Loki in Norse Mythology vs. Marvel: Why Does Everyone Love Loki?

From Norse Mythology’s trickster god to Marvel’s contemporary antihero, the character of Loki has changed a lot.

Jul 16, 2023By Lara Colrain, BA Archaeology, BA Art History

loki norse god history marvel


There is something momentous about the power of television. TV provides an opportunity to explore a character in more depth and divulge to viewers what lies at the heart of them. In this instance, it opens the lid on the mindset of a villain and reveals his soul. Is this why everyone seems to love Loki these days? From Norse Mythology to contemporary popular culture, the character of the god Loki has gone a long way. Read on to discover Loki’s journey from the earliest accounts of the god in historical documents to comics, Marvel movies, and, eventually, Marvel’s Loki TV series.


Loki in Norse Mythology

Loki from the 18-century Icelandic manuscript “SÁM 66”, via Wikimedia Commons


Along with the recent surge in Hollywood popularity, Loki’s character has received more scholarly attention than any other Norse figure in the past 100 years. This is mainly due to his omnipresence and ambiguity in several important surviving mythological documents.


Most accounts paint Loki as an apocalyptic, cunning, deceptive, quick-mouthed, scheming, shapeshifting troublemaker, thief, and trickster. The absolute bane of the gods, he asserts a claim to fame as a god but is descended from a giant. Although he is a part of divine society, Loki’s behavior contradicts the moral order the gods live by, thus calling his loyalty into question — especially when he fights against the gods rather than by their side against common enemies. In this way, he’s neither for nor against the gods, neither good nor evil. He just loves causing chaos.


However, for all his vices, Loki dually represents psychological change at individual and sociocultural levels. He is a vital character that deserves examination within the epical, mythological narratives that created him. Loki is forever the antagonist or Other. He enjoys being a part of divine society but likewise wants to dismantle it because it tries to control him. In all depictions of him, one thing is constant: Loki wants to bring down the entire system — civilization — by bringing about the end of the world. Thus, he highlights a sociological tension between the center (those in power) and the margin (those without power). He’s a rebel who ultimately wishes to destroy the very thing he wants to accept him. Yet, when or if he does destroy it, he has no plan for what he will do next.

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Loke Punished, by James Doyle Penrose, 1912, via Archivist


Loki’s origins as a chief actor within the drama plots of Norse mythology begin in Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic Edda. Although he is considered an ambivalent figure for most of the prose, his character changes to reveal his wicked goal and indirect hand in the death of the god Baldr, Odin’s favored “golden” son. His gender is also vague due to his ability to shapeshift into other beings, including females. This gender ambiguity, some scholars propose, reflects a problematic issue concerning the context in which gods make marital alliances. Loki, in particular, challenges the “civilized” Christian values, which concerned 13th-century Icelandic society.


Loki additionally features in the Poetic Edda — an untitled collection of poems that reference him as a calculated trickster hell-bent on raining down pandemonium and bringing about the destruction of the universe; the Norwegian Rune Poems, which mention his capacity for deceit; the poetry of the Skalds; and Scandinavian folklore.


From an archaeological perspective, Loki has been identified as the figure on a Snaptun flat stone in Denmark carved in c. 1000 CE and as the bound figure with horns and a beard on a 10th-century cross at St. Stephen’s Church, Kirkby Stephen, in Cumbria, England and a mid-11th-century Gosforth Cross also in Cumbria.


A Metaphor for Change

Loki and Svaðlifar, by Dorothy Hardy, 1909, via Wikimedia Commons


Yet, despite his destructive and insensitive nature, Loki symbolizes a powerful metaphor for change and transition. By causing chaos, challenging the system, testing boundaries, and causing sudden change, the trickster acts as a metaphor for the unpredictability of change on the one hand and the importance of managing it on the other. He further alludes to the dangers of cultural regression or stagnation vs. progression. As the Eddas point out, everything changes, and Ragnarok — the end of the system — is inevitable. However, as long as Loki is contained, civilization is safe. One must still keep an eye on both change and a stalemate system. Loki is, therefore, an important reminder of how, without change, even the most perfect of civilizations will fall.


