Feature Articles – The Loki Stone Genuine religious artefacts that portray the devil are – for obvious reasons – rare. But in northwest England, a devil’s stone is one of two in Europe that have survived across the centuries.
by Philip Coppens
Kirkby Stephen, in northwest England, is a typical market town, which attracts tourists from surrounding areas for just that purpose. But just tucked away from the High Street, the little town has a most prized possession that few shoppers seem to appreciate: a stone that is unique in Britain – and of which only two remain in Europe: the Loki Stone. And no, this has nothing to do with the “Mask of Loki” from the Jim Carrey 1994 movie The Mask.
The Parish Church of Kirkby Stephen is locally known as the Cathedral of the Dales; it does offer an impressive sight and has clearly had to battle from becoming too infringed upon by neighbouring buildings – a development it has staved off successfully for several centuries. The church is built on the site on an Old Saxon church and has become the home of the 8th century Loki Stone.
The Stone has wandered around slightly: at one point, it sat amongst ancient gravestones at the far end of the church, exposed to the elements. Today, it sits inside the church, right opposite the entrance. It is small and is decorated by a carved figure, chained, with horns: the devil? Yes and no. It is one of the few physical survivals from the time when the Vikings had settled in this area. It is not a Christian devil, but its Norse equivalent, the god Loki, who plays an important role in Scandinavian mythology. He was a joker and a mischief-maker, who eventually went too far: he caused the death of the god Odin’s son by trickery and was punished by being imprisoned below ground in chains. It seems like the Norwegian equivalent of the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Seth – the latter who would become transformed – shape-shifted – into the Christian Satan. So, is the “Cathedral of the Dales” the Yorkshire equivalent of Rennes-le-Château’s Asmodeus, the infamous statue of the devil placed at the village church’s entrance by the enigmatic priest Bérenger Saunière? Loki Laufeyjarson – to give him his full name – was a son of the giants Fárbauti and Laufey, and foster-brother of Odin, echoing once again similar stories elsewhere, such as the relationship between the Egyptian Seth and Osiris, who were brothers too. Like the cult of Seth in ancient Egypt, the figure of Loki remains obscure: in fact, there is no trace of a cult and his name does not appear in place-names… but who would want to name their village after the devil? And as he had neither cult nor followers, he is therefore not considered to be a god. This is not just some puritanical academic device; it is supported by the fact that he was not a member of Vanir or the Æsir, the two groups of Norse gods. Still, though not formally a member, the legends detailing the exploits of these gods make it clear that he freely mingled in their company… and even became a blood brother to Odin.
The Church sees the devil as the incorporation of all evil and the adversary of God; Satan is intent on destroying God; it is a battle, which will eventually have only one winner. Ancient civilisations lived within the same dualistic world: order versus chaos. But for them, the perfect world was one of balance, Maat, in which order controlled chaos and chaos was converted into controlled transformation – what in business speak has been labelled “change management”.
The Cathedral of the Dales Loki was not seen as pure evil, but as a trickster, a master of guile and deception; some have labelled him “a celestial con man”. He would often play tricks on the gods. He tricked an unnamed giant who built the walls around Asgard out of being paid for his work by distracting his horse while disguised as a mare. He also commissioned Odin’s spear, Freyr’s ship and Sif’s wig from Dvalin, the dwarf. But sometimes, things went wrong. This is illustrated by the myth in which he shears Sif’s hair and then has to replace it; he is responsible for the loss of Iðunn’s apples of youth, but is then able to retrieve them. A con artist is a master of disguise and comes in many shapes and forms. And it is his miraculous ability to always land on his feet that makes them so admirable.
No wonder therefore that Loki was an adept shape-shifter, with the ability to change both form (examples include transmogrification to a salmon, horse, bird, flea, etc.) and sex. With such qualities, he could hide and pretend whoever he wanted to be and people would not know they were being conned. Indeed, he was a master of disguise. And he was given many names: the Sly-One, the Sly-God, the Shape-Changer, the Trickster, the Sky Traveller, the Sky Walker, the Lie-Smith, etc.
