I intended to do something very stylized but ended up playing it safe. Still, I like the piece, and I like the story on which it is based, “Loki and the Witch’s Heart.”
The two moral pillars of today are “follow your heart” and “thou shalt not judge.” If you happen to think these are ridiculous precepts, you will have very little cultural support. For the past 20 years “follow your heart” has been the golden rule of pop cultural ethics, and for many people it is a magic phrase that not only describes the theme of almost every romantic comedy, but more conveniently (when used self-righteously by a husband who sleeps with his secretary) it exempts one from moral scrutiny. I think these two precepts reveal a blind spot of our era. We notice this blindspot when we read older works that are not of our era.
This week for the first time, I read a Norse story (not of our era) that dwells very creatively on the destructive force of evil passions. It is called “Loki and the Witch’s Heart.”
I’ll give you the highlights:
Gulveig is a witch that comes to Asgard. She is wicked. She smiles at things in Asgard, and, wherever she casts her smile, feelings of dread grow. Furthermore, the witch’s presence starts to create treacherous feelings in Asgard. Odin commands her death, which turns out to be a bit of a chore. Then he commands that her body be burned and the flames be fanned by Hraesvelgur (a giant in the shape of an eagle whose wings cause wind to blow). Loki comes back to Asgard from a trip and finds Gulveig has been killed and her body burned. He goes to the place where her ashes lay and discovers that her heart was so evil the flames could not consume it. Not to be outdone by flames, Loki then eats her heart. Loki’s own heart is now treacherous, his passions are evil, and his sense of the beautiful is perverted. We know this because in the stories that follow, he is attracted to ugly evil giantesses, and in time Loki marries a witch who then gives birth to creepy monster children.
The story is countercultural to us because it assumes that some pleasures are evil. The witch’s smile, not her frown cause foreboding. The story also suggests that evil passions aren’t purified by their intensity or authenticity. It is popular to speak of evil as though it is a management problem. People “act up” because their circumstances haven’t been properly arranged. The assumption is that evil is external not internal. This story ignores that idea. Almost like Adam and Eve who ingest their disobedience and it becomes a part of them, Loki eats wickedness and it becomes him.
Loki’s treachery results in the exchange of truth for a lie, the exchange of beauty for ugliness, and the exchange of goodness for evil. If Loki were to appear on daytime television it might go something like this:
Host: Today we have Loki, traitor to the gods, with us in the studio.
(round of applause).
Host: Let me start by asking a question that must be in the minds of our studio audience. Why did you do it? Why did you eat the witch’s heart and provoke a chain of events that will lead to the destruction of the world?
Loki: I had to follow my heart.
Host: You’re basically saying you did it because you wanted to, but when you use the phrase “follow your heart” it sounds noble.
Loki: I had to be true to myself. I’m a mischief-maker.
Host: Had you ever considered not being a mischief–
Loki: You mean be fake? Be inauthentic?
Host: I quite see what you mean. Unless one does whatever they want, whenever they want, they’re fake and inauthentic. That sounds right. Still, you are married to a remarkably unattractive and evil woman, who bore you three vicious monster children that will play a pretty big part in the destruction of the world. Are you satisfied with that situation?
Loki: You sound pretty judgmental to me.
Host: Aren’t all moral judgements judgmental?
Loki: I said you were judgmental first … so I get to make the moral judgements.
Host: Well I can’t argue with that. We’re going to a commercial break and when we comeback, our next guest, Hitler will teach us a lesson about believing in yourself and following your dreams. Stay with us.