Norse mythology offers modern readers a wondrous world of giants, elves, monsters, and a massive ash tree, Yggdrasil, that connects nine encircling universal realms. The Aesir, including Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and Freyr, oversee these worlds alongside a panoply of sentient and powerful animals. Few of these creatures is as well-known as Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin.
The name Sleipnir means something akin to “Fast-Traveler.” His name derives from the Old Norse adjective sleipir, meaning slick or slippery. The Prose Edda, composed by Snorri Sturluson, a thirteenth-century Icelandic poet, historian, and chieftain, documents Sleipnir’s most unconventional origins. According to Snorri, the great horse was sired by a remarkable stallion named Svaðilfari. However, Sleipnir was born of no normal mare. The mare who bore the mystical steed was none other than Loki. That’s right – Loki, the trickster god, adopted son of Odin and brother of Thor. A notorious shapeshifter, Loki perhaps got more than he bargained for in this episode.
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Loki and Svaðilfari
Like many Norse stories, the birth of Sleipnir begins with a feisty giant. In the early days of Asgard, following a war between the gods, a giant offered to build a massive protective wall around Asgard, promising completion within a year. His payment would be Freyja, goddess of love and beauty, as well as the sun and the moon. Convinced the task was impossible in such a timeline, the gods agreed, unaware of the giant horse Svaðilfari, who helped the builder by moving massive stones with lightning speed. Only three days before the wall was completed, cunning Loki shapeshifted, becoming a mare in heat. As the mare, Loki lured Svaðilfari far from the wall, foiling the giant’s bargain. Shortly after a forest consummation with Svaðilfari, Loki gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged colt.
Sleipnir’s eight legs?
Sleipnir is easily identified in Norse art, as on Sweden’s Tjängvide and Ardre VIII picture stones. With eight legs, Sleipnir would be faster than any other horse, suited for the king of the gods himself. Historian Hilda Ellis Davidson has speculated that the stallion’s eight legs could be symbolic of a shaman’s afterlife journey. This wonderous steed’s eight legs equaled the number of legs of a standard set of litter-bearers. Four men carrying a casket – taking a soul to another world – also stand upon eight legs. Odin’s affiliation with the afterlife lends credence to this idea.
The magnificent grey stallion appears in many Old Norse texts including, the Poetic Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and more. In every story, this swiftest of horses was true to his name. As Odin’s favorite means of travel, Sleipnir not only traveled by land but could fly through the air. Horse and master undertook all manner of adventures, such as racing against the giant Hrungnir and his horse Gullfaxi (Gold-mane). Hermod, son of Odin, rode Sleipnir over the bridge Gjallarbru to Hel, seeking, unsuccessfully, to resurrect the beloved god Baldr following his untimely death.
Odin’s Other Animals
Wherever Odin the Allfather went, his animal allies were nearby. Sleipnir, the greatest of all horses, carried Odin throughout the nine realms, including a daily ride across Bifrost, the rainbow bridge connecting the divine realm Asgard with Midgard, the Earth. Other animals attended to and communicated with the High God Odin. He is frequently pictured sitting in splendor in Asgard’s most famous hall, Valhalla. Always near his side are Huginn and Muninn, the ravens also known as “thought” and “memory.” The ravens fly around Midgard and beyond, bringing reports back to Odin’s ears from afar. Two wolves, Gerir and Freki, “the ravenous,” also sit alongside the king of the gods.
Horses of the Gods
Like any great stallion, Sleipnir sired generations of horses, including Grani, the horse of Sigmund of the Volsungs. No other steed rivals Sleipnir, but the Norse gods also had horses of great repute. The Ballad of Grimnir, part of the Poetic Edda, names ten horses of the gods, albeit without any specific owners or riders. Nótt, the goddess of Night, and her son Dagr, or Day, also rode horses around the universe. Night rode Hrímfaxi (Frost Mane), whose spittle fell nightly upon the earth. Day rode Shining Mane, Skinfaxi, whose mane lit up both earth and sky. Never to follow the crowd, the mighty god Thor eschewed horses, choosing instead to walk across Bifrost or, in some stories, to use his magic goats Tanngrisnir (snarler) and Tanngnjóstr (gnasher) to draw his chariot.
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Other Animals in Norse Mythology
Animals were more than livestock and pets in Norse myths. They were sentient beings and forces in the universe. The Norse universe, like most mythological worlds, bristled and bustled with all manner of creatures. The giant world tree Yggdrasil was home to many marvelous animals. At its crown sat a giant eagle with a slightly less giant hawk perched between its eyes. The chittering squirrel Ratatosk scurried the heights of Yggdrasil, carrying words from the eagle to the serpent Nidhogg who lived at the base of the great tree, gnawing at its roots. Along with four great stags, Nidhogg threatened to topple over Yggdrasil. Other monsters, like the giant wolf Fenrir and Jörmungander, the world serpent, threaten the gods and heroes at Ragnarök.
Horses in Icelandic Archaeology
Ownership of horses, the four-legged kind, was essential for any man of worth in Norse society. Throughout the dozens of Icelandic sagas, horses appear as valued labor and property across the North Atlantic world. Horse trappings and remains are found in burials across the Norse world.
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A recent archaeological study reveals that powerful men of Viking-Age Iceland went to the afterlife with sacrificed stallions, as revealed by DNA analysis of horse teeth and bones found in high-status graves. Horse skulls are also found buried within houses, perhaps affiliated with luck or protection. Horse cults may have existed across the medieval Scandinavian world.
Sleipnir in Popular Culture
Archaeologists have yet to find physical evidence for any eight-legged horses, but Sleipnir’s presence is still seen in Iceland today. Legend holds that Sleipnir formed the horseshoe-shaped canyon, Ásbyrgi, in the north of Iceland, by dragging a hoof too close to the earth. Fans of Marvel Comics and the popular video game Gods of War will be familiar with Sleipnir as a powerful companion of Odin.
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H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Penguin Books, 1990).
John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Anne Monikander, “Sleipnir and his Siblings: Some Thoughts on Loki’s Monstrous Offspring,” in Places in Between: The Archaeology of Social, Cultural and Geographical Borders and Borderlands.
Borderlands. Ed. David Mullin (Oxbow Books, 2011), pp 58-66.
Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jesse Byock (Penguin, 2005).