Review: ‘The Trial of Loki: A Study in Heathen Morality’ by Alan James

‘The Trial of Loki’ was originally published in the Australian Odinist journal ‘Renewal’ in serial form, and it tells. Although it has been revised and expanded it is still, essentially, an essay rather than a book. It looks purely at the format of Lokasenna, the author’s focus solely on this one ‘chapter’ of the Eddas, and his theory is that Lokasenna is in fact a trial.

The introduction quotes a review of the book from Garman Lord of ‘Theod Magazine’ lamenting how Loki – because of how the Eddas were recorded in fragments and by Christian writers – seems, ‘perhaps the wisest, cleverest, most real, approachable and intelligent deity of all!’¹ Lord falls into the stereotypical argument of ‘there was no recorded Loki worship so he doesn’t deserve to be worshipped’ camp. If that was the case many of the Aesir would not be worshipped either, and then there are the Vanir; who knows how many didn’t make it into the few accounts that have survived. Lord also says that if Loki were on trial today he would probably be found ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,’1 and that too many people take Loki’s words in Lokasenna as truth about the Gods.
In reply the author adds that he did consider the idea of Loki pleading insanity, as he believes Frigga offered him the chance to plead ‘diminished responsibility’ but it was thrown back in her face (Lokasenna s. 25). James then also prints his reply to a letter from Fuensanta Plaza, who was apparently the only person to write an ‘overtly hostile’² letter. Two lines from his reply seem to be the basis of his study:
‘If Lokasenna is genuinely a work of art, as I believe, then it is reasonable to ask why goddess X says Y at line Z. This involves trying to see the situation from her point of view.’³

Chapter One: Lokasenna – Background and Problems
Chapter one gives a little background on Lokasenna, how it is presented in the Codex Regius and thought to have been composed in the 10th century A.D., though Einarr Sveinsson thought it was composed no later that 1,000 A.D. James gives further thought on the Christian ‘filter’ of the Norse works and how, obviously, ‘the Christian scribes had an entirely different philosophy of life to the heathen bards.’4 This difference in view conflicted with the Norse view of Fate, and in the Christian mind of the time this seemed to show the old Deities as flawed.
He goes on to explore how many scholars in modern times were raised in Christian ways and as such see Lokasenna as the breakdown of social and moral boundaries. He cites McKinnel, who sees Loki as an ‘accuser’ figure exposing the Gods, and while he seems to favour this conclusion James feels it raises a problem:
‘If Lokasenna can really be dated to the late heather period, we have to assume that the poem had some sort of moral relevance for its audience – a relevance that may not have been as obvious in the Codex Regius.’5

Chapter Two: Characterisation and Perspective
James starts off with telling us how Western thought ‘conditioned largely by the Bible’6 is more likely to take things at face value rather than look deeper.
On a separate matter, I question James’s reasoning in this statement:
‘Most of the gods clearly understand Fate, and there is no obvious reason why they should wish to obey it.’7
Frigga is said to understand Fate yet never speak of it (Lokasenna, s. 29), and yet she tried her hardest to keep Balder safe – a direct contradiction of Fate. Why would the Deities not want to stave off Ragnarok? Most of them won’t survive it and it makes sense they would ant to delay the inevitable as long as possible.

Chapter 3: Nið in Lokasenna
‘Nið in turn “signifies gross insults of a symbolic kind”, usually through suggestions that the male who is attacked has the contemptible moral character that Germanic society associated with passive homosexuality. In the case of a female victim she could be accused of being perverted or lecherous, or else of having sex with the accuser, which is psychologically equated with the violation of her husband’s sexual integrity.’8
James takes Loki’s insults as a serious matter. He cites the laws for Nið -type slanders, and also that if a man doesn’t refute the accusations against him physically then he is as good as admitting to them. He questions why the Gods don’t kill Loki, as they would have been entitled to, and comes to the conclusion it’s because they have knowledge of Ragnarok and that Loki won’t be killed until then. I have to question his logic. James later contradicts himself on this point and says that the Gods are unable to seize Loki because ‘they have sworn that Aegir’s hall is a place of sanctuary.’9
The author also believes the Gods have assembled to try Loki for treason. If this was the case and it was a deliberate snub not to invite him to Aegir’s banquet they knew Loki wouldn’t be able to resist gatecrashing.
He also believes the Aesir allow Loki to keep insulting them to get him boasting of his own guilt. For some reason Thor is the only one who can break the oath of non-violence in Aegir’s hall so the Aesir keep Loki talking until Thor returns and can chase him out of the hall. Only then can they mete out Loki’s punishment and bind him.

