mead”, Snorri tells us the he “guards the bridge from mountain giants”. (LIndow: 174)
We know from the Old Norse sources that Loki and Heimdall kill each other at Ragnarök, and that each pairing of god and giant is meaningful. (Thor, for example, has a rematch with the World Serpent, whom he has tangled with twice before.)
So if Heimdall is indeed the first line of defence against invaders, and Loki is going to lead “all Hel’s people” (Faulkes: 54) to Asgard, it makes sense to have them fight each other. Loki and his crew team up with Hrym and the frost-giants to storm Asgard, so of course Heimdall has to hold him back.
Heimdall is opposite, but close, to Loki in that both have giant parents, but in Heimdall’s case it is his mothers (all nine of them) while with Loki it is his father. Generally, a god for a father and a giantess mother is mythologically OK, while the other way around isn’t. The only problem is that we don’t know who Heimdall’s father is, if indeed he has one. (He is the son of nine mothers: he has lots of parents already.)
We have to assume that there is history between the guardian god and the trickster, but there isn’t a lot to go on. The only references we have to conflict between Loki and Heimdall come from a 9th-century poem called Húsdrápa and the Eddic poem Lokasenna.
Húsdrápa is the more mysterious of the two. As with much of Norse poetry, you need to be well-versed in Norse myth already before you read/hear the poem. We only know about this verse because Snorri helpfully quotes it for us, along with an explanation:
Renowned defender [Heimdall] of the powers’ way [Bifrost], kind of counsel, competes with Farbauti’s terribly sly son at Singastein. Son of eight mothers plus one, mighty of mood, is first to get hold of the beautiful sea-kidney [jewel; Brisingamen]. I announce it in strands of praise. (Faulkes: 77)
Earlier in the same passage Snorri adds some details:
He (Heimdall) is also the visitor to Vagasker and Singastein; on that occasion he contended with Loki for the Brisingamen. He is also known as Vindhler. Ulf Uggason composed a long passage in Husdrapa based on this story, and it is mentioned that they were in the form of seals. (Faulkes: 76)
(Vindhlér means either “sea-wind” or “protecting against wind” (Simek: 363). I will be coming back to this towards the end.) There is obviously some myth about Brísingamen that has been lost over time. Another 9th-century poem, Haustlong, calls Loki the “hoop-thief of Brising’s people” i.e. thief of the Brisings’ necklace. So it would seem that he stole it and then Heimdall fought him for it.
In Lokasenna, Heimdall’s turn to argue with Loki comes towards the end of the poem, after Loki has calumniated Odin, Frigga, Freyja and many more.
‘You’re drink, Loki, and out of your mind,
why won’t you leave off, Loki?
Too much drink makes every man
not mind how much he speaks.’
‘Shut your mouth, Heimdall, in ancient days
for you was a grim life laid down;
with muddy back you must ever be
and watch as the guard of the gods.’
Like much of what we know about Heimdall, Loki’s insult is mysterious. McKinnell interprets it as suggesting that Heimdall has been lying down on the job, perhaps sprawled drunkenly in the mud. (He thinks that’s why Skadi jumps in next – she resents the idea that a sober, watchful Heimdall would never have let her in. Further, she implies that if Heimdall has a wretched life tied to his guard-house, how much worse will Loki’s binding be?)
This preview of the future leads us to Loki and Heimdall’s final confrontation: the Doom of the Gods, Ragnarök. All we know is that the two kill each other. Presumably the earlier conflict led the composer(s) to put Loki and Heimdall together.
Although since we know that a sword is called “Heimdall’s head” because:
he was struck against a man’s head. That is treated in the poem Heimdalargaldr, and thereafter the head is called fate of man. (Lindow: 167)
perhaps Loki’s head killed him. (Or, as Lindow suggests, he has nine lives and lost one to a head.)
Heimdall’s Children, and Loki’s
The death-by-head motif is very Irish, and Heimdall does have some very Irish resonances. Another is his by-name Rigr, from the poem Rigsthula, derived from Irish rÍ, rÍg, a king. (Several Celtic gods and goddesses have names that come from the same source: Rigasamus, Rigonemtis, Rigantona.)
In this poem Rigr fathers the first man of each of the three classes of society, culminating in the Jarl’s son, Kon, the first king. We could compare this with Loki’s fathering of the three most monstrous creatures in the Norse cosmos:
While Heimdall/Rigr creates human society and its class structure, Loki’s children lay down very different kinds of boundaries. The Midgardsomor lies in the sea, encircling the world and so marking its limit, while Hel herself is half-dead and half-alive, and Fenrir lies at the boundary of animal and human. The serpent and wolf will be intimately involved in the doom of the gods. Heimdall creates an ordered society, Loki’s children will destroy everything.
Wind, and Goats
Now I want to touch on two, more speculative, ideas on Loki and Heimdall.
The first is to do with Heimdall’s by-name, Vindhlér. Both Lindow and Simek give “wind-shelter” for Vindhlér, which suggests yet another opposition to Loki, whose by-name is Lopt, the Airy or Lofty one. Is it too much of a stretch to say that while Loki rides (and perhaps manipulates) the air, the guardian-god Heimdall shelters us from it? If we accept an alternate explanation:
This interpretation casts light on an hitherto unexplained by-name for Heimdallr: Vind(h)lér. Hlér is a known name for the ocean-god (Ægir?). Vind- means “wind”. Vindhlér might therefore mean “wind-ocean-god”, i.e. “god of the ocean of winds” = “god of the atmosphere”.
That would pit two gods of the air against each other, which would also explain why they were matched up.
Second, I came across a paper awhile ago called “Rams and Billy-Goats: a Key to the Mediterranean Code of Honour”. It is mostly about the culture surrounding honour and shame, but he does say the following:
In several respects, the billy-goat differs sharply from another horned animal typical of the Mediterranean, namely the ram. Unlike the billy-goat, the ram tolerates no rivals… From antiquity onwards, the ram has been known for his virility, strength, and fierceness… Next to the bull, the ram was considered the most procreative of all animals. No wonder then that these characteristics have qualified the ram as an appropriate symbol of kings and the most powerful and prestigious gods, such as Ammon, Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon, and that Latin aries (ram) is related to the Greek aristos, the best one. Although in ancient Mediterranean myth billy-goats are also associated with gods, these are nature-like gods, such as Pan, Bacchus and Venus, known for their unrestrained behaviour. (Blok: 428)
Heimdall is always associated with the ram, and Snorri tells us that Heimdali is a word for “ram”, and other variants on his name turn up in lists of names for a ram. Loki, infamously, tied his testicles to a nanny-goat to make Skadi laugh, so it’s not a reach to see him as a bill. His rampant appetite and sexuality, and uncontrollable nature, would fit nicely.
We know from archaeology that the Norse ate both sheep and goat meat (Dubois), so they had plenty of opportunity to observe their behaviour. They may well have seen the wilful and lascivious behaviour of a bill, and contrasted it to the aggressive and courageous ram. The parallel to Loki and Heimdall is not hard to see.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
The Elder Edda: a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, London.
Blok, Anton 1981: “Rams and Billy-Goats: a Key to the Mediterranean Code of Honour,” Man (New Series) 16:3 (Sept. 1981): 427-40.
Dubois, Thomas 2012: “Diet and Deities: Contrastive Livelihoods and Animal Symbolism in Nordic Pre-Christian Religions” in More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions, eds. Catharina Raudvere and Jens-Peter Schjødt, Nordic Academic Press. (Kindle Book)
McKinnell, John 1986-9: “Motivation in Lokasenna,” Saga-Book of the Viking Society XXII: 234-62.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.