This unusual horse, Sleipnir, is not only the child of Loki and Svaðilfari but also aids Odin on his occasional journey to Hel and back.
These eight legs of Odin are a vital part of Norse mythology, literature, and art and even have a connection to a modern national park in Iceland.
Stop horsin' around
Like so many Indo-European pre-modern cultures, the horse held an important part in Viking culture, mythology, and everyday life.
Descendants of hunter-gatherers domesticated the first horses in what is now Kazakhstan sometime around 3500 BCE.
There, on the vast and seemingly oceanic Eurasian plain, horses became not only a means of transport but a source of food and an essential part of society.
History has seen numerous nomadic or "steppe" empires conquer huge swathes of the Eurasian landmass, from the Scythians during "Classical Antiquity" to the more recent Dzungar Khanate in the mid-18th century CE.
These empires conquered on the back of a saddle and devastated more sedentary civilizations and societies, from the Romans to the early medieval Russian states.
In Scandinavia, horses seemed to have existed since, at least, the last Ice Age. The ancestors of the modern "fjord horse," a relatively small but strong breed of horse that lives in the mountainous regions of western Norway, have been selectively bred for at least the past two millennia.
By the 10th century CE, the iron horseshoe had been introduced to northern Scandinavia, increasing the workload of each horse with fewer horses needed.
Horses became a vital part of any Viking farm, valuable for their workload, speed, grace, and companionship.
Like all pre-modern cultures, people in Viking societies relied heavily on horses as a means of transport and labor. Horses could be used to till the fields that most "Vikings" actually lived on.
Furthermore, the consumption of horse meat was not uncommon, and many isolated and rural communities would perish without using horses.
In fact, they played such an important part in Viking culture that they soon entered the Norse pantheon of gods.
In the sagas, Sleipnir is described as the best horse among gods and men. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Sleipnir in the sagas
Our first mention of Sleipnir comes from the Prose Edda, compiled by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century CE. Chapter 42 deals with the birth story and origins of Sleipnir.
King Gylfi asks the Three Wise Men (High, Just as High, and Third) who this magnificent horse is and where it came from. High regales King Gylfi with a long story that dates back to the very creation of Midgard and Valhalla.
The construction of these settlements was down to an unnamed builder who was offered the job of building fortifications to keep out invaders in return for the goddess Freyja, the Sun and the Moon. The builder agrees, but the Gods place a condition that he cannot receive the help of any man. In return, the builder asks to bring a horse, Svaðilfari.
Work on these fortifications progresses at such a rapid pace that the Gods think some sort of trickery is afoot and, as always, suspect and blame Loki. Eventually, the Gods realize that this builder is a jötunn and summon Thor – who smashes the builder's skill with his trusty hammer, Mjöllnir.
Sometime later, it emerges that Loki had "dealings" with Svaðilfari and gave birth to an eight-legged horse, who is described as "the best horse among gods and men." Like one of his fathers, Svaðilfari, Sleipnir is of incredible power and strength.
Sleipnir is also mentioned in Poetic Edda several times, yet the mention in Baldrs draumar is of the most importance. There, the Gods discuss the meaning of a nightmare that Baldr had.
Odin then decides to place a saddle on Sleipnir and ride off to Hel, the Norse mythological afterlife world, to try and find out the meaning. This image of Odin riding Sleipnir is also mentioned in the Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.
Finally, the hero of the Völsunga saga, Sigurd, meets Odin, in one of his many disguises as an old man with one eye, who gifts him a horse related to Sleipnir.
Archaeological evidence and theories
There have only been a small amount of archaeological evidence found that depicts Sleipnir, regardless of the fact that, as the steed of Odin, he plays such an important part in Norse mythology.
Two picture stones found on the Swedish island of Götland, dating to the 8th century CE, depict eight-legged horses. However, on one of the stones, a figure appears to be holding a spear above its head, which may represent a Valkyrie, further highlighting Sleipnir's role as a means of transport between the Gods and Hel.
Sleipnir, some scholars have argued, plays a somewhat similar role as Charon in Greek mythology – ferrying between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Furthermore, the favoritism of the Norse gods allows Sleipnir to seamlessly travel between the different realms of Norse mythology.
Finally, the horseshoe-shaped canyon in Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in Iceland is said to have been shaped by Sleipnir's hoof.
For all the Viking lovers out there, this is just another excuse to visit Iceland, and surely there is no better place in the world to feel in touch with "the best horse amongst men and gods."
For more on Sleipnir's modern-day Icelandic ancestors, CNN has compiled a history of the Icelandic horse available here.
Science Daily has published a research paper on the role that Vikings played in the distribution of "gaited" horses worldwide, available to read here.
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