Thy God Loki

I went to my therapist fretting because I couldn’t get Loki out of my head. I’d been consuming Marvel media like junk food throughout the pandemic and I’d just finished watching the Loki miniseries, in which Loki is swept into an alternate timeline after escaping the Avengers. He’s arrested by the Time Variance Authority and recruited by a time cop named Mobius to hunt down a female alternate version of himself and, in the ensuing chaos, he flies through a redemption arc that transforms him from a narcissistic mass murderer into a vulnerable, contemplative hero. Some Marvel fans loved it; others hated it. I found myself obsessing over it.

“I think my OCD is acting up again,” I told my therapist, worrying that I was spiraling off into one of my hyperfixations. I kept thinking about Loki and mental health, Loki and queerness, Loki and liminal gods, Loki and misfits. I had multiple cinematic dreams about him losing fights. In the weirdest one, Thor chained him down and beat him until they began to resemble each other, Thor deranged and villainous, Loki noble and martyred. I would make a psychiatrist appointment, I decided. I would go back on medication.

But my therapist’s response surprised me. “You’re the second client to come in talking about that show,” she said. “The other person can’t get it out of their head, either.” Apparently, Loki had managed to twang some deeply resonant string in its viewers. I hadn’t expected that at all. I’d thought my mind was just doing its usual thing, shunting off in a direction no one else would understand.

At home I have an altar topped with a roebuck skull, where I perform the amalgamation of devotions and folk magic known as Traditional Witchcraft. Sometimes I do it for money, when a client needs a candle spell or a tarot reading. More often, though, I do it to make sense of myself. After my therapy session, I went home and tended the altar. Erecting an altar is an invitation to gods to drop in on you, and when I stand at mine, they tug on my sleeve to ask for favors. I lit a candle, still mulling over Loki, and the tines of the roebuck’s antlers cast flickering shadows on the wall: a pair of silently dancing horns looming over me.

Years ago, when my family and I were cleaning out my grandmother’s apartment after she died, I found a copy of my mother and father’s wedding invitation. I smiled and sat down to look at it. They’d been divorced since I was six, and they hated each other, and I was fascinated by any trace of their brief marriage. I opened the invitation and my face fell when I registered the date. July 1981, six months before I was born.

The knowledge of why my parents married, why their marriage fell apart so quickly, why my childhood home was always filled with a miasma of resentment, hit me cold in the stomach. That little printed date answered so many of my questions. I noticed my younger sister looking at me.

“Yeah,” she said, although I hadn’t asked her anything. “I saw that earlier.”

I appreciated that she’d let me find out for myself. That was a little less humiliating.

For a while, the knowledge that I’d been an accident served as an easy explanation for everything that was wrong with my life. During the toasts at my wedding, our college friends lovingly praised and roasted my husband but had nothing to say about me. At a party in grad school, one of my classmates stuck a piece of trash in the brim of my hat and I unwittingly wore it around for two hours. After the party, seething, I thought of the wedding invitation. Of course people picked on me! I was a mistake, not supposed to be here, not supposed to exist.

But there was something else going on, too. No one else, I gradually noticed, had to cover their ears when the shower turned on or to cut every tag out of their clothing. Everyone else seemed to communicate in code, through telepathy. I always said the wrong thing and garnered strange looks or made jokes that no one understood. I didn’t have crushes on the right people in the right ways. Trying to make friends, doing all the things I was told would help me grow close to people, always felt like putting together a puzzle, reaching for the very last piece, and discovering that it wasn’t there.

I began to suspect I was neurodivergent—a term for normal cognitive variations usually considered disorders—around the time I began to suspect I was queer. I began to wonder if my mental health issues, depression and anxiety and OCD and old traumas and a bunch of miscellaneous symptoms, weren’t a haphazard pile of discrete problems, but manifestations of a deeper root cause. As Jenara Nerenberg points out in her book Divergent Mind, the makeup of the human mind is slippery and diverse, with near-infinite possibilities, and what seems like a disorder is often only our society’s failure to understand and accommodate it. Many neurodivergent people report feeling immense relief when they finally figure out what’s going on with their minds, and I suppose I did feel some of that, but mostly I felt deflated. My strangeness had always made me feel monstrous, and now I knew there was no fix and no cure. I would always be like this.

Comics are a haven for misfits, so it’s no surprise that Marvel fans fell hard for Loki in the movie Thor. When we meet him, Loki is an outsider, part of the royal family of Asgard but hovering unhappily on the edge of Thor’s friend group. No one likes him much, and he has a history of acting out. Loki’s feelings of inadequacy, of being inexplicably out of sync, are explained when he finds out that he’s actually a kind of primordial giant called a Jotunn, raised to believe he was Asgardian. His secret adoption, he learns, was a political move intended to strengthen ties between Asgard and Jotunheim, now rendered obsolete by the breakdown of the peace treaty between the two kingdoms. Making matters infinitely worse, the Asgardians hate and demonize the Jotunns. Loki finds out that in the eyes of his people he is literally a monster.

It’s one of the better villain origin stories in the MCU. What do you do after you find out that it’s not your imagination, that you really are unwanted, that there’s an invisible difference living inside of you that repulses everyone you love? How do you manage that pain? Where do you send it? In my case, I embarked on years of therapy; in Thor, Loki tries to kill Thor and the Jotunns and then jumps into a wormhole. Everyone has their coping strategies.

