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The Ascension of Sleipnir: The Mythological Origins of Odin's Steed

The Ascension of Sleipnir: The Mythological Origins of Odin's Steed

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Seven-headed monsters, one-eyed giants and blood-born winged horses are all shocking representations of the ways in which the well-known creatures of ancient Greek and Roman mythology transcend the borders of the moral world. However, the myths of Northern Europe had equally stunningly intriguing and extraordinary beings made of the gods, but not themselves gods. A primary example of these creations is the stallion Sleipnir.

The issue of the trickster god and the equine called Svaðilfari, the eight-legged Sleipnir survives Norse mythology as the pride of Odin's steeds. Sleipnir is more than Odin's ride, however. He is, in many ways, considered a form of helping spirit—a shamanic guide. This role can be compared to Odin's companions Hugin and Munin, a pair of ravens with the predictive capabilities.

Loki and Svaðilfari (1909) by Dorothy Hardy

Loki and Svaðilfari (1909) by Dorothy Hardy ( Public Domain )

Sleipnir was conceived when Loki, sometimes considered Odin's enemy and sometimes his "silly" little brother, transformed in a horse and mated with one of the most powerful stallions of a giant. The tale of Sleipnir's birth is among the most extensively surviving written records of the horse. According to Norse mythology, following the war between the two factions of gods—the Æsir and the Vanir—the wall that surrounded the realm of the Æsir was destroyed. Fortification was pertinent to the survival of the gods, otherwise they would have constantly been at risk (and vulnerable to) an attack by their primary enemies: the giants. To rebuild this war around Asgard, the gods hired a stonemason called Blast. However, Blast's payment was the hand of the goddess Freya, a deal the gods were not willing to make. Loki, trickster that he was, saw an alternative route. He convinced the gods to agree to the terms Blast proposed, assuring the gods that the payment would never be made. The gods trusted Loki to protect Freyja, and the deal was struck.

Freyja and Loki flyte in an illustration (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

Freyja and Loki flyte in an illustration (1895) by Lorenz Frølich ( Public Domain )

Blast brought along his power stallion, Svaðilfari, to help him with the heavy lifting. Svaðilfari aided Blast in building the wall far quicker than the gods had imagined, and that is when Loki struck. Transforming himself into a mare, he mated with the horse long into the next morning, preventing Blast from completing the wall before the agreed upon deadline. Having failed in his end of the deal, Blast therefore forfeited Freyja's hand. It was then that Blast revealed himself to be more than a mere stonemason, but a giant himself. He was dispatched of quickly by the hammer of Thor, Mjölnir.

Months later, Loki arrived at Asgard and presented Sleipnir to Odin as a gift. A horse bred from a god and the strongest stallion, Sleipnir was gifted with various abilities—including traveling over land, air and sea. It is because of these gifts that he has also likely been associated with shamanism, as Sleipnir is born with the ability transcend the various realms of the world.

Odin and Sleipnir.

Odin and Sleipnir. ( Public Domain )

Odin himself was believed to be the god of magic and shamanism, having forfeited one of his eyes to gain the gift of foresight, and having allowed himself to be hanged upside down to gain the secrets of the runes. Therefore, a god of his mystical standing would need an equally capable and supernatural ride through the various realms of universe. In that way, Hilda Ellis Davidson—one of the premiere scholars of Northern European mythology—postulated that the numerous legs of Sleipnir was intended to represent the ability to transcend the realm of the worlds. According to the Icelandic sagas, Sleipnir does play an important role in helping carry the dead to the Otherworld. Sleipnir is depicted in various artistic forms with eight-legs. However, it has often been debated whether those legs were intended as a metaphor for shamanic practices or beliefs.

Top image: Odin Riding Sleipnir. ( fenixdefogo.wordpress.com)

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

DuBois, Thomas. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.
Ellis Davidson, H.R. 1993.The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge: London.
Ellis Davidson, H.R. 1988. Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe: early Scandinavia and Celtic religions. Syracuse University Press: New York.
Ellis Davidson, H.R. 1965. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  Penguin: England.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Poetic Edda. trans. Lee M. Hollander. 1986. University of Texas Press: Texas.

Comments

I have seen Sleipner's eight legs compared to the eight legs if the traditional pallbearers, but I don't know if the Norse had that tradition - did four men carry the dead to their resting place? Or is this a kind of Ex Post Facto symbolism, and attribution based on traditions that Sleipner actually predated?

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