The saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi

Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. Hrafnkel is his name, godi means priest though it also came to mean chieftain or secular power, and Frey was the Norse god of fertility. So: the saga of Hrafnkel the priest of Frey. Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi is well-known for being one of the shortest and most focused of the sagas, telling its story with clarity and directness. In the Penguin edition it has 16 chapters; in the 1882 free online translation by John Coles it has 20.

1 – In the days of King Harald Fair-Hair (870-930) a man called Hallfred brings his wife and son Hrafnkel to Breiddal in Iceland. In a vision a woman tells him to move his house which he does and avoids an avalanche. The new place is named Hallfredsstadir.
2 – Hrafnkel comes of age and builds his own farm in Jokunsdal which he names Adalbol. He builds a large temple to Frey. He settles the valley and imposes himself on the population as their godi. He is not a good godi, being unfair, not paying reparations etc.
3 – A man named Bjarni lives on a farm at Laugarhus. He has sons, the argumentative lawyer Sam and Eyjolf who adventures abroad to Denmark and onto Constantinople. Hrafnkel reverences one stalion which he dedicates to Frey and names Freyfaxi and forbids any man to ride it.
4 – There is a farmer named Thorbjorn, Bjarni’s brother. He is not well off and has many dependents. Thorbjorn tells his eldest son Einar he needs to get a job. Einar rides over to Adalbol to see Hrafnkel who has filled most of  his vacancies but can offer him the job of shepherd, which Einar takes. Thee is one condition: he must not ride the stallion named Freyfaxi. Hrafnkel will kill any man who rides it.
5 – Einar does well all summer but one day wakes up and thrity sheep are missing. He needs to find them but when he goes to round up a horse to ride all the others run away. Except Freyfaxi who, as one fated, stands stock still while Einar eventually decides to saddle and ride him. Einar rides freyfaxi all round the hills looking for the sheep and eventually finds them where he started. As soon as he dismounts Freyfaxi, covered in mud and sweat, bolts down to the farmhouse where a woman reports his state to Hrafnkel who is angry. Next morning he rides up to the sheiling, confirms that Einar did indeed ride his horse, and kills him with one axe stroke. He buries his body in a shallow grave at a place which becomes known as Einarsvardi.
6 – Thorbjorn rides to:

  • Adalbol to complain to Thorbjorn. Thorbjorn concedes it was a bad deed and offers him the pick of his cattle, placements and advancement for his sons and daughters, and free choice of what he’s got in his home. But Thorbjorn insists on independent arbitration ie that he be treated as an equal, and this Thorbjorn scornfully refuses.
  • Thorbjorn rides on to Laugurhus to his brother Bjarni who thinks he’s stupid for turning down Hrafnkel’s generous offer.
  • and on to Leikskalar to see Sam, his brother’s son, who he persuades very reluctantly to take over the case (of, after all, avenging his cousin).

