When the Aesir had only first claimed their dominion over the Vanir, the Jotunn and all the other beings, they had no home in which to live. They needed a place they could fortify against their enemies, and so they contracted a master builder, who would create the magnificent walls of Asgard for them.
But this builder was such a master that he demanded the most astonishing price: he would only build their walls if they gave him the goddess Freyja for his wife, with a dowry of the sun and the moon!
Not one god was willing to accept that, least of all Freyja!
But they wanted to see Asgard built, and they knew that this was the craftsman who would do the best job. They argued about it long into the night, and eventually decided that the best thing to do was to get him to build the walls, but make sure they wouldn’t have to pay him. (Even Freyja agreed to that.) So they said they would accept his terms, so long as he built it in but a few short seasons — instead of the years he had initially asked for — and without any man’s (or god’s) help.
The builder, steadfast in his desire to marry the beautiful Freyja at any cost, agreed, but requested that he at least be allowed the help of his faithful stallion.
The gods were reluctant to allow even that. (Freyja didn’t want to marry that filthy, unwashed, smelly builder!)
“What can he accomplish with a simple horse?” Loki pointed out. “You’re all fretting about nothing, like a pack of old women.”
Thor — being Thor — threatened to hit Loki in the face with his hammer for making fun of him, but the rest of the gods reluctantly agreed with him, and told the builder that he could use his horse to aid him in his task.
But the builder’s horse was Svaðilfari, the finest and grandest horse any man — or god — had ever seen. Svaðilfari could pull many tons of rock without breaking a sweat, and did so without any sign of complaint or strain. The horse’s feats were so mighty that the gods feared they would have to hand Freyja over to the builder after all! Loki laughed that maybe she should marry the horse, since it was the horse who had actually built the walls, but no one else found that funny, especially Freyja. (Though, in truth, she probably would have preferred the horse to its owner.)
As the deadline was nearly up, and the walls were complete except for the gates, the gods began to fret, and demanded that — since he was the one who had gotten them into that situation — Loki must do something to get them out of it. Otherwise, Odin assured him, he’d let his irritable son do whatever he wanted to Loki, which was likely to involve a magic hammer and Loki’s skull.
Not really wanting to have his head pounded into powder, Loki sighed, and agreed to distract the horse so the builder couldn’t finish his task.
Loki knew better than to try tempting the stallion out of the stable with a few apples. That wouldn’t work on even a fine mortal horse, and Svaðilfari was anything but mortal.
There was only one thing Loki could do to stop the walls from being completed, much as he was loath to do it.
The next day, the builder was hard at work, when suddenly Svaðilfari stopped pulling the final load of stone, broke free from his harness, and went tearing off into the nearby woods.
Irritated that he might be denied the woman he loved after he had worked so hard for her, the builder chased after his horse, and soon found out that what had distracted his stallion had proved just how alike they two were: Svaðilfari had run off after a mare in heat, and the mare was doing her very best not to get caught.
Feeling sorry for his horse, the builder rigged up a little surprise for the mare, making sure the stallion would be able to catch her. He was sure, after all, that it would be over and done with in time for him to get Asgard finished up as agreed.
But it didn’t.
The deadline passed by, and the gates of Asgard still hadn’t been built.
Even worse, the gods were all smirking at the builder, and Thor made a crass comment about men who run off after strange women. It had all been a set-up! The builder could see that now, and in his rage, he bellowed his hatred of the Aesir and the Vanir, and threatened to bring his people back and tear down those walls he had worked so hard to build.
For the builder was one of the Hrimthurs, a particularly powerful kind of Jotunn.
Once the gods knew that the builder was really a frost giant, they wasted no time on further niceties.
Thor pulled out Mjöllnir, and shattered the builder’s skull as easily as an ordinary man would crush an egg. Because, Hrimthurs or not, he was just a builder; he wasn’t a warrior.
The gods were talking and laughing, thoroughly pleased with themselves for having exposed the villain and prevented his evil plot to marry Freyja, when Loki returned. They laughed further that Loki was still disguised as a mare, and had the passionate Svaðilfari still trailing after him. Loki rolled his horse eyes at them, but couldn’t retort, since horses can’t talk. Besides, he knew he would have the last laugh soon enough; Svaðilfari was the finest sire of horse-kind. (And, indeed, Odin never again laughed at Loki’s dalliance with a horse after the mare-Loki gave birth to the swift Sleipnir!)
Proud of their might, the gods went into the newly built halls of Asgard to feast and celebrate their defeat of the wicked Hrimthurs.
I had to include this myth, because it’s the origin of one of my favorite little tidbits of Norse mythology, namely the fact that Loki is Sleipnir’s mother.
