Today’s offering is by columnist Luke Babb. Luke is a storyteller and eclectic polytheist who primarily works with the Norse and Hellenic pantheons. They live in Chicago with their wife and a small jungle of houseplants, where they are studying magic and community building – sometimes even on purpose.
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Loki, god of the bound and silenced, god of the hidden and the lost, god of resistance at all costs, hear our prayers tonight. Mother of monsters, look after your children as the winter descends, and grant us the strength to endure.
The prayers filled my social media for weeks- thousands of reblogs, dozens of different devotees, but all sharing a theme. “Help me,” they said, “I do not know how to fight this. I do not know how I am going to endure this.”
For many of us, the 2016 election brought with it a very real fear of death. Access to healthcare in the queer community is a tenuous thing, at best, and the majority of the Heathens I know who worship Loki are queer. As a leader with a clear and stated goal of withdrawing rights from minorities took power, we scrambled to secure name changes, solidify the legal rights of our partners, connect to our friends who were in the most danger.
We also raised our voices in prayer. The geographically scattered strands of my community, the only group of Heathens I had found that I felt I could trust, reached out, writing devotional pieces, reminding each other that it is possible to stay alive, it is possible to face the end of all things, it is possible to suffer and still survive.
We said we would all make it through this one. We lied.
* * *
Here is something I believe: there is no ‘correct’ reading of a text.
It takes three things for a story to travel – the writer, the text itself, and the reader. The writer, inspired by the world around them and the way they see it, sets down a story in the clearest words they have available to them. The thing they create, the text, remains in that original state as the world around it changes. The meaning of words shift, languages pass on, whole models of the universe fall out of favor. Then, the reader comes with an entirely different worldview, and applies that worldview to the text. This means, essentially, that the reader is constructing a new story in their head which is related to, but can never be, exactly the story the writer intended. Some interpretations of a text can be, perhaps, “better supported” – based more closely on the worldview that the author lived in, or a closer reading of the words they wrote. But there is no way to really access whatever original meaning the author intended. There is no reading that is ‘correct’, factual, unrefuted. There are as many good readings as readers.
This is true, to some extent, of every kind of communication. While I love my wife, and we have spent hours and weeks of our lives explaining the ways that we think, the ways that we see the world – at the end of the day, I am always interacting with the understanding of her that I have in my head. Not being psychic, I cannot know the exact meaning my partner is trying to communicate because that meaning has to go through words, expressions, tones of voice – all of which have limitations. However close we may be, we do not know our partners as they know themselves. We just know the way we read the text of them.
Similarly, my coworkers do not know the same Luke as my partner does, nor does my teacher. I am, as we all are, a being bigger than one individual’s understanding – because nobody is around to read all of my signals and hear all of my thoughts except me. I, like Whitman, am large, I contain multitudes.
How much more so the gods?
There is a theological point to be made here that has been made better and more thoroughly by more talented writers than me, but the essence of it is this – the gods, in my estimation, are bigger than people. They are understood in facets. The face that one follower gets is no less real than another, however foreign it may be. We can spend lifetimes getting to know them, meditating on the many different ways that they are, and still never have a complete understanding of even a single deity.
This is how I understand people whose interactions with Loki seem foreign to me. They talk about a laughing, fey, redhead – and I am glad for them, and ask them to tell me some more. My patron is known as a shape changer even among the gods, willing to use any tool that will get the job done, and I love hearing about the tools he has put to use. “What does he look like for you?” I ask, in much the same tone I ask about shared friends. “Which version do you get?”
In Norse literature, the faces of the gods have their own distinguishing names. Modern Heathens have coined new ones to go with the old. Mother of Monsters, we call him, when he’s easing us through the pain and fear of persecution, the betrayal of our own bodies. Flamehair, the laughing one here to break down walls of safety that we might be trapped behind. Laufeyjarson, who I think of on the road with Thor, the unlikely giant killer, the explorer of the unknown. We all get a different combination of names, a different facet of the whole that is our shared god.
And there is Worldbreaker. We all know Worldbreaker.I say all of that to say this: Everything they say about Loki is true.
He’s a cheat. He has murdered, seduced, and manipulated the gods themselves. He privileges practicality over honor, and both of those a long way over comfort for himself or his followers. He breaks every rule that is presented to him, and a few more that are so ensconced in tradition that they do not even need to be spoken. He is one of the primary movers in the apocalypse.
I am very clear about this. I will not make excuses in my worship, will not shy away from the darker aspects of my patron. I have looked directly into the painful, bloody mess of a mouth sewn closed and smiled back, bloody tongued. In Loki I see a god that I can understand, a god that knows what it means to lose a family and suffer for choices that were, for us, inevitable.
