Sleipnir – Norse God Odin’s Eight-Legged Horse

Sleipnir

Most known for being Odin’s powerful stallion, Sleipnir in Norse mythology is the offspring of the Norse trickster god Loki. The eight-legged horse, who is one of Odin’s most trusted companions, accompanying him on so many adventures, symbolizes not just loyalty, but it also represents strength, royalty, speed, and exploration. In all the nine realms, no other horse comes close to power and speed of Sleipnir, making the stallion the most popular horse in Norse mythology.

Quick facts about Sleipnir

  • Lord of – all horses
  • Rider – Odin
  • Father – Svadilfari
  • Mother – Loki (in the form of a mare)
  • Half-siblings – Hel, Queen of the Dead, and Jörmungandr the World Serpent
  • Epithets – “Lord of all horse”, “best of all horses”, “the sliding one”

The Birth of Sleipnir

The story of Sleipnir’s birth is up there as one of the most well-known myths in Norse mythology. The story can be found in Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda. It begins when the Aesir gods employ the services of a renowned builder to construct strong fortifications around Asgard. In exchange for his services, the master-builder demands that the Norse fertility goddess Freyja be given to him as wife. The builder also requests for the moon and the sun.

However, before the two sides shake hands on it, the gods insert a clause into the contract. They forbid the builder from soliciting the help of anyone or creature. The builder is required to build the wall around Asgard all by himself. The gods also insist that the builder completes the wall in three seasons. The gods hoped that builder would fail at the task and therefore they would not have to give Freyja away nor the moon and the sun.

Before the builder set about performing his task, he besieged the gods to let him use his stallion named Svaðilfari. Sensing that the builder was on the verge completing the task right on time, the gods called on the trickster god Loki to step in and stall the progress of the builder. Loki, being a gifted shape-shifter who could change his form at will, turned himself into a very attractive mare. In that form, Loki was able to lure the builder’s horse away from the construction of the wall. Ultimately, the builder failed to complete the task on time, thereby losing out on the rewards from the gods. The builder is ultimately killed by Thor once the gods realize that the builder was a jötunn.

With respect to the builder’s horse Svaðilfari, the story goes on to say that the horse mated with the transformed Loki. The product of that deceptive union was an eight-legged horse known as Sleipnir. Loki ended up giving birth to Sleipnir, which he later presented to his brother/friend Odin. What this means is that Loki Is Sleipnir’s “mother”.

Why does Sleipnir have eight legs?

Sleipnir – the Allfather Odin’s magical horse-companion with eight legs and an incredible speed and ability to fly. Image: An illustration of Odin riding Sleipnir from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

The simple answer to this question is that Sleipnir was born two magical beings – Loki and Svadilfari. The latter was indeed a supernatural creature by virtue of the fact that he was the horse of the jötunn who built the walls of Asgard.

His eight legs are also symbolic of the fact that he had the strength and speed of two horses.

Odin’s trusted and reliable riding companion

Sleipnir played an important role in many sagas and travels embarked upon by the Chief of the Aesir gods Odin. His most noticeable trait is his loyalty to Odin. Sleipnir has carried Odin to and fro Hel (the Underworld in Norse mythology) on countless times. The stallion has also rode with his master to battles, charging straight at the enemies of the gods, while at the same time keeping Odin from harm’s way in the heat of battle.

Sleipnir vs. Gullfaxi

Sleipnir (right) versus Gullfaxi

In one of his journeys through the realm of the giants (i.e. Jotunheim), Odin meets a giant called Hrungnir. In the course of the conversation, the Allfather makes a boastful statement that Sleipnir is the greatest horse in all the Nine Realms. At that point Hrungnir begs to differ, stating that his horse Gullfaxi (“golden mane”) has greater speed and power than Sleipnir. Therefore, the two beings enter their horses into a race. The two then mount their respective horses and begin to gallop as fast as possible to Asgard. The race was a close one, with Odin wining by a hairsbreadth.

After losing the race, Hrungnir is given the best of hospitality in Asgard; however, the giant gets extremely drunk and begins to hurl abuses and threats at the Aesir gods. To silence the giant, the gods ask Thor to intervene. The god Thor defeats Hrungnir by smashing the giant’s skull. With Hrungnir dead, Gullfaxi is presented Magni, one of Thor’s sons.

Sleipnir is one of Odin’s many spiritual companions

To Icelandic or Scandinavian cultures, horses were companions of the gods. It was believed that horses acted as bridge between the underworld and the land of the living.

