A Story of a Viking Horse, Revenge Attacks, and a Kept Promise

Posted by Ms Elly on

A Story of a Viking Horse, Revenge Attacks, and a Kept Promise

One famous Icelandic saga, Hrafnkell saga Freysgoða, helps we understand the importance of the horse Freyfaxi to the chieftain Hrafnkell: He killed a shepherd Einar to keep his promise that he would kill anyone whoever dared to ride his horse. 


The exact date that the saga was written down has been unknown by far. But many scholars believed that it was written down in the 13th century. But the story focused on the struggle between the chieftains and the farmers in the 10th century. It describes chieftain Hrafnkell as a gentle master to his men but a brutal guy to the others. Chieftain Hrafnkell would pay no weregild (coin/man price) to anyone that he killed although there were cases in the Viking law that the murderer had to pay an amount of money to the victims. 

Image of Viking horses and Viking chieftain

The chieftain on the horse (Cre: "Vikings" TV Series)

The chieftain is also known as a man who regularly worshipped God Freyr. In Norse mythology, Freyr was the god of summer and sunshine. The chieftain Hrafnkell often sacrificed the best of his goods and horses to god Freyr. Because of this deeply ingrained religious belief, the chieftain was known as the Freysgoði (Freyr's priest and chieftain). 

Once there was a young boy who worked as a shepherd. His name was  Einar and his job every day was to watch herds of sheep and drive them into the pen. One day, when the dusk was falling over the village but the young boy Einar hadn't been able to keep the sheep in the pen. He knew exactly what he needed to do at that moment: riding a horse to drive the sheep. He came to the horse herd. Every horse that he approached ran away from him. Not a single one except for the Freyfaxi came toward him.

Although Einar knew about the ban from the chieftain, he still picked the horse and rode on it. Probably, Einar didn't think about the consequences of breaking the law that chieftain had given out. He just learnt that if before night he still couldn't bring back the sheep, he would be told off and punished. Then off he went on the back of Freyfaxi. 

Image of Viking horses

After Einar had finished his own duty of driving the sheep into the pen, he let go of Freyfaxi and the horse immediately ran back home. That night, Freyfaxi the horse suddenly neighed in an awkward way. Hrafnkell knew what happened when he saw his horse full of sweat and dirt. The next morning, the chieftain rode up to the mountain farm where he met the Einar. Whatever the conversation went, the chieftain wielded his axe and beheaded the boy for riding his horse which also meant the boy had broken the law of the chieftain. 

For this action, the chieftain Hrafnkell was convicted of an outlaw. And the rest of the story was about the punishment of this chieftain and how he rode to power once again to take revenge. 


Since the colonization in Iceland in the late 800s, the very first settlers like Hrafnkell's father who arrived at the east coast in 900s bringing them with horses from Norway.

There was no special trait about the appearance of Freyfaxi. So he might have looked similar to any of the Icelandic horses today. These horses are tough and can endure very well in the harsh weather. Although they might not look enormous, they could bring a Viking man through the terrain. 

There have been many Viking excavations of horses: horse carcasses, horse heads, horse bones after the sacrifice in the grave mounds, etc. They appeared many times in tapestries and runestones which depict the life of the Vikings in their times. 

Image of Viking excavations viking horses

Viking woman inside the Oseberg burial mound with the horse as the sacrifice 

Horses also appeared in Norse mythology: the eight-legged horse of Odin the Allfather, Heimdall's golden horse Gulltoppr, the horse of Hrungnir the giant Gullfaxi, and Dagr's and Not's horses that helped them to bring the sun and the moon across the sky. Freyr himself had a horse known as Blodughofi that had many powers. So we can easily reason how much the chieftain Hrafnkell respected his horse that he wouldn't allow anyone to ride on him. Anyone who broke the rule of Hrafnkell would face death. Hrafnkell knew that nothing good would ever happen to those who broke their solemn vow. And he kept his promise with the young shepherd. 

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