Slut Shaming in the Lokasenna

I have to admit, I have struggled with the Lokasenna, an Old Norse poem in the Poetic Edda, sometimes known as “Loki’s Flyting” (or “truth telling”) delivered as an exchange of insults with the rest of the Aesir deities.

Le_fête_d'Aegir_(1861)
1861 Painting, Le fete d’Aegir. Artist unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Jackson Crawford’s video on the Lokasenna is quite helpful in explaining the content and some of the cultural underpinnings. Dagulf Loptson’s explanation of Lokasenna, in the chapter segment called “Loki’s Battle Rap,” is also key to my understanding (pp. 164-167). He cites Karen Swenson’s Performing Definitions: Two Genres of Insult in Old Norse Literature (Camden House Inc., SC, 1991, pp. 58-59). What I’ve gleaned so far is that the Lokasenna is an account of Loki’s ritual battle of wits and words designed to win back his place in Aesir society by exposing hypocrisy, “pointing out that the gods are guilty of the same crimes that make Loki an outcast,” thereby “resetting the social standard” (Loptson, p. 166). It should be noted that none of the gods or goddesses deny Loki’s claims.

It’s an incredibly bitter exchange, no matter which translation you read. I have Lee M. Hollander’s 1988 version, but plan on ordering Dr. Jackson Crawford’s translation of the Poetic Edda in the near future. For me the most disturbing element in Lokasenna is Loki’s slut-shaming of the goddesses, some of whom were his own clandestine lovers. And if some goddesses weren’t actually his lovers, he exposes their other private love affairs (often with relatives) or ridicules their exchanges of sexual favors for jewelry or property.

If I get the gist correctly (using Hollander’s version),  Loki indirectly outs Freya as one of his ex-lovers when he says that “all Aesir and alfs within this hall, thou has lured to love with thee.” Since Loki is among the Aesir in the hall, I assume he’s counting himself too. Loki says Tyr’s unnamed wife, plus Sif and Skathi, have also been his lovers. Loki does not name the goddesses Ithun (Idun), Gefjon, Frigg, and Beyla as his conquests, but he shames them for other illicit sexual activities. (However in his video, Dr. Crawford remarks that it sounds like all the goddesses have been with Loki at some point, but I haven’t read his translation.)

To be fair, Loki also “slut-shames” Frey and Njorth’s for incest with their sisters.

Now I know it’s ridiculous to attempt to graft 21st century feminist standards or moral interpretations on a poem produced in a “hyper-masculine” culture (Dr. Crawford’s word for Old Norse society) and written in either the late 10th (Hollander) or 12th century (Crawford). However, because I am a mortal cis-gal of this era and Loki is my “most trusted one” in my polytheistic practice, I still have to make my own peace with this content (along with the homophobic elements–ack!) and I’m not sure I can.

Except to try to understand this ritualized “truth-telling” in the context of Loptson’s interpretation.

And also, perhaps in a more emotionally personal way, by trying to imagine the frustration and anger of a god who is not just rejected by friends (such as Odin) but also by former lovers, not one of whom puts in a good word for him (even though the sex must have been fantastic!). Sif’s cowardly offer of mead in exchange for Loki’s silence must have been the last straw–rather than being proud of their liaison, or even just honestly admitting to it, she begs to be excluded from his flyting. Loki’s not having any of it. He exposes Sif just as he’s exposed all the rest. And so the Aesir circle their wagons against Loki and he can only hurl himself against their collective hypocrisy. Still, Loki might have won the ritual “battle rap” if Thor hadn’t shown up to spoil the party by threats of force. Loki flees but is captured. This stamp from the Faroe Islands illustrates the rest of the story.

Faroe_stamp_498_Djurhuus_poems_-_Loki_Laufey's_Son
Stamp from the Faroe Islands, 2004, showing Loki bound and Sigyn holding the bowl to catch snake venom.

