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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Horses of Norse Mythology

The best and most famous horse in Norse mythology is, of course, Sleipnir, The son of Loki* by the stallion Svaðilfari. After Loki gave birth to him, he made Sleipnir a gift to Odin. Sleipnir has eight legs, and according to Snorri he's grey in color.
Odin rides to Hel

Snorri also lists the other ten horses belonging to the Twelve** Aesir in the Prose Edda: Glad (Joyous), Gyllir (Golden), Glær (Shining), Skeidbrimir (Swift-Going), Silfrtopp (Silver-topped), Sinir (Sinewy), Gisl (possibly "Gleaming"), Falhofnir (Hollow-Hoofed), Gulltopp (Gold-topped) and Lettfeti (Light-Feet).

There are also Skinfaxi and Hrimfaxi, the horses which bring daylight and night, respectively. Skinfaxi posesses a brightly burning mane*** and Hrimfaxi sprinkles the ground with his spit and foam as he runs through the sky, which explains the source of dewdrops quite neatly.

Then there are Arvak and Alsvinn (not to be confused with Skinfaxi), who draw the chariot of the sun which is driven by Sol. These two also seem to be outfitted with an early air conditioning system -- bellows strapped beneath their shoulders to keep them cool (they are pulling the SUN, after all).

That Thor does not seem to have a horse is pretty telling, and makes sense in context with his position as god of the common man, in contrast with Odin, who is quite clearly a god of Noblemen and kings with his horse which is not only completely unique, but the best of the best. In fact, not only can Sleipnir travel to Hel and back, but Odin wagered his own head on Sleipnir's speed and raced him against the giant Hrungnir's horse, Gullfaxi (Golden-mane). Even when Thor wins Hrungnir's horse later (by dueling with the giant), he ends up giving Gullfaxi away (to his son, Magni), rather than keeping it for himself.

In the Skírnismál, Freyr also has a pretty fancy (but unnamed) horse** which is described in the eighth stanza of the poem:
"Then give me the horse | that goes through the dark
And magic flickering flames;"
And Freyja has a horse named Hofvarpnir****, which she rides on Frigg's business to the other worlds, and is capable of galloping across the sky and the sea.

By no means should this be considered a complete list of horses, but the last one I'm aware of  with any association to the DIVINE is Grani, a descendent of Sleipnir, and Sigurd's horse in the Saga of the Volsungs. Grani, as it happens, is also gray, just like his forefather, and he's described in the saga as "the best horse there ever was." Barring Sleipnir, of course, I'm sure.

*A man and his stallion were contracted to rebuild the wall around Asgard, and if he finished in a certain period of time, he was to be paid with the sun, the moon, and Freyja. When it looked like this guy was going to finish in time, Loki transformed himself into a mare in order to lure the stallion away, so his owner could not complete the wall. The gods only made the deal because Loki convinced them it would be impossible for the man to complete the task. But it turned out (of course) that the man was a giant, so after they cheated him, and he revealed his giant-nature, the gods just went ahead and let Thor kill him. Loki disappeared for a while after that, only to return with Sleipnir trotting at his heels.


**Snorri tells us that Thor himself, walks, but remember that Snorri's Twelve Aesir is actually Fourteen Aesir, so it makes me wonder who else catches a different ride to the root of Yggdrasil where they all meet up -- If Balder is dead, that would mean only one other person is left without transportation, but if he isn't, since Freyr gives up his sword in order to win Gerd as his wife, maybe he gave her his fancy-magic horse, too, while he was at it. In any event, the meanings of the horses' names came from the Grímnismál.


***Skinfaxi translates literally as "Shining-Mane" which I guess makes Hrimfaxi Frost-Mane or Foaming-Mane, which makes a certain amount of sense considering night is generally colder than day.


****Hofvarpnir's parents are Hamskerpir and Gardrofa.

4 comments:

  1. Great post!

    I´d like to elaborate a few things:

    You´re guessing that Hrimfaxi means 'Frosty Mane' and this partly correct. Weither 'faxi' means mane I cannot be certain, but it seems likely. 'Hrim,' however means 'wet' or 'moist' in itself. However, frost is often implicit in the word, because in the original language, Ancient Norse, words are often retracted into one word. For example, when you say 'door knob' in English, it would in Old Norse be 'doorknob.'

    This means that 'Rim' could have 'frosty' as an implicit.

    And about Thor: while it is true that he doesn´t have a horse, he doesn´t move around on foot. He has a chariot pulled by goats. This info is given in the myth of Roeskva and Tjalfe, two human children, who come into Thor´s service, because Tjalfe wouldn´t listen to Thor´s warning NOT to brake a bone when enjoying the meal of his goats. As a result of Tjalfe disobeying, one of the goats becomes limb, after they are re-animated in the morning.

    You seem to have done your homework, though and describe Horses in Norse Mythology quite well.

    The problem is Snorre, who is the source giving most information about Norse Mythology, but unfortunately he has his own agenda and uses these myth´s as a way of getting people to understand, that the old god´s are essentially evil and not to be worshipped. Sometimes he get´s it wrong...

    Regards, Per

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    Replies
    1. Interesting -- what's your source for Hrím meaning wet or moist? I checked Zoega's Old Icelandic dictionary, and the first definition there was frost/rime, but I am always looking for more dictionary type resources for myself!

      I don't agree at all that Snorri is trying to say the old gods are evil and not to be worshipped -- he is writing from a Christian bias, that's true, and also from a conceit of Classicism, but it always seemed to me that his goals were simply preservation by whatever means necessary, because without the myths, skaldic poetry couldn't be preserved either, and in order to save both, he really had to keep the hearts of everything true, or else he'd lose the meanings implied in the poetry he wanted to keep.

      I actually LOVE Thor's goats. They're one of the greatest things about Thor, as reflection of what he stands for as a god. Definitely check out my blogpost "The Goats of Thor" in the sidebar under "Some Favorites." I thought it was kind of strange, also, that it's explicitly stated that Thor walks to Yggdrasil's root when he has his goats, but as it relates to one of his kennings, too, I'm not sure I am in a position to argue with Snorri. Remember though, that Thor doesn't drive his goat cart everywhere. There are plenty of myths and poems where Thor is traveling on foot. Another example is the Lay of Harbarth.

      The story of Thjalfi is one of my favorites, too :) Thjalfi himself is very close to my heart, even if he isn't a god.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    2. Haven´t got much time, so for now I´ll just comment, that in the story of Tjalfe, Thor leaves his goats at Tjalfes fathers farm, so maybe he just lost the goats there and never got new ones???

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    3. I thought of that, too, but it seems odd he'd never go back to collect them since they're so valuable. I wonder if he left them behind when he wanted to travel incognito? With the goat chariot he'd be immediately recognizable. Odin does plenty of this kind of traveling-in-disguise, so it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Thor might have need to do the same.

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