After building Midgard, the realm of men, the gods decided to create a magnificent city for themselves: “Asgard,” the Place of the Gods. They chose a spectacular mountain with a beautiful meadow at its peak, and they planned to surround their new home with the highest and strongest fortification ever built.
They envisioned a grand city that their Giant enemies could never overthrow. But little did they know, an enemy had already slipped into their midst.
Odin Recruits a Stranger
The gods excitedly began building their halls and palaces atop the mountain. But to their surprise, a mysterious being came to visit. Odin, the Father of the Gods, approached him.
“What business brings you to the Mountain of the Gods?” he asked the Stranger.
“I know what the Gods are planning,” the Stranger replied. “You’re building a city here. I can’t build a palace, but I can build tremendous walls that will never topple. Let me build the wall around your city.”
Odin eyed him, considering. “How long would it take?”
“A year, O Odin.”
Odin’s sharp mind knew that with an infallible wall around Asgard, the Gods wouldn’t need to spend every moment defending their home from the cruel Giants.
He accepted the Stranger’s offer. He brought him to the Council of the Gods, where the Stranger vowed that the great wall would be built in a year. In return, Odin swore an oath that if every stone was in place in a year’s time, the Gods would grant the Stranger any payment he wished. (A bold and somewhat foolish promise, in this narrator’s humble opinion. But we won’t question the God of Wisdom.) After all, Father Odin didn’t believe the Stranger could finish the job in time.
The strange giant and his (even stranger) horse
The next day, the Stranger returned with nothing but himself and a strapping young horse. The Gods expected the horse to merely drag blocks of stone for the Stranger to assemble. But the horse was a marvel! He set the stones in place, mortared them together, and seemed to never tire.
The first day of Summer marked the start of construction. The horse worked day and night, in light and dark, contributing more to the wall than the Stranger himself. But of course, only the Stranger would be rewarded.
Soon, a remarkable wall began to rise around the half-built palaces of Asgard. “What reward will this Stranger request?” the Gods wondered. Odin decided to find out.
The Price of the fortification
“You and your horse are creating a truly sensational wall,” he told the Stranger. “You will finish by the first day of Summer, undoubtedly. What will be your reward? We’ll start preparing.”
The Stranger paused, setting down his tools while his horse continued to pile massive blocks of stone. “O Father of the Gods,” the Stranger said. “I won’t ask for much. Simply the Sun; and the Moon; and Freyja, the goddess of beauty who guards the flowers and grasses, to be my wife.”
Odin’s face contorted with fury. The audacity of this Stranger! The price he demanded was preposterous, excessive beyond measure, detestable and greedy and utterly unthinkable. Odin refused to relinquish the world’s most priceless treasures, not even for Asgard’s impenetrable wall.
He stormed away to gather the other Gods. He told them the Stranger’s demands and they gasped in horror. “Without the Sun and Moon, the world will wither away!” they cried. “Without Freyja, Asgard will be a dark and dismal place!”
They all agreed: they would rather leave the wall unbuilt than give the Stranger his ludicrous reward.
But one of them stepped forward. Loki, the trickster God, had one of his signature crafty ideas.
Loki’s plan for building the fortification
“Let the Stranger build the wall around Asgard,” he said with a sly smile. “I’ll find a way to nullify his bargain with us Gods. Tell him the wall has to be finished by the first day of Summer, and if even one stone is missing his prize will be forfeited.”
The Gods hesitated. Loki was a gleeful harbinger of chaos, and his slippery deceptions often had unforeseen consequences. But they decided to trust his skills and his loyalty. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Odin returned to the Stranger. “If the last stone is not in place by Summer’s first day, neither the Sun nor Moon nor beautiful Freyja will be yours,” he said darkly. “Surely, Stranger, you must know how unreasonably steep your price is.”
The Stranger smiled a toothy grin that sent a shiver of apprehension down Father Odin’s spine. “I disagree. You Gods hold too much power. I’m simply trying to balance the scales.”
The Stranger’s eyes flashed with frosty defiance, and in that moment, Odin knew he was a Giant in disguise.
Svadilfari, the Overworked Horse
The Giant and his horse picked up the pace. While the Giant slept at night, the horse worked unceasingly, hauling huge stones and laying them on the wall with his strong forefeet. His lack of opposable thumbs was no obstacle; the wall continued to rise higher and higher each day.
And as the wall grew taller, the Gods’ spirits plummeted. “He’ll definitely finish by the first day of Summer,” they despaired, “and he’ll take our beloved Sol and Mani, and our resplendent Freyja, to the cold gloominess of Jotunheim.”
But Loki wasn’t worried. He continually reassured the Gods that he would find a way to stop the Giant from finishing his work.