Interesting Fact: According to Norse mythology, Loki once transformed himself into a mare in heat to entice Svaðlifari, a stallion helping to build a wall around Asgard. He later gave birth to the offspring of their coupling, an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, and gifted him to Odin.


Loki in Popular Culture

Loki Laufeyson, via Marvel Database


Loki has evolved since his early 13th-century origins. In the 19th century, he was depicted as a dark-haired Semitic fifth columnist within the Nordic Aesir and a Nordic Prometheus-like hero bearing the gift of culture. His character also appeared in an opera cycle called Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner. Later he was featured in various television series, films, video games, and, more notably, in America’s Marvel comics as Loki Laufeyson. In the comics, he is based on the original Norse god Loki, the Asgardian God of Mischief. He is King Odin’s adopted son, the superhero Thor’s adopted brother, and is both a supervillain and an antihero. This comic series set the stage for Loki’s advanced “stardom” as a central character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).


Loki’s Castle, 2019, via NTNU OCEANS / Bjarne Stenberg


Interesting Fact: In 2008, five black smokers were discovered in the mid-Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Norway. The hydrothermal vents were aptly named “Loki’s Castle” as their shape was reminiscent of a dark fantasy palace.


Why Do People Love MCU Loki?

Thor and Loki in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), played by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston via Rare Gallery


Over eleven years, Loki has appeared in six films for less than two hours in total, and yet, his character impacted audiences to such a degree that he even topped the God of Thunder, Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth. Why? Well, after The Avengers, Loki, as a character, took on a life of his own in the viewers’ minds, resulting in a large and devoted fan base. Fans of Marvel consider Loki the best villain in the entertainment company’s history and even have a running joke that evil Loki is more popular than all of the heroes combined.


So, what is it about this bad guy that people love? Perhaps it is all about the age-old saying that “Everyone loves a villain.” Loki definitely has proven himself to be one helluva scoundrel. After all, he sent Frost Giants to Asgard, tried to destroy the lands of Jötunheimr, attacked New York and committed mass murder, played a hand in his mother Frigga’s death — even if he didn’t realize it at the time — faked his death, replaced his father Odin as King, stole the Tesseract after the Avengers defeated him, and, most recently, tried to manipulate the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and throw the universe into chaos — again. That is a solid rap sheet.


Tom Hiddleston, via WallpaperCave


However, there is another side to this traitorous trickster. He is charming, clever, determined, funny, handsome, intelligent, misunderstood, powerful, scared, tortured, vulnerable, and, ultimately, wants to be good. In mythological documents and Marvel’s context, he always seems to mend the harm that he has done. Furthermore, he genuinely loves his adopted Asgardian family — this is best highlighted in Thor: The Dark World when Loki drops his illusions and lets Thor see how grief-stricken he is over Frigga’s death. Oh, and we cannot forget some of his classic antihero moments, like when he fought the Frost Giants, escaped Asgard with Thor to kill Malekith, saved Thor’s girlfriend Jane, helped his brother fight their evil sister Hela, and sacrificed himself to Thanos.


Again, more recently, he told a variant of himself, Sylvie, that she was amazing and held her hand while trapped in an imminent apocalypse, begged Sylvie not to kill He Who Remains, and tried to warn the TVA about an impending Multiversal War. So, in essence, despite all the malevolent chaos, the audience still wants more of Loki — and forgives him — because he always tries to compensate for his reckless actions.


Interesting Fact: Although Odin is portrayed as Loki’s father in the Marvel universe, historical accounts also depict him as Odin’s stepbrother or blood-brother.


The Actor Behind MCU’s Loki: Tom Hiddleston

Loki in Loki (2021), played by Tom Hiddleston via Rare Gallery


When people think of Tom Hiddleston, many will associate the English forty-two-year-old actor with movies like Crimson Peak, Midnight in Paris, and War Horse. However, just as many will recall his excellent portrayal of Loki in the Marvel movie franchise, a role he has been playing for over eleven years. Hiddleston’s commitment to the character has undoubtedly given rise to Loki’s popularity with worldwide audiences. Talking about his role in The Avengers, Hiddleston said he threw his “whole soul at it” and that it has been one of the best things to happen to him during his acting career. The appeal of Hiddleston as Loki is so extensive that he got his own show, aptly named Loki, also produced by Marvel. During a 2022 panel discussion hosted by the Royal Television Society, Hiddleston spoke about his Marvel character and how he was:

“a temporary torchbearer… It’s a great role. It’s an archetype, the trickster god, the agent of chaos. I’m just here interpreting that for the time being… I’m just stepping into that silhouette for now.”

