By Bloodofox (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Loki, the Bellows, and Hot Air

The Snaptun stone is a hearth stone that was found in 1950 on a Danish beach, though the soapstone from which it was carved originated elsewhere in Scandinavia. It was most likely made around 1000 AD, and has two holes drilled into it that allow the user to insert the tip of a bellows into the front and pump air out of the top. This protects the bellows from the heat of the flame.

Now, we (by which I mean “everyone invested in knowing what this artifact is”) are reasonably sure that this is an image of Loki judging by the stitched mouth. I could absolutely do without the Dick Dastardly mustache, but it is what it is.

The idea that the Snaptun stone portrays Loki makes sense, especially given that there is an established connection between Loki’s lip scars and the working of bellows to keep a flame sufficiently hot in the Skáldskapármal. Namely, that Loki attempts to manipulate the outcome of his wager by sabotaging the dwarf working the bellows, and is punished by having his mouth sewn shut for doing so:

Then Sindre placed iron in the furnace, and requested Brok to work the bellows, adding that otherwise all would be worthless. Now the fly lighted between his eyes and stung his eye-lids, and as the blood ran down into his eyes so that he could not see, he let go of the bellows just for a moment and drove the fly away with his hands. Then the smith came back and said that all that lay in the furnace came near being entirely spoiled. Thereupon he took a hammer out of the furnace.

[…]

Then Loke offered to ransom his head. The dwarf answered saying there was no hope for him on that score. Take me, then! said Loke; but when the dwarf was to seize him Loke was far away, for he had the shoes with which he could run through the air and over the sea. Then the dwarf requested Thor to seize him, and he did so. Now the dwarf wanted to cut the head off Loke, but Loke said that the head was his, but not the neck. Then the dwarf took thread and a knife and wanted to pierce holes in Loke’s lips, so as to sew his mouth together, but the knife would not cut. Then said he, it would be better if he had his brother’s awl, (Note from me: Or his brother is the awl, if you ask Dr. Crawford) the awl and as soon as he named it the awl was there and it pierced Loke’s lips. Now Brok sewed Loke’s mouth together, and broke off the thread at the end of the sewing. The thread with which the mouth of Loke was sewed together is called Vartare (a strap).

The existence of the Snaptun stone is, for many, evidence of a link between Loki and fire. I’ve read Axel Olrik’s essay on the fire connection. (Mind, he pre-dates the rediscovery of the stone.) I’ve read Eldar Heide’s “Ash Lad” essay. I’ve read Dagulf Loptsson’s “Sacramental Fire” theories. I’m currently working through Stephen Grundy’s God in Flames, God in Fetters. But I’ve also read Jan de Vries’s The Problem of Loki, so I disagree, for a few reasons.

The first reason that I take issue with the fire association is due to the attested contest between Loki-with-a-K and Logi-with-a-G. Logi is literally fire, and this is why he not only wins the contest, but consumes the bones and the trough itself. You cannot have an eating contest against yourself, let alone lose.

The story is preserved in the Prose Edda (the Gylfaginning, specifically), but it’s important to remember that this story was initially carried in a poem, and Old Norse poetry uses a lot of plays on words and sound. Alliteration and meter are the defining features of Old Norse poetry, and sometimes words are altered, replaced or specifically chosen in order to meet the stylistic requirements. The use of characters whose names resemble “Loki” (such as Logi and Útgarða-Loki) was probably not intended to convey a deeper meaning about their interrelation to one another, but rather are all in the same story for the sake of alliteration. I’m sure the poem from which Snorri learned this story was truly impressive in its use of wordplay, but we’ll probably never know. And that’s a shame. My point is, we should be ever-cautious about assumptions that words with similar sounds inherently convey similar meanings.

They usually don’t.

My second issue is that most of our sources supporting the fire association are not contemporary or even close to temporally similar. There is a vast difference between 200 years later (the Prose Edda) and 800 years later–when Olrik and Grimm were collecting tales. Things can and do get lost along the way. Axel Olrik’s “Loke in Younger Tradition” focuses solely on post-conversion traditions. While Loki is associated with summer heat and fire in 1800s Denmark, this doesn’t prove much about the mentality prior to conversion–or contemporary with the creation of the Snaptun stone. Grimm’s contribution to the issue is hardly worth a detailed rebuttal because of how pervasively bad his scholarship is. (Here’s a rant and another less-ranty post by someone smarter than me.) I don’t trust the judgement of someone who conflates “laugardagr,” “washing day,” with “lokadagr,” “Loki’s day.” Again, similar words do not necessarily imply similar meanings.

My third issue lies in the fact that, in the myths, Loki has far more associations with air than fire. His trademark object (as Óðinn has Gungnir and Thor has Mjölnir) is his shoes that allow him to walk through the air itself. One of his more likely bynames, Lopt, (possibly used as a pun in the story where he conceives Slepinir, and outright substituted for his name in a few poems) is the Old Norse word for “air, sky.” His heiti include “sky-treader” and several references to his taking the form of a bird. He travels as a falcon, not only to figure out how to retrieve Mjolnir in Thrymskviða, but also to rescue Idunn in Haustlöng. He tricks Thjazi into flying directly into a fire, still in the shape of a bird of prey–the way he kills Thjazi isn’t proof of a connection with fire in my opinion. It’s a proof of connection with air. The association between air and birds is really tightly intertwined–not only are birds capable of flight, but wind itself is caused by another eagle-shaped Jötunn, Hræsvelg, beating his wings.

By contrast, there are no extant kennings relating to fire.

So, no. I don’t consider Loki to be a god of fire. (Which means I can continue to blissfully ignore Manowar’s music.) I agree that fire makes a beautiful metaphor for Loki: It is both life-preserving and deadly. It is both a boon and bane to civilization, depending on how well it is controlled. It is a fascinating and contradictory phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean Loki is fire. Certainly not like Logi, with a G, is.

The Snaptun stone is not something I consider proof of a fire connection. We have an established series of events in the mythology that explain why Loki’s stitched-up face would be carved into a hearth stone, specifically designed to accommodate bellows.

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Sparkle Puca

A drunk-bucking sparkle pony from Philly. Works with Loki.

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