Please note: This is a blog post of UPG, preliminary thoughts, and potentially fruitful lines of inquiry.
Loki as the “mother of witches” is for me one of the most fascinating aspects of this shapeshifting deity. According to a short prophetic poem in The Poetic Edda, Loki either gave birth to an unknown number of troll-women, ogres, or witches or to one child who then became the source and ancestor of all “troll-women.” In this blog I want to talk about these mysterious daughters and descendents of Loki, the seemingly perjorative names they are given (trolls, ogres), and how they remind me of wrathful dakinis and goddesses of Tantric traditions, beings who are also associated with witchcraft and magic.
But first let’s go to the source of this story.
The Norse Prophecy Poem
This poem, “Voluspa en skamma,” is also called the “Short Volupsa,” “Shorter Volupsa,” or “Lesser Volupsa.” Hollander calls it “The Short Seeress’ Prophecy.”
I will offer up several versions of the two stanzas which concern Loki and some of his children.
Here is the Lee M. Hollander’s translation of stanzas 13 and 14 of “The Short Seeress’ Prophecy” (The Poetic Edda, 1962, pp. 127-139):
13. Gat Loki the wolf with Angrbotha,
and Sleipnir he bore to Svathilfair,
but of all ill wights most awful by far
is Byleist’s brother’s baleful offspring.
14. A half-burnt heart which he had found
it was a woman’s– ate wanton Loki;
with child he grew from the guileful woman.
Thence are on earth all ogres sprung.
The wolf of course is Fenris, and Sleipnir is the famous eight-legged horse that Loki then gave to Odin. But Hollander says in a footnote that “His most baleful offspring is either the Mithgarth-Serpent or the Fenris-Wolf” (p. 138). However, some scholars will disagree with that, as you’ll see.
Here is a translation of “Völuspá in skamma – The Short Voluspo” found on Voluspa.org (note the stanzas are numbered 11 and 12):
11. The wolf did Loki | with Angrbotha win,
And Sleipnir bore he | to Svathilfari;
The worst of marvels | seemed the one
That sprang from the brother | of Byleist then.
12. A heart ate Loki,– | in the embers it lay,
And half-cooked found he | the woman’s heart;–
With child from the woman | Lopt soon was,
And thence among men | came the monsters all.
From the above we can get a better sense that the “worst of marvels” (aka Hollander’s “most baleful offspring”) referred to in stanza 11 may be the same being(s) discussed in greater detail in stanza 12.
‘Loki got the wolf on Angrboda,
and he got Slei[p]nir on Svadlifari;
one monster was thought the most baleful,
who was descended from Byleist’s brother.
‘Loki ate some of the heart, the thought-stone of a woman,
roasted on a linden-wood fire, he found it half-cooked;
Lopt was impregnated by a wicked woman,
from whom every ogress on earth is descended.
The above translation states that the “wicked woman” is the ancestor of “every ogress on earth.”
Note: because there are complex controversies about who this “wicked woman” may be, I am not going to get into that in this blog post.
This next example is from Jackson Crawford’s translation of “Voluspa en Skamma” in The Poetic Edda–Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (p. 166). Crawford’s translation embeds the poem within the “Song of Hyndla” (“Hyndluljoth”) which may be a combination of two separate poems. FYI: Hyndla is a “dead witch” (p. 156).
40. “Loki fathered
a wolf with Angerbotha:
He fathered Sleipnir
But there was one child
Worse than all the others
of those born to Byleist’s brother Loki.”
41. “Loki ate a woman’s heart,
He found it
On a burning Linden tree.
Loki became pregnant from that dead evil woman
And from their child
come all the troll women.”
Crawford’s translation states that Loki had one child who is the ancestor of “all the troll women.”
