Sleipnir is the son of Loki and the jötunn stallion Svaðilfari. Although he is the son of a god, Sleipnir is not counted among the Æsir in the lists and stories of the gods (like his half-sister Hel) and instead is described as the steed of Óðin. He is attested to in the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Gesta Danorum, the Völsunga saga, and in poetry, art, folklore, and place names.
As the “best of horses,” Sleipnir is grey in colour, has eight legs, and can not only ride to Hel and back, but might also fly through the sky and traverse water as though it were land. This would be shocking to us, but apparently it wasn’t that uncommon – another horse, Gullfaxi, was portrayed with the same qualities, plus a golden colour. However, it’s assumed he only had four legs, which apparently cost him the number one spot in the lore for godly steeds.
The most popular story of Sleipnir is probably the account of his unusual birth. The Æsir had commissioned a strange man and his horse to build the famous wall of Ásgard, in exchange for the Sun and Moon, and Freya’s hand in marriage. Loki figured prominently in the deal, so as the deadline for the wall’s completion neared, it was no surprise that the wall was on schedule, the stranger was a giant in disguise, and the gods would soon have to pay up.
Loki was tasked with fixing the impending mess. He transformed himself into a beautiful mare and trotted about, distracting the jötunn’s stallion Svaðilfari until the two horses stole off into the nearby woods. The deadline for the wall came and went, and the giant was cheated of his prizes and run out of the realm. Some time later, Loki re-appeared amongst the gods with an eight-legged foal.
Sleipnir also figures prominently in the story of Baldr’s death. The gods send Óðin’s son Hermóðr to Hel to plead for Baldr’s return to the world of the living. It is upon Sleipnir that he rides safely to Hel and back.
Thoughts on Sleipnir
Sleipnir is commonly associated with the work of shamans, who often ride or work with spirit animals. The fact that whoever rides Sleipnir can access the land of the dead, as well as the other realms, lends itself to this interpretation of the famous horse. As a sort of physical manifestation of the trance state that shamans use to access Divine realms, Sleipnir is beholden to the wisest of the Æsir, who seeks out knowledge in multiple worlds and realms of existence. Óðin is consulted on all important matters, and is generally the focus of tribal decision-making and metering out the law – a position that will seem more than familiar to anyone who has studied the various roles of shamans in other cultures.
There are also Celtic parallels to the story of Sleipnir, involving a set of Divine horse twins. Knowing the Norse affinity for Divine twins (Freyr / Freya, Ullr / Ullinn, Fjörgyn / Fjörgynn, Óðin / Frigga, Njörðr / Nerthus, etc.) this is an interesting theory. It might be that Sleipnir was once two horses, and his eight legs were part of the compromise of assimilating him as a single being into the lore.
In more recent times, Sleipnir may be one of the inspirations for Santa Clause’s (Óðin’s) eight reindeer who famously fly through the sky.
Signs and Symbols
Eight-legged horses and grey stallions. The rune Eh.