Conmen, like sales people, have an innate ability to infiltrate where they are generally not wanted, yet the best end up being the centre of the party. And so Loki manoeuvred within the company of the gods, livening up their world, by causing mischief… sometimes chaos… but was eventually able to readdress the balance. But sometimes, chaos is not controlled, and disaster strikes. And Loki became a liability to Gods, leading to the death of Baldr, the birth of Fernis and other monsters that would eventually engulf the world. Soon, these disastrous events outbalanced the fact that he had provided the Gods with all their magical artefacts, from Thor’s hammer to the flying ships, or even the awareness that these artefacts would ultimately help the Gods in defeating evil. Indeed, Loki was responsible for Ragnarok, the End of Times, but had also provided the means to overcome it. This dual nature and his role as a god who creates chaos but than has the ability to put it right, may also go to explain his origin. It is believed that Loki was just an aspect of Odin and that his name was derived from the Celtic Lugus, whose name is closely related to Loki. Lugus, or Lugh, is the Celtic sun god. Many ancient civilisations speak of a “division” of god, which at the end of times would be reunited again. In a biblical setting, this division is known as the “Fall”, and it is there that the role of the “evil” serpent makes its entrance.
In Kirkby Stephen, we see Loki chained. Indeed, eventually, his mischief could no longer be controlled, so Loki had to be controlled; chained. The crime? Loki, disguised as a giantess, arranged the murder of Baldr, the god of innocence. For this he used mistletoe, the only plant that had not sworn to never harm Baldr, and made a dart of it. He then tricked Baldr’s blind brother Höðr into throwing it at Baldr, thus killing him. The murder of Baldr could not be left unpunished, and eventually the gods tracked down Loki, who was hiding in a pool at the base of Franang’s Falls, disguised as a salmon. They caught the trickster with his own recent invention, the fishing net. They also hunted down Loki’s two children with Sigyn, Narfi and Váli and changed Váli into a wolf, who then turned against his brother and killed him. They used Narfi’s innards to bind Loki to three slabs of stone, and Skaði, a mountain giantess, placed a snake over his head so that its venom would pour onto him. Just like Satan in the bible is linked with a serpent, so is Loki linked with the snake’s venom. The punishment was most severe, but fortunately for him, Sigyn, Loki’s faithful wife, sat beside him and collected the venom in a wooden bowl. When she had to empty the bowl when it had filled up, the searing venom dripped onto his face. The pain was then so terrible that he writhed, making the earth shake. Baldr’s murder was one of the events that precipitated Ragnarök. As mentioned, the “fate of the gods” was the battle at the end of the world and would be waged between the gods (the Æsir, led by Odin, representing order) and their aggressors (Loki and his monstrous children, representing chaos). What is unique about the Norwegian legend of Ragnarök as an eschatological myth is its emphasis on the idea that the gods already know through prophecy what is going to happen. When the event will occur (and it seems its date is the only aspect of the fight that is unknown), they know who will be slain by whom, and so forth. So it was – is – known that Heimdall, “the White God” who was considered to be the guardian of the gods, will fight Loki and neither will survive the evenly matched encounter.
Not only would Loki and some of the gods, giants and monsters perish in this apocalyptic fight, but almost everything in the universe will be torn asunder. No wonder therefore that the Loki Stone has survived throughout the ages. Indeed, everything seems to suggest that this artefact was treated as a magical stone and safeguarding the stone must have been seen by several as a guarantee that Loki remained bound in the bowels of the Earth. The Loki Stone is a stone upon which Loki was depicted, chained; Loki himself was chained on three stones. Breaking the Loki Stone, like breaking the stones that held Loki, could mean that they were breaking his chains and setting him free… and setting the world on the course of the End of the World. It leaves the custodians of the church of Kirkby Stephen the latest in a long line of caretakers… whom perhaps are not aware of the potential gravity of their task. If the stone tumbles… will the world end?
And this is one of the stone’s most bizarre aspects: it seems that there are no such legends attached to this stone. Bridges across the country are linked with stories that if a certain bridge will break, the world will end. But whereas the link between bridges and the end of the world is not too straightforward, the connection between Loki and Ragnarök is. Yet no such folklore seems to surround our little devil. In fact, about the only bizarre aspect of this stone is that it is now inside the church, which seems to have been done for matters of preservation, rather than any symbolic dimension, such as the assumption that his presence inside the church will allow God to control him and his forces of chaos.
A largely forgotten god, Loki was raised from oblivion for the movie The Mask (1994), in which the “mask” was made into an artefact of ancient Scandinavian culture, rather the African origin it was given in the comics. The Mask was now believed to possess the spirit of Loki. In a deleted scene, the mask was sent to the Western world so that the ancient Scandinavians could imprison Loki in it and throw it away. The mask gives anyone who places it on their face nearly limitless power and an altered appearance, which is most categorized by a large set of teeth and green head. Furthermore, the mask affects the personality of the wearer by removing all personal social inhibitions. Taken another way, the wearer takes off his metaphorical masks – his social inhibitions – by putting on an actual mask. Loki would have been proud if such a mask ever existed…