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In the Lokasenna, Odin claims that Loki spend 8 winters underground, "milking the cows as a maid" and bearing children:

Loki spake:

22. "Be silent, Othin! | not justly thou settest
The fate of the fight among men;
Oft gavst thou to him | who deserved not the gift,
To the baser, the battle's prize."

Othin spake:

23. "Though I gave to him | who deserved not the gift,
To the baser, the battle's prize;
Winters eight | wast thou under the earth,
Milking the cows as a maid,
(Ay, and babes didst thou bear;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.)"

Source: Poetic Edda/Lokasenna, Wikisource.

The claim that Loki gave birth is repeated by Njörðr:

Njorth spake:

33. "Small ill does it work | though a woman may have
A lord or a lover or both;
But a wonder it is | that this womanish god
Comes hither, though babes he has borne."

What's the story there? Why was Loki transformed to a cow milking maid, and what caused him (her?) to remain underground? Was it punishment for something he did, or yet another of his crazy adventures? Did he bear any children during that time? And if yes, who was the father?


PS. I'm aware of Sleipnir, but I don't think that's what Odin and Njörðr are talking about. The circumstances that lead Loki to give birth to the eight-legged steed are quite different.

15
+100

Maybe he actually did.

Hypothesis 1. The Dwarven Arts

According to The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society, Preben Meulengracht Sørensen is convinced, for some reason, that Loki's milkmaid service "must certainly be taken to mean that Loki served as mistress to giants or trolls," which he qualifies by adding that the "sexuality [of giants and trolls] was considered gross and unbridled".

There is, however, a different group associated with dwelling underground just as much as if not more so than giants or trolls, and that is the dwarves, particularly those of Svartálfaheim ("Black-Elf World/Home"). This seems to be the realm to which, in Skáldskaparmál 35, Loki ventures with a mission to get a collective of artisans called "Ívaldi's Sons" to make new hair for Þórr's [Thor's] wife Sif. With no further explanation, this portion of the Eddas tells us that the artisans made the hair and, seemingly off the cuff, threw in two extra items: Skíðblaðnir, a magic ship which could be folded up and placed in one's pocket like a handkerchief, and which was gifted to the god Freyr; and the magic spear Gungnir, which eventually belonged to Óðinn [Odin].

In circumstances otherwise unexplained, Loki then made a life-and-death wager with a different (rival?) family of dwarf artisans, inducing them to make a few other magic gifts for his fellow deities. This second group of dwarves ended up making, among a few other items, Þórr's famous magic hammer Mjöllnir. In this instance the artisans have clear motivation for this work but it's always puzzled me that there is no explanation ever offered (as far as I'm aware) for why Ívaldi's Sons help Loki at all and go a couple of extra miles in the process, with no apparent word of gratitude towards them. Were they on the Æsir's retainer or something? For them to be so gracious about receiving nothing at all for their labour is completely out of character for dwarves (or for that matter just about every other major ethnic group) in this mythology.

On a later occasion the giant king Þrym [Thrym] somehow managed to steal Mjöllnir from Þórr and then demanded to be given the hand of Freyr's twin, the beautiful goddess Freyja, in marriage. To trick him, Þórr and Loki were compelled to dress in drag in order to impersonate Freyja and her handmaiden respectively, by which ruse they were able to retrieve the magic hammer and slaughter Þrym and his entire family.

A standard part of Þórr's disguise in this instance had to be Freyja's famously bedazzling torc [a type of choker] called Brísingamen. According to Sörla þáttr eða Heðins saga ok Högna ("The Tale of Sörli, or of Heðin and Högni"), Freyja once bought a golden necklace from a group of four dwarves who refused monetary payment. Instead they demanded that she lie with each of them for one night, which terms were accepted. Sörla þáttr does not say that this necklace is actually the same as Brísingamen nor does it say anything about the dwarves being a group of brothers called the Brísingar, but both these features are popular modern interpretations, as attested by Jimmy Joe's website TimelessMyths and Ingrid Halvorsen's website Sunnyway, perhaps inspired by Roger Lancelyn Green's book Myths of the Norsemen, first published in 1960.

