I feel it is safe to say that many of the most important sagas and tales of Norse Cosmology revolve around Loki in one fashion or another. And I also feel it is very safe to say there are few in the world today that have not heard of Loki thanks to Marvel Comics and Tom Huddleston. However, as Loki is now being held up as the tragic hero, redeemed trickster, or heir apparent to the Marvel Universe Throne of approval his paramour, Angrboða is held as the epitome of evil by some and the mother of monsters by most. But I question: is that a fair assessment of the giantess?
Loki and Angrboða had three offspring. I hesitate to say "children," because only one was a humanoid (more on her later); one was a mammal, and one was a reptile. Makes for an interesting sit-down dinner, I've always thought! However, I digress. Angrboða had these three offspring. They were her children, and she cared for them as any mother would. At least, that is an assumption that I am going to put forth in this piece because I feel that this is where the demonization of the woman begins.
Is it her fault that she spawned such creatures? I contend that it is not. I feel that it was her lot to mate with Loki, have these bringers of death and destruction, and therefore be condemned as the mother of Ragnarok by way of Jormungandr and Fenrir. Let me go through each of these characters and explain why I feel it was their destiny to do what they did and how they had no other option than to fulfill it.
Angrboða's name means, "bringer of grief." I first wonder if that was a definition of her name that was given to her after she became famous in the sagas, or was that the name she was given before any of this ever happened? It is not written anywhere, so there is no way to ascertain that. However, she and Loki did meet, mate, and have three children together. Jörmungandr was condemned by Odin to encircle to world, biting his own tail until the end of times, when he would release it and usher in Ragnarok and the death of Thor by his venom while dying by the blows of Mjöllnir. It was foretold that they would each die by the other's "hand," so to speak, but was that, then, a self-fulfilling prophecy? If no one foretold that Jörmungandr would release his tail and usher in the end of times and then die with Thor, would any of this have happened? I contend that the great serpent was driven to being what it was and doing what it did because of externalities and not by some divine prophecy. One child down, two to go.
Fenrir is the second child we shall talk about. He is the brother of Jörmungandr and Hel. His parents are both giants, but Loki and Angrboða looked at least humanoid, where Fenrir is a great wolf. When he was born it was foretold that he would be there at Ragnarök. Therefore, the Gods took the cub to Asgard to raise him and keep him confined for the safety of the worlds.
However, as he grew it became apparent that he would be too great to control soon and a plan was formed to leash him. Creating a game with the great Fenrir, the Gods gave him tests of strength that he could easily conquer. Finally, at the appointed time, Gleipnir was presented to the wolf. Where the other chains were heavy and bulky, this rope was unnaturally light and airy.
The Gods had sent to the dwarves of Svartalfheim a request for a rope that could not be broken. The dwarves created one with six magic ingredients: the spit of a bird, the breath of a fish, the roots of a mountain, the sound of a cat walking, the beard of a woman, and the sinews of a bear.
When Fenrir saw this rope, he instantly became suspicious and demanded that the Gods guarantee his release if he could not break the chain as they had guaranteed with the others. When they did that, he further demanded that one of the Gods place their hand in the wolf's mouth in the event the Gods lied. Only T?r was brave enough to do as the wolf demanded.
Once the chain was tied around Fenrir's, neck he tried and tried to break it. Realizing it was a trick, he bit the hand of T?r, taking it off at the forearm. Then Fenrir was taken to a lonely mountain and lashed to the greatest rock with a sword in his mouth to keep him from biting anyone else. There the wolf waits for Ragnarök to break his bonds and seek revenge of those that tricked and bound him.
I find this part of the story misguided for two reasons (both are discussed in more detail in my book, Norse Divination). The first part I find wrong with this is that Fenrir is mistreated throughout the entire process. He is a wolf. What did the Gods expect, a puppy? And he is a sentient wolf at that. Of course he will find distrust in the Gods, as well as the dwarves, for they are the ones who tricked him, bound him, and sentenced him to an exile of despair. Can any of us say we would not be bitter and seek revenge if treated in such a way?
The second thing about this story I find distasteful is that many Heathens swear by Tyr as the epitome of honesty and truthfulness, yet he broke his oath to Fenrir and failed to live up to their bargain. As they say, there is a special place in Helheim for oath breakers—even if you are a God.
And now we get to the final child of Loki: Hel. I have always thought that Hel got a bum deal. She performs a task that is both necessary and unflattering. As the Goddess of the Dead she is responsible for all that die, even those that eventually go to Valhalla, and that is a heavy responsibility for any God or Goddess. Unfortunately, little is known about Hel outside of her lineage, her involvement with Baldr, and Ragnarök. All three of these have been given in a dark light to showcase what can only be described as a hatchet job.
Hel is the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboða. She is the sister of the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr. Since Loki and her mother are both giants, Hel is really not a Goddess, although she acquires the title because of her elevation as the Queen of the Dead in Helheim. Her description varies, but it usually is that she is dark on one side and light on the other. She has also been described as a rotting corpse on one side and beautiful woman on the other. This could be metaphor, though, and in reality she could be just as beautiful as any other Goddess in Asgard and her countenance, that is binary, could be her role as keeper of the dead: ugly and vicious at one moment to those who she keeps and kind and loving the next to those she sends to Valhalla.
She is also mentioned in the death of Baldr (which I adress in the Baldr chapter of Norse Divination). The fact that she was willing to send Baldr back to the world of the living shows that she is not the evil malignant creature that she is often portrayed as. There are rules even for the dead, and she kept to her part of the bargain. And it's not her fault that it was her father Loki that sent Baldr to her or kept him there. She does her job, and for that she is maligned.
Much is written about her in modern literature. Heathens are quick to look for any God or Goddess that seems to be attuned to their way of thinking, and with the underworld it is easy to pray to Hel for guidance and support, even though it may never come. Hel does her job with precision and justice and nothing more.
Finally, Hel is responsible for Ragnarök. Well, not really, but she gets the blame anyway. In reality it is a combination of Loki breaking his chains, Fenrir escaping his bindings, and Hel allowing the dead warriors out of Helheim and across Bifr?st to Asgard. However, since the Norns have written her future as well as that of all the other Gods already, and even though she could possibly alter that future if she was so inclined, it is a given that Hel will do what she will do. She is bound to her future as surely as we all are and will do as she is expected.
And once she is through, what happens? Nowhere in the sagas does it say that Hel is killed with the other Gods. Her father dies at the hands of Heimdallur. Fenrir is killed by Viðar after he kills Odin. And Jörmungandr dies by the hammer of Thor. But nothing is said about Hel. I believe she will be there at the new beginning in the hall of Náströnd to usher in the new dead and feed them to the serpent Nidhug. There must be a Queen of the Dead as certainly as there are the dead.
All three of these are the children of Loki and Angrboða.Their father, true, has been and is being punished for his deeds, and that is his fate. However, Angrboða did nothing wrong. She loved a man (albeit a Jotun), had offspring with that individual, and has been maligned for it. I think it's time to give her the credit she deserves. I firmly believe that she loves her children, will relish in their lives, and will mourn their deaths. She is a tragic figure in the sagas and deserves better than she has been given.