7 –  Sam observes the formalities of Icelandic law: he rides to a farm, gathers a crowd, and accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Then goes home. Summer passes and winter then in spring, in the Summons Days, Sam rides to Adalbol and formally accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Hrafnkel assembles a posse of 70 retainers and rides to the Althing. Sam musters as many unattached men as he can and rides to the Althing by a different route. He and his uncle Thorbjorn go round the booths asking for support but no-one will help as they all say Hrafnkel wins all his case, and Sam is no kin of theirs.
8 – Thorbjorn says maybe they shouls pack their bags and head home. Sam says he’s got him into this mess and he’s going to see it through to the end. Just then a man with a streak of white hair comes walking by. He is Thorkel Thjostarson just returned from Constantinople. He has brothers Thorgeir and Thormod. After having Sam’s situation explained Thorkel says he will support him.
9 – The elaborate ruse of stumbling over Thorgeir’s sore toe leads the brothers to argue, Thorgeir saying Hrafnkel always wins, Thorkel can have the godord back if he wants etc. Thorkel refuses all this and talks Thorgeir round into supporting Sam and old man Thorbjorn.
10 – The Thjostarssons muster at the Law Rock while Sam presents his case flawlessy. When Hrafnkel is told he thinks he’ll just ride up there and scare them off, but the throng is so great he can’t make his way through and so doesn’t have chance to present a defence (!) and so is sentenced in his absence to full outlawry. Thorkel says Hrafnkel will probably ride home confident in the knowledge that Sam won’t do the necessary follow-up ie serving notice of the outlawry in person. Thorkel says he his brothers and retainers will help. So they all ride across Iceland to the east (15 days) arriving at Hrafnkel’s valley on the morning that the confiscation court is meant to be carried out.
11 – Sam, the Thjostarrsons and sixty (!) of their retainers run down to the farm and terrorise the people. They lock all the women and children in a barn. They then pierce the ankles of all eight of the men and hang them by the ankles by a rope over a beam. Thorkel and Sam discuss what to do. Thorgeir and Sam go to a knoll an arrow’s shot from the farm to carry out the confiscation court. Hrafnkel offers self-judgement and Sam says he is going to spare him, but confiscate his farm, all the land and livestock and also Hrafnkel’s godi or chieftainship. Hrafnkel packs all his people and belongings and leaves Adalbol that day. He migrates east and buys a poor farm but by sheer hard work builds it up and names it Hrafnkelsstadir.
12 – The Thjostarssons advise Sam to be wise and just to his new thingmen. They examine the horses and don’t see anything special about Freyfaxi, but decide they must give him back to his part-owner (the god) so they set a stone around his neck and push him over a high waterfall, ever since known as Freyfaxahamar. They strip and burn Frey’s temple, then depart on excellent terms with much gift-giving and return west.
13 – When Hrafnkel hears the Thjostarssons have stripped his temple and burned the idols he abandons paganism, ceasing to sacrifice. Hrafnkel thrives, acquires wealth and, as the land east of Lagarfljot becomes populated, he builds a great following of thingmen. He is a wiser and kinder man.
14 – One day Sam’s brother Eyvind returns from long merchanting abroad. He is rich dressed in fine clothes. Sam sends him horses and Eyvind, four merchants and his boy set off with pack horses towards Adalbol. A erving woman washing linen in the river watches them go by and, as so often, goes to report it to Hrafnkel and goads him, taunting that people grow soft with age , and what an opportunity this would be for revenge. Hrafnkel musters his supporters and 18 of them set out in pursuit. This chapter is famous for the highly-detailed description of the lie of the rivers, bogs, lava fields which the two parties cross. Eyvind’s boy repeatedly advises him to flee but Eyvind refuses to flee someone he hasn’t offended. Hrafnkel caches him up and massacres Eyvind and his troop. The boy had fled fast to Adalbol where he tells Sam but by the time Sam and supporters arrive his brother is dead. They give chase but Hrafnkel is too far ahead and makes it home safely.
15 – Hrafnkel makes a surprise attack on Sam with no fewer than 70 supporters and catches him in his bed. He offers him death or self-judgement, which Sam accepts. Hrafnkel turfs him out of Adalbol, telling him to take only what he brought. Hrafnkel will resume living there and resume the godard and Sam will live back on his farm in Leikskalar with his kin. Which is what happens.
16 – Sam rankles. He rides west to visit the Thjostarssons asking for help. But this time they turn him down. They told him to kill Hrafnkel when he had the chance; now he is reaping the result of ignoring their advice. And no, they refuse to ride all the way out east to take part in further fighting. They offer gifts but Sam refuses them and rides home disgruntled. He lives out his life in this lowly position, never achieving revenge. Hrafnkel by contrast lives in honour till he dies of an illness. His properties are divided between his sons.

Thoughts

‘The saga has been interpreted as the story of a man who arrives at the conclusion that the true basis of power does not lie in the favor of the gods but in the loyalty of one’s subordinates.’ (Wikipedia)

Debate has raged for over a century about whether the saga stems from oral tradition preserving the memory of actual events, or whether it is a work of fiction by a 13th century writer, creating what has been described as it ‘one of the most perfect short novels in world literature.’

It seems probable that the peg of the narrative, the specialness of Freyfaxi and his standing still to tempt Einar, his running to his master after being ridden, and his ultimate sacrifice, may have origins in pagan horse-worship. But there is nothing else supernatural or uncanny in the tale, unlike most sagas which have plenty of omens and prophecies which suggest to me the theory of a 13th century author setting out to create a novella and using disparate elements which were to hand.

Aliens

What strikes this reader is the complete alienness of the concepts of justice and honour which permeate the saga. It is difficult to understand that Hrafnkel can be tried and sentenced at the Althing without even appearing to make a defence. It is boggling that, having thus been outlawed, Hrafnkel can be attacked, tortured, maimed and killed by Sam with no comeback, and so can his farmhands. It is terrifying that quite out of the blue Hrafnkel can murder Eyvind and four completely uninvolved merchants and, again, not only get away scot-free but regain all his lost possessions – and be universally judged the winner! Obviously intended by the author to deserve to be held in high honour and esteem for sitting things out and finally getting  his way.

The complete ‘otherness’ of the entire system of values of the sagas completely overshadows the minor issue of whether the stories are oral history or fiction or a combination of the two. They are powerful insights into a mindset which is so alien to ours in almost every way that they almost amount to science fiction.

Related links

Other sagas

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