by William Reaves, edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiðson
Copyright © William Reaves

I would agree with the statement that Utgard-Loki is actually the bound Loki only in regard to Saxo's account of Utgarthlocus (Utgard-Loki). In Snorri's account, Utgard Loki is the ruler of a city of giants which Thor and Loki visit. Thus in Snorri's tale, Utgard-Loki cannot be identical with the real Loki, who is present. In Saxo's story, the adventurer Thorkill meets with a giant chained in the underworld, by name of Utgarthlocus. He has freely borrowed the name Utgard-Loki, "Loki of the Outer-Yard", from the mythology, which properly applied the name to an opponent of Thor, as it so aptly describes Loki in this situation. From Lokasenna and the Younger Edda, we know that Loki is bound in the lower world, most assuredly in the places of punishment-- in Niflhel. And Lokasenna informs us he will be chained next to the wolf. By gathering together some sources, we arrive at a clear picture of this mythic event:

Voluspa 35 informs us:

"She saw a monsterous form lying bound beneath the Caludron-grove ("Hvera-lund" cp. Hver-gelmir, the fountain in Niflheim), like unto Loki;"

Strophes 36-39 go on to describe an underworld hall standing on the Nastrands, built of wattled serpents, where murderers, perjurors and adulterers wade in venomous streams. Apparently, the poet sees a connection between these places, and Loki's imprisonment. Strophe 39 informs us:

"There Nidhogg sucked corpses and the Wolf (Fenrir) tore men to pieces."

Lokasenna 41 tells us that a river flows from the wolf's mouth and that Loki is to be bound likewise near him.

Snorri says that the river from Fenrir's mouth is called Von.

In Solarljod 54, the poet sees "Von's dragons fly obscuring the Prince of Splendor's plains." The poet has clearly died and is in the underworld (Str. 33-44 vividly describe his death), but his destiny is not the realms of bliss-- but rather the realms of punishment. In a poem standing oddly on the verge of Christianity and heathendom, the heathen conceptions regarding the death-journey shine through. In Solarljod 45, after he has left earth and begins his journey to the underworld, the poet says he has been "called from torment." He comes to "sit on the Norns seats" for 9 days and nights-- no doubt to be judged (str. 51). He is judged beneath the southernmost root of Yggdrassil, at the thingstead by Urd's well (cp. Grimnirsmal 28, 29/ Havamal 76, 77 which both speak of a judgement on mankind, given by the Gods themselves; in Grimnirsmal the Gods must go down beneath Yggdrassil "every day" and in Havamal "every man" is judged, and the judgement, the "ords-tirr," is eternal.). But afterward, Solarljod 53 tells us that he again "entered the worlds of torment." He is a damned soul. His "ords-tirr" was not favorable. He must leave Hel, the region of bliss, and go on to Niflhel. He must leave the realms of "the Prince of Splendor" (Mimir, called Nidi in str. 56; see also the Hall in Vegtamskvida inhabited by the "Asmegir" which accepts Balder in the underworld; the same as Brimir's Beer-hall on the "Nevercold" plain in Voluspa 41, and the same as HoddMimir's Holt, home of Lif and Lifthrasir <<who are the "Asmegir">> in Vafthrudnirsmal 45, referred to in Grimnirsmal 27 as the "Hodd-god's" realm, and in Fjolsvinsmal 34 as the "castle of the Asmegir", and Skirnismal 32 simply as "Holt" ) and those ruled by Urd ("the Norn") and reenter a world of pain. In the words of Vafthrudnirsmal, he must "die thither from Hel into Niflhel." From a confluance of records, it can be established that the Na-gates, the entrance to Niflhel, are located atop the subterranean mountains Nidifjoll-- Nidi's mountains-- the location of the fountain Hvergelmir, which opens on the sea.

Solarljod 53 informs us "Of that is to be told, what first I saw, when I came to the worlds of torment-- scorched birds flying numerous as gnats, they were souls." These men are stripped of their forms; the "litu guda" is torn away by the dragons and all that remains is the soul in the appearance of a "scorched bird." At the entrance to Niflhel, the poet sees Nidi's seven sons (Mimir's sons, the dwarves) who drink water from his well, and "the sun's hart" (the Tree itself) with its feet (roots) on the ground, and its horns (branches) in the heavens. These are his last glimpses of Hel. Nearby, the world-mill grinds overhead (str. 57); The world-mill lies in the sea, at the bottom of Hvergelmir.

