Thor and Loki in Utgarda Loki, an interpretation

A few months ago I had a little talk about the story of Thor and Loki who travel to Utgarda Loki for a selected group. This little talk took a couple of months in preparation and I have yet to start working on the reworked version of the in depth analysis, but I thought it might be nice for you to show a few aspects of the story here.

The story

Loki, Thor, ThialfiThe story in short goes that Thor and Loki (for an unknown reason), decide to travel to Utgarda Loki, which is both the name of a kingdom, as the name of its ruler. In the beginning of the story, Thor and Loki need a place to sleep and they find a farm with a family that is willing to let them spend the night. For dinner, Thor slays his two goats and tells the farmer to throw the bones on the skins that Thor laid on the floor. The son breaks a bone to eat out the marrow though. In the morning, Thor takes his hammer, consecrates the goats and they come back alive, one with a limping rear leg. Thor immediately realises what has happened, breaks a fury and threatens to slay the family. Naturally the farmer got scared, offered his excuses and his children as compensation. Thor agrees and he, Loki, Thialfi (the son) and Roskva (the daughter) leave behind the goats and use a boat to cross the ocean.
SkrymirAfter coming on the other shore, they start to walk through a big forest and at the end of the day they search for food in vein, but do find a place to sleep: a large hall with a portal as big as the hall itself. When trying to get some sleep, an enormous earthquake and ear-shattering sound wakes our friends in fear and they find a smaller side-hall in which they take shelter. In the morning they find out that both phenomena were caused by a gigantic man sleeping a little ahead and Thor walks towards him with his hammer in his hand. The man awakes and Thor asks for his name, which is Skrymir and Skrymir immediately recognises Thor of the Ases. The party decides to travel together, but our four friends have a hard time to keep up with the giant. As evening falls the giant finds a tree to sleep under and tells Thor to get some from from the knapsack in which everybody put their food together. Thor proves to be unable to open the giants bag though; annoyed and hungry, they also go to sleep. As soon as the giant falls asleep, the loud snoring is back and Thor runs over to him, hitting him with his hammer. The giant awakes and asks if leaves fell on his head. The second time Thor takes his change, he walks towards the giant and hits him again, but again the giant just asks if a bird dropped something on his head. The last time Thor is sure that he will succeed, he takes one step, hits the giant, but again he wakes up with a silly question.
Utgarda LokiWhen morning breaks, the parties part, the giant continues North, our friends towards the East. Soon they find a gigantic castle, but are not let in. Fortunately they can squeeze themselves between the bars and they immediately walk towards the drinking hall where king Utgarda Loki has a feast with his subjects. Instead of being greeted and invited to join the meal, our friends are asked which feats they can perform. After this follow three tests. First, Loki has an eating contest again a man named Logi, but Loki looses. After this Thialfi runs three races against a man named Hugi, but loses all three. Then Thor fails to empty a drinking horn, doesn’tmanaged to raise the cat of the king and is forced on a knee when wrestling against an old lady. After this they receive a warm welcome with dinner, sleeping places and breakfast in the morning.
When walking outside, Utgarda Loki tells Thor that he has tricked him. Utgarda Loki was Skrymir and every time Thor tried to kill him, he put a mountain between his head and Thor’s hammer. The man that Loki had his contest with was called “Wildfire” (“Logi”) who not only ate the meat from the bones, but also consumed the bones and the trough on which the food laid. No wonder Loki was no competition here. A similar trick Utgarda Loki has with Thialfi, because “Hugi” as his “thought” and nothing is faster than thought. The horn that Thor tried to empty had it’s tip in the ocean, the cat was actually the Midgard serpent that encircles the entire earth and the old woman was called “old age” (“Elli”) and even Thor can’t fight that. After hearing this, Thor got angry, raised his hammer to smash Utgarda Loki and his men, but suddenly the castle and its inhabitents are gone and Thor, Loki and Thialfi find themselves in an open field.

