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Horse-fights: the Brutal Entertainment of the Icelanders in the Middle Ages
By Remigiusz Gogosz
Średniowiecze Polski i Powszechne, Vol. 5:9 (2014)
Abstract: For medieval Icelanders, horses were among the most important animals. It should come as no surprise, as they were used for transport, in pagan rites (hippomancy, funerals, sacred horses), eating, and also for sports. These sports were the horse-fights (hestavígs) and horse-racing (skeið). Reading the sagas, one can find a lot of references to horse-fighting. This sport was considered of such importance among medieval Icelanders that laws have been written down regarding this entertainment, yet there is no exact description of how such events were organized. Only by putting all the references together can one endeavor to explain what these horse-fights may have actually been like. In my paper I would like to present the basis for these horse-fights. Their terminology has been frequently misinterpreted, and no critical investigation yet exists into the staging and organization of such events, which would shed light on the meaning and role of this sport to medieval Icelanders. It will be shown that horse-fighting functioned not only as brutal entertainment in itself, but also played a social role in the broader context of inter-district assemblies.
Introduction: It is an arguable assumption that horse-fights should be grouped with sports activities or even games as a whole. However, asserting this is not pointless because it seems clear that horse‑fights were a kind of entertainment and they also satisfy the established rules on the terminology of games. What is more, the way horse‑fights were organized by the Icelanders of the Middle Ages is quite similar to other games or sports such as knattleikr or glíma. This article is an attempt to re‑create the method of horse‑fighting in Iceland in the medieval period — including the cultural significance of the event.
For the Icelanders and other Nordic peoples of the Saga Age, horses were one of the most important animals (as significant as cattle). This comes as no surprise due to their many uses, such as for transport, food and in pagan rites (in funerals as grave sacrifices, in divination, i.e. hippomancy, and as sacred horses), and additionally for sport. The sport in question was called horse-fighting (hestavíg), but as it will be demonstrated later, it was only a part of a larger gathering called hestaþing, during which people were also selling horses and enjoying other forms of entertainment. In this case it is not problematic to reconstruct the rules of this sport. Interestingly, we can find horse-fighting nowadays in some parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia. It will be elaborated on later in this paper.