Hrafnkel, in the eponymous Hrafnkel’s Saga, by modern standards would certainly be considered a ruthless murderer. However, it is necessary to take into consideration the time period and culture of this historic Scandinavian saga. The entirety of the Icelandic population was illiterate and as such the justice system established in 10th century Iceland was based mostly on a system of honor and violence. The laws of Iceland were not actually written down, but rather kept alive verbally. An oral oath was considered to be a legally binding contract.
This system was a weak attempt at avoiding bloody feuds and altercations among the common people, amidst a governing system of honor and trust. Hrafnkel, the protagonist of Hrafnkel’s Saga, demonstrated this skewed justice system by asserting himself as a Chieftain and bringing wrath upon his enemies or anybody who crossed his word. Thus, when Einar broke his oral agreement with Hrafnkel, Einar essentially broke a legally binding contract and was consequently subject to the full penalty of their agreement.
Therefore, Hrafnkel, who agreed to kill anybody who rode his beloved horse, Freyfaxi, was then not guilty in committing murder as he was not breaking any Icelandic laws and was simply committing to his contract with Einar. Hrafnkel’s murder of Einar was justified in a myriad of ways. Upon hiring Einar to be his sheepherder, Hrafnkel explicitly told him that he could ride any horse he pleased, but Freyfaxi: “But I must warn you against one thing: I want you never to ride this horse, however urgent the need may seem to you, for I’ve sworn an oath to kill anyone who rides him.” (40)
In the era to which Hrafnkel lived, there were no such things as laws, government, policemen, or jails. People’s word was the law and when a verbal contract was broken, it was like breaking the law in a modern sense. Einar, clearly acknowledging this agreement, swore to abide by this and said he “would never be so wicked as to ride the one horse which was forbidden to him. ” At this time in Icelandic culture, one who kept his word was held in high regard. Once again, Hrafnkel, reiterated the importance of an oral agreement and stated that “warning wards off blame.”
Since Einar did indeed ride Freyfaxi, he was inevitably responsible for his own death. Even more so, Einar decided to ride Freyfaxi despite having several other horses to choose from; even though the other horses ran away he did not put any effort into mounting onto another horse. Einar’s murder was simply the ultimate punishment for his wrongdoing and breaking the law between Hrafnkel and him. One may begin to wonder why Hrafnkel had even subject Einar to such a preposterous and bizarre agreement. However, this agreement was not made in vain.
Hrafnkel, had sworn an oath to dedicate half of Freyfaxi to the diety, Freyr, whom he loves above all others. Fundamentally, this meant only Freyr and Hrafnkel himself, were allowed to ride Freyfaxi. At the very start of the saga, Hrafnkel’s love for the god, Freyr was shown: “When Harnkel had settled at Adalbol, he had a large temple built and held great sacrifices to the gods. He loves Frey above all the other gods and gave him a half-share in all his best treasures. ” (36) In fact, it is because of his intense affection for this god that Hrafnkell gained the title Freysgodi.
As exemplified earlier, Freyr, played an extremely important part in the chieftain’s religion. Thus, Einar’s choosing to ride Freyfaxi was near sacrilegious in Hrafnkel’s eyes. Upon seeing a dirty and sweaty Freyfaxi, Hrafnkel considered the horse ill and abused, and promised to “avenge” his friend. Ultimately, even though Einar seemed like good hard-working man and Hrafnkel’s actions were harsh, Hrafnkel broke no laws while Einar broke the oral agreement, a legally binding contract, and harmed Freyfaxi.
Primarily, just the breach of contract with Einar was enough justification to kill Einar, but even more so the culture of Iceland survived on a certain type of trust and honour system. It was this code of trust that gave Hrafnkel the authority and proper justification to kill Einar. If Einar was to be untrusted, this was the only way to ensure peace and order in the community. Furthermore, Hrafnkel even fulfilled the Icelandic duty to offer some kind of compensation for the grieving family. Hrafnkel’s compensation offer for food and items to Einar’s father, Thorbjorn, was extremely generous.
In this respect, Hrafnkel was once again following the laws and traditions of Icelandic society. On another note, Hrafnkel was consindered to be the “hero” of Hrafnkel’s Saga. A saga according to multiple sources from the Internet is “a long story of achievement” and tells the “tales of worthy men. ” In this sense, Hrafnkel can not be deemed guilty by his Icelandic people or readers. After close examination of the text of Hrankel’s Saga it is very clear that Hrafnkel was completely innocent in the killing of Einar. Based on 10th century Icelandic ideals on justice, Hrafnkel was able to punish Einar for breaking their oral agreement.
In effect, by breaking this agreement, Einar was also breaking Hrafnkel’s sworn oath with the deity, Freyr, whom he shared Freyfaxi with. As cruel and insane Hrafnkel’s violence may seem under today’s standards, it was all justified under the Icelandic system of law. It is important to understand the civilization that had once existed rather than to judge the tale as a story of murder and dictatorship. In the proper light, Hrafnkel was a hero who upheld Icelandic tradition, law, and honor who in the process grew into a more understanding, respectable, and wealthier Chieftain.
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