An interpretation

If the Northern Gods are taken as aspects in the constitution of man, it would not be too strange to say that Loki represents our ego, Thor our will and Odin our higher Self. In this story only the two lower parts take a journey, pretty much as in ‘real life’. Just think about it, how many people live purely by ego and lower desire and how many genuinely spiritual people do you know? The story seems to represent the state that most of us live in. We live our lives by our lower aspects and forgot to bring our Odin.
In the beginning of the story Thor and Loki come from somewhere, but it isn’t stated from where. A quick assumption could lead to the conclusion that they came from Asgard, but that wouldn’t fit too well with the interpretation that I pose here. They do seem to travel to (or through) the world of man, the world of the farmer and his family, but also this is questionable. A strange thing takes place, because the death-and-resurrection ritual of the goats reminds of initiation rites, but why would Thor initiate his own goats? I am not totally sure, but my interpretation is that Thialfi and Roskva receive some kind of ‘indirect initiation’ or perhaps, the lower part of man trades ‘something higher’ (the goats of the Gods) for ‘something lower’ (men). In any case, the scene with the goats seems to have the reason that Thialfi and Roskva become able to travel with the Gods.
After this two very obvious initiation themes occur. The group travels over the waters and a thick forest, so they obviously go to another world. This becomes clear as soon as they meet Skrymir and even more so when they arrive in Utgarda Loki. My first idea when I read this story, was that the lower part of man travels to a world of illusion, of Maya as the Eastern term goes. They are obviously blinded by something, because it is pretty obvious that they are in a world of illusion, Loki tries to eat faster than a man who is named “Wildfire”, but not for a second he realises that “Logi” may actually by wildfire. The same goes for Thialfi and “Hugi” (“memory” remember Odin’s raven) and Thor with “Elli” (“old age”). It is so obvious that there is something fishy going on, but they don’t see it.
I think this very much applies to our own situation. We don’t see how often we are smacked around the ears with ‘something higher’ without seeing it. We no longer realise that there is more than what we can see, feel, smell, touch, etc. We live in a world of illusion, and take it for being reality. As soon as we would realise the truth, all illusion would disappear and something beautiful would be left (a green field with flowers!).

This is –of course- a rather simple explanation of a story with many layers and themes. Maybe another time I will go a bit more in depth, peel off some layers, dissect some scenes or names, but here you have your first proof that the stories from the Eddas are not just enjoying stories, but much more can be found in them. Myths can be examples or explanations or even guides. Perhaps it is nice to use this one story for different approaches to show you how to work with these texts.

6 comments

  1. what changes can we see as a result of this story? although it seems to be pointless wandering, there has to be a ‘before and after’, mythically speaking. it seems to be all about thor, although this is stated as the intention in gylfaginning.

    – thor gains two servants, thjalfi and roskva. thjalfi features in other stories.

    – is thors goat permanently lame?

    – thor alters the landscape of jotunheim with his three hammer strikes.

    – thor learns of jormungand, and indeed immediately after, he sets off on a fishing expedition.

    – thor learns some humility in the face of trickery, but the jotnar learn to fear thors real might. sort of a diplomatic show of force on both sides, perhaps orchestrated by loki from behind the scenes.

    but no major deaths or battles. does loki really do anything? is he really just there to show that he cant eat faster than a fire?

    could the lack of real change in this myth be due to odins absence? important political actions need odin present, otherwise its all illusion, as you say.

    1. i have heard the theory that utgard-loki is loki in disguise. but i dont know of any other case in the lore of anyone being able to split into two people and talk to themself. also, people tend to assume that a lot of giants are loki in disguise, like the crone who wouldnt weep for baldr.

      but it is curious that nobody comments on the shared name. if i were loki, i would at least say, ‘hey bro, your name is like mine, are we related?’

      thanks for the reply! your blog is great!

  2. There are of course numerous way to interpret the story, that is what makes thinking myths over makes both enjoyable and fruitfull. There are things to say for the hypothesis that this story is about Thor, but I prefer to take Thor as part of the story. And are Utgarda Loki and Loki the same? Possibly, but the story would indeed be a bit illogical if it was. But why use the name of Loki then in the name of the giant? We will probably never know for sure, but as a whole, the story is intriguing.

  3. I am totally agree with substatique; I am very confuse with those two as I am reading the Japanese manga “The Mythical Dictacitve Loki”.

    cheers

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