Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Sorceror’s Horse: An Icelandic Folktale

If I had to choose one favorite horse from all of those mentioned in medieval Icelandic literature, it would be Fluga. She was an exceptionally fast horse—as she should be to earn a name that derives from the verb “to fly.” And for some unknown reason, she has been exceptionally inspiring.

Horse races were common entertainments in Saga Age Iceland, and horses known for speed were often challenged. The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, tells of one such challenge to Fluga, a mare that came over on “a ship with a cargo of livestock” in the early 900s. She probably came from Norway, although horses were brought to Iceland from the British Isles and one, the famous Kinnskaer, an extremely tall horse that had to be fed on grain both summer and winter, according to The Saga of the Men of Thorskafjord, came from Eastern Europe or even Asia.

When the ship bearing Fluga was being unloaded at the harbor of Kolkuos in Skagafjord, she escaped. Thorir Dove-Nose, a freed slave, “bought the chance of finding the mare, and find her he did.”

Apparently he bragged about her speed. One day, the story goes, Thorir was riding along Kjolur, one of the two main routes that cross through the interior wasteland of Iceland. Suddenly he was waylaid by a mysterious character named Orn, “a sorceror who used to wander from one part of the country to another.” Orn “made a bet with him as to which had the faster horse. Orn himself had a particularly fine one. Each of them staked a hundred marks of silver.”

They rode south on Kjolur until they came to a level stretch of land still known as “Dove-Nose’s Racetrack.” They laid out a course and raced off. But “Orn was only half way up the course by the time Thorir met him on his way back, so great was the difference between the two horses.”

Orn took his loss so badly that he went up into the mountains and was never seen again. Fluga was exhausted, so Thorir left the mare behind (Icelanders usually travel with several riding horses, switching the saddle to the next as each one tires) and continued on his way.

Yet when he came back to fetch her several weeks later, he was surprised to find “there was a gray, black-maned stallion with the mare.” Given that the Kjolur route is in the middle of Iceland, set between two of the largest glaciers, it’s unlikely this stallion had wandered away from a nearby farm. Gray horses, particularly, are often magic; the suspicion hinted at is that the stallion is the sorceror Orn himself.

Fluga had a foal the next spring, the story goes, “and from their line sprang the horse Eidfaxi, the one that was taken abroad and killed seven men at Mjors in a single day before he was killed himself.”

There’s no story told about the Battle of Mjors. Eidfaxi remains famous a thousand or more years after his death because he was “the one that was taken abroad.” Eidfaxi is now the name of a magazine about Icelandic horses: The name combines eidur, “oath,” and fax, “mane.”

I learned the legend of Fluga and the sorcerors horse while writing A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse: I even visited the farm named for her, Flugumyri. In 1998, I published a version of Fluga’s 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 to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today.) Some years later, I wrote a childrens book based on the Fluga tale (still unpublished).

But Fluga’s great race remained stuck in my brain. So in 2009, I rode Kjolur, the trail Thorir Dove-Nose took from the north of Iceland to the south, with the trekking company Íshestar. On Day Four of our six-day trek, we passed right by the spot known as “Dove-Nose’s Racetrack”—and it was nothing like I had imagined. Im in the process of writing that story. Let’s just say it’s a little long for a blog post. It may be some time before I come to terms with all I learned--about Iceland, Icelandic horses, and myself--on that long ride.

In the meantime, you can visit the website of my friend Stan Hirson, who shares my fascination with the story of Fluga. His video blogs about Kolkuos and Flugumyri can be found at and Life with Horses (

The original story of Fluga (and the quotations above) can be found in The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, as translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards (University of Manitoba, 1972).
Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. Þóra MagnúsdóttirAugust 13, 2012 at 10:36 AM

    I have always loved this story, and also the story how the mare Skálm marked were her owner built his farm at Rauðamelur (were I now own a summercottage). And the story of Freyfaxi.

  2. Rauðamelur is such a beautiful spot! You did see my post on the Skálm story, didn't you?

    As for Freyfaxi, I want to rewrite the ending. It's too sad that Freyfaxi is pushed over the waterfall.