According to Dagulf Loptson, in Playing with Fire–An Exploration of Loki Laufeyjarson, trollkona is the Old Norse word for “troll women” and trolldómr is a word associated with witchcraft (pp. 71-72). While a discussion of the role trolldómr played in Old Norse culture is beyond the scope of this blog post, I will mention that I just found a long study, Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia by Catharina Raudvere, but haven’t read it yet. I look forward to becoming better informed on this topic through this and other sources. I am also now intrigued by the topic of burnt-heart offerings in Old Norse culture, as a burnt heart hanging on a linden tree seems more like an offering than anything else.
In any case, Loki’s burnt-heart offspring (whether plural or singular) may be referred to as trolls or troll women, ogres or ogresses, and witches.
Actually, this blog post was prompted by an online exchange with someone who listed Loki’s birthing of witches as one of his heinous acts. I responded that birthing witches was a good thing (hey, I’ve done it!). He responded with “yeah, but they’re ogres!” I replied that powerful female beings were often given perjorative names, therefore I still considered this as one of Loki’s happier achievements.
UPG Note: When I made a request of Loki to learn a certain sort of magic, he indicated (via pendulum) that he wanted to be counted as an ancestor of mine in order to receive the “energy” of the practices that I’d be doing. Since then, my daily devotions include honoring him as an ancestor (among other things). However, it wasn’t until today, writing this blog, that I got an “aha” moment about Loki as a “mother of witches” and connected my personal UPG with the above story. Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to see.
A Witch by Any Other Name: Wrathful Dakini Women?
One reason I’m not put off by Loki’s witch kids being called “ogres” or “trolls” is that I have a long-standing love of the Hindu and Tibetan tantra spirits known as “dakinis,” sometimes also called “sky-dancers.” They are also frequently ogre-ish. (And in the East, the taboo aspects of tantra have more to do with magic than with sex.)
Judith Simmer-Brown describes the origin of dakinis in India as “indigenous, non-Brahmanical” and as “demonic inhabitors of cemetaries and charnel grounds,” “witch-spirits of women who died in pregnancy or childbirth,” and “wrath personified.” She also says they are a class of minor deities that attend the (non-Brahmanical) god Siva (Shiva) in his form of Ganapati, as well as the goddesses Durga and Kali. (Judith Simmer-Brown, 2001. Dakini’s Warm Breath–The Feminine Prinicple in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston & London: Shambhala. p. 45).
In Simmer-Brown’s notes for her second chapter, she quotes Alain Danielou (note #8): yoginis are “represented as ogresses or sorceresses” and “dakinis are called female imps, eaters of raw flesh.” (1964, 1985. The Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.)
Simmer-Brown also says, “Like their famous champions Kali and Durga, dakinis represented forces marginal to mainstream Aryan society–female, outcaste, impure–and therefore were powerful outlaws” (p. 45). And, with the rise of tantra (7th and 9th centuries C.E.), Simmer-Brown says dakinis were elevated, particularly with the Cakrasamvara-tantra text. Goddesses such as Durga and Kali were also elevated. In fact, in the Hindu tradition, the singular “absolute” could manifest with male and female aspects:
“Alone, the male aspect was impotent and could act only through his female consort (his sakti, in Hinduism), who…became an all-powerful creator and sustainer of the Cosmos.” (Simmer-Brown, p. 46).
In Tibetan Buddhism Vajrayana tradition, Simmer-Brown says the dakini has become elevated as the feminine principle of wisdom, “defined as insight into emptiness” (p. 51). In Tibet, dakinis are called khandroma, “she who goes through the sky” or “sky-dancer” (p. 51). Noting here that Loki is sometimes called “sky-walker.”
The Tibetan dakini is associated with:
“…limitless space; intense heat; incisive accuracy in pointing out the essence; an emanation body that is itself a powerful teaching tool; the power to transmute bewildering confusion, symbolized by the charnel ground, into clarity and enlightenment; and an unblinking stare from her three eyes, which galvanizes the experience of nonthought.” (Simmer-Brown, p. 51).
It’s also intriguing to note that in India, male counterparts were known as dakas and started out as “male ghouls and flesh-eating warlocks” and were later elevated as dakini consorts and spiritual mentors (Simmer-Brown, pp. 52-53). In Tibet, dakas became known as “heroes” and “fearless warriors” who were often able to obtain “full realization” (Simmer-Brown, p. 53).
