illwynd: (Loki shhh)
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Today I read Rene Girard’s analysis of the myth of the death of Baldr in his book The Scapegoat (I kinda flailed a bit ngl, because I’ve been reading Girard with analysis of Norse myths in mind the whole time so yeah), and a few things about it struck me as awesome and yet also fertile for directions that Girard doesn’t quite take it in.



Now, just to sketch it out, Girard’s idea is that the murder of Baldr by Loki’s trickery is a transformed version of the myth. Girard puts forward the notion that the myth originally must have had the group stoning Baldr to death, but Loki is made into the villain so as to displace the blame from the group and from Hodr in particular: instead of a collective murder, it becomes the act of one; instead of a murder of brother by brother, it becomes the killing of a perfect innocent by an outcast. (Interestingly, there are existing versions of the myth in which Loki doesn’t figure at all. They’re very different, and Baldr is not entirely the good guy in them, either.) Girard hypothesizes that at some point, believers must have found it too horrible an idea—that all the gods had participated in such a crime—and thus they reinterpreted the myth in order to remove the gods’ collective guilt.

In reaching this conclusion, Girard starts with Georges Dumézil’s description of the game of throwing things at Baldr as “spectacular” and “fake,” and I think we all know what he means, even if just in the form of having been baffled by the nature of the game when we first heard the myth—like, why did the gods consider that a good time? I know I was baffled and wondered for a long time what exactly I was missing about that story, what meaning it could have held, what cultural context gap I was struggling to breach. But Girard uses this to point out that, if we encountered such a story anywhere other than mythology, we’d easily identify it as a case of collective violence, a lynching, a stoning, rather than the odd behavior of immortal gods with an invulnerable target.

The process of the transformation of the myth, and the way that plays out even in modern interpretations, is interesting. I’ve read theories and analyses in which the reason why the gods thought that game was a great idea was that, because the death of Baldr was linked to Ragnarok, the Aesir all wanted to know for certain, with their own eyes, that Baldr had been successfully been made invulnerable by Frigga’s venture. This is an odd explanation, not because it doesn’t fit, but because it… doth protest too much. It would be easier to believe that they’re doofuses who find it funny to throw shit at a guy who’ll be completely unharmed than to make it out into proof of not just neutral but benevolent (if self-interested) intentions. This is similar to what Girard points out about how completely totally not at fault I swear Hodr is made out to be—how he’s not just blind, not just given a mistletoe sprig (which should have been too light and fragile to do any harm), not just the reluctant brother, but actively guided by the tricky Loki into committing the murder.

And all this is really neat stuff, but there was something else that caught my eye, something that I hadn’t come across before: Girard quotes Dumézil on one particular aspect (or perhaps version?) of the myth: the fact that Loki abstains from taking part in the game. According to Dumézil’s sources, Loki not only did not participate but tried to stop the game: “This spectacle displeased Loki,” he says.

Girard, in discussing the choice made by those who reinterpreted the myth to displace the blame for collective violence onto a single individual, says that “the choice of Loki is paradoxical if, as it would seem, he really was the only one of all the gods in the original scene who does not join in the lynching.” And… Girard just sort of leaves it there, aside from noting that Loki’s manipulations to cause the murder were “cynically” carried out. But to me this is where the interesting stuff starts, because that paradoxical choice is incredibly revealing of things that the reinterpreters likely did not mean to reveal (and probably weren’t aware of including).

Now, the whole point of the reinterpretation was to “rehabilitate [the reputations] of all the other gods” at Loki’s expense. The whole point was to conceal the fact that what was being described was in fact collective murder. But Loki’s motives (which would be opaque and improbable given any other interpretation) give away the truth, at the same time as he is inextricably caught in the role of villain that he is given by the tale.

That is another point of the myth, aside from the reason for the game, that has been interpreted in a variety of different ways by baffled listeners. Jealousy for the high esteem in which Baldr is held is one interpretation that is often given, but it’s a rather flimsy one, and feels inadequate as an explanation. Another is just “trololololoki.” But seeing the incident as one of collective violence makes it all come clear, because Loki is marked with nearly all the characteristics and traits of victims ripe for scapegoating (seriously, read Girard’s list of those traits. Compare to a list of trickster traits. A taste: the victim is a foreigner, distinguished by beauty but also by monstrous characteristics, can change themselves into animals, change their sex, engages in aberrant or excessive sexual behavior, and indulges in outrageous crimes against the community morality….) and he is an outsider, a marginal figure among the Aesir and often blamed—whether rightly or wrongly—for harm that comes to the group. As such he is able to see through the game. He is the only one present who is suited to identifying communal violence and taking offense to it, because only he has personal experience of having been victimized by the community before. And, owing to the nature of trickster figures, there is no one else more suited to carry it out in the specific way that it is carried out, which both conceals and reveals the underlying nature of the story.

The choice of Loki is only paradoxical in the sense that it creates a sort of hidden metacommentary on the communal violence that is being concealed from view. The fact that Loki has, in this story, identified the communal violence in progress and objected to it is what makes him the perfect choice for the villain, because he attempts to show the community what they are doing, tries to make them see through their own bullshit by revealing the fact that Baldr is not invulnerable; when death results, it is impossible (he thinks) to any longer call the game harmless. Yet this purpose, this intention, is the true threat, because the unanimity and rightness of the community in its moral judgments and its differentiations (however based on illusions and lies they might be) are the source of its stability. Loki’s manipulations to kill Baldr, to reveal the nature of the game, are a threat to that stability.

As such, in taking this action to pull the wool away from the Aesir’s eyes, Loki becomes the villain that the piece has cast him as. On the surface level, the reinterpretation of the myth makes him undeniably, willfully, maliciously at fault in a legalistic sense of guilt—and at fault not only for the singular death of Baldr but for everything that comes of it, down to the end of all the gods and the destruction of the world. And the deeper level, the underlying strata of the story and Loki’s motives, only mirrors this by making Loki’s ability to confront the community with its own deceptions the source of the danger and the reason for his deadly transgression.

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May 2014

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