Sleipnir is Óðinn's eight-legged horse. Son of Loki and a stallion, according to a late tradition, he has the ability to travel to the other world.
Sleipnir appears little in scaldic poetry. He appears in kenningar in the Ynglingatal of Þjóðólfr ór Hvini (str. 8 and 12), the Húsdrápa of Úlfr Uggason (str. 11) and, more recently, in Hofgarða-Refr (Ferðavísur, str. 3) and Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld (Þorgeirsdrápa, str. 2).
In these different poems, Sleipnir is used as a poetic substitute for the horse in general: in the Húsdrápa, for example, the ship is referred to as the "Sleipnir of the Sea" ("haf-Sleipnir"), a variant of the traditional kenning "horse of the sea".
Representations of Sleipnir as Óðinn's mount are relatively recent.
Sleipnir is described as "the best of horses" in Grímnismál (str. 44). Snorri confirms this in Gylfaginning (ch. 15): of the Aesir horses, "Sleipnir is the best; he belongs to Óðinn; he has eight legs".
In the Hyndluljóð (str. 40), it is stated that Loki "sired Sleipnir with Svaðilfari". This allusion is illuminated by Snorri in Gylfaginning (ch. 42). Svaðilfari is the stallion of the giant who had proposed to build the Ásgarðr enclosure, asking for payment from Freyja, as well as from the sun and the moon, if he succeeded in doing so within the allotted time.
Svaðilfari had prodigious strength, and the work progressed very quickly. To prevent the giant from receiving his salary, Loki turned into a mare, and managed to distract the stallion. "Some time later, he gave birth to a foal. He was grey and had eight legs, and he is the best horse among gods and men. This story, which borrows a folk motif, may be the work of Snorri.
It is the four pairs of legs that led to the identification at Sleiplnir of the horses depicted on several Gotland historiated stones dating from the early Viking period. The one in Tjängvide, for example, shows a rider being greeted by a female figure holding a horn, a scene often interpreted as the reception of Óðinn at Valhöll by a Valkyrie. Other comparable scenes, however, show only a four-legged horse.
This profusion of legs was perhaps intended to give an impression of speed. Speed is, moreover, one of the characteristics of Sleipnir, as its very name indicates. Built on the adjective "sleipr" ("slippery"), it can be translated as "He who glides fast".
It is possible that the eight legs - which, apart from Snorrin, appear only in one of Gestumblindi's riddles (Hervarar saga, ch. 10) - come from these iconographic representations.
Sleipnir is not only fast, but he can also gallop by air and on the sea, as the Skáldskaparmál (ch. 17) indicate. There, Óðinn challenges Hrungnir to find a better horse than Sleipnir at the Jötunheimar, provoking the anger of the giant, who sets off in pursuit, riding Gullfaxi (and does not manage to catch up with him until he reaches Ásgarðr).
This faculty is confirmed by an episode in Gesta Danorum (I, 23) in which Hadingus is rescued by an "old and one-eyed" man who takes him on his horse. Hadingus then sees the sea passing by under the animal's hooves.
In the Baldrs draumar (str. 2), Óðinn rides Sleipnir to Hel, where he awakens a dead seer to learn Baldr's fate. Sleipnir also serves as a courier on Hermóðr's journey to the afterlife in an attempt to deliver (Gylfaginning, ch. 49). There, Sleipnir leaps through the gates of Hel ("Helgrindr") - just as Grani, reputed to be his descendant (Völsunga saga, ch. 13), leaps through the wall of flames surrounding Brynhildr's home.
Sleipnir is grey, the colour of the animals of the other world (see, for example, the grey horse ridden by the woman who appears in dreams in Gísli in the Gísla saga, ch. 30), and her journeys to the grave confirm that the horse is the "funerary and psychopompetitive animal par excellence" (Eliade) - a fact also illustrated by the sacrificial horses found in tombs.
In view of this dimension, the eight legs of the horse could reflect the image of the beer of a deceased person being supported in a funeral procession by four carriers.
As a vehicle to the world of the dead, Sleipnir has been brought closer to the horse symbolically ridden by the shaman in his mystical journeys, the octopod horse even being, according to Eliade, "typically shamanic".
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