When The Bad Guy Looks Good
All gods inspire.
Some do so with noble feats of wisdom and great feats of strength: imposing a sense of grandeur over the humans that worship them. These gods are above and beyond the violence, pettiness, and deceit that governs the mortal world. Some gods, in this sense of the word, are better than us. Not only do they inspire: they impress.
Others simply fascinate. Loki, for instance, is a liar. He is a cheat. He acts in a manner befitting his title as the Norse God of Lies. And yet, we are fascinated by him like no other figure from Norse mythology.
Loki occasionally angers us with his mischief, sometimes disgusts us with his tricks, and even outrages us with his lies. But in the end, his schemes always end up being compelling to us, one way or the other.
All gods inspire. Some impress. And, some, like Loki, fascinate.
The God of Stories
To the gods of Asgard, Loki’s presence was bound to be a perpetual head-scratcher. But for fans of Norse mythology, there’s no character they’d rather see.
From the ancient age of the Vikings to the era of the superhero blockbuster, Loki’s antics have managed to enthrall. As a result, the God of Lies has made numerous appearances in the Norse mythology-inspired stories dotting our cultural landscape.
He appears as a character in the Marvel (Cinematic) Universe, emerges as an enigmatic figure in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and American Gods, and even makes a surprise appearance in the popular video game God of War.
Shapeshifter of Morals
In general, these stories have bestowed roughly similar character traits onto the God of Lies.
Unlike peers such as Thor or Odin, Loki’s character is always hard to pin down. In almost all iterations of the character, Loki is known for his trademark ambiguity and charm.
In Thor: Ragnarok, Loki effortlessly switches between the roles of usurper, conspirator, and liberator. In American Gods, he appears as both a friend and foe to the novel’s main character, Shadow. In God of War, (beware: spoiler ahead!) Loki is revealed to be the alternative name of the protagonist’s son Atreus, who is depicted as the child of a divine father and a mortal mother. Thus, God of War’s Loki is both human and god.
And in Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, Loki retains the scheming nature first associated with him by the ancient Vikings. Equally charming as he is deceitful, Loki plots to simultaneously assist and thwart the Norse gods, until he finally turns against them at the end of the world.
A Trickster’s Charm
Loki’s traits are all consistent with the so-called trickster archetype in popular culture.
Like Loki, trickster characters are easily recognized by their ambiguous nature. They shift between the roles of friend and foe, and their true motivations are often unknown to us.
Not only are tricksters ambiguous, they are also known for their charisma and wits. They solve their problems not through force, but by outsmarting their opponents. Tricksters are thus easily identified as underdogs relative to physically stronger opposition, which does wonders for their likability in the audience’s eye.
And tricksters aren’t just character tropes used to spice up a story, either. In the colonial Americas, trickster tales were an important feature of the resistance strategies used by slaves. By sharing stories about small but clever trickster gods outsmarting larger foes, entrapped West-Africans fought back against the tyranny they were exposed to on a daily basis — if only by asserting their right to an unabridged imagination.
As such, tricksters stories are more than just compelling tales. They are capable of performing real-world functions in a given culture. In Loki’s case, it’s possible that the tales of his antics were orginally conceived to challenge and escape from the rules of Viking society, without really breaking them at the same time.
Why We Can’t Resist Loki’s Mischief
Contemporary iterations of Loki function in much the same way.
The God of Lies may appear as the occasional villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or anger our favorite superheroes, but his antics are never so atrocious that they make us question the filmmakers’ morality. Loki may piss us off a little, but he’ll never go so far as to make us hate the movie itself.
Still, he’ll do just enough to keep us on our toes. We know he’s capable of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and vice versa. We know that whenever he’s on screen or the page, anything can happen.
But in the end, all we really know about Loki is just how little we actually know about his true intentions. And because we can rarely tell why he does the things he does (and what he may do next), his antics are a surefire bet to kickstart our imagination.
All gods inspire, but not all of them impress. Some, like Loki, simply fascinate. And sometimes, that’s all you need to do to make an impression.