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Of Horses and Men. Symbolic Value of Horses in Icelandic Art

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Of Horses and Men. Symbolic Value of Horses in Icelandic Art

Abstract and Figures

Konie stanowią jeden z najpopularniejszych tematów w sztuce islandzkiej. Figura konia islandzkiego (Icelandera) może być intepretowana jako część tożsamości narodowej Islandczyków: od czasów osiedlenia Islandii, konie były obecne podczas budowania państwa oraz tworzenia narodu. Stąd poniższy tekst przedstawia symboliczne znaczenie konia w Islandii poprzez przyjrzenie się dwóm strefom: sacrum (wierzenia oraz mitologia nordycka) i profanum (praca, życie codzienne). Motyw konia rozpatrywany jest tutaj zarówno w tradycyjnych przedstawieniach (w sztuce i literaturze), jak również we współczesnej narracji sztuk wizualnych (malarstwa i filmu). Wywód oparty jest na (ko)relacji konia i człowieka w Islandii, ze szczególnym uwzględnieniem tego jak człowiek traktował i przedstawiał konia, oraz jak blisko żyły ze sobą te dwa gatunku na przestrzeni lat.
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Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 1
E K
http://orcid.org/0000-0002-4527-2689
Independent scholar, Warszawa
Of Horses and Men
Symbolic Value of Horses in Icelandic Art
„Zoophilologica. Polish Journal of Animal Studies”
Nr 6/2020 Mity – stereotypy – uprzedzenia
 2451-3849
DOI: http://doi.org/10.31261/ZOOPHILOLOGICA.2020.06.25
Okoniach i ludziach. Symboliczne
znaczenie konia w sztuce islandzkiej
Abstrakt
Konie stanowią jeden z najpopularniejszych
tematów w sztuce islandzkiej. Figura konia
islandzkiego (Icelandera) może być intepre-
towana jako część tożsamości narodowej
Islandczyków: od czasów osiedlenia Islandii,
konie były obecne podczas budowania pań-
stwa oraz tworzenia narodu. Stąd poniższy
tekst przedstawia symboliczne znaczenie ko-
nia w Islandii poprzez przyjrzenie się dwóm
strefom: sacrum (wierzenia oraz mitologia
nordycka) i profanum (praca, życie codzien-
ne). Motyw konia rozpatrywany jest tutaj
zarówno w tradycyjnych przedstawieniach
(wsztuce i literaturze), jak również we współ-
czesnej narracji sztuk wizualnych (malarstwa
ifilmu). Wywód oparty jest na (ko)relacji ko-
nia i człowieka w Islandii, ze szczególnym
uwzględnieniem tego jak człowiek traktował
i przedstawiał konia, oraz jak blisko żyły ze
sobą te dwa gatunku na przestrzeni lat.
Słowa klucze: koń islandzki, Icelander, mito-
logia nordycka, Islandia, symbolika
О лошадях и людях. Символическое
значение лошади висландском искусстве
Абстракт
    
     -
.    
   -
  : 
    
   
 .  
   -
  ,    :
 (  
)   (, -
 ).   -
    
( ),   -
   -
 (  ). 
  ()  -
 ,   , 
     -
  ,     
      .
Ключевые слова:  ,
Icelander,  ,
, 
FILM/SZTUKA/MEDIA
Emiliana Konopka
2
In 2013, Benedikt Erlingsson directed his first full-length film, Of Horses and
Men, which became known worldwide the following year. In this festival-
rewarded production, Erlingsson tells astory about Iceland’s most beloved and
respected animal – the Icelandic horse. This particular species has been with
the Icelanders “for good and for bad” since the times of the settlement and,
although changing its role and function, has played an important role in the
Icelandic identity and cultural heritage. The latter can be seen in visual arts,
especially paintings and sculptures, executed by Icelandic artists. By analyzing
Icelandic art of the 20th century, it is possible to notice numerous depictions
of horses and their place in the domestic landscape of the island, as well as
in farms and other circumstances, showing the long-lasting relation with the
human. This relation, or correlation, is pointed out by Erlingsson in his movie.
