Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Freyfaxi the Saga Horse

Traveling about Iceland, it's impossible not to stop and take some pictures of the horses and, of course, to remember all the stories of horses in the Icelandic sagas. One of the most famous Icelandic horses appears in Hrafnkel’s Saga, which is set early in Iceland’s history. I first read the saga, and fell in love with the stallion Freyfaxi, while learning Old Norse at Penn State University in the early 1980s. In my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I write about riding a real Freyfaxi: smooth and powerful and unfortunately not for sale.

Iceland was settled between 870 and 930 and became Christian through a decision by the Althing, the yearly meeting of the chieftains, in the year 1000. Before that time Icelanders worshiped the gods Odin, Thor, and Freyr (among others).

The chieftain Hrafnkel owned a dun-colored horse, a fine stallion with a black mane. He dedicated the horse to the god Freyr and named it Freyfaxi, fax meaning “mane.” Although Hrafnkel was well-off, Freyfaxi was the “one treasured possession which he held dearer than anything else he owned,” the saga says. “Hrafnkel loved this horse so passionately that he swore a solemn oath to kill anyone who rode the stallion without his permission.” In the sagas, such an oath is usually regretted.

Hrafnkel hired his poor neighbor’s son, Einar, a promising young man, as his shepherd and warned him not to ride Freyfaxi. All went well until midsummer, when Einar lost track of 30 of Hrafnkel’s sheep. They went missing for a week, and finally he took a bridle and saddlecloth and went to catch a horse to help him search. “But when he came closer, all the mares bolted away from him, and he chased them without success. They had never been so shy before. Only Freyfaxi remained behind; he was as still as if he were anchored to the ground.”

Foolishly, Einar rode Freyfaxi “from dawn to mid-evening, traveling fast and far, for this was an outstanding horse.” By the time they found the lost sheep, “Freyfaxi was all running with sweat; and every hair on his body was dripping. He was covered in mud and panting from exhaustion.” As soon as Einar loosed him, “he rolled over a dozen times, and the neighed loudly and started to race down the path.” He ran right to the farmhouse, “came up to the door and neighed loudly.”

Hrafnkel, who was just sitting down to dinner, recognized the neighing and went out. “It grieves me to see how you have been treated,” he said. “You had your wits about you when you came to me, and this shall be avenged. Go back to your herd.”

The next morning Hrafnkel rode up to the sheep pens and killed Einar. But, regretting his oath, he offered to provide Einar’s father with all the milk and meat his household needed from then on and to give Einar’s younger brothers and sisters “a good start in life.”

Einar’s father refused. With the backing of some powerful men from another part of Iceland, he and a kinsman managed to strip Hrafnkel of his authority and possessions, even stringing him up by his heels to torture and humiliate him before chasing him out of the district. They led Freyfaxi up to a steep cliff beside a waterfall, put a bag over his head, tied a stone around his neck, and used heavy poles to push him over, saying sarcastically that they were sacrificing him to the god Freyr.

Clearly they had overstepped the bounds of justice. As the saga tells it, Hrafnkel worked his way back to prosperity and popularity until finally he resumed his place as leader of the district and “enjoyed great prestige” before dying peacefully in his bed, while his enemies were punished by being reduced to the status of servants.

But that didn’t bring back Freyfaxi. I’ve often longed to rewrite that story—and change the ending.

Hrafnkel’s Saga was translated by Hermann Palsson (Penguin Books, 1971). You can read more about this and other sagas on my friend Emily Lethbridge’s blog, Sagasteads of Iceland (

The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, where I first published this story in 1998, is the official breed publication of the Icelandic Horse Congress. Visit the congress’s website ( 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, and Life with Horses (

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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