There can be no doubt we are in the lower-world, on the very border of Hel and Niflhel. He goes on to enumerate the sinners found there (str. 59-68), as does Voluspa. This is a genuine conception of the heathen places of punishment in the lower world, both sources agree. Afterward, these concepts were to be throughly blended with the Christian notion of Hell in the following centuries. (Skirnismal 27-36 describe a similar scene) The Solarljod poet is among the first to blend these ideas common to both religions, i.e. Niflhel and Hell, in the popular imagination. 

In Chapter 8 of Saxo's Danish History, the adventurer Thorkill and his crew visit a "sunless land, which knew not stars, was void of daylight, and seemed to overshadow them with eternal night." In that "untrodden region beyond the world," they come upon a hall." The entrance was hideous, the door-posts decayed, the walls grimy with mold, the roof filfthy, and the floor swarming with snakes, all of which disgusted the eye and mind." From there he travels another four days and encounters a similar hall-- undoubtedly the same one, and identical with Voluspa's the Hall on the Nastrands. This time he enters the hall and sees "a number of iron seats among a swarm of gliding serpents. Next there met his eye a sluggish mass
of water gently flowing over a sandy bottom." All three sources agree on the presense of serpents, and two describe the hall in remarkably similar fashion. It is a hall built of serpents, who spew venom forth of a group of gathered sinners, probably strapped to iron seats. The lowest sinners wade in sluggish streams of venom on the floor. In Tacitus, sinners of these kinds were thrown into marshes and hurdles placed over their heads until they drown. As in most societies, the legal punishment reflects the religious one. And to ensure no mistake of the origin of these ideas, nearby we find a familar figure "like unto Loki."

"Again after this, a foul and gloomy room was disclosed to the visitors, wherein they saw Utgard-Loki, laden hand and foot with enormous chains. Each of his reeking hairs was as large and as stiff as a horn-spear." Thorkill makes the mistake of plucking a beard-hair as proof of his visit, and at once a "noisome smell reached the bystanders, that they could not breathe without stopping up their mouths with their mantles." As they ran out of the cave, they were "bespattered by serpents which darted at them from every side." Based on the location and the circumstances, there is no doubt this "Utgard-Loki" is the real Loki bound in the underworld.

In the mythology, Loki and Heimdall meet as opponents in Ragnarok. Snorri informs us in Gylfaginning that "Heimdall's head" can operate as a kenning for a sword and visa-versa, as Heimdall was killed with a head. In Forspallsljod, we actually find this expression "the sword of the White-As" being used as a paraphrase for Heimdall's (The White God's) head. Thus we can glean that Loki killed Heimdall and Heimdall died by means of a head used as a weapon. Snorri informs us that Loki and Heimdall mutually kill each other. From Saxo, we learn that Loki's hair and beard had grown "stiff as hornspears." Afterall, horn is a form of hair. It is probable that Heimdall was conceived of as severing Loki's head, which afterward pierces and kills the White God. This is made more likely by the interest shown in severing Loki's head in the myth of the Contest of the Artists, and the cunning play that Loki uses to keep his head from Brokk.

In this instance, Utgard-Loki is clearly a name of the real Loki bound in chains in the underworld. Snorri informs us that the chained Loki causes Earthquakes. This is also probably a genuine heathen conception, as in Saxo, the king of the land sends Thorkill with an offering to appease Loki when he wishes good fortune to fall on his land. However, the nature of the trip makes it extremely perilous, and Saxo reveals that the journey is also a plot by Thorkill's enemies to get rid of him. Saxo also characterizes Utgard-Loki as a god, eventhough he depicts him in chains. No doubt, Saxo has in mind the mythological image of Loki bound. Later this same image appears throughout Europe in regard to a similar character in the Christian mythos-- it's own "father of lies." In the medieval ages, Satan was pictured as bound in Hell, horns protruding from his head and a spiked goatee from his chin. This is still the image that survives of him today and is not drawn from any Biblical account of Satan's appearance. It seems rather obvious, although admittedly unprovable, that this image was inherited from the heathen conceptions of Loki.

knotwork01.gif (2510 bytes)

Return to the religion page