The original title of the production – Hross í oss – means literally “Horses in
us,” which seems to underline the mutual occurrence of horses and men in their
everyday life. Horses and men are intertwined, the first take part in the latter’s
vicissitudes, both species control and observe each other, the viewer is able to
watch the scenes from both humans’ and horses’ perspective (“with their eyes”).1
We, humans, are only capable of studying our own perspective. The conscious-
ness of (having) “horses in us” has presumably accompanied the Icelanders for
years, being part of both sacrum and profanum sphere.
In this essay, Iwill try to give an interpretation of selected works of art
depicting horses. Most of the artworks are contemporary (as the Icelandic art
was established no sooner than in 19002), but Iwill also relate to earlier objects,
especially those that exemplify old beliefs and illustrate mythology. I want to
base my argument on art made by Icelanders, by which I mean artists who
were born and/or raised in Iceland, but not necessarily lived there in their
adulthood. What interests me here is their attitude to the animal, its place in
the Iceland’s heritage and tradition, folklore, beliefs and common imagination.
The main aim of the essay is therefore to investigate the motif in order to find
answers to such questions as: is Icelandic horse a national symbol of Iceland?
How is the animal represented in art in Iceland? Has this depiction changed
throughout the time? To what extent is the role of the animal symbolic? How
many “horses” are there in Icelandic souls?
To analyze the motif, I will refer to the two spheres mentioned above. By
sacrum, I mean everything that comes from the religious and spiritual: beliefs,
religious customs, as well as superstitions and magic. In Icelandic case that will
1
Sebastian Jakub Konefał, Kino Islandii. Tradycja iponowoczesność (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo
wPodwórku, 2016), 253.
2
By the term “Icelandic art” Imean art executed by Icelandic and professional artists. It is
usually presumed that Icelandic art history began with the establishment of the National Gallery
(Listasafn ĺslands) and/ or Þórarinn Þorláksson’s first exhibition in Iceland. See: Ólafur Kvaran,
Þórarinn B. Þorláksson: Pioneer at the Dawn of a Century (Reykjavík: Listasafn Íslands, 2000).
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 3
be both Old Norse mythology with pagan gods (Odin, Frey and others) but also
folklore traditions (elves, giants), and monotheistic Christianity, the conversion
to which in 999/1000 led to changing habits and customs. By profanum, Imean
the natural world of everyday life: actions and routines necessary for survival,
such as working, eating and procreation. Here Iwill focus on the settlement3
and development of agriculture on the island, legislation, and contemporary cir-
cumstances. Certainly sacrum and profanum can interweave, but what interests
me most is how the figure of the horse is placed in both spheres and how it is
emphasized by the artists illustrating the phenomenon.
Profanum:
The Icelander – AParamount Companion
Icelander, ahorse, shares its name with every Icelander, ahuman. The animal
of Iceland is the Icelandic horse, the Icelander. Assuming from domestic visual
culture and images sent abroad, it seems that it is the horses that Icelanders
are most proud of within their fauna.4 In this part I would like to describe
this unique relation between Icelanders-people and Icelanders-horses, focus-
ing on the similarities between the two species shown in art and literature. By
describing characteristics of the breed, and the development of its image over
years, I will try to underline how humans and animals mirror each other in
many ways.
The Icelandic Horse – General Characteristics
Ahorse in Icelandic culture is not any horse. The Icelandic horse, also known
as the Icelander, is a typical breed of Iceland, with its origins in the Age of
Settlement. The Vikings coming from what is nowadays Norway and the British
Isles took their horses with them on ships. As the journey was risky and long,
and the space on the ships limited, it was crucial to take only the best speci-
3
The settlement of Iceland (landnámsöld) is the first period in the history of Iceland.
Starting ca 870, when the first Vikings of Norwegian origin landed on the island, it lasted till
930, when newcomers fully settled down and started organizing the country. 930 is the year of
establishing Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament.