Skáldskaparmál offers no further detail regarding Ívaldi's Sons apart from saying that they are dwarves while at the same time suggesting that they are also Svartálfar, "Black Elves." Again, perhaps taking a cue from Green, Joe numbers these "sons" as four. The reason that Green might do so is to identify the four "Brísingar" with Ívaldi's Sons, whom he (on pp. 78, 84 & 87 of the 1970 edition of his aforementioned book) calls "Black Dwarfs" in a bid to explain why these dwarves have their operations base in Elf-World.

To add my own speculations to those of Sørensen, Green, Joe and Halvorsen, my suggestion here would be that the mission into Giantland undertaken by Þórr and Loki may not have been the first time that Loki disguised himself as a woman associated with Freyja in order to acquire an item for the gods. Earlier in the same story it is Loki who discovers that Þrym has stolen Mjöllnir. He does this by reconnoitering in the form of a falcon. He is able to take this form because of a magic cloak of feathers owned by Freyja, which garment Loki borrows for this purpose.

It stands to reason that there's a missing story here regarding how Ívaldi's Sons came to owe Loki a favour. Perchance this time he didn't borrow clothing from Freyja or pretend to be her servant but actually borrowed her own form and performed a similar service towards the artisans in Svartálfaheim that Freyja would perhaps earlier have done in relation to the four dwarves who made her golden neck-piece, if Sörla þáttr is to be believed.

On other hand, these dwarves might be Loki's sons with Ívaldi as the father. Throughout the Eddas, elves and Æsir are cited in close association with each other [see under "Norsemen: The Svartálfar" in link]. The connection between the elves and these dwarves could thus be explained on account of their mother being an Ás [masculine singular of Æsir], the same Ás who gave birth, in the form of a mare, to Óðinn's magic horse Sleipnir. It would flow well in hand with Loki's irony and wackiness that he is a giant who becomes the parent of a collective of dwarves who create weaponry for the giants' traditional enemy the gods.

Hypothesis 2. The Unweeping Giantess

Speaking of Loki's offspring, he has a famous daughter, a giant goddess named Hel, or Hela, to whom Óðinn, in the Prose Edda, inexplicably gives apparently absolute authority over anyone who does not die in battle. These dead are sent to the land of perpetual cold, ice, snow and darkness at the northern end of the universe, over which realm Hel has control.

Óðinn soon comes to regret the decision because his beautiful son Balder, the universe's most favourite person, is killed some time afterwards through Loki's treachery, and he naturally goes to Hel. The Æsir must then petition Hel to release Balder (apparently to resurrect) if they wish to see him before they all die at the end of the world.

Hel is willing to break the rules and allow this on condition that every single person and object in the universe, dead or alive, weeps for the slain young Ás. If even one thing fails to do so, Balder will only be restored after the Ragnarök, as prophecy says. With that, according to the Gylfaginning, "the Æsir sent over all the world messengers to beg for Balder to be wept out of Hel; and all people did this, and living things, and the earth, and stones, and trees, and all metals".

Presumably even all the giants of Giantland participated as did Hel herself. However, in a certain cave somewhere there sat one giantess, poignantly named Þökk [Thok, "Thanks"], and she said that she had no love for Balder, calling him "the churl's son" and scoffing that Hel can keep him. This giantess, says the Gylfaginning, is suspected to have been Loki in disguise, which would make sense since Loki is the only person who hated Balder.

Immediately following this account is the story of Loki hiding in a mountain waterfall in the form of a salmon before being captured and subjected to some innovative and permanent torture methods by his fellow deities. After that is a description of the Ragnarök. The flytings in Lokasenna take place sometime after the messengers' encounter with Þökk and immediately before Loki's escape to the waterfall shortly prior to his final binding. If Þökk really is a cypher for Loki, perhaps [s]he was under such an incredible amount of pressure, as the only being in the entire universe refusing to facilitate the restoration of the world's most [well-]wanted man, that [s]he may indeed have needed to go literally underground.

