THE EIGHT-FOOTED SLIPPER
ID you ever hear of the curious riddle which
old-fashioned people in the North used to tell one
another on Wednesday mornings? It was something like
"Who are the two that ride over the rainbow? Three eyes
have they together, ten feet, two arms, and a tail. And
thus they journey through the world."
You can't guess it, and it will be of no use for you to
try. But all those old-fashioned people knew the
answer; and everybody repeated the question to
everybody else, not as a puzzle nor to gain
information, but simply because it was the custom, and
therefore the right thing to do. In that respect it was
like the briefer and more matter-of-fact riddle which
people propound to one another nowadays: "It's a fine
morning, isn't it?" But it didn't mean the same. The
answer which everybody gave to everybody was this:
 "The two who ride over the rainbow are Odin and his
steed Sleipnir. Odin has one eye, the horse two; the
horse runs on eight feet, Odin has two; two arms has
Odin, and the horse has a tail."
A horse with eight feet would of course have many
advantages over the commoner kind that have only four.
If a heavy load had to be drawn, only think what a
wonderful leverage his long legs would give him! If a
long journey were to be taken, how nicely he could hold
up half of his feet and give them a rest while the
other four were steadily jogging along! And then in
racing and jumping, what an impetus all those legs,
working together, would give him! Many tales are told
of his prowess and of the feats which he performed, but
I will repeat to you only one—the famous story of
his journey to the underworld.
There was great grief in the house of Odin, for word
had been brought that Balder, his best-loved son, was
dead. Balder, the white, the pure, the good, the fair,
had been treacherously slain, and all the world was in
mourning. Who now would bring good gifts to men? Who
would bless them with smiles and sunlight, as Balder
 done? Out by the shore of the sea the people had
gathered to perform the last sad rites for the dead
Balder's own ship, the Ringhorn, had been drawn up on
the beach, and in it were placed all the most precious
things that had been his. The deck was piled with
cedar-wood, and between the layers of sticks were
placed gums and rich spices and fragrant leaves, and
the whole pile was covered with fine robes, and a couch
was made whereon to lay the body of the dead. Then
Balder's horse, Gyller the Golden, was led on board,
saddled and bridled as if for a long journey. His
arms also were brought—his shield and sword and bow and
quiver—and laid by the side of the couch. Finally the
hero himself was borne to his last resting-place, and
Nanna, his young wife who had died of grief, was laid
beside him. The great ship was pushed into the sea and
set on fire. Wrapped in flames and hidden by dense
clouds of smoke, it drifted far away from the shore.
"Alas! alas! " cried the people, "what will become of
us, now that Balder is dead—now that the sunlight is
gone out of the world?" And they went to their homes
weeping, and sat down in the darkness and cold, and
be-  lieve that aught of joy would ever come to
And other things sorrowed, too. The trees bent their
heads, and the leaves upon them fell withered to the
ground. The meadows doffed their green summer coats and
dressed themselves in sober suits of russet. The birds
forgot to sing. The small creatures of the woods hid
themselves in the ground or in the hollow trunks of the
trees. The cicadas no longer made merry in the groves.
The music of the busy world was hushed. Nowhere could
be heard the sound of the spindle or the loom, of ax or
flail, of the harvesters' song, of the huntsmen's
horn, of the warriors' battle-cry; but only the dull
thud of the waves beating against the shore, or the
wild whistling of the winds among the dead branches of
In the King's high halls Balder's mother lamented his
untimely fate, and his sisters were beside themselves
with grief. Odin, with his blue hood pulled down over
his face, sat silent in the twilight and listened to
the moaning of the sea. He was not only troubled
because of the death of his son, but the sadness of the
world oppressed him. What if the universal grief
 continue and joy never return? Frost and ice and
darkness would at length overwhelm the earth, and the
race of mankind would perish.
"We must bring lost Balder back to us!" he cried. "He
must not stay in the gloomy halls of the under-world.
And yet how can we persuade Hela, the pale-faced Queen
of that region, to give him up? "
"Hela is deaf to prayers," answered one of his
councilors; "and, moreover, she will be glad to keep
the bright Balder in order that perchance some joy may
be known to the dwellers in her own domains. And yet,
mayhap, if some one of your own household shall go down
and carry your prayers to her, she will relent and give
"Ah, so she may!" cried the Queen-mother. "But who
among his brothers will dare undertake so fearful a
"I will dare!" cried Hermod, Balder's younger brother.
He was only a little fellow, but he was famous all over
the world for the quickness of his movements and for
his horsemanship. "I will go down to Hela's house with
your prayers, if only I may ride Sleipnir, who is both
fleet and sure-footed."
