The Evil Viking
The viking culture exalted the serving of self. They valued this pledges of fealty/servitude to chiefs or chiefdoms. If a viking thought another chief would bring him greater honor/renown/spoils, they expected him to go to the place where he was best served. These relationships between a viking and chief were mutually beneficial in that the viking performed raids, brought back bounty, and then rewarded/acknowledge by the chief for deeds done. This exchange between viking and chief was almost like commerce, in that it was an expected action between the two.
Ragnarok was the Viking’s prophesied end of days. It was unavoidable, so they didn’t concern themselves with self preservation. They charged into battles headlong and met death, unafraid. Their fate was supposedly out of their hands, so they didn’t concern themselves with altering it. Instead, they often greeting their end with a smile or roar.
I’m not keen on their laws, but when a viking broke the law, the culture considered outlaws. This wasn’t a label to mean the vikings were breaking the law, rather, it was a label that meant they were outside of the law’s protection. Any law-abiding citizen could kill an outlaw without penalty so long as it wasn’t on holy ground.
Gender roles were very pronounced during this time. There was label/title known as argr that no viking man wanted. Where a viking might not engage in a fight, this often reversed when this label came up as a potential punishment. It essentially meant “unmanly” and was supposedly a forfeiture of manly honor. When a viking man took part in something that was understood as a womanly duty, this label would become a focal point. One of these womanly duties was magic, but we’ll return to that.
The Vikings and their Gods
The relationship between a viking and a Norse god was the same as it was between a viking and his/her chief. This wasn’t a religion to them; it was a part of their natural lives. Similarly, this tit-for-tat relationship existed in the same way in that vikings didn’t pray/request things from their patron god (god of choice). The vikings expected their due from their god, just as they did from their chief. If a god didn’t honor this expectation, then the viking would likely select a different patron.
The Aesir gods had the same honor code that the vikings did, and you wouldn’t be remiss to consider them a higher level of viking chief, maybe a king of kings. So the Aesir were also self serving. They prioritized their own desires above all else, the one exception being the giving of their word. It seems a promise was something sacred, and the gods honored their promises with one exception. One Aesir was known to be a liar and a cheat. This god also performed other deeds that gained him the title argr and even got him exiled from Asgard. Can you guess who?
The Vanir were a separate tribe among the gods which broke off from the Aesir. One day, while in search of her husband, a Vanir witch made her way to Asgard. She had several names, but the one most recognized was Freja. Along the way, she was performing services by way of magic known as seidr. She was considered a professional witch, known as a Volva.
Freja’s magic was in fortune telling. Her efforts would tell the recipient information that would improve their luck/lot in life. This seems like a positive thing to have around, and even some of the Aesir sought her for this service. But unrest accumulated amongst them. Remember, vikings are self serving, so this upset others for one or both of the following reasons:
-Fortunes improved one’s luck, which contradicts the self-serving culture. The reward is unearned.
-Freja’s performing this service may seem like it’s not self serving enough regarding Freja’s own benefit. She’s potentially giving away more than she’s getting.
Related to the above, some Aesir reviled her and even considered evil. But it’s important to place the word evil within the Viking context. Evil is going to be something that is outside of their cultural norms. With this in mind, Vikings may consider altruistic actions to be “evil.” This concept being too alien for rationalizing should speak on the disparity between Norse and modern cultures.
Because of this unrest, the Aesir agreed that the appropriate punishment would be to execute Freja. So they tried. And then tried again. And then failed to burn her for a third time. There were other attempts as well, and the collection of these efforts lead to the tribal war between the Aesir and the Vanir.
Magic was considered a womanly role and a man practicing it was a sure way to get the argr label. One Aesir god paid cared not about manly honor or gender roles. Ever in search of more power in knowledge, he sought magical training from Freja. This god was none other than
Odin was the one god that didn’t abide by the norms that were part of the Norse culture. While this may be considered self serving, also remember that he knew Ragnarok was coming. This search was an active attempt to stop/prevent it. Given that vikings didn’t fight fate and greeted death with a smile, this was actually counter to the viking culture. Odin was the only one seeking to hinder or alter fate.
Odin had a lot of names. Here’s a few of them (translated):
- Lord of the Aesir
-Enemy of the Wolf
That list is a drop in the bucket when compared to all of his reported names. I bet you can find a few names that someone less informed might associate with Loki. Odin dealt with men and kings directly in Midgard, and that’s where many of his names came from. Concerning Odin’s word, he was known to promise his support to a king in battle, then allow the opposing force to win. Besides breaking promises, he’s also violating the tit-for-tat expectation by not giving his supporter their due. This was a god forsaking his word, but there is a hint of the self serving in that he was potentially harvesting his favored king for Valhalla.
Remember how I mentioned vikings had a patron god? Care to guess who the patron god was for most outlaws?
So if we attribute Odin with these “evil” things, why was it that Loki had such a bad rap? Most of Loki’s tales involve him doing some task that was followed by a threat to Loki’s life if he didn’t undo this done-thing. But these done-things would have been self serving for Loki. Wouldn’t that make him a superb, even hero-like viking? Why was he then made to undo them?
Now we come to the heart of the issue. The Eddas were written in monasteries 200-300 years after Christianity had replaced the Norse beliefs. These authors didn’t witness these beliefs first hand. They cite references during their time of writing, but I think some of this reference material was likely falsified. My fundamental belief in this stems from Loki’s portrayal. I’ve seen it stated that Loki remained a focal point for Asgard ire because they labeled him an argr. But remember who else was labeled argr. Odin was actually the one to be exiled from Asgard because of this label. While Loki repeatedly fled from Asgard, I have yet to encounter a story where Loki was exiled.
Loki is a scapegoat within the Eddas, so how probable is it he’s one outside of them as well? During his roast of the gods, he claims that all the gods are guilty of the very things he’s chastised for. If you look at any of the tales involving Loki’s “mischief,” he’s portrayed as acting in his own self interest. After he supposedly does one of these actions, he’s the only figure that I’ve seen expected to fix an action. His giving birth, which gained him the argr title, also took place during these fix-events.
It is my belief that Loki may have been a hero by today’s standards. Odin could have been doing all the self-serving things while Loki still went out and corrected those harmful things. If this was purely an altruistic act by Loki, this is counter to what was prominent within the viking culture. Since this is outside of cultural norms, the vikings would have viewed Loki as “evil,” but that’s by their own standards, not ours.