By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado Boulder
In Norse mythology, Loki is a complicated, ambivalent figure. Snorri describes Loki as one who is “…counted among the Aesir gods, who is called by some ‘the slanderer of the gods’ or ‘the first maker of lies’…the champion of the kind of wisdom that is deceit…” And yet, Snorri tells a story in his Prose Edda which shows Loki in a less negative light.
The Sun, the Moon, and the Goddess Freyja
Early on in the history of the cosmos, the Aesir had established their home in Asgard but had not yet fortified it.
A builder came to the gods and offered to make a wall around their realm so high and so strong that none of their enemies, not even the strongest among the anti-gods, could get through. The builder promised that the work would be completed within three seasons, and as his modest price, he demanded only the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freyja.
The early Norse spoke in terms of two seasons rather than four, with the year broken up into a summer from April to October and a winter from October to April.
The gods thought that the year and a half that the builder wanted was a lot of time to ask for the work the builder was promising, especially given the steep price he set.
Stipulations by Gods
The gods stipulated that the builder would have his prizes if he completed the work within a much shorter time, only one winter (i.e., half year), with all construction completed before the first day of summer, in what we would call mid-April. However, if any part of the work remained to be done on that day, the builder would receive no reward from the gods at all.
The Aesir gods also stipulated that the builder could be helped by no man. The builder, however, asked that he be allowed the help of his stallion. With the insistent encouragement of Loki, the other gods accepted this compromise.
So on the first day of the winter half of the year, in our mid-October, the builder’s work was begun.
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Construction proceeded during the day, while at night the builder hauled stones with the help of his stallion. Everyone marveled at what a huge load of stones the horse could haul. And because this stallion could move so much more material than anyone expected, the work proceeded quickly.
Three days before the start of summer, the builder was close to holding up his end of the bargain.
This is when the assembled gods grew worried. The prospect of giving up the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freyja was not appealing. And after complaining bitterly and pointing some fingers, they agreed that this was really Loki’s fault, since he was the one who recommended that the builder enjoy the use of his supernaturally strong horse.
The Beautiful Mare
The gods, thus, threatened Loki with a painful death if he didn’t do something to prevent the builder from finishing his work on time.
That very evening, when the builder was picking up rocks with his stallion, a beautiful mare leapt out of the woods nearby. We are told by Snorri that, “When the stallion realized what kind of horse this was, he went mad, and broke his reins and ran after the mare.”
The mare pranced away and kept the stallion in pursuit all night, but it eventually went as it goes with stallions and mares. And in the morning, with his horse still nowhere to be found, the builder realized that he couldn’t possibly complete his wall in time.
One of the Anti-Gods
The builder went into a ‘rage’, apparently of a specific type that somehow identified him as one of the anti-gods.
The Aesir gods otherwise had shown no inclination to believe that he was one of their enemies prior to this, suggesting again that there aren’t any visual cues to distinguish between god and anti-god.
But this rage—called in the Old Norse text of this story in Snorri’s Prose Edda ‘rage of anti-gods’, jotunmoth—must somehow be a distinctive characteristic of this family of beings.
Thor is sometimes said to go into what might be the equivalent for his own family, an ‘Aesir-rage’, asmoth. The word moth here for ‘rage’ is from the same root as English mood, though specialized in Old Norse to refer to a particular kind of raging mood.
Now that the builder had revealed his true identity, and the wall was still not quite complete at the end of the allotted time, the Aesir gods called on Thor, who showed up to throw his hammer at the builder and kill him.
To the reader, it is now revealed that it was Loki who had taken the form of the mare and distracted the stallion. And in the course of time, Loki, the mare, gave birth to an eight-legged stallion, who would become Odin’s signature mount, the great horse Sleipnir.
Common Questions about Loki and the Gods
The builder promised that his work would be completed within three seasons, and as his modest price, he demanded only the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freyja.
The gods threatened Loki with a painful death if he didn’t do something to prevent the builder from finishing his work on time.
It was Loki who had taken the form of the mare and distracted the stallion. In the course of time, Loki, the mare, gave birth to an eight-legged stallion, who later became Odin’s signature mount, the great horse Sleipnir.