4
Katrín Sif Einarsdóttir, “The Role of Horses in the Old Norse Sources. Transcending
Worlds, Mortality, and Reality” (Master thesis written at Medieval Icelandic Studies faculty at
Háskóli Íslands in Reykjavik, 2013), 23, https://skemman.is/bitstream/1946/16675/1/Horses%20
in%20the%20norse%20sources%20MIS%20thesis.pdf.
Emiliana Konopka
4
mens.5 Despite many circumstances caused by nature (such as harsh winters
and volcanic eruptions) or humans (like sacrifices or consumption of flesh),
contemporary horses are not that genealogically far from the ones brought to
Iceland in the 9th and 10th century.6 Natural selection helped the species to
strengthen and adapt to weather conditions: cold winters, heavy winds and
storms. Due to that the horses have been capable of surviving Icelandic winters;
their coat thickens and protects from the cold, whereas standing pose avoids
burning too many calories in this difficult season.7
In Horses on Pastures (isl. Útigangshestar, 1929, 100x130 cm, oil on canvas,
National Gallery of Iceland) Jón Stefánsson depicted two horses standing in
the snow, probably somewhere in the Icelandic outdoor. The animals are alone
in this deserted winter landscape, where remote snowy peaks and dark, heavy
clouds suggest frosty and windy conditions. The horses are standing still nev-
ertheless, as if winter cold did not bother them. All the breed’s characteristics
can be seen on the painting; the horses are stocky and quite small (usually
from 130 cm up to 145 cm at withers), with short, strong legs, deep chests and
relatively huge rumps. Their heads are big, with thick manes which are full
and coarse, and such is the tail’s hair. The animals seem additionally dumpy,
as they are represented with their heavy winter coats that can be even double
the summer size.
Stefánsson’s horses look very monumental, though many would call Icelandic
horses ponies, as they are by far smaller and different from continental horses.
However, the breed with its characteristic traits – strong, sturdy, tenacious – be-
came useful for transportation and works on the field, whereas its extraordinary
gait, tölt, made the Icelandic horse popular among foreign breeders. Here, what
seems to interest the painter most is the “impression of hardness and roughness”8
which was typical for his oeuvre; the horses, standing in hostile surroundings,
remain proud and sturdy, as if to prove their natural adaption to these condi-
tions. They are tough, facing the rough landscape, which is a result of their
strong genes with medieval origins.
As the original title indicates, the horses are on their outdoor course
(Útigangshestar), which suggests that they have an owner. Pamela Nolf confirms
that until modern times horses were kept outside during the winter season9,
they would graze on the pastures with aminimal care from their owners, while
5
Pamela Nolf, “Detecting Icelandic Horse Origins,” Icelandic Horse Quarterly, vol. 4
(201 3): 18 .
6
Nolf, “Detecting Icelandic Horse Origins,” 22.
7
Gísli Björnsson and Hjalti Sveinsson, The Icelandic Horse (Reykjavik: MM Publisher,
2008), 38.
8
Emil Thoroddsen, Íslenzk myndlist. 20 listmálarar [Art in Iceland. 20 artists] (Reykjavík:
Kristján Friðriksson Publishing, 1943), 25.
9
Nolf, “Detecting Icelandic Horse Origins,” 23.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 5
Daniel Bruun states that the horses that were usually left to survive winters on
their own were work horses, in contrast to riding horses, which were bred with
greater care.10 Thus two protagonists of Stefánsson’s composition were suppos-
edly work horses; in the times of the painting, namely around 1900s, horses
were still used as help in households and also as the only mean of transporta-
tion. Since the 1950s, when cars and other machines got introduced on the
island, the Icelandic horses have remained important on many farms, although
nowadays they are mainly used in agritourism. Horse riding is thus considered
one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland nowadays.11
Portrait of aHorse. Humanlike Traits of the Animals
The 19th century Icelandic painters would often idealize horses; Sigurður
Guðmundsson or Sölvi Helgason depicted them on the basis of their ancient
representations known from Greek frescoes, as the aftermath of Danish clas-
sicism.12 However, younger painters were more in favor of realistic and personal
depictions of horses. Þórarinn B. Þórláksson, for instance, executed many pic-
tures of Icelandic horses, such as Pike Ward on His Horse (see Figure 1), show-
ing a British entrepreneur on his steed. This painting is considered the first
equestrian portrait ever painted in Iceland,13 but to me it is adouble portrait,
as Þóralksson depicted the horse with exceptional attention and respect to his
model. Twenty years later, Jón Stefánsson portrayed Jarpur, abay horse known
by its name (Bay Horse, 1928), confirming Icelandic artists’ personal attitude
to the horses.
This attitude can be noticed in two ways: horses have been treated either
as “the most needed servants” or close friends. The basic relation between
Icelanders and their horses amounts to everyday usage that makes them hu-
mans’ servants, yet “very needed,” because they are appreciated as paramount
companions and saviors of the Icelanders in the hardest times. In this way,
horses were usually portrayed while working – Sveinn Þórarinsson painted
these animals as a vital part of breeding sheep (Shepherds, ), whereas the
10 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 8.
11 Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir, “Hestatengd ferðaþjónusta á Íslandi” (Bachelor thesis written at
Operations and Business Department faculty at University of Akureyri, 2004), https://skemman.
is/handle/1946/1010.
12 AdalsteinnIngólfsson, Jór!: the horse in Icelandic art (Reykjavík: Kjarvalsstadir, 2011), 28.
13 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 31.
14 Björnsson and Sveinsson, The Icelandic Horse, 80.
15 Sigfús Örn Einarsson, “The Role of the Icelandic Horse in Icelandic History and Its
Image in the Icelandic Media (BA thesis written at Humanities and Social Sciences faculty at
University of Akureyri, 2010), 14, https://skemman.is/handle/1946/5857.
16 Sigfús Örn Einarsson, “The Role of the Icelandic Horse.”
Emiliana Konopka
6
sculptor Sigurjón Ólafsson depicted horses helping with carrying packages
(Packhorse and Foal, –). The latter was raised in Hlemmur, one of
Reykjavik’s busiest squares, which Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson interprets as “akind
of monument [] with a form of nostalgia towards its former importance.”
What the Icelandic art historian means by “former importance” is definitely
the fact that horses lost most of their functions in the s and s. On
the other hand, working with horses can inspire many positive emotions, not
to mention friendship and attachment. Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval depicted
a strong bond between a boy and a foal in his Boy with Foal, putting two
young friends in a very tight frame. By physical approach of them, the sensa-
tion of their emotional closeness is intensified; the boy is holding the foal’s
head with affection and kindness, and the horse seems to reciprocate. The
special bond between them is also underlined by the similarity of appear-
ance – both manes are depicted likewise, with singular brushstrokes painted
in the same directions.
17 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 50.
Figure 1. Þórarinn B. Þórláksson (1867–1924), Pike Ward on His Horse (Pik e Ward ), 1903, 46 × 36
cm, oil on canvas, National Museum of Iceland, source: www.sarpur.is.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 7
Servants or friends. Regardless of the opposing character of these two at-
titudes, both indicate that horses were seen as humanlike, treated as if they
were persons. Were they subordinate labor force or equal companions, horses
have had a special, if not unique, place among other animals in Iceland. No
other domestic species have been honored in that way, although there are vari-
ous animals characteristic of the island: puffins, whales or arctic foxes that had
been on the island before the settlers. This might be the reason why horses
seem closer to Icelanders: they were newcomers just like them. On the other
hand, Icelandic sheepdogs (also known as Icelandic spitz), also brought to the
island with the settlers, have never played such an important role for Icelanders.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the special bond results from the
conviction that horses resemble humans, and thus have human characteristics:
feelings and wisdom have been ascribed to those animals.
Horse-Fights and Sexuality. Horse-like Traits of Humans
Some painters were fond of portraying horses even with temper, as being ca-
pable of human-like emotions and behavior. However, the image of savage and
dangerous beasts attracted others, such as Halldór Pétursson, who “with his
fondness towards the creature didn’t try to negate its untamed nature.”18 Raised
among horses, the painter was aware of natural and primitive behaviors of the
animals, so he depicted the whole spectrum of their possible reactions. Horse-
lovers were perplexed by his images,19 but by reminding us about the wild nature
of horses, Pétursson shed new light on this human-animal relation.
