Medieval Icelandic Sagas
The Saga of Hrafnkel Priest of Frey
13th century, Old Norse.
Freyfaxi means 'Frey mane’. He is a sacred horse.
'Hrafnkel is a first-generation Icelander who came over as a child to Iceland with his parents,’ said Miranda. ‘That was in the tenth century. In this saga, which was probably written late in the thirteenth century, Hrafnkel is a big landowner and a Godi, that is, a priest of the pagan faith. He has a temple which, when it is burnt down later on in the story, is said to contain many gods and it is in this temple that he performed his sacrifices. His particular deity is Frey, brother to the goddess Freyja and he owns a horse called Freyfaxi. Faxi is Old Norse for 'mane', as in a horse's mane, so Freyfaxi means 'Frey mane’. He is a sacred horse. Freyfaxi is allowed to run wild with his mares and nobody is allowed to ride him. Hrafnkel has made a solemn vow that Freyfaxi shall never be ridden, upon pain of his rider's death.
‘But one of Hrafnkel’s shepherds needs a horse one morning to search for a flock of sheep, comes across Freyfaxi and rides him all the rest of the day looking for the sheep all around the glaciers. As soon as the shepherd dismounts that evening having found the sheep at last, Freyfaxi races off in the direction of Hrafnkel’s homestead, caked in dirt and sweat. Hrafnkel praises the horse for coming straight away to tell him what has happened, talking to him as though he is human:
'I do not like it,' he told him, 'that they are treating you this way, foster-son, but you had your wits about you when you told me of it. It shall be avenged, so off with you to your stud!'
'Frey is an epithet for a man, in the poetry of Gunnlaug Wormtongue and Halfred Troublesome-poet in the sagas that bear their names, both of them written in the thirteenth-century but dealing with events that happened in the tenth. But here the god that can be a man seems also to be a horse as well.'