Lokabrenna: the Historical, the Modern…and the Boring Math.

While I don’t participate in #JulyForLoki as originally intended–that of a daily blogging project–I did choose to turn the focus of the blog more on Loki than usual. My other project, when I asked, seemed to throw a lot of harvest-y stuff at me. Apparently I am supposed to lovingly stare at my pumpkins…devotionally? Or give Loki a pumpkin? Who knows.

Frey and Thor are getting pumpkins. Loki can have one too. Especially since I made fish emulsion for the pumpkins out of freebie lox that got nasty. Symbolism.

Anyway.

The Historical

Lokabrenna as a holiday is a thoroughly modern invention, popular among Lokeans for the fact that Loki doesn’t really get any feast days, days of the week, (no, Saturday is not Lokadagr) or any special mention at known rituals from the historical record. But irrespective of whether he was worshipped then, he’s worshipped now. I am a fussy jerk about many things, and get more recon as time goes by, but honoring Loki is…well, honoring Loki.

The name of that celebration, and therefore the reason for the season, comes from the Old Icelandic name for the star Sirius. I’ve seen translations of the name run from the matter-of-fact and charming “Loki’s Torch” to the more severe “Conflagration of [as in “made by”] Loki,” which seems to reference Ragnarok. There doesn’t seem to be any surviving lore contemporaneous with the original heathen practice that totally clarifies this, beyond the implication of Ragnarok.

For more thorough overviews of the history of Sirius’s association with Loki, I’d recommend Lokavinr’s post on the subject, and the Lokabrenna tag on GrumpyLokeanElder’s WordPress archive.

The Modern

Because Lokabrenna is named for Loki, and there was a precedent for celebrating the heliacal rising of Sirius in a few other cultures (the Egyptians, for example–though other cultures have other heliacal risings of note), a modern celebration was put together to honor Sirius’s supposed contribution to the heat of the dog days. The idea being, allegedly, that Sirius being out during the day in the summer would enhance the daytime heat. Its rising just before the sun signals the beginning of its reappearance in the night sky–and therefore the return of cooler weather.

Personally, I’m down for this, as someone who likes to pick out the clusters of stars that would have been constellations known to the Vikings. (The VikingAnswerLady page on that is worth a look.) And it would have almost exclusively been stars visible in winter, given that summer means near-constant sunlight.

Because the dog days are variable, but do tend to take up most of July, devoting the entire month to Loki in anticipation of Sirius/Lokabrenna’s rising is a simplification for practicality’s sake. Not everyone has the time, patience, or even just the spoons to calculate the exact time, and then have a ritual on top of that.

If you happen to be one of those people who does like to figure out exact times, though…

The Boring Math

The Heliacal Rising of a star is (as previously mentioned) the event in which it rises just prior to the sun after having been absent from the night sky. Heliacal risings mark the transition from the star’s invisibility during daytime hours, to its resumed visibility in the night sky.

There’s a handful of tools available that will vastly simplify the process for you. The one I am most familiar with is the Heliacal Rising Simulator, which allows you to punch in your latitude, choose from marking twilight (astronomical) or sunrise as a frame of reference, and fiddle with a date slider to figure out which date most closely aligns with Sirius’s heliacal rising. I would recommend dawn as your frame of reference, though nautical or civil dawn may be more practical than astronomical dawn.

There will be many, many tabs open while you research this.

SO MANY TABS
UuuuuUUUUUUUUGUHGGHGHHG

It will be worth it. I promise. There is nothing quite like witnessing a star’s return for yourself. And then you have the added benefit of having a whole bunch of free time, because you got up before the sun.

So when you’ve picked your date and you’re ready to head out, brew yourself a big pot of coffee. Pour Loki a cup while you’re at it.

Advertisements

A Random Theory About Útgarða-Loki

Disclaimers are important! So here’s mine. I am not an expert on Norse mythology. I am just a Heathen who moonlights as a big old nerd, and tries to read very old pieces of text until I am very mad about everything and start chugging mead in frustration. (I am inflicting this suffering on myself right now with scans of Computus Runicus.)

ALSO, because I am not an expert, with a robust scholarly background, and I am also not anywhere near old enough to have been around for when Haustlong and the chunk of the Prose Edda about it was written, this should be regarded as a curiosity. I have a post on that, too.

ANYWAY.


In the post about the Snaptun stone I took a guess that the story of Loki/Logi/Útgarða-Loki was originally a poem. Not just because the Prose Edda is Snorri transcribing linear narratives from poems, but because of the sheer amount of alliteration in the use of these names.

