In most Norse legends, Loki was often the culprit behind the dangerous or embarrassing situations that plagued the gods. He, however, usually set things right with the gods and fixed the problems he created (with the exception of the myth where he caused the death of the god, Baldr). This is one such myth—Loki nearly ushered the world to destruction, but eventually saved the day, ending with Loki giving Odin a great gift, the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.
The Preposterous Offer
When Asgard, Valhalla and Midgard were just freshly formed, a builder from the land of giants approached the Norse gods with an ambitious contract. He proposed that he could build for the Æsir (Norse gods) a magnificent fortress the likes of which had never be seen. It would be unassailable by giants, trolls, man and monsters, and better yet, the builder promised the structure could be completed within three seasons. The builder, however, did not work for free, and such a wonderful fortress, built at such an alarming speed, would not come cheap. For his price, the builder did not want money or land. No, his demands were for the goddess Freyja’s hand in marriage, with the Sun and Moon (living entities in Norse mythology) as a side payment.
The Æsir gathered in a council and weighed their options. For some reason, the Norse gods let Loki join in the conversation, which inevitably caused trouble. The Æsir emerged from their meeting and laid out their counter-offer for the builder. They agreed to honor the builder’s terms if he could complete his unprecedented fortress in one season, which happened to be winter. For the construction of the fortress, the builder could not receive any help from anyone, be they human, giant, monster or god. Loki, however, added one clause to the agreement: the builder’s stallion, Svadilfari, could be used as a beast of burden. If the builder, using only his own hands and the aid of his horse, could complete the fortress within one season, the Norse gods promised that he would indeed be given the Sun, Moon and the goddess, Freyja, as his prize.
With the terms set, the builder quickly got into his rhythm. During the night, he would lead out his stallion, Svadilfari, to haul in stone to the construction site. When sunlight began to pierce the darkness of night, the builder would set to work building the fortress. Though the builder’s work ethic was impeccable, the Æsir hardly believed that a single worker and his horse could construct an unassailable fortress in a mere season. Nevertheless, to the astonishment of the gods, the builder began to construct the fortress at an incredibly steady and efficient pace.
Realization and Regret
As a giant, the builder was immensely strong in his own right. He had no problem cutting, lifting and setting the blocks of stone that steadily brought the fortress into reality. To the horror of the Æsir, however, the stallion, Svadilfari, was at least twice as strong as his giant master, allowing him to haul in unbelievable amounts of stone each night. During the day, the builder did not need to leave the construction site, for he had all the materials he needed piled next to the growing fortress.
With incredible stamina, the builder and his horse continued to drag in stone during the night and then place the blocks of stone into the fortification during the day, for the rest of the season. With only three days of winter left, the fortress was as mighty and impregnable as the builder had promised, with only the entryway left unfinished. At his staggering pace, the builder would definitely complete magnificent citadel before the three days were complete.
Panicked by the nearing success of the builder, the Norse gods called an emergency meeting. They could not allow Freyja, the Sun and the Moon to fall into the hands of the giants. They thought back to the contract that they had made with the builder, and looked for loopholes and ways to void the agreement. As they scanned their thoughts, the gods remembered who among them had suggested that the builder could use the stallion, Svadilfari, as a beast of burden—it was, of course, Loki, the ever-troublesome pest to the gods. At this recollection, all the Æsir turned to Loki and demanded that he fix the mess he had caused. Under threat of a lengthy and painful death if he did not set things right, Loki set off to make sure the builder could not claim his prize.
Loki determined that the lynchpin that held together the builder’s construction process was the powerful stallion, Svadilfari. Therefore, the trickster of the Norse gods decided to focus his plans on the horse. He needed to end the immense supply of stone that Svadilfari brought to the fortress every night. Without the stone, the builder would not be able to complete the entrance to the citadel before winter came to close.
The best tool at Loki’s disposal was his mastery of shape shifting, a skill he used to great effect in all of his myths. When night fell, and the builder led his stallion out to gather stone, Loki transformed himself into a beautiful mare. The Loki-mare trotted up to, Svadilfari, and pranced and paraded itself for the horse to see, thoroughly distracting the powerful stallion from its work. In a lustful frenzy, the stallion broke free of the builder’s harness and chased after its desire, but the Loki-mare fled to the forest. There, Loki kept the stallion preoccupied for the entire night.
When the builder saw morning arise before any stone was gathered, he knew he would not be able to complete his fortress before the winter’s end. With his prize of Freyja, the Sun and the Moon so close, but rendered unobtainable, the builder became enraged. The Norse gods quickly claimed that the giant going berserk on their very doorstep qualified as a breach of contract, and felt justified in sending Thor to quiet the livid builder. Thor, much more fond of violence than diplomacy, simply brandished his hammer, Mjollnir, and smashed the builder’s head with a single blow. So ended the builder who almost won Freyja, the Sun and the Moon from the Æsir.
The story, however, does not end there. Loki’s shape shifting abilities proved to be very precise, thorough and accurate. He also, it seems, did much more than innocently lead the stallion around the forest during the time he was transformed into a mare. According to the myth, after Loki’s encounter with the stallion, Svadilfari, in the forest, he became pregnant with not a child, but with a colt. As the tale goes, Loki gave birth to a grey, eight-legged horse. Its name was Sleipnir—Odin’s personal horse, and the greatest mount in the stables of the Norse gods.
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.