Farbauti & Laufey from Norse Mythology

Who is Farbauti and Laufey (or Nal)

Farbauti and Laufey are recorded in Norse mythological poems as being the father and mother of Loki, the Norse god of fire and bringer of mischief.

Not much is known about them, and their names are mentioned only a handful of times throughout the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, the two main sources of Norse myths and religious texts.

While the texts do not describe Loki’s parents in great detail, it is possible to create a more complete picture of these two beings by cross-referencing with other Norse mythological creatures of their kind.

Farbauti, father of Loki

Farbauti, giant of destructive thunder and lightning

In Norse mythology, natural agents such as fire, water, wind, cold, heat, and thunder have a double aspect.

When they work in harmony, each within the limits which are fixed by the cosmic order of the world and the happiness of man, then they are sacred forces and are represented by the gods.  But when these limits are transgressed, giants are at work, and the turbulent elements are represented by beings of giant-race.

This is also true of thunder, although it is the common view among mythologists that it was regarded exclusively as a product of Thor’s activity.

The genuine mythical conception was, however, that the thunder which purifies the atmosphere and fertilises the thirsty earth with showers of rain, or strikes down the foes of Midgard (the realm of humans), came from Thor; while the lightning that splinters the sacred trees, sets fire to the woods and houses, and kills men that have not offended the gods, came from giants, the foes of the world.

The blaze-element was not only in the possession of the gods, but also in that of the giants, and the lightning did not proceed alone from Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, but was also found among certain giants as well.

Loki and his brothers Helblindi and Byl-eistr are the children of a giant of this kind, of a giant representing the hurricane and thunder.

The rain-torrents and waterspouts of the huricane, which directly or indirectly became wedded to the sea through the swollen streams, gave birth to Helblinde.

The whirlwind in the hurricane received as his ward Byleistr, whose name is composed of bylr, “whirlwind” and eistr meaning, “the one dwelling in the east “, a paraphrase for “giant”.

Finally, a thunderbolt from the hurricane gave birth to Loki.

His father is called Fárbauti, meaning  “the one inflicting harm” or “the one who strikes”  and his mother is Laufey or “leaf isle“, which is a paraphrase for the leafy crown of a tree.

Thus, Loki can be seen as the son of the burning and destructive lightning, the son of an element of nature who particularly inflicts damaging blows on the sacred oaks and sets fire to the groves.

When viewed from this perspective, Loki’s nature as the Norse fire god gains more clarity, since his birth came out of a real phenomon of lighting striking the crown of a tree, setting it, and maybe the forest as well, on fire.

In the wood filled realm of Scandinavia where the Norse dwelled, this must have been a common occurence. It is perhaps for this reason that Loki was ultimately seen as a destructive force that would consume the world with fire at Ragnarok, just as a fire caused by lightning can consume a forest.

But the violence of the father does not appear externally in the son’s character. He long prepares the conflagration of the world in secret, and not until he is put in chains does he exhibit, by the earthquakes he produces, the wild passion of his giant nature.

Farbauti as a boatman of the dead

A different interpretation of the name Farbauti gives it the meaning of “boatman”, and through different sources, gives rise to the possibility that Loki’s father might have been a giant whose duty it was to ferry the dead over the waters of the lower world, similar to Charon in Greek mythology.

Giants in Norse religion & their role

The giants were from the very beginning the opponents and rivals of the gods, and as the latter were the personifications of all that is good and lovely, the former naturally served to denote all that was ugly and evil.

In some versions, Fornjöt, “the old giant”, was progenitor of the giants, the first dwellers in Norway. He was father of Kari, the wind ; of Hler, Ægir, or Hymir, the sea. Kari had a son lökul, “Icicle”, whose son was Snær, “Snow”.

Snær had four children: Snow-heap, Snow-drift, Black Frost, and Fine Snow.

Adjectives applied to giants indicate aspects of their character: haughty,  insolent, dangerous,  joyous, morose, fierce, hard, energetic, warlike.

The wilder traits of giants suggest a savage race, but the theory does not explain the universal belief in giants nor the great stature ascribed to them. They are also regarded as an older group of gods dispossessed by newer deities and therefore hostile to them.

