Loki (Old Norse: Loki “knot/tangle”) is a wily trickster god of Norse mythology. While treated as a nominal member of the Aesir, he occupies a highly ambivalent and unique position among the gods, giants, and the other kinds of spiritual beings that populate pre-Christian Norse religion.
Loki is the father of three monsters with giantess and witch of the Iron Wood, Angrboda (Old Norse: “Anguish-bringer”). Their daughter Hel became the ruler of the underworld; Jormungand, a great serpent (also known as the Midgard Serpent encircled the entirety of Midgard sea) is fated to be slain and slay Thor during Ragnarok; lastly, Fenrir, the giant wolf who bites off one the god Tyr’s hands when chained by the Aesir and slays Odin during Ragnarok.
Loki also had a wife from among the Aesir – Sigyn (“Friend of Victory”) and two sons named Nari and Narfi, whose names might mean “Corpse.” They are sacrificed and their entrails used to bind Loki until he’ll break free at the beginning of Ragnarok.
Loki often runs afoul of societal expectations but also the “the laws of nature.” Loki is also a shape-shifter and in the form of a mare, he birthed Sleipnir, Odin’s shamanic stallion.
In many tales, Loki is a schemer, coward, shallow and focused only on his self-preservation. He’s also playful, malicious, and can be helpful. But all tales portray him as irreverent and immoral.
Loki’s recklessness finds him in the hands of the furious frost-giant, Thrazi who threatens to kill him unless he kidnaps the goddess Idunn. To save his own life, Loki agrees and shape-shifting again, steals Idunn away and delivers her to Thrazi. The Aesir then threaten him with death unless he rescues Idunn. He agrees to this for self-preservation and shape-shifting into a falcon and transforms Idunn again and carries her back to Asgard in his talons. Angered, Thrazi pursues him in the form of an eagle. When he has almost caught up with Loki, the Aesir gods light a fire around the perimeter of their fortress. The flames catch Thrazi’s feathers and burns him to death.
After Thrazi’s death, his daughter, frost-giantess Skadi, marches on Asgard demanding compensation for slaying her father. One of her demands is that the Aesir make her laugh, something which only Loki can accomplish.
Loki both helps and hinders the gods and the giants, depending on what course of action most benefits him at the time.
During Ragnarok, when the gods and giants engage in their fateful struggle and the cosmos is destroyed, Loki joins the giants and captains a ship made by Hel called Naglfar, “Deadmen’s nails,” that brings many of the giants to the battlefield. Loki and the Aesir god Heimdall will mortally wound each other.
Loki is best known for his malevolent role in the death of Odín and Frigg’s son Baldr. The prophesied death of the beloved god Baldr, Frigg secures a promise from every living thing not to harm her son. But no oath is obtained from a young mistletoe. Loki discovers this omission and carves a spearhead from the mistletoe. While the Aesir are enjoying testing the immortality of Baldr, Loki gives the spearhead to Baldr’s brother, the blind god Hodr who isn’t participating in the festivities. Loki aims for Hodr and Baldr is struck and dies.
After Baldr’s death, the Aesir god Hermod rides Sleipnir into the underworld to implore Hel to release Baldr. Hel demands that if Baldr is truly loved by everything and everyone, every being in the Nine Worlds must weep for Baldr and then she will release him from the Underworld. Loki disguises himself as a giantess named Thok (“Thanks”), who is the only one in the Nine Worlds who doesn’t weep for Baldr. In turn, he must remain with Hel in the Underworld.
For this last crime against the Aesir gods, he is bound within a cavern with a venomous serpent hanging above him, dripping poison onto his face (the viper care of Skadi). Loki’s very faithful wife Sigyn, sits beside him holding a bowl catch the venom. But when the bowl needs emptying, she mist leave Loki’s face unprotected and drops of venom fall onto his flesh and he writhes in agonised convulsions that cause earthquakes. Here, he will stay until breaking free at Ragnarok.
For many centuries of Norse mythology study, the meaning of Loki’s name has been elusive. A recent, the philologist Eldar Heide suggests from Nordic folklore in periods more recent than the Viking Age, Loki often appears in contexts likening it to a knot on a thread. In fact, in later Icelandic usage, the common noun loki means “knot” or “tangle.”
Manifestation: A master shape-shifter who appears in many guises.
Consort: Aesir wife Sigyn and the giantess Angrboda
Sacred animals: Wolves, snakes and possibly spiders (web-weaving).