One of his paintings depicts ahorse-fight (Horse-fight, 1962), anatural need
of rivalry in the herd. Often provoked by humans, horse-fights were apopular
form of entertainment20 till the 20th century. The tradition came from Norway
and was known in Iceland since the Viking times.21 However, as it can be read in
sagas, horse-fights were also away to resolve aconflict; in The Story of Thorstein
Staff-Struck, they replace a physical battle between the rivals. Men singled out
their best stallions to fight in their place, and the failure was taken as personal
humiliation.22 Horses were therefore symbols of their owner’s strength and mas-
culinity, bringing them honor and respect while winning, and ignominy while
18 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 51.
19 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 52.
20 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 5.
21 Megan Benjamin, Horses as Status Symbols: Medieval Icelandic Horses as Symbols of
Masculine Honor in a One-sexed World (Cornell University, 2008), 13, Cornell University
(December 15, 2008), http://www.meganbenjamin.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Horses-as-
Status-Symbols.pdf.
22 Benjamin, Horses as Status Symbols, 14.
Emiliana Konopka
8
losing. In other sagas, the male protagonists sooner or later start fighting and
their battle is not far from the furious fight of horses.23 In this case, humans
got wild and unpredictable just like animals, releasing the primitive need for
blood by watching the game or even embodying the lust for fight with equally
savage competitions.
A more contemporary example, yet suitable for revealing humans natural
needs, is Benedikt Erlingsson’s film Of Horses and Men, where people usually
behave like animals and vice versa.24 Take sexuality and lust; the opening scene
is very symbolic: when Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) arrives to his
intended partner, Solveig (Charlotte Bøving), he is very elegant and charming,
riding his representative mare. Surprisingly, the mare’s arrival at the farmstead
arouses Solveig’s stallion that succeeds in getting out of his pen and manages
to seduce the mare, ridden by Kolbeinn. This leads to an intercourse, with
23 Benjamin, Horses as Status Symbols, 13.
24 Konefał, Kino, 253.
Figure 2. A screenshot of Of Horses and Men, 2013, directed by Benedikt Erlingsson. source:
press materials.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 9
Kolbeinn’s participation (see Figure 2). What makes the symbol meaningful
is that later in the film horses are also exposed to participate in the humans’
intercourse, as Kolbeinn and Solveig have sex in the middle of the herd. In
both scenes two species are not ashamed of letting their physical needs go in
front of each other.
Both Pétursson and Erlingsson seem to remind us that men behave like ani-
mals or beasts. No matter how mannered or trained, both humans and horses
are able to get out of control in most basic, primitive situations. Here, the hu-
man who is traditionally represented as master and “the tamer,” is reduced to
the subordinate species. As Benjamin notes, “men [are] acting no better than
beasts,25 or sometimes they are even worse than them.
Sacrum:
Traditional Roles and Symbols of Horses
Aspecial attitude to horses in Iceland is based on tradition and history. The 19th
and 20th centuries image of Icelandic horses stems from a number of beliefs
and customs relating to the species, which created a conviction of the sacred
value of the horse. Here, by aid of Icelandic sagas, I will try to list the most
important roles that horses used to play in the sacred sphere of the Viking world,
pointing how some of them influenced the way the species has been portrayed
in art, and how they have been conceived by modern Icelanders.
Horses as Psychopomps
Before Iceland officially converted to Christianity, heathendom had been adom-
inant religion on the island. The Vikings believed that the bravest warriors
would be honored by spending their afterlife in Valhalla, where, by Odin’s side,
they would be getting ready for the final battle of the gods, Ragnarök. For this
reason, it was necessary to bury men with their horses and other belongings,
as they would be crucial for the preparation phase in the other life.26
However, dead warriors did not go to Valhalla on their own. They were trans-
ported there by Valkyries, Odin’s maidens; aNjál’s saga shows the Valkyries’ ar-
rival after abattle to choose the ones to be taken to Valhalla on horseback, while
in The Saga of Hákon the Good, the king Hákon is also escorted on their steeds
25 Benjamin, Horses as Status Symbols, 14.
26 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 24.
