Even the gods struggle to build walls

From Norse mythology, a tale of trickery and trouble in Asgardian wall-building

Asgard Loki Svadilfari

Illustration: Dorothy Hardy / Public domain
“Loki and Svadilfari” from Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Politics—and trickery—have played a role in the construction of border walls going back to ancient times. There is one famous account among the Norse myths that tells of an earlier effort—one that would come with a very steep price to pay.

The land of Asgard, the heavenly stronghold of the tribe of gods and goddesses known as the Æsir, is protected by a high wall. This wall defends the Æsir from invasions by the giants and other beings who are often their enemies. But this wall wasn’t always there. It was destroyed once in war, and for eons, the gods lived precariously in the open, undefended by any defensive structure. They were always on the alert for potential invaders and finally decided they had to fix the problem. So they decided to build a wall.

The story of the building of the wall can be found in several places in Old Norse literature, including Snorri Sturluson’s The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda.

One day, a smith came to Asgard and said he could build a high wall around their exposed homes to protect them. The smith, who was himself a giant, said he could complete the job in a mere three seasons. But he demanded a hefty payment—the hand of the goddess Freya in marriage, as well as to become the owner of the sun and moon. Things like that could happen in the world of the gods.

Naturally, Freya didn’t like the prospect of being married off to the giant. And no one wanted to live in total darkness without the sun and moon. So tricky Loki came up with a plan. He suggested the builder could get his price, but only if he completed the building of the wall in one single winter—and with no help from anyone but his horse.

After much discussion, the gods consented to the plan. Since they didn’t believe for one minute that the job could be completed in the specified time, they agreed. And anyway, they had no intention of actually giving Freya away, to say nothing of the sun or the moon.

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

The giant builder set about constructing the wall, and the gods marveled at how quickly the structure was being raised. The work was made faster by the speed with which the giant’s stallion Svadilfari was hauling enormous boulders over far distances to add to the wall. In fact, the horse was doing almost twice as much work as the smith.

Finally, with the end of winter only three days away, the wall was virtually finished—except for the stones around the gate. It was a strong fence, one that should be strong enough to be impenetrable by any known enemy. Too high to be crawled over, too thick to penetrate, too much for any would-be invader.

With the wall almost done, the gods flew into a frenzy. They seized Loki, and castigated him for having given such lousy advice. But there was still one hope—if the wall couldn’t be completed by the deadline, they wouldn’t have to give anything away. Not their beloved Freya, not the great light of the sun or the reflected shadow of the moon. They threatened Loki with death if he couldn’t find a way to prevent the payment. Loki pleaded with the gods to save his life. Then he got an idea, hoping it would lead to his redemption and keep the wall from being finished on time.

That night, the giant and his horse Svadilfari ventured into the forest in search of stones to complete the wall. Along the 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, he burst 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. The giant was in despair, knowing that there now was no way he could finish the wall on time.

The Æsir gods then took Thor’s hammer and delivered a fatal blow to the giant, shattering his head into pieces no bigger than breadcrumbs.

Meanwhile, deep in the forest, Svadilfari had caught up with Loki—still in the form of the mare—who soon, miraculously, gave birth to a gray, eight-legged horse. The horse, which was named Sleipnir, became the steed that Odin would ride through the skies. And Freya lived on in bucolic peace, free from the threat of having to marry the giant.

Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Ravens of Odin, a Viking re-enactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects. 

This article originally appeared in the March 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.