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Loki | From Myth to MCU, Loki Was Always Queer

Loki’s gender fluidity and bisexuality were finally confirmed by Marvel, but Norse mythology has always made it so.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Loki episode ‘The Variant’ (S1, Ep2). Proceed with caution.

At the end of Episode 2 of Disney+’s Loki, the God of Mischief (Tom Hiddleston) gets a good long look at himself – and sees a pair of female eyes staring back. An episode later he coyly admits to being attracted to “a bit of both”, in response to her query about “would-be princesses, or perhaps another prince?”.

It’s been a long, hard search to get to this point; his tenuous alliance with the Time Variance Authority – a mysterious organization tasked with snuffing out ‘variants’ who threaten to create a new multiverse and destroy the Sacred Timeline – has thus far involved tracking down an alternate version of himself.

Here, he’s tracked them to a Wal-Mart-esque shopping center in flyover-state America, having spoken to this new version of himself through three different possessed bodies. Finally, he sees the true face of the new him (or her), played by Sophia Di Martino; horned, decked out in the finest Asgardian leather, and with distinctly female features.

It’s a wild reveal, one that not only leans into the strangeness of the show but the strangeness of Loki as a character – one that resonates particularly deeply with queer audiences of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Ever since his first appearance in Thor (2011), Hiddleston’s take on the character has long played with the tropes of the queer-coded villain: his thin, androgynous features, his defiance of traditional norms of masculinity, the campy, devilish glee with which he moves through the world. He’s the classic queer trickster – a trait as endearing to queer audiences as it is problematic, given society’s nasty habit of equating queerness with villainy.

Further Reading on Loki

Objectively measuring the physical prowess of Marvel’s fan-favorite trickster god, Loki, is no easy task | Just How Strong Is Loki Anyway?

And yet, Loki’s queerness predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even the comics, the character exhibiting queer traits even in his mythological roots. In so doing, he complicates the nature of the queer villain in some interesting ways, both in comic and live-action form. That’s what makes him a queer icon, even if his subtext has only recently become text.

History in Mythology

Before he was the Loki of the Marvel universe, Loki’s origins obviously stem from his history as a vital figure in Norse mythology (don’t tell Marvel, who’ve basically trademarked Loki, even as a mythological being). Even here, his shape-shifting, mercurial nature belies a kind of moving through the world taking the shape of whatever he needs to survive, which is a quintessential trait of queerness.

First off, Loki is an intellectual, a thinker in a culture of fighters, a god which contrasts against the hypermasculine ideas we typically associate with Viking culture and Norse mythology. Rather than solving his problems with his muscles or fighting prowess, he solved them through trickery and deceit – he was the God of Mischief, after all. By this approach alone, he stands apart from the typical expectations of men at the time, an impulse a lot of queer folks can relate to.

‘The Rhine maidens ask for the help of God Loki’, Arthur Rackham (1910). | New York Public Library

One of the most prominent examples of this is in The Prose Edda – namely, the story of Loki and Svadilfari. Svadilfari was an intelligent stallion that belonged to a master builder tasked by the gods to build a wall around Asgard to stave off invaders. Loki and the other gods ask the builder to build the wall in one winter’s time; if he does, they’ll give him Freya as a wife, as well as the sun and the moon. One stipulation? He has to finish it without the help of others.

But when it turns out that the builder might be able to pull off the rush order on time (with the help of Svadilfari), Loki is tasked with distracting him and sabotaging his task. In so doing, he transforms himself into a female horse, luring the male Svadilfari away from his work to, well, frolic. On top of that, Loki grows pregnant from the encounter and bears an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, who would become Odin’s faithful steed.

That’s just one example of Loki’s history of shape-shifting as a means to perform or inhabit different genders. In different stories, he’s been a fly, a salmon, and even a snake. In the poem Lokasenna, or “Loki’s Quarrel,” Odin references a tale of Loki spending eight winters under the Earth as a woman milking cows, and even bearing children.

Loki’s genderfluid nature is hardly alien to the rest of Norse mythology; he sits within a similarly fluid pantheon of Norse gods. “Even if we leave aside Loki, there are so many other examples of queerness within the mythology, which have just been completely ignored by scholars,” says Amy Jefford Franks, a queer religious historian with a Master’s in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland.

Now, while Loki is commonly seen as a gender-bending shapeshifter in Norse mythology, there isn’t a Lady Loki analog to be seen. Rather, Loki’s gender defaults to male when he’s not shapeshifting, and “it’s through his shapeshifting that we see these other characters and other genders,” remarks Franks.

Loki seen off by Thor in art nouveau style, from Willy Pogany’s illustrated The Children of Odin (1920). | Public Domain.

In many ways, Loki illustrates the Norse concept of ergi, a word with strong connotations around the idea of queerness in Viking culture. What that interpretation is is up for debate, says Franks; some scholars believe it means ‘perverted’ or ‘unmanly,’ and it’s used as a pejorative. But for Franks (who is non-binary), ergi slots nicely into a more value-neutral, transgressive kind of queerness: “it’s a good fit for people who basically break the expectations of their gender, and step outside of what they should be doing,” they note.

Many schools of mythology build up a cosmology surrounding the push and pull between order and chaos in the universe, and Norse mythology is no exception. The order is broken and must be restored from the chaos that ensues. In this respect, Loki fits cleanly along those lines: he’s the one who doesn’t play by the rules, who bucks tradition and sets up schemes to trick people into doing things they don’t want to, and must often be stopped.

But despite Loki’s character historically fitting along tropes of transgression, there’s no need to look at that as a bad thing. While Viking culture was intensely queerphobic on the whole, their myths leave room for interpretation when it comes to queerness as a negative value. To queer something, after all, is merely to upend and subvert the codes and traditions of society – sometimes, that can happen for the better.

“You can think of queerness as just another element of human nature or the god’s nature,” Franks observes. Odin, for instance, is missing an eye, and many other gods suffer from physical or psychological differences and flaws they must deal with. In this respect, they queer notions of the gods’ infallibility and omniscience. For all their power, they too have obstacles to overcome.

As for Loki’s trickery being linked to notions of queer deviancy? “Yes, queerness, can come into the trickster element for sure,” Franks says. “But I don’t think that, in and of itself, is a bad thing.” Instead, we can see Loki as an upending of the traditional norms of masculinity endemic to Nordic culture, a means of playing with the gender binary in ways that subverted those mores.

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