In later tradition they are stupid, but in Norse mythological poems they have a wisdom of their own, due to their great antiquity and early origin. Hence they are wise, sagacious, full of wisdom, as Vafthrudnir was. Suttung owned the poetic mead, and runes were given to giants by the giant Alsvith, “All-wise”.

Giants were often violent, especially when thwarted, and their rage was called jötunmodr, “giant frenzy”. Stories tell of how a giant fell into such a trenzy, biting his shield, gulping down fiery coals, and rushing through fires.

The giants may be looked upon as mainly personifications of the wilder elements and phenomena of nature, as these might be supposed to be arrayed against men and gods whose rule and attributes were those of order and growth.

Probably no one theory accounts for the archaic belief in giants, but, if this one does not fit all the facts, it has the merit of htting many of them.

Laufey (or Nal), mother of Loki

About Laufey, or (Nal) we know even less than of Farbauti, and it is uncertain whether or not she was even a giant at all.

As mentioned previously, the name Laufey is sometimes translated as “leaf isle” and was used by the Norse to refer to a tree’s crown.

Curiously, Loki is never called Farbautasonr, meaning “Farbauta’s son”. In Norse culture, it was customary to name a child after the father.

Instead, Loki carries the name Loki Laufeyjarsonr, meaning “Loki, son of Laufey”.

This name had its origin in alliteration, but held its ground even in prose and in other folk songs such as ‘Locke Löje’, ‘Loke Lovmand’, ‘Loke Lejemand’ and other later folk-songs.

The name Laufey is first of all the name of a place, which was personified, and without a doubt references an element of nature. As mentioned previously, Loki is a creation of the storm which, in lightning, brings down fire upon the woods.

Similarly, Loki’s birth could be referring to the primitive production of fire by friction, by means of a fire-drill.

In this case, Farbauti (“the one who strikes”) is the piece of stick, the drill, which by rubbing on a soft piece of wood, Laufey produces fire.
This interpretation is problematical however, and by no means definitive.

Laufey, giant or wood-wife?

Very little is known about what kind of mythological being Laufey was. The only thing we know for sure is that she was associated in some ways with woods, forests and trees since the root of her name, lauf means “folliage” or “leaves”.

In Norse mythology, there were multiple woodland mythological creatures that had supernatural powers.

Laufey as a schrat, wood-sprite or forest giant

Old Norse had multiple words for “giant”, one of which was ‘skratti’. In the wider Germanic world, ‘schrat’ is a derivation of this word, and describes a stately, large figure that primary resides in the woods. Nowadays, a modern, umbrella term that contains the concept of “schrat” would be wood-sprites.

These wood-sprites must have been, as late as the 6-7th century, objects of a a special worship, since there were trees and temples dedicated to them. And since these wood-sprites were of heathen origins, the Christians missionaries called these worship trees “arbores daemoni dedicatae” or “trees dedicated to demons”.

So, was Laufey a schrat wood-sprite? While this isn’t likely, it also can’t be ruled out. Norse mythology itself describes another category of beings called íviðja, but the term is so obscure it isn’t properly defined anywhere.

Through contextual interpretation, íviðja could be interpreted to mean wild wood-wives, giantess, forest fairy spirits or, a more literal translation, “one in the woods”.

Laufey as a wood wife

Wood wives were beautiful beings that would reside in the depths of the forest, high atop trees, on lakes and near streams.

Like the Norns and the Valkyries, these Wood-wives possed great wisdom and were often invited into the homes of people living in or near the forest.

Their presence was considered a good omen, unlike Fylgja spirits, and just as Valkyries were masters of the sky, these Wood-wives were masters of the forest.

Dressed in all-white, they were different from dryads since their life was not bound to a particular tree, but rather to the forest as a whole.
The Greek equivalent of Wood-wives are the nymphs, and the two have much in common.

At some point, the lines that separate one mythological being from another become blurred, and so it is impossible to tell what kind of being Laufey was, although the evidence points to her being a forest creature of some kind.


Resources:

  • The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
  • The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
  • Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
  • Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
  • Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
  • Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm
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