Horses were sacred in many of the old religions of northern Europe. When Iceland was discovered in about 870, the gods most Scandinavians worshipped, according to Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, rode Shining One, Fast Galloper, Silver Forelock, Strong-of-Sinew, Shaggy Fetlock, Golden Forelock, and Lightfoot. Only the mighty Thor the Thunderer went on foot across the rainbow bridge to the Well of Weird, where the gods held court each morning beside the great ash tree, Yggdrasil (translated by some scholars as “Odin’s Horse”).
The gods of Day and Night drove chariots drawn by Skinfaxi (“Shining Mane”) and Hrimfaxi (“Frosty Mane”): The brightness of the sun was the glow of the day-horse’s mane, while dew was the saliva dripping from Hrimfaxi’s bit. The goddess Gna had a horse that could run “through the air and over the sea.” Called Hoof-Flourisher, it was sired by Skinny-sides on Breaker-of-Fences.
The most famous horse was Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, who was born of the god Loki. Only Snorri Sturluson tells the story of Sleipnir’s birth—and who knows how much of it he made up?
One day a giant came knocking at the gates of the gods’ Asgard, Snorri writes, and offered to build them a wall guaranteed to keep out Fire Ogres and Frost Giants. All he wanted in return, he said, were the sun and the moon and the goddess Freyja for his wife. The gods debated. Loki the Trickster suggested they set the giant a time limit—one winter, impossibly unrealistic for the task. That way, Loki winked, they’d get most of a wall and would risk nothing. The giant agreed to the time limit, provided his horse could help him.
Days passed and the wall grew. The giant laid up by day the stones his horse hauled by night. When summer was but three days off, the gods saw for certain the giant would keep his end of the bargain. They wanted out of theirs. Whose idea was it, they argued, to ruin the sky by sending the sun and moon to Giantland? Who promised beautiful Freyja as a giant’s bride? It was Loki, everyone agreed, and he’d better come up with a trick to fix it.
That night as the giant’s horse set off to haul stone, he scented a mare in season. He raced off after her, with the giant in pursuit. All night they galloped about, and work on the wall came to a halt. The giant flew into a rage and began throwing things—at which point Thor stepped in and, swinging his mighty hammer, sent the giant to the realm of the dead before he could do any more damage. Some time later, Loki the Trickster bore a gray foal (Snorri doesn’t tell us if Loki had been able to change out of mare’s shape in the meantime). That foal was Sleipnir, the eight-legged steed, called the best horse among gods and men.
Because of their association with the gods, horses were a worthy sacrifice in ancient Scandinavia. A horse, usually white or gray or with unusual markings, would be ritually slaughtered, its blood sprinkled on the altar, the meat stewed and shared out among the celebrants.
Earlier pagan cults had saved the head and hide and set them up on poles to guard a grave or other holy place, but by the Saga Age, these poles had devolved into a type of natural magic. Egil’s Saga tells of a time when the viking hero Egil, having killed the king of Norway’s son, “picked up a branch of hazel and went to a certain cliff that faced the mainland. Then he took a horse head, set it up on the pole and spoke these formal words: Here I set up a pole of insult against King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild—then, turning the horse head toward the mainland—and I direct this insult against the guardian spirits of this land, so that every one of them shall go astray, neither to figure nor find their dwelling places until they have driven King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild from this country.” Egil set sail for Iceland; a year later, King Eirik was deposed by his brother and had to flee to England.
|Photo by Matthew Driscoll from Lehre, Denmark.|
When Iceland became Christian in the year 1000, three things were banned: worshipping the old gods in public, exposing children (a form of infanticide), and eating horsemeat, which Pope Gregory III had banned in the year 732 because of its use in pagan rituals.
Sagas covering the conversion period ridicule the old horse sacrifices. The Saga of Saint Olaf tells of the Norwegian king responsible for Christianizing much of the North. In one version, Olaf visited a poor family so benighted that they worshiped the penis of an old cart horse, wrapped in linen and kept in a chest with garlic and herbs so it wouldn’t rot. King Olaf witnessed a ceremony in which the penis was passed from hand to hand around the circle, each person saying a verse over it. When the “idol” came to him, he threw it to the dog. “The king then cast off his disguise and … talked to them of the true faith.”
The story blames an old woman for making the idol. When the cart horse was butchered, she had snatched the penis from the farmer’s son, who was giggling and shaking it at his sister. “She said they shouldn’t waste this or anything else.” It’s not a bad attitude to have.
|Illustration by Gerhard Munthe for Snorri's Heimskringla.|
Snorri Sturluson and his Edda are the focus of my forthcoming book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, due out in October from Palgrave Macmillan. I first looked into the myths about Icelandic horses to write A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, which is out of print but available as an e-book from Amazon.com and Smashwords.com.
In 1999, I published a version of this story in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress; shortly afterwards I joined the magazine’s editorial committee. Visit the congress’s website (www.icelandics.org) to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, Hestakaup.com and Life with Horses (http://www.lifewithhorses.com/)
Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.