Soon, it was three days before Summer. The entire wall was finished except the gateway, where only a few stones still needed to be placed. Before he went to sleep, the Giant ordered his tired horse to haul a hefty block of stone to the gateway so they could finish the wall first thing the next morning. The Giant slept with a gleeful smile; he would finish two days early, and the Gods would have no choice but to relinquish his reward.
Loki (the horse) offers a distraction
While the Giant slept, Svaldifare the horse remained hard at work. It was a beautiful moonlit night. Svaldifare’s hide glistened with sweat as he carried the largest stone he had ever encountered, muscles straining under its weight.
Suddenly, his ears perked up. He paused, turning to see a little mare galloping towards him. Even from a distance, she was the prettiest mare he had ever seen.
“Svadilfari, slave,” the little mare sing-songed as she frisked past him.
Svadilfari promptly set down the heavy stone. “Hey!” he called after her. “Why did you call me that?”
The little mare trotted back to him. “Because you work day and night for your master,” she said. “He keeps you working, working, working. He never lets you have any fun! You wouldn’t dare to leave that stone and come play with me.”
“Who says I wouldn’t dare?” Svadilfari protested.
“I know you won’t,” the little mare said with a flutter of her eyelashes. She kicked up her heels and galloped away across the moonlit meadow.
Svadilfari takes the bait
Truthfully, Svadilfari was tired of working day and night. He decided he deserved a break.
So, he left the huge stone on the ground far from the gateway and turned to follow the mare. She was waiting for him at the edge of the meadow, tail flicking playfully. Svadilfari left the wall behind and sprinted after her.
The mare turned on her heel and continued running, shooting mischievous glances Svadilfari’s way. He followed her through the lush grass of the moonlit meadow and down the towering mountainside. The crisp evening air rushed through his mane, the fresh scent of grass and flowers filled his lungs, and Svadilfari rejoiced in his newfound freedom.
Loki becomes pregnant with Sleipnir
They ran all night, the little mare leading and Svadilfari following. Morning’s light made the dew sparkle as they headed towards a cave in the mountainside. And finally, Svadilfari caught up to the mare.
The two horses wandered the secret world inside the cave. The little mare was a fantastic storyteller, her sweet voice telling tales of the Dwarfs and Elves. They eventually found a lovely grove and stayed there together, frolicking and playing until Svadilfari lost all concept of time or responsibility. (They played so well, in fact, that the little mare would give birth to a beautiful eight-legged foal some months later. And he would be named Sleipnir).
And all the while, the Giant was searching high and low for his horse.
You see, the Giant had arrived at the wall that morning expecting to find the final stone ready for assembly. But he found no stone, and no horse. Svadilfari did not answer his calls.
The Giant searched the entire mountainside for his steed, even scouring the realm of the Giants to see if Svadilfari had returned home. But no luck. His horse was nowhere to be found, and the Giant had run out of time.
The First Day of Summer
Sunlight shone through the gap in the gateway, the final stone still missing. The Gods felt a stirring of hope. “If the wall isn’t finished by evening, Sol and Mani and Freyja will be safe!” they proclaimed.
The hours passed and the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky. Svadilfari had not appeared. He was officially on strike.
The Giant angrily stood before the wall; without his horse, he wasn’t strong enough to carry the stone himself, let alone place it on the gateway.
Evening fell, and he sullenly faced the Council of the Gods.
“Your work is not finished,” Odin said with barely-contained pleasure. “You made a hard bargain, Stranger, but now it’s null and void. You won’t be getting any reward from the Gods.”
The Giant ground his teeth and screamed in frustration. “I built a wall so strong that nothing can tear it down. But my hands are still strong enough to destroy your precious palaces!”
He ran outside, fists ready to punch some palace walls, but the Gods quickly caught him. They unceremoniously shoved him outside the wall his hands had built.
“Go, conniving Giant, and trouble Asgard no more!” Odin commanded.
A bitter sweet victory
The Gods rejoiced, filling their cups with the finest mead and singing victory songs for the wind to carry through the skies. Their revelry was interrupted by Loki’s arrival.
“How did you do it?” the Gods asked with wonder. “How did you stop the Giant?”
Loki sat back in his chair. “It was simple,” he said loftily. “I transformed myself into a pretty little mare and led Svadilfari down the mountain. That bumbling Giant was useless without his horse.”
The Gods laughed raucously and handed Loki a cup of mead. That night, they felt nothing but gratefulness for his scheming nature. Their magnificent city was safe behind the great wall and no enemy could ever destroy it.
But Father Odin watched the celebration with grim sadness deep in his heart. Their wall stood because of Loki’s trick. Oaths had been broken. And a blow of injustice had been struck against the glorious realm of Asgard.
Featured Image Credit: Dorothy Hardy (fl. 1891 – 1925), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons