Horses as Status Symbols: Medieval Icelandic horses as symbols of masculine honor in a one-sexed world
By Megan Benjamin
Published Online (2008)
Introduction: Horses, the unsung heroes of the Viking age, have been overlooked all too often in the study of medieval Iceland and its culture. Although many historians attribute the horse’s influence in medieval Iceland to their practical value as pack animals and efficient means of transportation, it seems that horses held symbolic value as well. From the evidence available in Icelandic family sagas and archaeological finds, it is obvious that medieval Icelanders, most often the men, but sometimes the women too, were intimately associated with their horses. As evidenced in Hrafnkel’s Saga and The Saga of Grettir the Strong, it seems that although those who owned horses tended to be wealthy, powerful, and/or renowned, there are also a few examples of men of lesser status both riding horses and engaging in horse fights.
In medieval Iceland, the horses of the rich and powerful were outward expressions of masculine honor, providing mounts of prestige while simultaneously serving practical roles. Members of the lower class sometimes owned and rode horses as well, but they did so in an attempt to mimic the masculine honor exhibited by the upper classes atop their steeds. Many times members of the lower class were unsuccessful in their mimicry of honorable prestige. Their horses, serving practical functions, were mere tools, devoid of honorable symbolism. Rather than being seen as honorable for their ability to own and ride horses, these members of the lower class were equated with their horses and often viewed as beasts themselves. Thus, much of the symbolic value of the horse was in its owner’s ability to ride above the animal, both literally and figuratively, as a master and owner who has conquered and quelled a potential beast.