This illustration, by the British artist Arthur Rackham (c. 1867-1939), was inspired by a painful myth involving the mischievous Norse god, Loki. In terms of the chronological timeline of myths provided by the Icelandic scholar and historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), this tortuous scene came as a consequence of one of Loki’s greatest crimes against his fellow gods—the killing of Baldr. To understand the scene depicted in Rackham’s illustration, we must begin our narrative with Loki’s dastardly scheme that ultimately led to his own hellish punishment.
Baldr (also spelled Baldur or Balder) was a near-invincible god whose mother, Frigg, obtained promises from fire, water, metals, stones, plant life, animal wildlife, poisons and even diseases and viruses, all swearing that they would not harm her son. When all of the oaths were collected, Baldr was so invulnerable that the mighty gods amused themselves by punching, throwing stones, shooting arrows, even striking or stabbing at Baldr, all to no effect. Baldr’s newfound defensive prowess was lauded and praised by the gods—well, all except one. Loki, the usual delinquent deity of Norse mythology, loathed Baldr’s invulnerability. Therefore, Loki began to investigate, hoping that, like Achilles, a vulnerable chink could be found in Baldr’s supernatural armor. During his investigation, Loki relied on his expertise in shape shifting. He transformed himself into a woman and then struck up a conversation with Frigg. Unfortunately for Baldr, Frigg was too trusting during her conversation with the disguised stranger, resulting in Loki learning that there was still one plant that could cause harm to Baldr—mistletoe.
After discovering the secret, Loki set off in search of the deadly plant. He successfully found a twig of mistletoe that could pass off for a projectile, and with this in hand, he returned to the homeland of the gods, where the deities were still amusing themselves by launching blows against Baldr. Mischievous (or in this case, murderous) Loki now sauntered over to a blind god named Hod and encouraged him to join the fun of attacking Baldr’s near-invulnerable skin. Hod unfortunately agreed, and Loki eagerly put the stick of mistletoe in the blind god’s hands. After receiving some help in aiming from Loki, Hod launched the mistletoe projectile, and to the horror of the gods, the plant truly did turn out to be Baldr’s weakness. Shocking all witnesses present (except Loki), the mistletoe skewered Baldr, killing him on the spot. After Baldr’s death, the gods sought out Hel, the goddess of the dead, and tried to negotiate for Baldr’s return. She conceded that if everything in creation wept over Baldr’s death, she would agree to let him go free. As the story goes, the gods nearly met Hel’s conditions, but, once again, Loki was there to interfere, and his unweeping eyes kept Baldr in the underworld.
Loki, due to his role in killing Baldr and keeping the god locked away in the realm of the dead, quickly found that his fellow Norse gods were much angrier at him than usual. Sensing the unforgiving atmosphere, Loki tried to escape by transforming into a fish and diving into a river. Yet, the gods tracked him down and dragged him out of the water with a net. After that victory, the Norse gods devised the elaborate punishment seen above in Arthur Rackham’s illustration. Snorri Sturluson wrote a detailed description of the punishment:
“Loki was now captured, and with no thought of mercy he was taken to a cave. They [the Norse gods/Æsir] took three flat stones and, setting them on their edges, broke a hole through each of them. Then they caught Loki’s sons, Vali and Nari or Narfi. The Æsir changed Vali into a wolf, and he ripped apart his brother Narfi. Next the Æsir took his guts, and with them they bound Loki on to the top of the three stones—one under his shoulders, a second under his loins, and the third under his knees. The fetters became iron. Then Skadi took a poisonous snake and fastened it above Loki so that it drips on to his face. But Sigyn, his wife, placed herself beside him from where she holds a bowl to catch the drops of venom. When the bowl becomes full, she leaves to pour out the poison, and at that moment the poison drips on to Loki’s face” (Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, chapter 50).
Such was the punishment that the Norse gods inflicted on Loki after his schemes led to the death of Baldr. Loki was destined to remain in this state of torture until he would ultimately break free at the apocalyptic time of Ragnarok. As the prophetic story goes, in that final clash between the Norse gods and their monstrous foes at Ragnarok, Loki would lead Hel’s underworld forces against the gods. Loki’s freedom would be short-lived, however, for he was fated to die at the hands of Heimdall during the course of the battle.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.