We don’t seem to have any traces of this poem beyond the narrative, if it exists. Snorri does not quote stanzas from wherever he is getting this story. So the claim that this is a poem is a logical–but technically unprovable–guess.

I’m going out on a limb that I desperately hope will hold my weight, is what I’m saying.

Útgarða-Loki might not be a name. In fact, I strongly suspect it’s a kenning. It even follows the standard format of genitiveY-nominativeX used in kennings (“Loki of the outer yards,” in this case) to obliquely refer to something that wouldn’t have otherwise fit the style a poet was using.

The thought occurred to me when I was skimming something for another post and noticed kennings such as “ale-Gefjon.” But Ale-Gefjon isn’t literally Gefjon doling out alcohol. It’s Groa. There is no room in this narrative for Gefjon’s actual presence, let alone her doling out ale.

Gefjon’s name is used here as a general placeholder for “woman.”

So I imagine it’s well within the realm of possibility that Loki’s name could have been used similarly. Maybe, just maybe, “Loki” in the potential kenning “Útgarða-Loki” is being used as a placeholder for a Jotunn in general, or a deceiver in general.

Like Loki, Útgarða-Loki weaponizes the neutral. (Fire, thought, age, the sea; whereas Loki weaponizes speech and–depending on source–mistletoe.) He deceives the gods who wander into his territory. His deceit unravels. And in this story, Útgarða-Loki is the driver of conflict and the mover of the narrative. Compare this to the “mover of stories” function that Yvonne S. Bonnetain ascribes to Loki–you can read a translation of the summary here.

He takes on the role that Loki ordinarily fulfills in his tales. But he is a total outsider from the perspective of the gods and the skalds that center their narrative. While Loki is considered somewhat of an outsider, and a transgressor, he is counted among the Aesir and is portrayed as belonging in Asgard. Útgarða-Loki is not.

And he is not Loki, himself. Just similar.

I’m not invoking the overblown and ridiculous innangard-utangard dichotomy, by the way. That concept is a wild misinterpretation of the actual concepts of whether something falls within, our outside of, a given boundary. Usually a fence. A house. A town. Útgarðr can be a little more ~woo~, but mostly just conveys an idea of something being “way over yonder.”

The actual identity of Útgarða-Loki has not been definitively solved. I am nowhere near qualified to definitively solve it–and that’s not how it works, anyway. This is just my two pieces of hacksilver.

“Loki Did It!”

For most of us, pop culture and kid-friendly reinterpretations of mythology are the very first exposure to pagan deities. With that comes a lot of oversimplifications and misinterpretations of their stories, so that they fit more comfortably into modern biases and are easier to understand.

The downside of this is that people tend to lock in on first impressions, and therefore they lock in on the oversimplifications. Speaking for myself, Loki was that weird guy who made mischief, and who forced Jim Carrey to behave like…well, Jim Carrey, but cranked to 11.

The Mask (and the majority of his other portrayals) really didn’t care to go into the complexity of the Trickster archetype, or the fact that Loki isn’t quite a trickster–he deviates strongly into and out of quite a few archetypes.

And I think it’s the oversimplification of Loki’s character that sets people up with the wrong idea about what Loki actually does to, for, and with humans.

Which leads to a lot of annoyances and bizarre incidents being chalked up to “Loki did it!”

norsecrisisflowchart
via Myths Retold

Computer glitching? LOKI DID IT. Power went out? LOKI DID IT. Vase fell off the table when you bumped it? LOKI DID IT. It snowed and now you have to shovel your driveway? LOKI DID IT, even though that’s more of a Thorri and Skaði thing. Souffle deflated? LOKI DID IT. SHOULDA GIVEN HIM SPONGECAKE.

It saves time, I guess, but it reflects a lack of discernment and doesn’t acknowledge Loki as a complex being–despite his being defined by complexity.

There have been incidents where it was extremely obvious that Loki was doing something. I’m talking about the falcon thing, or dropping feathers in my path. Or the time he threw a turtle shell off of the bookcase where I keep my shrines, after I blew out a candle I knew he wanted lit. Or breaking my bed. (There’s a whole story on that, but since it happened on Christmas, the post is queued for December.) Or the time he responded to my constant demands that he “teach me something,” by knocking a carton of eggs out of my hands. I learned that you can’t get egg whites out of an unsealed wood floor, and to be less of a nag.

There were also less obvious incidents that snuck up on me long after the fact–like the feather thing, initially, because I was unaware of the folk tradition claiming that he “harvests” feathers from birds.