Star symbol: Sirius also known as Lokabrenna (“Loki’s Brand”) in traditional Norse astrology
The stereotype of the leprechaun is of lucky charms and pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. But leprechauns are members of the Fairy folk, a type of sidhe and are unusual because leprechauns are almost exclusively always male.
The name leprechaun derives from the Gaelic leith brog “one shoemaker.” The leprechaun is a cobbler and while the other sidhe dance and revel, he is always hard at work. He is depicted wearing one shoe rather than a pair – which may also be a shamanic reference. (References to shoes, especially only one shoe are often oblique references to shamanism. Ancient shamanic dances often performed with one shoe on and one shoe off). The leprechaun works on shoes constantly with time off only for an occasional spree. He is fabulously wealthy but buries his treasure in pots underground. He is a skillful but not always pleasant practical joker. The leprechaun may be invoked for financial aid.
Leprechauns are often compared to clurichauns. Because like leprechauns, clurichauns are often exclusively male. The clurichaun could be the nocturnal form of the leprechaun out after a hard day’s work.
Alternatively, some perceive clurichauns to be leprechauns lacking work ethic. Unlike hardworking, wealth-accumulating leprechauns, clurichauns spend all their time drinking. They are often drunk but retain their good manners unlike the surly leprechaun. Clurichauns come out at night to drink, party and play pranks on people (for example, raiding the pantry).
The only occupation for which the clurichaun displays enthusiasm is as a guardian of liquor cellars. The clurichaun will protect your cellar from thieves and prevent wine from spoiling and bottles from breaking or leaking. Simply request his presence and leave him a sample of whatever you have in stock. Leave such offerings on a regular basis lest he decide to begin serving himself.
In Japanese folklore, many stories include spirits, supernatural creatures, and demons called yokai. And of all the yokai, the tengu is the one that might seem most familiar to a modern Westerner. At first glance, it’s a lot like a superhero: the ability to fly, great physical strength, magical powers, and secret martial arts skills. But the tengu has a long history and deep connections to Japanese culture and religion.
Like the kitsune and tanuki, the tengu started out as animals, but have taken more twists and turns. And like the kitsune’s connection to Shinto, it has a close relationship to another Japanese religion, Buddhism. The relationship is not a happy one, though. Tengu are sworn enemies of the Buddhist faith, and much of their history has been spent trying to lure people away fromthe road to enlightenment.
Tengu are more like minor gods than other trickster yokai – and are expected to be treated accordingly.
You might be familiar with the red-faced long-nosed tengu, but it may surprise you that there are two different types. There is an older one that is considered lesser than the newer yokai.
The Great Tengu or daitengu is an imposing semi-human whose most prominent feature is a long nose and large wings. Usually depicted with a bright red, long-nosed mask that represents the face of the daitengu. They live in deep mountain forests, and these particular mountains are said to be the homes of particular, named daitengu. Some of their powers, like possession, are shared with other yokai, but their special skills include control of wind, swordsmanship, and flight. Daitengu often abduct humans, sometimes to torment them, but other times to teach them magic.
The other type of tengo is called kotengu (lesser tengu). Karasu means crow, but these tengu may also take the form of birds of prey, especially the black kite. They wear monk’s robes, but kotengu are much more animal-like both in their appearance and their behavior. While daitengu contemplate disrupting human society and interfering with religion, the kotengu act at a smaller scale and often eat people. In some folktales, they’re depicted as easy to fool, something you don’t want to try with a daitengu.
Early tengu stories share a lot with other yokai tales. In the 9th and 10th centuries, they’re trickster mountain demons doing regular yokai things: luring people into the woods with the sound of music, throwing pebbles at houses, and appearing as will-o-the-wisp. Tengu possessed illiterate people – which became obvious when they suddenly developed the ability to write kanji. They also enjoyed causing fires.
In the earliest tales, tengu were easy to defeat. One story showcases their shapeshifting powers, as a Buddha appears in a tree surrounded by a bright light and a rain of flowers. The tengu’s power withers and it turns into a kestrel and falls out of the tree with its wings broken.
11TH AND 12TH CENTURIES
By the 11th century, many tengu legends developed and are collected in 31 volumes called Konjaku Monogatari (only 28 volumes are still in existence). In these tales, tengu shapeshifting into Buddha deludes monks and the abduction of Buddhist priests was already one of their favorite tricks and steering them away from the real path to enlightenment.