Stephen Broussard, an executive producer of the Loki series, even stated that:


“Tom is a fan favorite. People have always loved what he has brought to the character of Loki. He is a character who has always found a way to come back very organically and in new and interesting and exciting ways.”


Interesting Fact: To keep morale up on the set of Loki, Tom Hiddleston organized different food trucks to come and feed everyone. See, such a gentleman!


Loki TV Series

Loki and Mobius in Loki (2021) via Rare Gallery


Marvel’s Loki centers around time travel. Loki falls into the hands of the mysterious Time Variance Authority (TVA) after stealing the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame (2019). The TVA is a bureaucratic organization that exists out of time and space. It monitors the universe’s Sacred Timeline (the flow of time) and cuts any threads that branch away from it. The TVA recruit Loki to help them capture a dangerous variant of himself.


Woven into the plot are notions of philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, such as the issue of repetitive compulsion. The prompting questions include whether someone can truly change, if there is such a thing as free will, and what makes a Loki a Loki.


The show transforms the god of mischief from an amusing, power-hungry trickster-villain to an antihero-protagonist who is emotional, vulnerable, and downright romantic — his singing in Asgardian to a variant of himself, Sylvie, in Episode 3, is equally touching and haunting. The idea is to take Norse Mythology’s Loki, marry him with Marvel’s Loki, and then strip him back, layer by layer, to reveal Loki’s innermost core.


The show follows Loki’s twisted journey to redemption as he finds the importance of self-acceptance and self-love, forms his first genuine friendship with his TVA warden Mobius, and comes to care for and love another person. Moreover, it is revealed that he is bisexual — even pansexual, in other TV versions.


Interesting Fact: According to Kate Herron, the director of Loki, inspirations for the show included Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Fantastic Four, Jurassic Park, Mad Men, She-Hulk, and the Teletubbies.


Sylvie: The Female Loki

Sylvie in Loki (2021), played by Sophia Di Martino, via Rare Gallery


In Season 1 of the TV show, Loki encounters several variants of himself — from old and young doppelgangers to an alligator. However, one version is more notable than the others: Sylvie, the woman version of Loki. Sylvie is inspired by Sylvie Lushton (AKA the Enchantress) and Lady Loki from the Marvel comics. She plays a pivotal role in Loki’s character development. Sylvie challenges his selfish views, and Loki is forced to face his demons and find the good within himself. The relationship he forms with Sylvie results in them caring for each other. Essentially, they fall in love with themselves, which can be construed as narcissism. However, it can also be viewed as practicing the art of self-love — something contemporary individuals can relate to.


Loki and Sylvie in Loki (2021), via Rare Gallery


Interesting Fact: When Sophia Di Martino auditioned to be Sylvie, she had no idea about the role and was heavily pregnant. Apparently, it was the easiest audition she had ever tried out for.


Loki’s Future Beyond Norse Mythology and Marvel

Loki, via Disney/Getty Images/Ringer illustration


So, there you have it, the evolution of Loki from an academically studied mythological figure to a contemporary Marvel star, and how audiences and individuals, through time, have not only been curious about this often elusive and mischievous trickster-god but can psychologically relate to the character through the lessons he can teach about change and transition, his mortal-like vulnerabilities, his need to feel accepted by others, his battle with himself over who he is and who he wants to be, and his ability to love himself and others. As Tom Hiddleston said about the popular character, “Loki has been here for centuries and will be here for centuries more,” and if those last 800 years are anything to go by, so will his devoted fan base.

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By Lara ColrainBA Archaeology, BA Art HistoryLara is a published author, editor, poet, and archaeologist based in Hobart, Tasmania. She holds two BAs (Arts and Archaeology) and is deeply passionate about ancient history, antiquities, and mythology, with a special interest in indigenous cultures, notably the ancient Maya. She was fortunate to have known the late Mayanist, George. E. Stuart, who was a mentor during her archaeological studies. In her free time, Lara enjoys Painting by Numbers.