There’s a poignant moment in Loki, based on one of the original Norse myths, when an Asgardian named Sif confronts him with a lock of hair he cut from her head while she was sleeping. “You deserve to be alone,” she hisses, “and you always will be.” For a couple of episodes it looks like she’ll be proven wrong, as he manages to make the first real friends of his thousand-year life, but then one of those friends shoves him into an alternate universe and strands him there. The season ends with Loki taking in his new surroundings—frightened, heartbroken, and comprehensively alone.

One night, triggered by a text from someone who had once called me brainless, I cried to my husband about that scene. It felt strange to cry over a Marvel show, but damn, that last shot really got to me. “A monster who ends up alone,” I said, thinking of the unrelenting patterns of bullying and fizzled relationships in my own life. “If that doesn’t sound like me, then I don’t know what does.”

Like Hermes or Raven, the original Loki of Norse mythology is a trickster and culture bringer, inventing or securing treasures like the first fishing net, Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and Thor’s magic hammer. But while some tricksters are revered, Loki is reviled. Snorri Sturluson, the medieval author of the Prose Edda, calls Loki “evil,” “treacherous,” and “the Disgrace of All Gods and Men.” Diana L. Paxton writes that many modern Heathens—neopagans who venerate the Norse gods—refuse to even say Loki’s name in ritual space. Indeed, in the myths, he’s a troublemaker. Out of what seems like sheer malevolence, he shaves Sif’s head and engineers the death of the beloved god Baldr. In the poem Lokasenna, he jealously kills a lauded servant at a feast and then systematically insults every god sitting at the table. Even the problems he solves for the gods tend to be problems he himself created.

Like his Marvel counterpart, Loki hangs out with the gods known as the Aesir even though he isn’t one of them. We know he’s a blood brother to Odin and the offspring of a taboo union between a goddess and a Jotunn, but there’s no actual origin story. He’s just there, skulking eternally around the edges of the pantheon, a liminal figure in every sense. His gender in particular is constantly called into question, as he shapeshifts into women and gives birth to Sleipnir by turning into a mare and mating with a stallion. In one myth, which is charged with homophobic symbolism, he ties a goat to his testicles and screams in pain as it yanks him around the room, much to the delight of the gods.

The ambiguity at the heart of his character hints at stories that have been lost, a depth and significance to him that Snorri and other premodern authors omitted. Many scholars believe that the Loki we’ve inherited is actually a composite figure. Loki may originally have been a prechristian trickster god who, in a culture in which masculinity wasn’t inherent but rather achieved by heroic acts, occupied a low-ranking but normal space between male and female. As Scandinavia was christianized and gender ambiguity came to be seen as threatening and unnatural, the androgyne trickster may have been combined with a devil figure—an association that Marvel artist Jack Kirby cemented in 1962 with the addition of a horned helmet.

The original context of the myths is lost though, so we’re forced to approach the Norse Loki through the lens of the myths we do have. Some modern witches and pagans see him as a force of change and transformation, or as Odin’s shadow-self. Others have embraced his queerness. I’m compelled to study him through a trauma-informed lens. What happened to Loki to make him so violent? The characters in the Eddas are already a violent lot, punishing Loki for his tricks by sewing his lips shut and dripping poison in his eyes. But how did Loki get that way in the first place? What original violence, left off the page, did the Aesir commit against him, his gender fluidity, his inescapable otherness? We can only guess.

Snorri, after calling Loki evil and treacherous, adds that he has “the wisdom known as cunning,” and we see that gift play out in myth after myth. In one story, Loki saves himself from being beheaded by telling his executioners that while he did technically promise them his head, he never told them they could touch his neck. Like other tricksters, Loki survives because his mind works differently than those around him, noticing details and making connections that others miss. In that sense, cunning isn’t far removed from neurodivergence. But what does cunning look like when you don’t have to use it for mere survival? What gifts and possibilities do we miss out on when we talk about differently-built minds and bodies as disordered and wrong? What if the Jotunn in his horned regalia was never a monster at all? What if I’m not a monster, either?

At the height of my fixation I discovered an intriguing Twitter account, @ThyGodLoki, that periodically tweets out quips from the perspective of the Marvel character. Most of them are mildly funny, like Out of all enemies of the Avengers, I was the best looking or I would never stab you in the back. True friends stab you in the front. But one day, the account startled me by tweeting this:

You are not a burden. You are not worthless. You are not unloved.

As a trickster, trust me when I tell you, your mind is just trying to trick you into believing those negative thoughts. But it is merely a bad illusion.

You matter so much.

That this tweet, and others like it, is wildly out of character doesn’t seem to bother people one bit. In fact, the replies are full of people thanking Loki, at least a couple purportedly in tears. Perhaps we all love the character because we’re as broken as he is, and encouragement from him carries extra weight because he knows what we’ve been through. Or perhaps we’re struck by the idea that Loki matters – not just as a heel for the Avengers or a procurer of magic items for the Aesir, but as a being in his own right, someone who exists for the sake of his own strange perfection. “You could be whoever, whatever you want to be. Even someone good,” Mobius tells him, prepared to break the universe in order to free Loki from his TVA-enforced cycle of loneliness and villainy. If Loki’s worth is inherent, then perhaps ours is, too.

I stand at my altar under my roebuck skull. In witchcraft, horns represent wildness, sovereignty, and the wisdom to be found in the liminal spaces between human and other. I give Loki an offering of whiskey and candy, thinking of those golden horns, and wonder what I should ask him for. I decide to ask for this insight: that my place in this world is right and good and the way the universe intended, and that I can be loved for what I am.

I ask, and wait to believe it. On the walls, the shadows dance.