Horse Racing In Ancient Norse Mythology

The sport of horse racing is almost as old as time itself. Since the point in time where man understood that he could sit astride a horse’s back, he has challenged fellow riders to race. More commonly known examples of ancient races exist in the chariot races held at Roman coliseums. But ancient Norse mythology has revealed that horse racing was a part of life even then.

The most notable example of Norse horse racing mythology can be found in the account of a race between the Norse god Odin and the giant Hrungnir. This ancient Norse horse racing contest had high stakes and the story behind it may be even more confusing. Still, it portrays the horse as a creature of speed and beauty and shows just how highly regarded horses were during these ancient times.

The story of Odin and Hrungnir should probably start with an understanding of how Odin came to have his amazing horse ‘Sleipnir’. According to Nordic prose, a giant disguised as a human stonemason appeared at Asgard and offered to rebuild the wall in exchange for the sun, the moon and a goddess named ‘Freyja’. The gods agreed, thinking there was no way that the giant would be able to complete such a task in the required time. At the last moment Loki, the Norse god of mischief, agreed to allow Hrimthurs to use his gray stallion, Svadilfari, to complete the task without the input of the other gods. The help of the horse enabled the giant to almost complete the task on time. This angered the gods, who had no desire to keep up their end of the bargain so they threatened to torture Loki eternally if he did not rectify the situation. Loki transformed himself into a beautiful white mare and led the stallion away. This angered the giant who broke down his wall and subsequently was unable to finish in the allotted time. Meanwhile, Loki mated with Svadilfari and sometime later gave birth to Sleipnir.

The horse’s name meant smooth or gliding and was a reference to its flight of foot. It was said to be grey in color and have eight legs. Whether this unusual number of legs was to be interpreted literally or figuratively, one thing was sure – Sleipnir was the fastest horse on earth. He could glide over sea, fly through the air and even take a rider from the land of the living to the land of the dead. He was given to Odin as a gift and so it was with some confidence that Odin must have bet his own head in a race against Hrungnir and his horse ‘Gullfaxi’. Of course Sleipnir won the race with ease but Hrungnir was still invited to Valhalla. Here he became drunk and abusive and Thor was called to defeat and kill him.

It is interesting to note that most legends are based in some truth so there was likely at one time a horse who was so fast amongst his contemporaries that he received special acclaim. Surely his owner must have felt the same pride that racehorse owners today feel when they see their graceful steed glide over the finish line in first place. Still, very few horses over the history of the sport have garnered extra special attention as being completely unbeatable in their lifetime. You will find their compelling life stories in the ‘famous horses’ section of our website.