This Saga begins the same way Iceland did, and the same way many Sagas do: some Norwegian guy (this one is named Hallfreður) settles his family in Iceland to farm. Welcome to Iceland, Hallfreður. All this would normally be fine, but it becomes complicated as his son Hrafnkell turns out to be a total asshole.
When Hrafnkell grows up, he starts his own farm in the same valley. He begins to obsess creepily over the god Freyr. You might call it “faith,” but I think of it more like Hrafnkell is Eminem circa 2009 and Freyr is Mariah Carey, sitting up there in Ásgarður like, “lol why r u so obsessed with me?” This is an unfair analogy because Mariah Carey is the worst, but you get the idea. He builds a temple to Freyr, dedicates half of everything he owns to the god, has sacrifices in his honor, and bargains off parts of his land to new settlers on the condition that he be their chieftain and priestly overlord.
He has a favorite horse, whose name is naturally Freyfaxi, which means “Freyr’s black-maned stallion.” He has sworn to kill anyone who ever rides the horse. Again, I picture Freyr: “chill out, dude, I don’t even care about ur dumb horse.” But Hrafnkell is totally not kidding.
Well known as a bully, he kills many men in duels but categorically refuses to pay compensation for the killings, something that was considered super rude at the time. In Medieval Northern Europe, you could generally kill anyone as long as you gave their family something in return. The typical response to, “Sorry I killed your husband; have this sheep instead,” was, “Cool, no problem.” And things, strangely, just moved right on.
Blood and milk and other bodily fluids
Not for Þorbjörn, though. He tells his son, “Einar, all my other kids totally suck and although I obviously love you the most, if you keep living here we’ll all starve to death because we’re poor. So GTFO and get a job.” Einar, his son, finds work as a shepherd on Hrafnkell’s farm and is immediately warned about the deathly implications of riding the horse.
He soon loses many of the sheep and requires a horse to find them. To no one’s surprise, every mare runs away when he approaches it, while Freyfaxi is basically like, “Hey, man. I’m just standing here, chillin’. You could totally ride me if you want.” (The horse obviously doesn’t talk, but you get the picture. Some scholars interpret the ominous actions of the horse as the will of Freyr, so he’s probably just fucking with all these idiots and LOLing up a storm in Ásgarður.) So Einar rides the horse like dipshit with a death-wish and the wish comes true. To Hrafnkell’s credit, he at least has the decency to tell Einar how sad he is about the killing before he sticks an axe in Einar’s face.
Like most humans today, but unlike many characters in the Sagas, Þorbjörn feels some feels. Even if he doesn’t cry. He’s so upset about the killing of his son that he goes to Hrafnkell and demands compensation. Hrafnkell is so regretful about that whole axe-in-face business that he offers to give Þorbjörn milk for all eternity, and to generally make sure his poor family doesn’t ever starve to death, and allow Þorbjörn to live in Hrafnkell’s house when he’s too old to farm. Despite being an extremely generous compensation (especially considering Hrafnkell’s cheap ass), Þorbjörn still has a lot of feels and insists milk is not fair payment for blood. Hrafnkell politely tells him to fuck off.
Law and order and torture and stuff
Seeking assistance to prosecute Hrafnkell in court, Þorbjörn goes to his brother, who refuses to help because he believes Hrafnkell is too powerful. His son Sámur, however, reluctantly agrees to help and sets off a chain of class dynamics and legal events that are all super boring until someone gets tortured, so I’ll fast-forward to that. All you need to know is that some rando named Þorkell shows up from the Westfjords and uses his powerful family connections to help win the case against Hrafnkell, thereby humiliating him. There was much rejoicing.
Then there was some torture. Sámur, Þorkell, and others storm Hrafnkell’s house early in the morning, taking him and all able-bodied men outside. They cut holes through each of their heels and then string them all up like some kind of giant, fucked-up torture-necklace. Although he won the right to kill the shit out of Hrafnkell (and all his bros advise to do so or regret it), Sámur lets Hrafnkell choose between death and life in humiliation. He chooses humiliation. Sámur keeps all of Hrafnkell’s stuff, including his chieftaincy and his valley and his special fancy horse, which his bros promptly shove off a cliff. And guess what, Freyr totally doesn’t even care.
The Return Of The Asshole
Hrafnkell moves away and becomes less of an asshole, as well as finally giving up on Freyr. (He’s just not that into you, dude!) He eventually gets rich and gains another chieftaincy because people hate him way less. Maybe they even like him. But he’s still an asshole. No one ever mentions his possible inability to walk due to the loss of his Achilles tendon, which seems kind of important to the whole farming thing. But whatever.
Six years later, Sámur’s brother is passing by Hrafnkell’s valley and Hrafnkell, apparently still enough of an asshole for revenge, does the thing with the axe again. Then he takes Sámur by surprise, but with like no torture at all, and offers him the same choice Sámur offered Hrafnkell before. Sámur also chooses humiliation. He then goes his bros for help, but they serve him a brimming milk-jug of “I told u so, bro.” And he lives modestly ever after as Hrafnkell’s bitch. Who is the truly the Eminem and who is truly the Mariah Carey of this situation remains a lively matter of scholarly debate to this day.
Moral of the story: if someone says they’ll literally kill you if you ride the horse, don’t ride the fucking horse. Also, in general, don’t be an asshole.
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