Spirit Cuts Life: Rooted Heathen Living
“Spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” This Nietzchean statement puzzles and challenges. What might a spirituality that cuts life -- rather than just skimming over its surface -- look like?
Loki: The Disowned Psychic Shadow
How is it with Loki? In a previous article I proposed that “part of the challenge [of life] is learning to be comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty.” And then I suggested that this challenge is connected to Loki. What did I mean by that?
Loki is a classic shadow figure – the bearer of everything disowned and rejected. He stands out as a challenge and a dare to each of us – can we accept the destructiveness, the chaos, within ourselves? Or do we deny it and blame it on some external figure or figures?
This is a basic test for every human being, and no one passes all the time. Some people fail dramatically, and in some cases these individuals cause war, hatred, and destruction on a mass scale.
The classic symptom of a person who has rejected their inner Loki is self-righteousness. When I claim mastery over the truth, the exclusive truth, the whole truth, I am free to dominate with impunity. I no longer have to consider myself, the inevitable ironies and hypocrisies that haunt my and every person’s life in one way or another.
Once Loki – meant in the broadest possible symbolic sense – has been expelled from my consciousness and imposed onto some Other, I become obliged to maintain the veneer of perfection. I cannot dare back down or risk losing faith.
An analogy: when dooms day cults outlast the date they have predicted for Armageddon, they often very quickly find an excuse for how they “miscalculated…” and so plunge forward into mounting absurdity (and a string of broken dates with The End Of It All). Sometimes piling the self-deception higher and deeper seems preferable to the fleeting shame of being caught out in the act of rank foolishness.
In this respect, if we have an appreciation for Loki and his destructive children – the god-eating wolf Fenris, the underworldly goddess Hel, and so forth – we are theoretically adopting a stance of honesty. On the other hand, if we accept the (unfortunately misguided) notion that Loki is purely a negative force, it is possible that we are using him as a stool pigeon to avoid facing the frightening moral ambiguities of this existence, of our own psyches.
I should clarify that as I see it, Norse mythology does not give a decisive answer as to Loki’s worth. In many stories he is a troublesome but ultimately helpful figure. Furthermore, the view that Loki is responsible for the death of Balder seems to be only sketchily grounded in the primary mythic sources.
Of course, Loki does get bound by the gods. But, this seems perfectly explicable in the context of his abusive behavior in the poem “Lokasenna.” And we can imagine that his firebrand, troublesome spirit could easily be twisted into pure malice by the experience of his long imprisonment in the darkness of the earth (suppressed deep into the unconscious?).
But if the extreme – and common – view of Loki as a villain holds little water, I must also express some wariness about the unguardedly optimistic view of Loki that is fashionable in some quarters these days. Loki is dangerous and unpredictable!
Sometimes Loki’s contemporary fans and followers seem to want to gloss over the chaos that tends to follow in his wake. In doing so, they themselves are sanitizing the bearer of the psychic shadow; in this sense, they are partaking of the same draught as those who reject Loki outright.
It might seem, therefore, that I am criticizing both “camps” in the irresolvable argument over the status of Loki in contemporary Heathenry. I am. In whose name? Loki’s.
Loki is a violator of expectations and a destroyer of boundaries. Anyone who draws a line in the sand - whether pro- or anti-Loki – risks violating his very essence. Loki is beyond us and them.
He is like a Hindu mystic who seeks to contradict social convention in order to break down her own ego. Such a person may seem mad or malefic, but as we are assured by Lao Tzu, sometimes the master is indistinguishable from the crazed wanderer. Can anyone really claim to know all ends, after all?
I want to therefore offer a manifesto of malice in Loki’s name – a humorous malice, the kind of malice that Alan Watts admired in Carl Jung: a willingness to accept one’s flaws, failures, and poison, and therefore a willingness to accept the same in others. Such acceptance is necessary if we are to create opportunities for healing and transformation.
Simply put, Loki is quicksilver, ungraspable – literally a shapeshifter. Loki is a transgressor, sometimes even transgressing against his own reputation as transgressive. Loki is not a villain or a hero; not a god or a giant; not even, it seems, a man or a woman. Everyone has something in common with him, and yet everyone may find something alien in him. It makes little sense to me to be either for or against such a being.
Loki doesn’t need your, my, or anyone else’s sympathy. But, we need Loki. We need Loki to challenge us, to frighten us. We need him to keep us honest by keeping us – just a little bit – humble. We need him to shock us out of our tranquilized reverie. When he draws our blood we discover we are alive, and if we can greet his outrages with humor then we might win his favor. I say “might,” of course. I am not making any promises on his behalf.
When I first conceived this piece, it was my intention to try to offend everyone who has an opinion on Loki. I wanted to argue that his fans and his detractors are all guilty to some degree of the same dualistic attitude that he is compelled to violate. In some ways this is what I have tried to do – yet something has restrained me, too.
I realized that to consciously cause trouble – this is not Loki’s way. Loki is all instinct, improvisation. He is always trying to get control over one impossible problem or another. I don’t think he could ever be organized enough to truly be the grand sworn enemy of all that is godly and good that some people would have us all think.
I don’t buy the whole “Loki haters are just latent Christians” argument. After all, the exact same statement could be made of Loki lovers who hate Loki haters, right? And the “Loki haters are being Christian-like” relies itself on a stereotype of Christianity, one loaded up with plenty of disowned projection (even if some of it is might be on the mark).
Perhaps the reason that people resent Loki so much is that it takes extraordinary arrogance to become a trickster. He claims far more than we’d like to think is his fair share, and from an admittedly limited human perspective that looks like arrogance. Even more, he often somehow wins out of the dramas this creates!
Worse still: when he does get the worst of things, he takes his punishment stoically. Loki is certainly not a whiner, and I suspect that for some people it is uncomfortable to recognize such quality in his nature.
Nobody likes a jerk who plays by their own rules. But some of us admire the chutzpah that such behavior entails. If you hate Loki – the joke is on you. If you love Loki – the joke is still probably on you.
Me? I look forward to the day when we silly humans stop trying to make these gods – whatever they are in truth – fit into our neat boxes, our goods and evils. We cannot escape the abyss of uncertainty into which we have been flung, no matter many symbolic gestures we hurl it at.
Only by cultivating the courage to own our shadow projections can we begin to come to peace with the insanity of being mortal beings. And maybe a possible first step in that direction is to keep the gods out of our little spats over belief and truth and all that righteous stuff.
I know. I know. Easily said! Next time round I am going to present an artistic attempt to explore Loki’s nature, one that tries to avoid both uncritical sympathy and simplistic demonization. It is my hope that it provides a bridge between the extremes of sentiment that Loki manages to provoke.
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