It also reminds me of a very similar tale from Norse myths, namely that of the dwarven smith Alvis, who had created masterful weapons for the gods. His price had been the hand of Thor’s daughter in marriage, and all the gods had agreed to that price up front. But when it came time to pay Alvis, Thor suddenly realized that he really didn’t want a dwarf for a son-in-law. So he sits down with the dwarf, and starts grilling him, peppering him with questions. Alvis assumes that he’s just trying to be a responsible father (responsibility in non-combat situations being something rather alien to Thor) and answers them all, determined to let his knowledge and eloquence prove that he’s an ideal husband, despite being a dwarf.
But that hadn’t been Thor’s plan. He kept Alvis talking all night, waiting for the sun’s first light, because he knew that as a dwarf, Alvis would turn to stone as soon as the light of the sun hit him. (That would have changed a lot in The Hobbit!) So here’s poor Alvis, looking to win himself a bride after he’s worked really hard making divine weapons, and what happens? He’s betrayed to death, without having done anything wrong. It’s not as though the weapons were faulty — I’m not sure, off-hand, if they included Mjöllnir, but I’m pretty sure they did include Gungnir, Odin’s spear — and it’s not as though he had demanded Thor’s daughter at the last minute, after the work had been finished. It was an agreed-upon price up front. Thor just stabbed him in the back because he could, and because he could get away with it.
It’s the same thing with the Jotunn who built the walls of Asgard. He’s doing what he promised, despite them doing everything they can to hobble him, and he’s doing it for a price they already agreed to. But they find a way to stop him from succeeding, and when he accidentally reveals he’s a frost giant, they kill him. (Even though Odin himself is half frost giant, and Loki is either all frost giant or half frost giant. (I’ve seen it said both ways.)) So, basically, in both of these stories — in which as far as I can tell we’re supposed to be rooting for the Aesir — we have the Norse gods bilking and killing someone who’s done them some very solid, important work. And we’re supposed to laugh and cheer at this? Because I get the feeling that’s how the Vikings reacted to it.
But let me set that aside for a moment, and get to the comparison part. There’s a tale that’s very familiar to me about a city with magnificent walls, where the builders were bilked of their payment. One of my sources for the Norse story even made the comparison for me, despite that it made it in a completely bass-ackwards way. So, let me give you a summary of the story first, before I discuss the comparison further.
The city — as you might guess, coming from me — is Troy.
The builder is Poseidon, with a side-order of Apollo. (In some versions, Apollo was only looking after King Laomedon’s flocks, whereas in other versions he, too, was doing the building. From a Greek perspective, the former makes more sense, but since he may have originated as a gateway-guardian god of Troy, the latter might well be the older version. In one version they’re also joined by Aiakos, a mortal son of Zeus, but that’s more to make the building of the walls of Troy directly predict its downfall at the hands of Aiakos’ descendants.)
The price is unknown (to us), but agreed upon in advance.
And Laomedon refuses to pay. He even threatens his divine workers when they want to be paid.
Apollo sends a plague to his otherwise beloved Troy, and Poseidon sends a sea monster to attack the very walls he just built.
That might have been the end of Troy, if it hadn’t been for Heracles, who decided to slay the the sea monster, in exchange for either Laomedon’s fine horses or for one of his daughters. (Or possibly both. This is Heracles we’re talking about here. He didn’t believe in being “small time.”)
But Laomedon didn’t pay him, either. So Troy still fell, but to Heracles instead of to a sea monster, and the only one of Laomedon’s sons who survived became King Priam, having been ransomed by his sister Hesione. (That’s a Greek pseudo-etymology for the non-Greek name Priamos, btw, as having come from the word for “I buy.” It’s baloney, but the kind of thing that got repeated a lot. To the extent that you can probably find it as a “true” etymology in some sources today.)
In the long run, Laomedon’s double refusals to pay are often regarded as the first step towards Troy’s destruction in the Trojan War. (Though obviously there’s a lot more going on there, needless to say. Especially since Apollo is Troy’s staunchest supporter…aside from Aphrodite, anyway.)
So while it’s true that there’s a strong parallel here of supernatural builders making mighty walls and the payment agreements being reneged upon, there’s also a phenomenal difference of tone.
In the Norse tales, we’re supposed to be — as far as I can tell — on the side of the ones refusing to pay.
In the Greek tale, we’re supposed to be on the side of the ones who are being bilked.
I think that tells us a world of details about the cultural differences between Vikings and ancient Greeks.
(Not that we really needed these myths to point out those differences. But it’s always interesting to have things highlighted in unusual ways, right?)