 Gray Sleipnir was at once led out and saddled with the
greatest care; and food and drink were given him,
enough for eighteen days. Then Hermod, booted and
spurred, sprang upon him and rode fearlessly away along
the shadowy highroad that leads toward the land of the
Nine days through mists and fogs, nine nights amid
darkness and unseen perils, did the good steed gallop
steadily onward; and his eight iron hoofs, clattering
upon the rocky roadway, roused strange echoes among
the barren hills and frowning mountain passes. Nine
days and nine nights did bold Hermod sit in the saddle
with his face bared to the chilling winds and his heart
set firm upon his errand. Many were the sad-eyed
travelers whom they overtook, all journeying toward
the same goal, but not one did they meet returning. And
pale specters flitted in the air above them, and ogres
grinned in the darkness, and owls hooted from the
clefts of the rock. But none of these things could
frighten Sleipnir; for were not the mystic runes of
Odin engraved on his teeth? And no terror could make
Hermod falter; for was not his errand one of love and
At length, having passed through a dark and
valley where there were many unknown and fearful
things, they came out upon a broad plain which is the
beginning of the great silent land. A dim yellow light
illumined the sky, and the air seemed soft and mild,
and a restful peace abode there. But no sound of any
kind was heard; even the striking of Sleipnir's hoofs
upon the pavement was noiseless; and when Hermod tried
to sing, he found that he could not hear his own voice.
On the farther side of the plain they carne to a broad
river that flowed silently toward the sea. It was the
river Gjol, and across it was the long Gjallar Bridge,
a narrow roadway roofed with shining gold. Here
Sleipnir slacked his pace, and Hermod found that the
great silence had been left behind. At the end of the
bridge was a gate behind which stood a maiden named
Modgud, whose duty it was to take toll of all the
travelers who passed that way.
"Who are you," she asked, "who ride so heavily across
the frail Gjallar Bridge, and what kind of beast is
that which you bestride?"
"I am Hermod, of the house of mighty Odin," was the
answer; "and this beast is Sleipnir the Glider, the
fleetest and the wisest of all horses."
"Why do you ride so hard, and why are you so
heavy?" asked the maiden. "Never have I seen this
golden bridge shake and sag as it did under your
weight. Only yesterday five thousand passengers were
crowded upon it at once, and yet it trembled not in the
least. Surely you are not the kind of man that should
travel this road. There is too much color in your face,
and too much strength in your arm. Why do you ride into
the land of Hela?"
"I am on my way to Hela's halls to find my brother
Balder," answered Hermod. "He has but lately passed
this way, and I doubt not but that among all the
multitudes who have given you toll you remember him."
"Indeed, I do remember him. Two days ago he came,
riding his good steed Gyller the Golden, and his
sweet-faced wife Nanna was beside him. Never before did
such brightness cross this river; never before did
beauty such as his pass over into the land of Hela. If
you will promise to bring him back this way, I will
lift the gate and allow you to ride on, for I see you
have nothing to give me for toll."
"I promise," said Hermod. "But which way shall I ride
to find Hela's halls?"
"The way lies downward and northward,"
 answered Modgud.
"It is not far, and you cannot miss the road.
Hermod gave the word to Sleipnir, and the horse
galloped swiftly onward down the steep way that the
maiden had pointed out. In a little while they came to
the walls of a huge castle that stood gloomy and dark
among the hills. On the outside was a deep moat filled
with water. The drawbridge was up and the gate was
shut. Hermod tried to call to the watchman, but the
sound of his voice died away before it left his mouth.
He looked around in the hope that he might attract the
notice of some one in the towers or on the walls. But
there was not a soul in sight. At length he dismounted
and gave Sleipnir a good breathing spell, while he
measured with his eye the distance to the top of the
castle wall. Then he stroked the horse's gray mane,
read the runes on his teeth, and whispered them in his
ear. At last he carefully tightened the saddle-girths
"Good Sleipnir," he said, "you have borne me thus far,
and have not failed me. Stand me in stead this one
time, I bid you. Let those eight long limbs of yours be
wings as well as legs!"
Then, at a touch of the spur, Sleipnir sped
lightning swiftness down the narrow roadway toward the
edge of the moat, and in another moment was flying
through the air right over the gate and into the
courtyard beyond. It was a wonderful leap; but then it
was a wonderful horse that made it. No sportsman's
trained hunter ever cleared ditch and hedge with half
the ease and grace that great Sleipnir cleared the high
wall of Hela's castle. Safe within the courtyard,
Hermod alighted and tied the horse to an iron post that
stood by the side of a fountain. Then, seeing that all
the doors were open, he walked boldly in without asking
leave of anyone, and made his way to the long
banquet-hall where Hela and her guests were feasting.
