Everyone in my social-media feed is excited about Thor: Ragnarok these days, including the office staff at Tor.com. Somewhere amid the post-Halloween festivities, the conversation turned to Loki—because who doesn’t love Loki?—and someone happened to recall one of Loki’s more interesting adventures, the result of which was Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.
What about that? they asked.
What about it indeed. According to the Prose Edda, far back in the deeps of time, when Asgard first came into being, the gods hired a mason to construct a defensive wall. The bargain they struck was that he would build the wall all by himself in three seasons, and in return the gods would give him the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freya.
Things immediately went pear-shaped when the mason asked if his stallion could assist him. The gods agreed, and quickly learned that it was a trick: the stallion had super-strength and greatly increased the speed of the construction.
But the gods were just as twisty, and they seriously did not want to pay the bill, especially the part that included Freya. They armtwisted Loki into finding a way to slow the mason down.
Loki transformed himself into a mare, drove the stallion wild with lust and ran off with him, and handily prevented the wall from being finished in time. In the aftermath, the gods discovered that the mason was a Giant and no friend to them at all.
The stallion was not heard from again. (Did Loki eat him? Kick him to death? Leave him with his own herd of mares, far away from any human interference?) But Loki came home in due time with an eight-legged foal whose name was Sleipnir.
The foal matured into a superhorse (and turned out to be a grey), and Odin claimed him. He was the fastest horse in the world, could run on air and water as well as land, and carried his rider to Hel more than once.
The Norse gods all had horses, except Thor who preferred a cart drawn by goats. But whether twice as many legs made him twice as good, or his supernatural origins gave him superpowers, Sleipnir was the best.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Loki the trickster is a shapeshifter from way back, and he’s not a gender essentialist. He’ll be whatever he wants to be. Or she. Or they.
Loki, according to this story, may be genderfluid or even intersex. This seems to apply to the Marvel canon, too, though there’s debate about the nuances of that. Is Loki male regardless of physical traits, or does he/she/they shift gender as well as physical sex, or is he/she/they agender or all-gender, or…?
The original story doesn’t worry about distinctions. Loki the mare seduces the Giant’s stallion with no frets or worries about gender identity—and obviously she’s got everything installed, because Sleipnir is the result. It seems to be taken for granted, as something that Loki just does. Loki doesn’t lay claim to the foal, either, once he (she, they) comes back to the gods.
That’s actually accurate in horse terms. Mares as a rule don’t cling to their offspring past weaning. In wild herds, the weanlings and yearlings will stay in the herd, but mom will be busy with the next baby and pretty totally done with the last one. Mares are not sentimental.
Loki makes a convincing mare. Smart, sarcastic, uncompromising. Knows exactly how to drive the stallion off his curly little head. Does he (she, they) take on all the aspects of the mare when living in the mare’s body? There’s no way to know. But as a trickster and a shapeshifter, Loki certainly has the capability.
As for the foal…
That’s such a Loki thing to do. Double down on everything, literally when it comes to the legs. The head and tail are singular, and the body likewise, so it’s one horse, eight legs.
Does that mean Sleipnir is an arachnid? Did Loki ditch the stallion and carry on with Mr. Shelob instead? Or better yet, Anansi or Spider Woman, one of the many-legged tricksters of cultures outside the Norse?
That’s going a bit far for original Norse Loki, even as widely traveled as the Norsemen were. For Marvel Loki, given the right creative staff, who knows?
So. Eight legs. In art they’re often portrayed as four across, fore and aft. This may have bothered or baffled some artists: they depict the pairs as hobbled together, presumably to keep them from getting in each other’s way.
When the legs are doing their thing individually, they seem to be more or less in a line, and moving in sync. And that’s fine, but a horse with a double ration of legs will logically be twice as wide as a normal horse.
In a driving horse this needn’t be an issue, but Sleipnir is a riding horse. All I can say is, Odin must have hip flexors of purest Spandex. Widebody mortal horses are challenging enough even for the wider pelvis of a female rider. A male must have to do a whole lot of stretches and splits to be comfortable riding the doublewide special.
And what are his gaits like? A horse with one leg at each corner has certain specific ways of moving those legs in relation to each other at various speeds. Add another leg at each point and your four-beat walk can get awfully complex. The canter with its three beats must risk complete leg-tanglage, so probably no canter. Trot, the diagonal two-beat gait, might be more complicated than the lateral pace which lets the legs on the same side move in the same direction. Gallop obviously works because Sleipnir is blazingly fast, and it’s mostly a leap and bound. Or maybe he has his own distinctive gaits that make maximum use of all eight legs? A rolling, progressive sort of movement, maybe?
The wiring of his brain must be fascinating.
Or maybe the “real” Sleipnir isn’t operating on four across but on four pairs in a line. Artists would go for what they were used to in mortal horses (thinking of horses hitched to a cart in pairs, and how the legs look), but who’s to say the genuine article doesn’t have extra body segments and movement more like a spider or a centipede: a rapid scuttle. That would make for less width to sit on, and more room for an extra passenger or two, which might be useful. Smoother movement, too, with a possible lateral-wave component because of the extra segments. Kind of like riding a cat, though not quite as slinky.
Is Sleipnir necessarily a he? We know there’s at least one offspring, the grey horse Grani whom Sigurd/Siegfried rode, but there’s nothing to say Sleipnir wasn’t his mother.
Grani has four legs as far as I can determine, so eight-leggedness doesn’t appear to have been inherited. Is it a mutation, then? Is Sleipnir a conjoined twin, with singular head, tail, and body, but plural legs? If so, the legs are clearly and individually functional, and the brain is able to move them without difficulty. Seriously without, considering Sleipnir’s extreme athleticism.
Maybe there’s more to it. Maybe Sleipnir is fully intersex: both male and female. Could Grani be the offspring of Sleipnir and only Sleipnir?
With Loki for a mother, and shapeshifter genes, it could happen.
There’s more to think about here—the power of the grey or white horse, the connection between Sleipnir and death or the dead, the way of the shaman through the eight-legged horse—but I’m saving that for the dark of the year, when we’ll contemplate the deeper magics. Science-fiction-fantasy-worldbuilding brain is ascendant here.
I really do wonder about the arachnid thing. Though the conjoined-twin thing is simpler in a lot of ways, and much less phobia-inducing.
Whatever the truth is, I have to hand it Loki-the-mare, who delivered a doublewide foal and lived to tell of it. Foals are designed to drive forefeet-first through the mare’s pelvis, which stretches but not that much. They’re a long but fairly flat package, with shoulders flattened even further by the placement of the forefeet, one ahead of the other. Four forefeet and double shoulders would need a lot of room to get through.
Probably Loki went all rubbery and expanded to fit. Or even turned into something bigger. Elephant? Kraken? Futuristic birthing vat?
With Loki, pretty much anything is possible.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.