According to the myths, Odin and Sleipnir have an immensely strong bond. It is often said that Sleipnir is actually the embodiment of one of Odin’s Fylgja spirits. In Norse mythology, fylgja refers to a mythical animal who accompanies a god or another mythical creature. In Odin’s case, Sleipnir is one his many fylgja spirits. It is also likely that Odin’s two black ravens – Hugin and Munin – make up Odin’s fylgia spirits that are extension of Odin’s vast wisdom. Upon receiving Sleipnir from Loki, Odin and Sleipnir became inseparable spiritually. The myths consider Sleipnir to be an extension of Odin’s will, power, godliness, and might.

Sleipnir during Ragnarök (Twilight of the Gods)

In the last battle of of the gods, Odin is fated to wrestle with the great wolf Fenrir. | Image: Odin and Fenris (1909) by Dorothy Hardy

Ragnarök refers to the final battle between the gods and the forces evil and chaos. Odin’s Aesir gods are fated to battle against evil forces led by Loki, which includes Hel, the ferocious wolf Fenrir, and Jörmungandr.

According to the myths surrounding Ragnarok (i.e. the demise of the gods), Odin is slated to charge into the last battle that precedes the end of the Norse gods. Odin, riding Sleipnir, will then lock horns with the ferocious wolf Fenrir, who is one of Loki’s children. Odin is fated to be killed by Fenrir, who is in turn killed by Odin’s son Vidarr. After the death of Odin, his great horse will carry his body to the afterlife.

Characteristics and abilities of Sleipnir

“Odin Rides to Hel” (1908) by English author and artist W. G. Collingwood.

As stated in the introduction, Sleipnir possesses eight very powerful legs that give him the ability to ride at an incredible speed. Sleipnir also has the ability to glide seamlessly across all the Nine Realms in Norse mythology, including the Underworld (i.e. Hel).

As a result of these features of Sleipnir, the stallion holds the undisputed title of chief of all horses in Norse mythology. His extra pair of four legs have sometimes been interpreted to mean that he has the speed, power and grace of two very powerful horses.

Hermóðr rides Sleipnir to Hel

Sleipnir

Hermóðr rides to Hel on Sleipnir. He meets Hel and Baldr. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript NKS 1867 4to.

Odin is not the only who has ridden Sleipnir. In one of the myths, Hermóðr, one of Odin’s sons, rides Sleipnir to Hel. Hermóðr, a brother of Baldr, is seen in Norse mythology as the messenger of the gods. According to the story, which is contained in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, Hermóðr volunteers to make a journey to the Underworld to bargain with Hel, Queen of the Underworld, to secure the release of Baldr. Known as the “Shining One”, Baldr had been killed through the machinations of the trickster god Loki.

Hermóðr is said to have rode Sleipnir for nine nights before arriving at the gates of Hel. Once in Hel, Hermóðr pleaded with Hel to set his brother Baldr free. He told Hel about how the death of Baldr had plunged the whole of Asgard into a state of grief. Hel then promised to release Badr to the land of the living provided every item – both living and dead – mourned the passing of Baldr.

Meaning of Sleipnir’s name

The eight-legged stallion’s name evokes the meaning of “slippery” or “the sliding one”. It is not much in the sense of him having a poor balance or weak legs; rather the meaning reinforces his reputation as a very fast horse that often leaves all other horses in the dust.

Read More: Top 10 Norse Gods and Goddesses

Did you know?

Odin is Sleipnir’s uncle by virtue of the fact that Odin and Loki are brothers.

Sleipnir is one of the most well-known symbol of Odin as a god, as well as a symbol of shamanism, sorcery and magic. This runs in parallel with Odin’s role as the god sorcery and shamanism.

In Scandinavian culture, it was not uncommon for boats and ships to be given the name Sleipnir.

There is a glacial canyon in Iceland called Ásbyrgi , also known as Sleipnir’s Footprint. The glacier derived that name because it is almost shaped like a horseshoe. It is believed that Odin was flying Sleipnir in the sky when one of the horseshoes accidentally made contact with the ground thereby creating the canyon.

Many Scandinavian tribes believed that horses had supernatural abilities that allow them to interact with the gods or other supernatural beings. It was even believed that horses had a stronger bond to the gods than the bond seeress (völva) had with the gods.

In some Norse accounts, it’s said that the Norse hero Sigurd’s horse, Grani, descended from Sleipnir. Grani, like Sleipnir, also had incredible speed and power.

Ásbyrgi

Ásbyrgi is a glacial cannon located in the north of Iceland. It measures about 3.5 km in length and over 1 km wide. | The horseshoe-shaped canyon Ásbyrgi in Iceland

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