None of these things were random, daily annoyances. Most of them weren’t even inconveniences, really, except for the egg incident and the bed incident. With the sole exception of the feather thing, probably, they all happened in situations that directly and unambiguously involved him. He was either initiating or continuing a conversation. Something was being communicated.

That’s a big part of why, even with my persistently glitchy keyboard problems, my instinct isn’t “Loki must be doing this.” My laptop is a workhorse that runs resource-intensive programs on a regular basis. I spilled a large jar of water on it back in 2014. I’ve spilled the juice for my e-cig on that keyboard more times than I can count. And it wasn’t during interactions with Loki, but just me minding my own clumsy business. Of course the thing’s acting weird. It’s a miracle it still works at all. If there was somehow a hidden message in my laptop ghost-typing 8’s and +’s all the time, I wouldn’t be able to decipher it, anyway.

So, no. Let’s not blame things on Loki without checking the context first. The Norse Crisis Flowchart is not a substitute.

On the Responsibility of Harsh Truths

It is often said that Loki is a bringer of harsh truths, as shown in the Lokasenna and the personal experiences of his devotees. Hence, his title of bölva smiðr, bale-smith. One who crafts those things that hurt to hear.

I don’t doubt this. I’ve experienced it directly.

It is also said by many of these same people that it falls to us, as Lokeans, to also bring harsh truths.

This gives me pause, for several reasons.

For one, Loki, as a god, is ancient. He has been given thousands of years (at minimum) to observe the follies and vanities of his peers and of humans. He knows how we tick. Our human lifetimes are fairly long, at 80+ years in a sufficiently cushy environment. But they’re still astronomically shorter than a god’s lifespan. We have far shorter windows of opportunity for studying each other, and we have to develop ourselves simultaneously. It’s a lot to juggle at once.

By extension, while our gods are fallible, they are more experienced and more mature than we, as humans, will probably ever get to be. They can spot our dishonesty and our arrogance faster than we detect it in others, and especially in ourselves. This is what harsh truths, by necessity, destroy.

Picture someone you know who pointedly announces that they are honest. When they insult you or talk down to you, their excuse for this behavior is that they’re just so honest. They call them as they see them. Fine, I guess. But what does that achieve? Did you actually learn something useful about yourself? Does this person examine their own worldview like that?

Doubtful. These kinds of people are usually just annoying and making excuses. Also, stop befriending whale biologists.

Unlike your average “but I’m just being honest!” type, Loki is tactical. This is literally the minimum requirement for a trickster-adjacent god. (“Trickster” is a bit of an oversimplification, but that’s for another day.) You don’t get a reputation for being cunning and sly if you don’t exercise good judgement. Good judgement does not have room for arrogance, vanity and just plain being a dick.

Loki is also accountable, whether he likes it or not. When he suggests letting the giant builder use his horse, it’s him who has to go sabotage the wall to save The Sun, The Moon and Freyja when this proves to be a bad idea. When he tries to get out of surrendering his head to the dwarves who crafted Mjölnir, his mouth is stitched shut; by refusing to pay the promised fee, he opens himself up for punishment. The Lokasenna ends in his punishment, too, even as he spends several stanzas calling his peers out on their faults. (I also think it’s easy to forget, in this day and age, that Lokasenna is a comedy piece.) He tries to wiggle out of both of these, literally in the second case, but to no avail.

In short, our actions have consequences.

I don’t think we do justice by this supposed obligation to the harsh truth when we are not tactical and accountable. We are not tactical if we call them as we see them, every time we see them. There are time, place and manner considerations. Power dynamics do not magically melt away, and if we take this task seriously, we must also be ready to face the consequences of uttering these harsh truths. Reactions are not always justified, but they’re harsh truths. They will rarely, if ever, be received well.

And maybe harsh doesn’t suit the situation. Maybe it’s not even our job, because not all of us are qualified. Maybe it’s a skill that has to be developed.

We must also be similarly willing to turn this on ourselves, because if we don’t examine and work on ourselves, work on our natural impulse to stir the pot before figuring out if it really serves the greater good, we can’t trust that the message is given in good faith. We have to be ready to ask ourselves why this needs to be shared, what good it does, and if we’re ready for the consequences. How can you know you’re telling the truth to others if you’re still lying to yourself?

I don’t want to imply that I am somehow immune to this, either. The entire point is that nobody is. We will probably never ditch the instinct for arrogance, but we can at least be aware it’s there, so we’re prepared to resist it.


Further reading:

On the Responsibility of Being Lokean, by Del Tashlin.