Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða

Right. When unsure what to read next, it’s clearly time for another Icelandic saga. 🙂

This one is Hrafnkels saga FreysgoðaThe Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi–which gets brought up a lot when reading about the sagas. I can see why–it’s both short and very neatly constructed, a sort of textbook case of how blood feuds work in sagas. (Though for the lawsuits, not so much. We just hear “Sam prosecuted his case to the full extent of the law” and, essentially, won. Which left me going, “Wait! Where are all my twisty obscure legal details? What kind of an AlÞing is this?” But never mind that.)

So anyway, as with saga feuds in general, the story begins with small things: a powerful goði (chieftain) with a horse he’s sworn no one but him will ride; the inevitable man who rides the horse anyway; the kin of the dead men who refuse the settlement the goði offers, find themselves too weak to prosecute a case against him, and so need to get an equally powerful goði from another part of the country on their side instead. They win their case (though we never know exactly how), but treat the loser badly in turn, and so things keep escalating.

And then the saga also becomes an interesting study in how blood feuds can be short-circuited–because the whole reason the saga is short is that, when the winner of the lawsuit’s brother is killed, and he goes to his goði allies seeking support once more, those allies pretty much say nope, sorry, we’ve had enough, have enough life. So the winner of the lawsuit, with that support withdrawn, has no choice but to give up and quietly live out the rest of his life, and so the saga ends.

Though part of me keeps thinking of this as the story of a man who was overly fond of his horse. 🙂

Hrafnkel has one animal in his possession that he valued more than others. It was a dun stallion with a dark mane and tail and a dark stripe down its back, which he named Freyfaxi. He dedicated half of this horse to his friend Frey. He had such love for this stallion that he made an oath to bring about the death of any man who rode it without his position.

I’m still wondering just how one dedicates half a horse to a god. (Don’t gods generally prefer whole horses?) But the part that at once amused and sort of moved me was when the horse, having been ridden without permission, returns home to its master.

The stallion was so soaked in sweat that it was dripping off every hair. He was splattered with mud and terribly exhausted. He rolled over some nine times, and after that gave a great neigh. He then set off down the track at great speed …

When the stallion reached the door he neighed loudly. Hrafnkel told one of the women who was serving at the table she should go out, ‘because a horse neighed, and it sounded to me like the neigh of Freyfaxi.’

She went to the door and saw Freyfaxi in a very dirty state. She told Hrafnkel that Freyfaxi was outside the door, looking thoroughly filthy.

‘What should the champion want that he should have come back home?’ said Hrafnkel. ‘This does not mean anything good.’

He then went outside and saw Freyfaxi and said, ‘I don’t like the way you’ve been treated, my foster-son. But you had your wits about you when you told me of this. It will be avenged. Go to your herd.’

The combination of “my foster-son” and “it will be avenged” make it seem very much as if Hrafnkel–an otherwise difficult man at this point in the saga–were talking not to a horse, but to a beloved kinsman. Which one can read as funny or touching or both, depending.

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