Learning the tengu’s power would not lead to enlightenment, even if they did save the lives of emperors. Disputing Buddhist sects often called the other “tengu” to demonise them and imply their teachings were dangerous or deceptive. By the 12th century, the idea had developed that bad priests become tengu after death.
It’s important to remember most of the vivid visual images of yokai we have today only go back to the Edo period. Most started out as odd phenomena or occurrences and were only personified and visualized later. In the earliest stories, there are few references to the tengu’s appearance. More often than not, they were invisible.
In the 13th century, tengu begin to appear in the guise of yamabushi – ascetic mountain priests. Some of the clothing tengu are depicted wearing is based on the traditionally worn by yamabushi. But unlike these humble hermits, tengu want to be worshipped by humans.
This is also when tengu start to get their reputation for skill in martial arts. Such as the tale that the samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune learned his famed swordsmanship from the tengu Soujoubou. Tengu also abducted children.
At around 14th century, tengu start appearing more humanlike which is when the long-nose version starts to appear.
The change in tengu depiction from birds of prey, men with bird heads, then later also developed bird bills, and finally the bill morphed into a long nose. Images of the other kind of tengu didn’t disappear, though, which is why the belief in more than two kinds. The more human-like tengu is superior.
By the 19th century, there’s more of an emphasis on flying in the tales, which is one of the things that sets tengu apart from other yokai. Stories tell of tengu abductees falling from the sky. Tengu control rain, wind, and thunder – and they cause raging storms when angry or make whirlwinds to carry people up into the air.
There are also stories where tengu are good, or where their anger can be placated. They are guardians of the forests they live in, but woodcutters could supposedly placate them after cutting down trees with offerings of ricecake or fish.
The tengu has developed into such a rich and complicated character, it’s widely used today appearing in countless manga, anime, and games. Pretty much any storyline or setting that involves yokai will throw in at least one, so there are far too many to list.
The three greatest tengu, according to the philosopher Hayashi Razan, were:
1. Soujoubou of Kurama (Kyoto)
2. Taroubou of Atago (Kyoto)
3. Jiroubou of Hira (the Hira Mountains are west of Lake Biwa)
Soujoubou of Kurama is particularly significant. Sometimes called King of the Tengu, he was the tengu who taught swordsmanship to Minamoto no Yoshitsune. There’s also a legend that the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, learned martial arts from this tengu. Tengu Geijutsuron, (The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) by Issai Chozanshi, an eighteenth-century samurai, is a collection of parables presented as the story of a swordsman who converses with a tengu on Mt. Kuruma about the martial arts philosophy.
Soujoubou of Kurama is particularly significant. Sometimes called king of the Tengu, he was the Tengu who taught swordsmanship to Minamoto No Yoshitsune.
1. Atagoya Taroubou – Kyoto: This tengu protects Atago shrine, which is devoted to the deity Izanagi. He was assigned to this job by Buddha about 3,000 years ago and considered the representative of all the other tengu in Japan. He was apparently nameless – or his name wasn’t known for a lot of that time. The name is first mentioned after a big fire in Kyoto in 1177 that people believed he caused, which was called “taroushoubou” (The Tarou Fire).
2. Kuramayama Soujoubou – Kyoto: This is our old friend Soujoubou, King of the Tengu, mentioned above.
3. Hirasan Jiroubou – Shiga: This tengu originally resided on Mt. Hiei and was supposedly as strong as Taroubou, but when powerful monks moved in, he up and moved to Mt. Hira. He appears in a few violent tales in the late Heian period, doing things like attacking a dragon, and grabbing a monk and throwing him into a cave where a dragon lived.
4. Izuna Saburou – Nagano: This tengu is said to boast of more apprentices than Mt. Fuji’s “Fujitarou.” And no surprise, since some useful miracles are attributed to him.
5. Sagami Ooyamahoukibou – Kanagawa: Another tengu who didn’t stick with his original mountain, Ooyamahoukibou originally lived at Houki Daisen mountain in Tottori. The original tengu of Soushu Ooyama mountain was Sagamibou. But, Sagamibou had to move to Shiromine in Kagawa on the Shikoku island to comfort the spirit of the emperor Suutokujoukou, so Ooyamahoukibou moved in as a successor to the post.
6. Hikozan Buzenbou – Fukuoka: He is known as the general manager of Kyushu tengu. He keeps track of who’s naughty and who’s nice, and will send one of his tengu staff to punch out a person for being snobby and greedy. But if you worship tengu yokai properly, they’ll get together and make your dreams come true.
