The Fortification of Asgard

“Loki and Svadilfari” by Dorothy Hardy (1909)

Asgard, the celestial stronghold of the Aesir tribe of gods and goddesses, is encircled by a high, protective wall. This wall (the -garðr element in the Old Norse name Ásgarðr) defends the Aesir from incursions by the giants and other beings who are often the enemies of the gods. But this wall wasn’t always there. This tale recounts how the wall was built – and this riotous story is probably one of the raunchiest and most scandalous tales in all of world mythology.

The Fortification of Asgard

A certain smith arrived at Asgard one day and offered to build the gods a high wall around their home to protect them from any who might wish them ill. The smith (certainly a giant himself) said he could complete his work in a mere three seasons, but demanded a steep compensation: the hand of the goddess Freya in marriage, as well as the sun and moon.

The gods took counsel together. Freya was adamantly against the giant’s terms from the start. But Loki suggested that the builder should obtain that which he desired, although only if he could complete his work in a single winter, with no aid from anyone but his horse. After much deliberation, the gods consented to Loki’s plan. Of course, the gods had no intention of actually giving Freya away, nor the sun or the moon; they thought that the task they demanded was impossible.

The giant smith, however, agreed to their terms, provided that the gods swear oaths to ensure that, if their conditions were met, they would fulfill their end of the bargain, and that he himself would be safe in Asgard while he worked.

The builder set about constructing the wall, and the gods marveled at how quickly the structure was raised. What was even more perplexing to them was that the giant’s stallion, Svadilfari (“Unlucky Traveler”[1]) seemed to be doing almost twice as much work as the smith himself, hauling enormous boulders over considerable distances to add to the edifice. When the end of winter was only three days ahead, the wall was strong enough to be impenetrable by almost any enemy, and – alarmingly – lacking little before it was finished. Only the stones around the gate had yet to be put in place.

The anxious gods seized Loki and rebuked him for giving them such foul advice. They threatened him with death if he couldn’t find a way to prevent the giant from finishing his task and making off with their beloved goddess Freya and the sun and moon, bringing neverending darkness and dreariness to the Nine Worlds. Loki pleaded with the gods to spare his life, and swore an oath that he would do as the gods desired, come what may.

That night, the giant and Svadilfari ventured into the snow-draped forest in search of stones. Along their way, a mare, who was none other than Loki in disguise, whinnied to the stallion from a short distance away. When the stallion saw the mare, his heart wasn’t the only organ that was roused by delight and lust, and he snapped his reins and bounded into the woods after her. The mare ran all night, and all night Svadilfari chased after her. When morning came, the giant’s horse was still missing, and the now-despairing giant knew that there was no way that he could now finish the wall in time.

The Aesir then paid the giant the wages they deemed he deserved: a fatal blow from Thor’s hammer, which shattered his head into pieces no bigger than breadcrumbs.

Meanwhile, deep in the forest, Svadilfari had caught up with Loki, who soon gave birth to a gray, eight-legged horse – Sleipnir, who became the steed of Odin.[2][3][4]

Moral Ambiguity in this Tale

As I also discuss in the articles The Binding of Fenrir and Polytheistic Theology and Ethics, the mythology of the Norse and other Germanic peoples evidences a keen appreciation for what today would call moral ambiguity – the recognition that living in accordance with one’s values is far from a black-and-white task. One often faces situations where living in accordance with a particular principle means going against another.

This tale is a perfect example of this. When the gods realized that Loki’s advice had been intended to bring about their ruin, they had a difficult choice to make. In ancient Germanic society, few things were more dishonorable than breaking an oath. The gods could have either keep their oaths and their honor and lost Freya, the sun, and the moon, or they could have saved Freya and the two celestial orbs and broken their oaths. But, one way or another, a win-win situation was impossible.

Their predicament was especially dire because, within the narrative structure of the earliest poems that reference this tale, there’s a clear implication that their oathbreaking hastened the arrival of Ragnarok, the downfall of the cosmos. But, of course, had they kept their oaths and allowed the giant to finish the wall, Ragnarok would have practically already arrived.

Besides, the gods got a nifty wall out of the deal, too, a wall which did indeed serve them well on a number of occasions afterwards.

There’s also the case of Loki. Loki’s dealings with Svadilfari saved the cosmos from immediate annihilation, but, by the standards of the people who told this tale in pre-Christian times, for a man to assume the receptive position in homosexual sex was generally viewed as a highly shameful act.

Loki’s doings possess other layers of ambiguity as well. Loki had shape-shifted into a mare; would the fact that he was effectively temporarily female have alleviated, or at least mitigated, the dishonor of his coitus in the eyes of the Viking Age Norse? Could Loki have fulfilled his oath by merely allowing Svadilfari to chase him, without actually ever presenting himself to the stallion? And, from their union, Odin got a horse that served him and other gods well on numerous shamanic journeys throughout the cosmos.

In our age of rampant fundamentalism of various sorts, isn’t it refreshing to find that other ages held a more balanced and sensitive view of ethical choices?

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.

The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy

References

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 305.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 25-26.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá in skamma, stanza 11.

[4] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.

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