Chapter Four: The Senna of Lokasenna
This is the main chapter regarding Alan James’s theory, though it is short at 10¼ pages. It is basically a run-through of Lokasenna with the author’s comments on how it could be seen in the light of a trial. While there is a legalistic tone to Lokasenna I don’t agree with all of James’s conclusions.
By refusing the gifts from Bragi, the help offered by Frigga, or adhering to the rules of hospitality (Sif offering mead) Loki is, in James’s mind, being set up in spectacular style. Loki keeps the insults coming, cementing his own guilt in the process.
The theme of foster-brotherhood is brought up three times early on in Lokasenna, by Loki, then Odin and Idunn. Although Loki is right to demand this recognition her does not show the respect due in return.
The author seems to be of the opinion that Loki doesn’t respect Fate. I would instead suggest perhaps he knew Fate was about to play his hand and he wanted to go down ‘fighting’, with his own particular flair.
The concept of ‘keep Loki taking so Thor has time to appear’ is explored again. James recalls how Thor himself used this trick in Alvissmal, to keep the Dwarf talking while the sun rose and turned him to stone.

Most of the exchanges between Loki and the Aesir consist of sexual slander. The author asserts that this is to keep Loki on his favourite subject, and thus condemn himself by proving his own perversity (in the eyes of the heathen audience of the time). He also believes it shows Loki is running out of clever quips the more he resorts to low blows like incest between Freyja and Freyr.
One interesting question raised by James’s break down of the conversation between Loki and Tyr is who Tyr’s wife is. Loki says he slept with her, but she is mentioned nowhere else. The author wonders if perhaps ‘Tyr’s wife’ is a kenning of some sort.

Perhaps cruelly, the fate of Loki’s son Fenrir is brought up by both Tyr and Freyr, and Odin refers to Loki at the beginning of Lokasenna as ‘Wolf’s Father’. From the start his Fate is known and used to incriminate him.
Byggvir, it seems, saves Freyr from ending Loki himself and violating the sanctity of Aegir’s hall:
‘Byggvir diffuses the situation with some light relief, at the same time rather shrewdly, like a Shakespearian jester, parodying Freyr’s anger in a display of comical bellicosity.’10

Chapter Five: Conclusion
Enter Heimdall. By telling Byggvir (the personification of barley) that he is a ‘cowardly thing that causes men to fight but never joins in’11 Loki gives Heimdall just the fodder he needs. Loki replies, accusing the watchman of the Aesir of having a ‘muddy back’. James believes this means Giants may have already found a way to get into Asgard. I believe this allusion to a muddy back in the translation (by Henry Adam Bellows, at the end of the book) refers to the following lines:
‘With back held stiff | must thou ever stand,
As warder of heaven to watch’12
The enmity between Skadi and Loki is clear. She again acts to keep Loki talking, as does Sif, who seems to know Loki can’t resist bringing up the subject of fidelity. Still stalling, Beyla fills in just enough time for Thor to enter ‘from the East’ and hear Loki reprimanding Beyla for milking cows and being covered with dung. Now the thunderer can confront the ‘unmanly one’, who was referred to as a milk maid himself, and scare him into fleeing.
Away from the sanctuary of Aegir’s halls Loki’s punishment is secured. Ragnarok is again set in motion.

To be honest I’m not sure if this is a ‘good’ book about Loki. I can’t say I really learned anything new about him through reading it. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to someone who wants to know more the Trickster, but if you’re looking into deeper symbolism and analysis of the Eddas and the format of them then this may be of interest.

1 Page ii
2 Page iv
3 Page v
4 Page 2
5 Page 3
6 Page 5
7 Page 7
8 Page 8
9 Page 10
10 Page 20
11 Page 21
12 Page 32, s.48

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5 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Trial of Loki: A Study in Heathen Morality’ by Alan James

  1. Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the masters, seek instead what they sought.” I remind myself of this saying time and again when thinking about the gods, our ancestors, and contemporary debates surrounding what our ancestors were thinking and how they perceived the world. I value contemporary perspectives on our Heathen forebears – both scholarly and intuitive – and am certainly not trying to knock these insights into the gods and our ancestors. At the same time, with only one account of Lokasenna known to exist in historical record, with modern scholarship at odds with whether or not some of the names included with this story (specifically, Loki’s sons) are even accurate, and with the unanswerable question regarding how much Christian influence has been injected into this story (as well as others), I would agree with you in that this may not be the best way to try to get to know Loki better.