I am aware of the unspeakable parts of my patron – and so, while I disagree with Karl Seigfried’s recent interpretation of the mythological text, and with the Troth’s policy against hailing Loki, I have no desire to argue with them. Others have done that work. What I am interested in is answering the question that is, I think, at the heart of each of Loki’s myths:
This is a bad situation. How can I turn it into a good one?
* * *
It is easier to tell stories of the ways the gods intervene – the strange man on the corner, the half-heard word in a crowd, the series of coincidences that has changed the way I think. What I lack words for are the ways a god can get inside, can shore up my weakest points and form a trellis that changes the blueprint of my growth.
Finding Loki was not a spiritual experience, for me. I was not visited in a vision, was not called to him through divination or dreamwork. I was in school, taking one class in Old Norse and another in medieval ideas of femininity. I wrote a paper. I translated a long section of Lokasenna, pulling up article after article about argr and ergi, delighted at the idea of queerness being the root of magic.
I just loved him. And in return he destroyed my life.
This is not an interesting story, in part because so many different versions of it have been told. I began to work with Loki and my relationship died a (long overdue) unpleasant death. My career path crumbled. Over the course of three years I came out twice, moved to another state, and suffered the most intense depression that it has ever been my misfortune to personally grapple with. I found myself, for the first time in my life, utterly without answers, struggling to find anything in the world that made sense.
My world, in short, broke apart around me. I could not be more grateful for it.
* * *
Here is the pattern of it. Find a Pagan. Realize that they’re Heathen. Figure out whether they’re a white supremacist, a homophobe, a transphobe. Figure out whether they’re accepting of practices that don’t match their own. And then, only then, bother trying to figure out if they’re alright with Loki.
I live in the third largest city in the US. If I gather everyone in the area who I know acknowledges my patron, we can sit at a large table in a restaurant.
So nothing in the recent arguments is surprising to me, or even novel. I have heard these arguments since the moment I started on this path. They do not change my reading of the myths, the conclusions of my scholarship, or the truth of my religious experiences. Loki is the reason I am a Pagan, and I would not have managed so well as I have without him, wild and beautiful and offering hope that things would eventually make sense.
I have been offered the choice between a community and my patron several times. It has never been a difficult decision.
But I do not think I should have to choose.
Perhaps it is a privilege of mine to come easier to the knowledge that people can hold fundamental differences and still break bread. Perhaps I should hold patience and space for those who cannot grasp that a god they fear can offer solace and friendship to others. But I am angry at the ways in which people dismiss the experiences of minorities as illegitimate. I am tired of being told that I must erase a part of my identity – my gender, my partnership, my religion – in order to fit more comfortably into the majority. I am sick of being told that I am wrong about who I am, and I am enraged that my anger is used as a point against me.
I had taught myself not to be angry by the time I was sixteen. It took me years to remember how. I will not give up such a useful tool, but I have thought long and hard about how to temper it, how to direct it and communicate around it most effectively.
In trying to reach a conclusion, I have realized that Loki’s anger very seldom moves him to violence. Instead, it drives him to persevere. Through threat and punishment, through physical and psychological torture beyond any I can imagine, Loki keeps going.
* * *
We are not helpless. We are not hopeless
What are you going to do?
Fight at your side, Worldbreaker.
I have learned many lessons from Loki – lessons of tearing down structures that had kept me from growth, lessons of defining my own identity, lessons of creating a family and remaining fiercely loyal to them. There is, I think, a lesson in this as well – or many, as many as there are readers of this text. Surely some of them will be better than mine.
In my own gnosis, the lesson sounds like this. The Heathen community is not the first place where I have been unwelcome because of who I am – but here I am reminded that being unwelcome does not mean that I have to leave. Leaving means becoming invisible, surrendering my voice, forgoing any responsibility I might have to point out uncomfortable truths. Leaving lets those who disagree with my existence feel vindicated.
Sometimes the right thing is sticking around the community – even when I know it’s going to be unpleasant.
When you wake, world a blur,
The fire is out. On the ashes waits
The stone you threw yesterday.
Luster lost fossil coal, a purifier —
Pick it up. Rub ash into your hands
Your face, your hair.
A blessing to yourself.
This place will be the center of you,
Fire ever burning. Approach from the trees.
He is sitting, back toward you.
It was never like this, no log, no shadowed eyes,
No worn hands to wave you close.
It will always be this way. You chose this
The hardest road, the binding
Ropes, the awl, the howling in your chest.
-Luke Babb, previously unpublished, 2/14/18
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.