Loki the shapeshifter, one of the Æsir, is probably one of the most complex and controversial gods in the Nordic pantheon. According to the Edda, he teases his fellow gods and goddesses, insults them, wreaks havoc, and then makes amends and helps repair the damage. In spite of his malicious nature, he is an essential part of the Nordic world.
He is the prototype of the trickster, a figure found in mythology all over the world. Coyote, Anansi the Spider, Reynard the Fox, and Br’er Rabbit are examples of tricksters. Not the most comfortable figures to be around: confronting and malicious. But always, they belong to the group, the community, of personages in their tales.
So why does the trickster exist and why is he not depicted as being one-dimensionally evil? And why am I going on and on about mythology when this is a blog about understanding human nature?
Mythological tales (and I take my statement from the work of the late Joseph Campbell) are powerful allegories, that originated in the dawn of story-telling homo-sapiens, and spread out across the earth, evolving and re-evolving to fit the diversity of cultures.
Here in our Occidental cultures, we have learned to view deities as something outside of ourselves; beings with whom we must develop a relationship, through prayer and worship. In Oriental cultures, there is no distinction between oneself and the gods. Worship and self-development are one and the same thing.
In that case, when you take another look at the figure of the trickster, he’s showing us something very important about human nature.
All of us have something of the trickster within us. We all have moments when our provoking, confrontational, jealous, spiteful, and even malicious nature surfaces. And, what’s more important, if we suppress this nature, if we deny its existence, it goes underground and can emerge in a much more demonic form. Here we come close to understanding the nature of evil.
Campbell wrote, in An Open Life, “My definition of a devil is a god who has not been recognized. That is to say, it is a power in you to which you have not given expression, and you push it back. And then, like all repressed energy, it builds up and becomes completely dangerous to the position you’re trying to hold.”
So the tale of Loki, and of all the tricksters, is the tale of our own shadows. When we stay on the path of self-knowledge, make a habit of staying open to the exploration of our shadow nature, and give it expression in a healthy way, we do not get trapped in the Dark Side (George Lucas, the maker of Star Wars, was a great fan of Joseph Campbell).
There is evil in the world and probably always will be. It’s born of the refusal to look deeply into one’s own heart and see where the shadows lie. This is what we can learn from Loki.