LOKI is one of the most puzzling figures in Scandinavian mythology. Was he originally god, giant, dwarf, the embodiment of evil, a fire or water spirit, or, as scholars are now inclined to think, a being resembling the Trickster in North American Indian folktales? Out of the many books attempting to find an answer, one of the most outstanding was The Problem of Loki by Jan de Vries, published at Helsinki in 1933, based on both literary evidence and folklore.
This new Swedish study also puts together the two types of material. The author rejects outright what she calls the ‘interpreting’ of myths, that is, the attempt to find either a religious or psychological meaning in them, unless they are ‘cult myths’. Unfortunately no two scholars are likely to agree as to what myths are to come into this category. Certainly the influence of literary sources and medieval scholastic works on the Scandinavian stories of the gods must be taken into account, particularly in the case of learned writers like Snorri Sturluson, from whom much of the Loki material is derived. But when the writer assumes that ninth- and tenth-century poems, Haustlöng and others, must be based on Latin scholastic sources like Isidore of Seville, because these poems contain descriptive kennings linking Loki with various monsters, she does not prove her case. She is unwise to base so much of her argument on this unestablished premise. We have to distinguish carefully between deliberate scholarly interpolation, like the passage in the Old English Beowulf tracing Grendel’s descent from Cain, or Snorri’s description of Hel’s kingdom, and kennings in early skaldic poetry, which could well be based on older heathen lore about the Underworld and its monsters.
Again, isolated points of resemblance between the story of Thor’s visit to Geirröðr and the Irish Táin Bó Fraích do not prove that the Scandinavian story as a whole originated in Celtic Britain. Even more suspect is the assumption that another Irish tale, that of the Sons of Turen, which survives only in an eighteenth-century manuscript, must have been preserved faithfully from an earlier source, and must therefore represent the earliest form of the story of Loki and Þjazi, which provided the foundation for the ninth-century version of Haustlöng. A reasoned argument based on such fragile foundations cannot be taken seriously.
There are some inaccuracies and many omissions. The so-called Thor fishing scene is not on the Gosforth Cross, but on a separate stone now built into the wall of Gosforth Church. The use of a fairly recent scholarly study of the motifs on the Gosforth Cross by Knut Berg (Journal Warburg and Courtauld Institutes XXI, 1958) might have saved her from being misled by Stephens, and would incidentally have strengthened her case, because of the interpretation of the ‘bound Loki’ scene which Berg gives. The firm linguistic background and detailed knowledge of early literature and art which made De Vries’ work on Loki so impressive, and which is needed for this subject, is lacking here. The most interesting part of the book is the short section on the Spider in Scandinavian folklore, utilizing much unpublished material. The conclusion put forward however, that most of the Loki myths are foreign importations, and that Loki must be identified with the Spider (Locke), prominent in Swedish folklore from the seventeenth century onwards, seems no more acceptable now as a complete answer to the problem than it did when rejected by de Vries in 1933.
H. R. ELLIS DAVIDSON
Folklore: Vol. 73, No. 3 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 204-205
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.