Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Trickster Gods and Pop Culture

MCU Loki

Trickster gods may seem like a strange thing to some people. After all, why would you believe in a deity who would mess with you for laughs? Pagan trickster gods may occasionally seem malevolent, but they actually serve an important role. In pop culture, trickster gods are often used to critique the powers that be and question the status quo.

Various trickster gods critique certain societal powers by just being an element of chaos, while others more actively critique the powers that be, even if those powers are the gods themselves. In Greek mythology, Prometheus, a titan enslaved by Zeus, is revered for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity. Zeus was actively trying to keep humanity weak, but Prometheus sympathized with the humans and decided to help them even if it meant going against the gods. Prometheus was punished pretty harshly by Zeus. He was chained to a mountain and his liver was eaten by an eagle every day. Since he was immortal, he lived in agony for the rest of his eternal days. We could see this as a classic “don’t screw with the gods” story, but Prometheus is regarded as a hero of humanity. He is considered perhaps justly punished for breaking the gods’ rules, but the point is that you don’t have to follow the rules. Later Greek heroes would be hailed for using and deceiving the gods in various situations. Prometheus may have suffered for it, but he not only helped humanity; he set an example for them on how to relate to the gods.

We see something similar to this with Gabriel (and/or Loki) in the Supernatural series. When we first meet the angel Gabriel, he is going by the name of Loki and acting as a trickster god. He causes all kinds of problems, specifically for those who have power and need to be taken down a peg or two. A professor who teaches morality but sleeps with his students, asshole fraternity guys, and even scientists who test on animals are all subjected to Gabriel’s own personal and usually murderous treatment. Fans didn’t like Gabriel just because of his swagger; they also liked him because he took down bad people who normally would have had the power to get away with things. But Gabriel doesn’t just go after humans he thinks need to be taken down. Gabriel defies the angels in heaven and goes against God’s plan for the end of the world because, like Prometheus, he prefers humans and sympathizes with them. This leads to him facing off against Lucifer to protect the Winchesters, but sadly, results in his death.

Gabriel

The real Loki of Norse mythology is somewhat more malevolent than the version in Supernatural, considering that he will eventually bring about the downfall of the gods and start Ragnarök. But Loki, like many other trickster gods, has a certain quality that many pagans look at as critiquing societal roles: the god’s ability to shape-shift and change his gender. (Though this is less unique in Norse mythology because he shares this ability with his brother Odin.) Loki’s most notable gender change is one where he actually transforms himself into a horse: he was tasked with stopping a giant from erecting a wall, and solved the problem by transforming into a mare and basically seducing the giant’s magical horse, pulling it away from its work. This ended with Loki becoming pregnant with the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, who served as Odin’s steed.

Female LokiIn the Marvel universe, Loki isn’t often a force for good either, but they do share the ability to shape shift like the god the character was inspired by. For Marvel’s Loki, this ability is much more notable as they are the only god capable of such a thing. Loki has often used the ability to change genders as a means of trickery, but just as often, they change gender simply for the hell of it. Loki’s ability to change gender without any fuss being made over it challenges our notions about what gender actually is or even what gender means.

Tricksters are not always kind and they certainly do not always dole out justice in the kindest of ways, but they do serve a purpose beyond deceiving the hero or bringing conflict to a story. While trickster gods enjoy causing conflict and deceiving people, that is not all they do. Like Prometheus and Gabriel, they challenge the powers in control and help humanity, or like both versions of Loki, they challenge our view of gender. The trickster is in a unique place as an outsider to both humanity and the gods, which allows the trickster to critique and defy both humanity and even the very makeup of the universe created by the gods.


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