The topic of dakinis and dakas is a complex one. There are elaborate classifications of dakinis, yoginis, and other magical spiritual beings, both in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Some are classified as “worldly” or “wrathful,” some are known as “wisdom dakinis.” All are powerful and potentially subversive to human norms. But the essence of these beings may be conveyed by Miranda Shaw’s phrase “numinous, sky-borne women” (1994. Passionate Enlightenment–Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pg. 37). As for function, Shaw offers a quote from the Mal translation of the Cakrasamvara-tantra (p. 38):
Enjoyment and magical powers are obtained
At places where female adepts (dakinis) reside.
There you should stay, recite mantras,
Feast, and frolic together.
So dakinis (and dakas) are teachers and exemplars of spiritual transformation and enlightenment, in spite of their often fearsome appearances, habits, and witchy magical powers.
Transgressive divine females are also found in the group of Hindu goddesses known as the Mahavidyas. Kali (below) is probably the most famous outside India. In Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine–The Ten Mahavidyas (1997, Berkeley: University of California Press), David Kinsley dates the grouping of these goddesses to a period circa or somewhat after the 10th century C.E., though he says that some goddesses predate the grouping. Kinsley also points out that the complicated “thousand-name hymns” for each goddess contain a mix of attributes that we humans would find fierce, horrifying, nurturing, erotic, and more (p. 5).
This reminds me of the complexity we’re asked to consider in many religious pantheons. In the Norse pantheon, all the deities are a mix of desirable and undesirable traits and actions, but Loki’s complexity often seems most troublesome for those who are not his actual devotees. He has a vast array of aspects and kennings and we Lokeans eventually learn which ones to actively invoke and which are best left acknowledged but not encouraged. I imagine that devotees of Kali and some of the other Mahavidyas are somewhat in the same boat.
Loki’s Witch Baby (or Babies)
I continue to marvel at the mysteries contained in Loki’s evident association with primordial female power. Loki is often referred to as a god of “chaos,” which is one of those attributes that pushes my neo-tantric buttons. In tantric thought, the chaotic and creative kundalini force is feminine. Loki’s last name, Laufeyjarson, refers to his mother not his father–again an invocation and association of female power. Loki even gets pregnant and gives birth (more than once) and even suckles his children (if one is to believe some translations of Odin’s jab in the “Lokasenna”).
So when Loki eats a burnt heart hung on a tree (most likely an offering to a deity, either to him or to another) and becomes pregnant with an important witch ancestress or a number of witches (or troll-women, ogresses, whatever!), this is one of the most intriguing stories I can imagine. I am fascinated by a god who creates powerful female beings with his own body. And perhaps these beings have the potential for experiencing or transmitting spiritual “realization” similar to the powers of dakinis of Hindu and Tibetan traditions.
It seems to me that I could even apply a number of Simmer-Brown’s dakini attributes to Loki! Loki himself is somewhat like a daka. He could be described as a being of:
“Limitless space” — Perhaps also described as liminal space?
“Intense heat” — That god of fire thing? And my UPG about Loki and kundalini forces?
“Incisive accuracy in pointing out the essence” — Oh you trickster you!
“An emanation body that is itself a powerful teaching tool” — Shapeshifter, yeah! And any god spouse want to chime in on this one? Plus, he’s birthing witches…
“The power to transmute bewildering confusion, symbolized by the charnel ground, into clarity and enlightenment” — Well, those who follow Loki can speak to the transformative qualities of engaging with this deity…
I end with a tantric song of realization (mahamudra) quoted in Miranda Shaw’s book (p. 93):
When you see what cannot be seen,
Your mind becomes innately free–reality!
Leave the stallion, the wind, behind,
The rider, the mind, will soar in the sky.
My UPG is that something like this state could be part of the deeper “template” of transformation that Loki presents and that clues to access this state may be found both within and beyond the Norse lore. And that we may perhaps “feast and frolic together.”