Oomine Zenki – Nara: Zenki and Goki were a married couple of oni (demons) . But they reformed when En no Ozuno, the founder of Shugendou, hid one of their children in an iron pot. From this, they understood the sadness of the parents whose children they had killed. From then on, they protected En no Ozuno, and Zenki later became a tengu.
Shiramine Sagamibou – Kagawa: We’ve already heard of Sagamibou in the story of tengu number 5 – he’s the one who moved to Kagawa on the Shikoku island to comfort the spirit of the emperor Suutokujoukou for all eternity. The emperor died after eight years of exile on Shikoku, longing all the time to return to Kyoto.
Along with shrines on mountains where tengu reside, there are Japanese festivals that feature them.
The popular neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo holds a tengu festival every year. Shimokita Tengu Matsuri includes a tengu parade and takes place at the winter holiday of Setsubun. It’s based at the Shinryuji temple not far from Shimokitazawa Station, where legend says the guardian deity Doryosatta became a tengu to protect this temple.
There is a Mt. Tengu in Otaru. With a name like that, of course you have a tengu festival. Mt. Tengu in Otaru is considered one of the three most beautiful night view spots in Hokkaido (places of scenic beauty are another thing the Japanese have been making lists about for a very long time). On Mt. Tengu there are three main theories about why it’s called that –, one is that tengu live there, but the others are that the mountain looks like a tengu, or that people who moved there from Tohoku thought it looked like the Mt. Tengu in their home town.
In Numata City, Gunma, there’s a festival with a huge mikoshi in the shape of a tengu mask. Only women carry it – it takes 200-300 of them – because it’s supposed to ensure easy childbirth. The town is near Kashouzan Mountain, which is known as a place where tengu live.
At the Donki Festival in Toyokawa city, a fox, a red tengu, and a blue tengu chase after women and children with a donki, which is a stick with paint on it. Getting the paint on you is supposed to ensure good health.
A tengu festival that goes back to the Edo period takes place in Osaka in October. Getting hit by the tengu will help women have good children, and children grow up to be strong and wise.
Furubira in Hokkaido holds two tengu festivals, in the summer and in the fall. Both end with the tengu walking through a bonfire.
Tengu expect offerings. Offerings appease them and encourage good behavior. Woodcutters who fail to make offerings before cutting trees encounter unpleasant accidents. Tengu bless hunters with success if they first promise to share their food. Offerings are traditionally given outside, not too close to buildings. Tengu like sake and rice cakes, but they’ll have some of whatever you’re having.
The fascinating folklore of the tengu also appears in Lian Hearn’s historical fantasy duology “The Tale of Shikanoko”.
In the darkest months of the Welsh year, a white horse appears at your front door. It is mysterious and menacing Mari Lwyd.
The Mari Lwyd has a horse skull for a head and lights or baubles for eyes. Her mane is made of colourful streamers, sometimes made of holly and ivy. She is covered in a white cloak from her skull attached to a pole. The person inside the Mari Lwyd controls the mischievous nature and often snaps the bony jaw at you.
The origins of Mari Lwyd’s name are, like the horse herself, deeply mysterious. One Welsh translation of it, Grey Mare which connects it to the heritage of pale horses in Celtic and British mythology – many of whom can cross over to the underworld (Rhiannon in the Mabinogion rode a white horse as do many characters).
The other translation for Mari Lwyd is Grey Mary. Some scholars link this to a legend of to the nativity story. A pregnant horse sent out of from the stables when Mary arrived to have Jesus. Alone, she spent dark days roaming the land trying to find somewhere new to have a foal.
Whether the Mari Lwyd is pre-Christian or pagan origins, it is an uncanny and timeless figure in Welsh folklore.
Between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, Mari Lwyd is taken around the village. She is dressed with festive lights and decorations, and is usually accompanied by an ostler, and in some regions like Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valleys, she is accompanied by other folk characters like a jester and a Lady. This brings the tradition closer together with Mummers’ Plays – a tradition of performances by the working classes in the 18th century.
When the group arrives at a house, they sing Welsh songs or wassails. They also indulge in a ritual called pwnco: an exchange of rude rhymes with the person who lives there. If the Mari Lwyd and her company beat the owner in the exchange of riddles, they gain entry to the household. The Mari Lwyd is well-known to be mischievous – trying to steal things and chase people she likes as she goes about her bidding.