And, as Loki's previous (mis)adventures have shown, there are certain things he is quite able (if not also quite willing) to do in a bind. Perhaps at the opening of Lokasenna eight years have elapsed since the first appearance of Þökk, who has been in hiding in a subterraneous cave in the company of giants or some other creatures, milking their cattle. And doing other things that Loki might do in order to keep up a disguise. This would require that Óðinn and Njörð already know somehow about Þökk-Loki's escapade. With Óðinn's two surveillance ravens, however, this would not be an especially difficult task.

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Quoting from a footnote on one version of the Lokasenna,

There is no other reference to Loki's having spent eight years underground, or to his cow-milking. On one occasion, however, he did bear offspring. A giant had undertaken to build the gods a fortress, his reward being Freyja and the sun and moon, provided the work was done by a given time. His sole helper was his horse, Svathilfari. The work being nearly done, and the gods fearing to lose Freyja and the sun and moon, Loki [fp. 160] turned himself into a mare, and so effectually distracted Svathilfari from his task that shortly afterwards Loki gave birth to Othin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. In such contests of abuse a man was not infrequently taunted with having borne children; cf. Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I, 39-45. One or two of the last three lines may be spurious.

The reference here is to a section of the Gylfaginning, as told by Hárr, which speaks of this and the birth of Sleipnir, but it appears that you were already aware of that.

The reason I'm fairly certain that this is the event Othin refers to (besides the footnote saying that this is the only version) is that the Lokasenna is full of taunts like this, to stories that are never elaborated upon. These are examples of flyting, an exchange of insults common in Norse mythology and literature.

Flyting often involved outright lying as part of taunts. Hárbarðsljóð, an exchange between Thor and a ferryman named Hárbarðr (thought to maybe be Odin or Loki!) starts out as boasts, mostly coming from Hárbarðr, but then devolves into insults, some of which are likely lies.

Even more interesting, there are several instances of each person challenging the other's manhood:

Harbarth spake:
48. "Sif has a lover at home, | and him shouldst thou meet;
More fitting it were | on him to put forth thy strength."

. . .

Thor spake:
51. "Thou womanish Harbarth! | here hast thou held me too long."

The former is an accusation that Sif is not satisfied with Thor and has another, manlier lover. The latter is an outright insult.

The point of all this is that it seems highly likely that the passages you quoted were simple examples of flyting: Either references to obscure events or outright lies designed to put down the opponent. The anecdote about bearing children is most likely just another taunt about not being manly. Odin came up with it, and Njörðr picked it up and used it again.

  • I'm not convinced the insult is a reference to Sleipnir. It's the specificity of the insult that points to a separate story (that probably didn't survive). Also, bearing children is only part of the insult. It might very well be a reference to Sleipnir, but that doesn't explain Loki being underground, or being transformed to a cow milking maid. – yannis Jan 30 '16 at 9:53
  • @Yannis It's definitely possible that it's a reference to a lost story, but I stand by the point that the others are either made up or are passing references that the author never intended to expand upon. – HDE 226868 Jan 30 '16 at 20:26
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IMO, this is a reference - with the gods being ignorant of the total facts - of the time Loki must have spent in Járnvid ('Iron-wood') with Angrboða. Consider that the two have three children; if Loki has gone away for eight years and returned with three kids, the Æsir (knowing the truth of Sleipnir) may easily assume that Loki had borne them himself, or that their making was something 'disgusting and bizarre' between he and the giantess. Knowing Loki's arrogance and mischieveous nature, it isn't difficult to think that he may well not have disabused them of the notion.

Consider also that Angrboða was a chieftess and wise-woman of her tribe, which was at odds, and eventually involved in a war to extinction, with Asgard; for Loki to have stayed for that long (and eight years is typical for the time necessary to return with three children that survive their first year or two), it would have been easiest to be in disguise. As well, as wise-woman Angrboða (and future völva, indeed Odinn goes down to just outside the Hall of Hel herself to unearth and interrogate her) would have had plenty to teach Loki, the best disguise for all arts would be that of a young female student which the wise-woman is teaching.

So the reference may entirely be to Loki's sojurn in Járnvid, albeit with Loki-allowed misunderstandings about the origin of his children.

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