Whom should he see, sitting in the foremost seat at the
Queen's right hand, but his brother Balder! The light
which shone in Balder's countenance and glittered in
his eyes shed a soft radiance over the entire hall,
such as its gloomy walls had never seen before; and the
faces of the guests were wreathed in smiles, and the
Queen herself seemed to have forgotten all her
sternness. Hermod, unbidden though he was, was
welcomed very kindly, and a seat was given him at the
table. All that evening he mingled with the guests in
He talked with his brother, or told wondrous stories in
the hearing of the Queen, but not once did he speak of
the business upon which he had come.
The next morning, when he thought that Hela was in her
pleasantest mood, Hermod asked whether Balder might not
ride home with him to his sorrowing mother, whose heart
would be broken if he did not return.
"Does she weep for him?" asked the Queen.
"Yes, and not
only she, but my father and his counselors, and our
brothers and sisters—all the household of Odin weep."
"There are so many such households that, if weeping
availed anything, I should soon be deprived of all my
subjects. There is no home that does not weep for its
"But all mankind weeps for Balder."
"All mankind? Well, if that be true, there is some
reason for your request, but not enough."
"All living creatures mourn for him," added Hermod.
"Indeed! But I should weep if you were to take him away
from me. Do things that are lifeless also grieve for
"Truly they do. The very rocks shed tears, as
 do also
the mountains and the clouds. There is nothing that
does not weep."
"Do you know that this is true? Will you swear it?"
asked the Queen, earnestly.
Hermod hesitated. "I am quite sure that it is true," he
finally answered. "But, not having seen everything, I
cannot now make oath to it."
"I will tell you what I will do," said Hela. "Do you
return to your home, and let Odin send into all the
earth and find out for a truth whether everything
really weeps for Balder. If he shall find that this is
the case, then come to me again, and I will give your
brother up. But if a single thing shall refuse to shed
tears, then Balder shall stay with me."
Hermod was not altogether pleased with this answer, but
he knew that it was useless to plead any further with
the Queen, and so he took leave of her, and made ready
to return. Balder took from his finger a precious
golden ring, and gave it to him to carry to Odin as a
keepsake; and Nanna sent a kerchief of green and some
flowers to her mother. Then Hermod mounted good
Sleipnir again and rode back, along the fearful way,
out of the land of Hela, and came on the tenth day to
 There was, of course, still greater grief in the King's
household when it was seen that Hermod returned alone.
But when he made known the conditions on which Hela
would give Balder back to them, all were glad, for they
felt sure that, at the worst, it would be but a few
months until they should see his bright face again.
And so messengers were sent into all the world, praying
that everything should weep for white Balder. And
everything did weep—men and beasts and birds, trees and
plants, rivers and mountains, sticks and stones, and
all metals. At the end of a year the messengers
returned, very glad to report the result. But just
before reaching Odin's halls they passed the mouth of
a cavern wherein sat a toothless old hag named Thok.
They asked her kindly to weep for Balder. She shook her
head, and mumbled between curses:
"Bah! Why should such as I weep? Little good did he
ever do me; little good will I do him. Go and tell him
to stay where he is."
The joy of the messengers was turned to sadness, and
with bowed heads they went up the hill whereon Odin's
palace stood, and told the whole story.
When kind Hela heard, however, that not
any-  thing save the wicked hag had refused to weep for Balder, she was
moved to be better than her word. For she consented
that Balder, for six months in every twelve, might
gladden the earth with his presence. But during the
other six she would keep him in her own halls. And this
is why the sun shines, and the trees are green, and the
birds sing, and men rejoice from April to October, for
that is the season of Balder's stay with them; but
during the other months the sun seldom shows his face,
and all things are silent and sad, because Balder has
gone back to the under-world.
But we must not forget the good steed Sleipnir.
Although he never made another journey to the
under-world, there was scarcely any part of the earth
to which his long legs did not sometimes carry him; and
especially in the far North he was a familiar figure
long after Odin had gone from the earth.
In some parts of Sweden the old horse had, until quite
recently, a troublesome habit of running through the
harvest fields and making sad tangles of the standing
grain. But by and by the cunning farmers learned a
trick that saved
 them from all further trouble. As soon
as the oats or barley was tall enough they would cut
and tie up a fair sheaf of it, and lay it high up on a
fence where the frolicsome old fellow would be sure to
see it before getting into the field.
"Ah! how kind the dear farmer is to provide this sheaf
of sweet barley for me," Sleipnir would say to himself.
"I really cannot have the heart to tangle his grain."
And then he would gallop away to the next farm.
Wednesday night was—and still is, for all I know—his
favorite time for visiting the fields; for Wednesday,
as you know, is Odin's day. And that, I suppose, is the
reason why people always selected Wednesday as the best
time in the week for puzzling one another with the
"Who are the two that ride over the rainbow?"
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