Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Unlike the gods which rule over the more familiar civilisations of Greece and Rome, the gods of the Norselands, whilst mighty cosmic beings, are not all powerful. In their natural form they are born, grow old and die, and can be killed in war as readily as mortal men. Divine strength alone is never enough to assure them of their supremacy, as wits and cunning count for much in Norse Mythology, far more than brute force ever could. Second to none in cunning was the god Loki (whose exploits can be found in this site, click here for one). Though cruel and ambitious at heart, Loki just sometimes could be the saviour of those he is destined to destroy. This is one such story.

The Ride of the Valkyries
Drawing by John Charles Dollman.
Early in the days of the Nine Worlds, the Aesir, or war gods, established the world of Midgard as the realm of Men, and the golden land of Asgard as their own domain. At the centre of Asgard lay the towering walls of Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain. It was here that Odin, King of the gods, made his great throne, and watched over the cosmos, as his two loyal Ravens, Huginn and Muninn, whispered the tidings of the Nine Worlds to him. Valhalla itself was a mighty structure, with spear shafts as rafters, a roof thatched with shields, five hundred and forty doors; each one wide enough for eight hundred armed warriors to pass through abreast at any one time. This was entirely practical, for the Hall of Valhalla was filled with mighty heroes. Odin, aware that the stability of the cosmos depended on a delicate balance between all the races that inhabited it, knew that in the end it must come to one final, apocalyptic war - Ragnarök. In ever vigilance for when that day might come, the greatest heroes amongst the world of men, when they fell in battle, were borne to Valhalla by the faithful handmaidens of Odin - the Valkyries. Every day in Valhalla, these heroes, known as the Einherjar, marched forth to fight and hone their skills in war, and every night they would return to feast, consuming huge quantities of eternally replenishing pork and wine. But strong arms and valour alone would not prevail.

Painting by J Doyle Penrose.
One day, a strange sight greeted the Aesir as they awoke in Asgard. A humble man appeared, leading a weary looking packhorse towards them. The man came before the bewildered gods with a startling proposal. Bowing before the Aesir, the man offered to build them a mighty stronghold, so powerful and great that it would never yield before any foe, not even the cruel Jötunn could breach it. Furthermore, the man claimed to be able to do so in just three seasons. But the man asked in return a great price. As wages for this great work, the man demanded the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage, as well as the Sun and the Moon for his own. Freyja, not one of the Aesir, but of the Vanir, or fertility gods, was renowned throughout the Nine Worlds for her beauty, and coveted by many a god, let alone a man. As for the Sun and Moon, their journey around the Earth kept the life force of the Worlds flowing, and the consequence of their loss was unthinkable. The Aesir held council. In their pride, the gods could not believe that this man could do all he claimed in just three seasons. But to be safe, the Aesir returned to the man and promised him all he had asked - if he completed the work in one winter, without the help of any man. If by the first day of summer any part of the citadel was incomplete, he would forfeit his wager. The man humbly accepted the terms, asking only that he be permitted the help of the loyal stallion, who he called Svaðilfari, at his side. But before the Aesir could deliberate on this, Loki spoke out, decreeing that this seemed fair and reasonable. Since the gods were confident of victory, all agreed, and the bet was on.

On the first day of Winter the man set to work straight away on the citadel, his stallion eagerly following the bidding of its master. Soon however, it had not escaped the notice of the Aesir, "what great rocks that horse drew". This was clearly no ordinary horse, as it dragged the mightiest boulders in its wake with ease. So magnificent was the horse, the fortress began to take shape with alarming speed. The Aesir began to become unsettled, particularly as the greatest warrior among them, Thor, was away in the East at war with the Trolls. Yet they waited, still even now disbelieving that the work could be done in one Winter, especially since the man had originally said three seasons.

Loki and Svaðilfari
Drawing by Dorothy Hardy.
Time passed, the nights grew long and the days cold. As the snow began to fall in Asgard, the man and his horse toiled away endlessly, working through the frozen eves. The towering ramparts grew higher and higher, with no sign of weariness from man or horse. On the third day before the dawning of Summer, the man was nearing the gates of the citadel, and the structure was so high and robust that it was already invulnerable to attack. The gods sat in council, and there was much consternation. Now seriously troubled that they would lose their wager, the gods looked for the one responsible for their current plight. All eyes fell on Loki, the one who had allowed the man to take the mighty horse as an assistant. The Aesir decreed that Loki would deserve a horrible death, if he could not now find a way out of their darkest hour. Threatening the deceitful god with violence, the Aesir charged Loki with stopping the completion of the citadel at all costs. That same evening, the man and his Svaðilfari emerged once more, bearing stone for the keep. As they neared the fortifications however, a mare suddenly emerged from the forests, neighing at Svaðilfari. The stallion, going beserk, thrashed around wildly until its restraints were shattered and bounded off after the mare into the forests. The horses chased each other all night, and the man chased Svaðilfari all night too.

Odin and Sleipnir
Painting by Arthur Rackham.
When day broke, the man had still not found Svaðilfari, and realised that he could not complete the work without him. Frustrated, the man fell into a fury, tearing away his disguise and revealing himself to be a giant, a Jötunn. Seeing the deception and trickery, for the evil Jötunn were not permitted in the sacred grounds of Asgard, the Aesir roared in fury. Hearing the shouts of his kin, the Thunder god himself returned to Asgard, and Thor stepped into the field. Raising Mjöllnir high over his head, the Thunderer slammed the mighty hammer with all his might into the giant's head, shattering his skull and sending shards flying through the Nine Worlds. The Giant who tried to deceive the gods was now sent flying to Niflheim, the land of the dead. Emerging from the woods came Loki, but he was not alone. A majestic horse accompanied him, the finest charger ever to walk the cosmos, with eight thundering hooves. For the mare who had seduced Svaðilfari had truly been Loki in disguise, and their union had produced the Lord of Horses - Sleipnir. The Aesir showered their gratitude upon Loki for sparing them the humiliation, and in return, Loki gifted Sleipnir to Odin. This was a mighty gift. Swifter and more powerful than any horse from the earthly plain, Sleipnir could bear Odin with the swiftness of the winds across the Cosmos upon its eight poweful legs. All was well, for now...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced 'episodic' version well suited to casual reading)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced 'episodic' version well suited to casual reading) 

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