The above image, from Dorothy Hardy’s 1909 Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas, depicts the unnamed master builder of the wall of Asgard trying to restrain his massive horse Svadilfari from chasing after a mare he sees in the distance.
The story of the construction of Asgard’s outer defensive wall is told by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson in chapter XLII of Gylfaginning, one of the books collected as the Prose Edda.
The story is significant for a number of reasons, ranging from being the origin story for Odin’s horse Sleipnir, for being yet another moment where Loki’s presence among the Aesir causes a problem he is then forced to solve, and because of Thor’s role in the story.
It’s also significant in understanding the religion and worldview of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Who knew building a wall could be so exciting?
I’ve recounted the story below, but feel free to read a translation of the original instead.
In the ancient days when all the nine realms were young, Thor departed Asgard to the mountains in the east and found many trolls to battle. While he was away, a smith visited the Aesir and offered to build in just three seasons a tall, strong wall around their home to protect them against all their foes, even the most powerful of the giants, trolls, and other destructive forces.
In exchange for his services, this master builder asked for Freyja as his bride, and for the sun and moon as well.
The gods realized immediately that such fortification would be necessary protection to delay Ragnarök as long as possible. But the price was far too steep. They met in counsel to determine the best course of action, and upon the advice of Loki (seems like they should do something about that guy), made a counter-offer to the builder. He could have Freyja, the sun, and the moon as his price, but only if he could complete his work by the end of that very winter. These were terms they believed no builder could meet.
To their surprise, the smith agreed, asking only that he be able to use his horse Svadilfari (“Unlucky Traveler”) to help him haul the stones necessary for the wall. The pact was made, and the builder began his work.
The Aesir immediately regretted their decision. The walls of Asgard went up more quickly than they imagined possible. Perhaps more shocking to the gods, the horse Svadilfari was doing at least half again as much work as his master, lifting massive boulders and swiftly transporting them wherever necessary. It soon became clear that a decision would have to be made: pay the wages of the master builder for building their wall, or openly break an agreement they had made as a public contract.
Because Loki influenced their decision, the gods blamed him for their dilemma, and rested the solution on his head: either come up with a plan, or face their deadly, violent retribution. Moved to action by their threats, he swore an oath that he would find a way to prevent the contract’s completion by whatever means were necessary. Only three days remained before the change of seasons.
That night as the mason and his stallion went out to get the supplies for their work the next day, a mare sprang forth from the woods and called out to Svadilfari. As the great horse broke loose from his restraints and chased after the mare as she bounded off back into the forest. The horses, and the smith who pursued them, were out in the forest all night.
The next day, upon their return to the city of the gods, the builder saw that his unproductive night would prevent him from finishing his task on time. His bounty of Freyja, the sun, and the moon, was lost to him. He went into a great fury, displaying all the destructive rage he could wield as a giant of Jotunheim. And so the Aesir called Thor back to them, to help pay the giant fair wages for the work he was now doing.
Thor acted according to his reputation and paid him as he paid all his foes. He crushed the giant’s skull with mighty Mjölnir, and in one blow left only pieces the size of breadcrumbs.
Of course, unbeknownst to this unnamed giant, the mare who distracted Svadilfari from his nightly toil was in fact Loki transformed into a horse, deceiving the giant and his horse to find a way out of the unfortunate bargain.
As a result of his time with Svadilfari, Loki soon gave birth to a colt, the eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. And there are many tales of Sleipnir, the swiftest of all horses, steed of Odin, riding throughout all the nine realms, going even to the land of Hel and back when the need arose.
There’s quite a bit to unpack here. For this post, we’re going to set aside Loki’s transformation or any deeper meaning for Sleipnir or his birth, though we’ll undoubtedly be referring back to this important story in future posts.
First things first: this tale is explicit about its setting in the relatively early days of creation, after the nine realms are established and populated, and around the time of the war between the Aesir and Vanir and the creation of Mjölnir, but before most stories when most facts about the gods are established.
This is a crucial point because this incident appears to be the source from which the enmity between the giants and the gods springs. That’s no small matter: they are seeking retribution throughout every battle on into Ragnarök. Where the gods sought to forestall their doom by adding an extra layer of protection to their home, they instead guaranteed it by breaking faith with a giant.