    In all honesty, I think I’ve managed to come to understand Loki a little by way of understanding Odin better. You bring up a great point, in negating the place-names argument by pointing out that this same argument would eliminate the possibility of any number of other deities from having been venerated in ancient times. I’ll add another possibility, that being the takeover myth, often used to explain how Tiwaz may have been ‘demoted’ by the loss of his sword hand as the popularity of Odin as chief god and war god rose during the Migration Period. Or also the demotion of the Vanir as the popularity of the Aesir rose. Loki, like with beings from other cultures (like Pan, for example), may have originally been understood to be a more neutral wight – a Nature spirit, or even as the embodiment of wildfire – and due to the influence of Christianity, been ‘promoted’ as arch-antagonist of the gods and all that was good and decent in the world. There are of course the associations between Loki, fire and Hell to support this; as well as the striking similarities in the described relationships between Odin and Loki, and Yahweh and Lucifer.

    As such, I can’t see where a study of the legal format of Lokasenna would be of much use in really getting to know Loki, either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting how you say understanding Odin has helped you understand Loki better too. There are a lot of parallels. Also what you said about Yahweh and Lucifer; I’m not overly familiar with Their story so perhaps it’s something I should look into.
      I do wonder how many Deities and Spirits we’ve ‘forgotten’ over the centuries.
      Thank you for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, you’re quite welcome … I think I enjoy commenting at least as much as I enjoy blogging, if not perhaps even a little more 🙂

        Regarding Yahweh and Lucifer, I find loads of parallels. Chiefly, the fact that adherents of the Abrahmic faiths can’t agree on who or what Lucifer is, or where he comes from. Some early texts used the word as a title for Jesus; while most Christians these days are pretty sure that Lucifer is the name for Satan before his fall, and thus pretty bad news. Complicating this are the existence of two different saints named Lucifer. And adding another very rich layer to the whole concept of descriptions of Lucifer inspiring descriptions of Loki is the likelihood that the concept for Lucifer may itself have Pagan roots. This is of course trying to make a very long story short – if you choose to look into this, you’ll find lots of interesting things that might make you go ‘hmmm!’ 🙂

        Regarding the parallels between Odin and Loki … while I am not particularly a follower of Loki, I do believe in his existence as strongly as I do that of Odin – or any other deity for that matter, even the ones you wisely brought up that may have been forgotten through the generations. I tend to see Loki as a kindred spirit to Odin … not unlike a pair of ravens. It should also be pointed out that I do not take the lore at face value … especially when it comes to deities who are themselves considered to be adept at shifting their shapes and changing their names … I keep in mind that even though there are many modern Heathens who seem to venerate the lore as much as the gods described within it, that the stories of the gods contained in the lore were at some point someone’s ‘UPG.’ If contemporary UPG is not deserving of respect because it can’t be verified; then I think ancient UPG should be subjected to the same standard. Thus I compare ancient and contemporary descriptions of the gods to my own experiences with them, and relate to them from that perspective. I am fairly familiar with the lore, and all the descriptions of Loki … I am also possessed of enough faith and respect when it comes to Odin to trust his judgment. Odin is not infallible – no being is, in my opinion – but he’s certainly wiser than I am. If he swears blood brotherhood with Loki, I figure he has his reasons – and I’m not into second-guessing the Allfather or disrespecting a being he has at least at some point held in high regard.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Definitely sounds like looking into the Yahweh/Lucifer parallels could prove interesting for me then.
        Re. UPG and the lore: totally agree. At some point the lore was also UPG that was built upon and then expanded, then written down in fragments by later writers who weren’t necessarily well versed in its nuances. It sounds like you have a very sensible approach to the lore.
        Good point about Odin choosing to enter into blood-brotherhood with Loki. Odin always seems to have a reason for everything he does, even if we may not understand it. I really like your comparison of them to a pair of ravens too.
        Thanks for giving me more food for thought.

        Liked by 1 person

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