Loptson says “Loki is a very modern-minded god” (p. 8) and these days many artists enjoy rendering Loki in hipster garb. I like to think Loki’s au courant with more than fashion. For one thing, he’s become a favorite god of people who are diverse in gender and sexuality, so how did he mutate from pre-12th century slut-shamer to 21st century sexual and gender human rights ally?

In a purely intellectual exercise (not to be confused with UPG), I like to imagine that the Western world’s sexual revolution of the 1960s-1970s might have shattered the last remnants of Loki’s Old Norse misogyny. After all, slut-shaming is itself a despicable form of hypocrisy and I feel Loki has enough self-honesty to realize this, once his anger cools.

I like to imagine him wandering through the “Swinging London” of the 1960s. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco too! I can imagine him getting drunk with Janis Joplin on one memorable evening, and as she pours out painful tales of her Port Arthur adolescence, how she was called “pig” and “whore” and “the ugliest man on campus,” Loki begins to understand his own marginalization and sexual complexities through the lens of her passion and despair. And perhaps while staggering down Haight Street at 2 AM, sobered by the brisk wind and fog of the “cool grey city of love,” he reflects on his famous “flyting”–perhaps wishing a few things unsaid. Unfortunately, by the time he calls Janis back for another tryst, she’s no longer alive in Midgard. But Loki doesn’t forget.

I can imagine Loki’s intellectual and sexual encounters with an array of 20th and 21st century change-makers. I see him spending a few nights with gay filmmaker Kenneth Anger, after attending a private screening of Kustom Kar Kommandos. He has tea with Quentin Crisp and parties with David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. He’s been known to leave flowers on the graves of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and  Pete Burns and to watch the sunset from Stinson Beach, thinking of Janis’s ashes scattered off-shore. He’s visited Alan Turing’s memorial and whispered greetings from Christopher. I can imagine Loki trading Anais Nin stories with Henry Miller after attending one of Nin’s feminist lectures. I can imagine Loki shapeshifted into an ordinary 1970s housewife, attending her first “consciousness raising” group, or volunteering on a rape crisis hotline. He’s been at the side of a gay-bashed teenager, offering solace. He inspired Robert Mapplethorpe to take up photography. He’s cheering, not booing, Sylvia Rivera’s speech. Later, he attends Pride Marches all over the world and donates to the UnSlut Project. He has read every name on the Transgender Day of Remembrance website. Twice.

He gets it. And we love him for it.

After all, what’s the point of being an ancient primordial being–part wave, part particle, part cosmic force, part sugar dandy–if you can’t partake a bit of the life and times of the mortal morsels in Midgard? I imagine immortality could be awfully dull, otherwise.

I like to imagine that Loki knows now how easily the human spirit can be broken by sexual and gender shaming, that among humans it has become a fascist technique for control, and that he and the rest of the gods could set a better example by not going there, even in their own present and future conflicts. 

In other words, I like to feel that Loki continues to evolve, as we all should, and that as Worldbreaker he also challenges himself to break his own prejudices and conditioning.

It’s only that very last sentence, above, that I might claim as a “UPG.” And maybe that’s how I make my peace with the content of Lokasenna.

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7 thoughts on “Slut Shaming in the Lokasenna

  1. Lovely. Do you mind if I link this in a future blog post of my own interpretation of Lokasenna? It’s probably the poem I’ve read and re-read and studied the most, and your post makes me eager to discuss my own UPG and interpretations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m trying to comment, but there’s so much to dissect, I don’t want to say too much or too little. Amy you’ve hit on two of the topics on my “to write” list in the last week, so thanks, first of all! The Kundilini connection and now the trouble with Lokasenna…same page. Damn time and space that we aren’t in a cafe together right now. You too, Bat!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Moonfire! Yes… I have thought about that. Actually, Loki is going to appear in my second volume of the Ornamental Hermits series, under an assumed name, and I’m thinking that some of those meetings will be part of his character bio. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! All the best, Amy

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