This isn’t just something modern scholars recognize, either, as this is something Snorri points out just after he finishes telling the tail in Gylfaginning:
Then all the Powers strode | to the seats of judgment,
The most holy gods | council held together:
Who had the air all | with evil envenomed,
Or to the Ettin-race | Ódr’s maid given.
Broken were oaths then, | bond and swearing,
Pledges all sacred | which passed between them;
Thor alone smote there, | swollen with anger:
He seldom sits still | when such he hears of.
Since Snorri recognized this in the 13th century, after most pagan belief had been extinguished but with a better view of the source material and the religious practice itself, there might be something to the belief that this was the inciting cause of thousands of years of war.
We can also take this to be Thor’s first mythological battle with a giant, and the beginning of his function as the defender of the gods (and, by extension, mankind) from the jötnar as well. While Thor starts the story on an expedition to battle trolls, they have much less significance in the pre-Christian Germanic worldview than the jötnar, who personified chaos and destruction, even if sometimes these forces were not necessarily evil (Thor, after all, is the son of a giant mother, as are dozens of the gods).
Further, while the quotation from Voluspa Snorri uses (above) points out Thor’s hot-headedness, it’s also worth noting that in Snorri’s own telling of the tale, the Aesir call Thor back from his journey (travel here being apparently instantaneous) to manage their crisis. Thor’s role as protector isn’t assumed or implied, it’s assigned to him by the gods as his specific purpose among the gods. Even though Odin, Tyr, and others have substantial roles as gods of war and combat, Thor is the warrior god who takes care of business in his own violent way.
Another matter of importance here is noting the name of the home of the Aesir: the name “Asgard” means “enclosure of the Aesir”. Of course, before this wall was built, there was no “gard”, it was really just an “Asa-land”. As previous discussions on sacred space have covered, the pre-Christian Germanic peoples’ worldview had an important distinction between the innangard and utangard, spaces or states of mind that were ordered and lawful on the one hand, and those that are disordered, chaotic, and unlawful on the other. There’s not necessarily a moral judgment in that difference, but there is a distinction, and fences and walls and dividing lines had real and magical relevance to these people. By demarcating the space between the enclosure of the gods and the lands not of the gods, the lands of the jötnar, this wall has much more significance than value as a literal defense against actual invaders.
But finally, as this wall was the dividing line between the sacred and the profane, as we can see it as the event that guarantees the future events of Ragnarök, and as this story initiates Thor as the foe of the jötnar and defender of the gods, we should also recognize that the wall itself is made profane in this story.
The issue isn’t so much that the wall was made with ill intentions; most of the early audience for this story would have seen the actions of the Aesir in making the contract as a part of their role as actors in a tall tale. They just wanted to see what the master builder could do. They didn’t think anything ill would come of their actions. Once the mason and his horse proved themselves far more capable than could be expected, the moral dilemma weighs competing claims with no easy answer. That the story finds a solution where the Aesir don’t break their word, don’t give up the sun, the moon, and the goddess responsible for all life, and still get a wall, is creative and engaging.
Much more troubling from the point of view of order vs. chaos, or creation vs. destruction, is that the sacred boundary between Asgard and everything else is not completed. Three days’ work was left. No mention is ever made that the wall was completed. This failure to complete the barrier means that the Aesir aren’t wholly separated from their enemies; they will always be threatened and weakened by the decay inherent to that symbolic gap, and even as they have assured Ragnarök by their enmity with the jötnar, so too is its coming foretold by that gap. The gods are not wholly sacred. They could not separate themselves from the cycle of life and death. Idunn’s apples cannot save them from the fate of all living things. Darkness is coming for them, because they could not finish the wall around Valhall and the home of the gods.
Perhaps the survivors of Ragnarök will fare better.
A quick note: I don’t want to imply that this work is wholly my own. I keep reminding you that I’m not an expert because I’m not. Much of this is based on my understanding of concepts and a few details of Martin Arnold’s Thor: Myth to Marvel, pp. 13-14, John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, pp. 274-278, and Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology, pp. 293-294. I’ve also tried to link to Dan McCoy’s norse-mythology.org where appropriate; any of these is a great place to start with a study of topics discussed here and elsewhere.