The first written record of the Mari Lwyd is in J. Evans’ book from 1800, A Tour through Part of North Wales, although the tradition is best known for its practice in Glamorgan and Gwent. There are similarities to other hooded animal customs in Britain like the Hoodening in Kent or the Broad in the Cotswolds and The Old Tup in Derbyshire. In these times, groups of poor people tried to find food and money in the harsh depths of the winter. Entertainment was often their method – with a side portion of menace like dead horse’s skull appearing like a shadow at your door.
Welsh poet Vernon Watkins wrote a long poem about the Mari Lwyd in 1941 “The Ballad of The Mari Lwyd”. His words beautifully capture the Mari Lwyd’s frightening aspect. “The Living are defended by the rich warmth of the flames which keeps that loneliness out…. “Terrified, they hear the Dead tapping at the panes; then they rise up, armed with the warmth of firelight.”
I am in the final stages of editing my draft dark fantasy novel inspired by North American and Canadian First Nations legends and environment and the influence of developing climate change.
In a fantasy world where the gods, mortals and paranormal beings are dependent on the environment for stability and existence, the threat of a dark shaman destroying the land as his power grows is too much for the gods to remain omnipotent. In the involvement with the mortal realms, the balance of the Land shifts dangerously and the environment begins to suffer, fade and die.
The following images are inspirational only and are not intended to represent any specific character but inspire an internal concept.
One of my projects I’m working on at the moment is a reimagining the Norse Myths and involving my favourite Trickster folklore. I’m focusing on the god Loki and the events recounted in the myths leading up to Ragnarok.
I’m also fascinated by the roles of Odín and his selection of the best warriors fallen on the battlefield and how Freyja, goddess of desire takes the other half the best fallen warriors and is a leader of the Valkyries.
My love of Trickster folklore and legends includes one of my favourite Australian Trickster figures, Crow. Together with Loki, there’s a new story added to those known in the Norse myths.
In remaining ragnarok in a new way, I’ve ncorporated Icelandic and Australian-esque natural landscapes to create a new version of a mythos of ice and fire with tales from the Australian Alps to the desert heart.
Of all the characters in myths and legends told around the world, it’s the wily trickster who provides the real spark in the action, causing trouble wherever he goes. This figure shows up time and again in Native American folklore, where he takes many forms, from the irascible Coyote of the Southwest, to Iktomi, the amorphous spider man of the Lakota tribe. This dazzling collection of American Indian trickster tales, compiled by an eminent anthropologist and a master storyteller, serves as the perfect companion to their previous masterwork, American Indian Myths and Legends.American Indian Trickster Tales includes more than one hundred stories from sixty tribes–many recorded from living storytellers—which are illustrated with lively and evocative drawings. These entertaining tales can be read aloud and enjoyed by readers of any age, and will entrance folklorists, anthropologists, lovers of Native American literature, and fans of both Joseph Campbell and the Brothers Grimm.
In a collection of tales that span a continent, one of my favourites is the northern tales of the trickster Raven, the creation of daylight and stealing the moon from the Haida and Tlingit cultures. Another of my favourites were the tales of Iktomi, the spider-man from the plains Sioux and Lakota cultures. Lastly, were the tales of Coyote stealing fire and the sun from the Klamath and Miwok cultures.
American Indian Trickster Tales is a skilfully told collection of legends and folklore from North America. The range of stories covered stretches from Tricksters including Coyote, Iktomi, Raven and Hare among others. A masterful storytelling that evokes the moral tales, the amusement accompanied by illustrations.
A wonderful collection of First Nations legends from around North America. Highly recommended for readers of folklore and legends and anyone seeking Trickster tales!
I recently finished a novella inspired from my initial research for my latest novel draft Ragnarok Dreaming into Norse mythology but also Australian Aboriginal legends. On the surface, there might seem little in common between the Viking legends and those of the oldest continuous culture on the planet. The purpose of the novella was not to re-tell any stories or legends, because these are not my ancestry nor mine to tell, instead, I wanted to explore the common elements shared between them. The themes that unite all humanity across time and place.
In this, I was drawn as I often am, to the fascinating Trickster figures in legends and stories throughout the world. In Norse mythology, Loki is the Trickster figure and protagonist of the novella relocated into a cosmos inspired by Australian dreaming stories. The Trickster figure who aids Loki is Wahn, the Crow in many Aboriginal legends. The novella was a re-imagining of the parallels and opposites in legends and myth, expanding on what was interesting research for Ragnarok Dreaming.