Emiliana Konopka
10
to the hall of Odin.27 Valkyries’ steeds play arole of psychopomps, transporting
the souls from one world to another, or from the “conscious to unconscious
realms.”28 Though not found in Iceland but in the mainland of Scandinavia,
some ship and horse graves confirm the horses’ role as psychopomps; according
to archeologists, the coexistence of two symbols for the Vikings’ favorite means
of transport: horses and ships, can suggest their faith in being transported by
one of them to another world.29 Furthermore, in the Old Icelandic language,
terms for ships and horses were usually interchangeably used, take avery popu-
lar kenning fiskajarðar hestur (fishing horse) meaning a ship.
The supernatural abilities of horses were required for their role as psycho-
pomps. In many cases these magical or even shamanic traits were ascribed
27 Peter Shenk, To Valhalla by Horseback? Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age
(AMaster’s Thesis in Nordic Viking and Medieval Culture, The Faculty of Arts, at University of
Oslo 2002), 78, https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/26678/7064.pdf?sequence=1&i-
sAllowed=y.
28 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 35.
29 Shenk, To Valhalla by Horseback?, 22.
Figure 3. Fragment of theTjängvide image stone, runestone, ca. 800–1099, The Swedish History
Museum, Stockholm, photo: Ola Myrin, Statens historiska museer, CC BY.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 11
to Sleipnir, Odin’s steed. This eight-legged child of Lóki and Svaðilfari was
given to the god of the gods as a gift, and since then it has become of great
importance in Nordic mythology. Unlike other children of Lóki, Sleipnir is
not a negative creature; according to Edda it will be driven by Odin during
Ragnarök, when Lóki and his other children-monsters will have to be defeated
by gods and the chosen knights. What is more, Sleipnir was usually regarded
as a psychopomp, as stated in some interpretations of the Tjängvide rune-
stone (see Figure ), on which the eight-legged horse is arriving to Valhalla
with a dead warrior on his back. Katrín Sif Einarsdóttir juxtaposes these
interpretations with her idea of Sleipnir as asymbol of a bier, explaining that
eight legs of the horse would be an artistic vision of four people carrying the
dead. She also links the number of the legs with the so-called flying pace
(skeið), one of the Icelandic horse’s gaits, which could explain both the need
of showing the legs in motion and that the mythical horses (Valkyries’ steeds,
Sleipnir) were capable of flying.
Sex, Magic and Superstitions
The horse remained an important relic of the old faith; for instance, Icelanders
went on eating horse flesh even after having converted to Christianity, as it was
one of the conditions Althing agreed for around year 1000. Another condition,
yet put to vote in amore unofficial way, was to continue the custom of offering
animals, horse included, to the old gods.34 The latter tradition was proved by
many; sacrifices of horses were described by Adam of Bremen, but also linked
to burials. Blóts, ceremonies of offering animals to gods and consuming their
meat, are interpreted as away to maintain a fertility cult.35
The horse, especially its penis, was regarded as a symbol of fertility.36
Looking closer to the Sleipnir’s depiction on the Tjängvide runestone, abig phal-
lus of both Odin and his horse can be seen (see Figure 3). Although the horse’s
penis is depicted in avery stylized way, as it is interwoven in decorative ribbons,
typical of this type of Viking art, the symbolic function of horse’s phallus was
common in the Old Icelandic texts. Einarsdóttir lists The Völsunga saga, where
the family name of Völsung is derived from völsi (Old Icelandic for phallus),37
30 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 35.
31 Ebbe Schön, Asa-Tors hammare, Gudar och jättar itro och tradition (Värnamo: Hjalmarson
& Högberg Bokförlag, 2004), 86.
32 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 29–30.
33 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 31.
34 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses,17.
35 Benjamin, Horses as Status Symbols, 10.
36 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 21.
37 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 21.
Emiliana Konopka
12
which is the word that can also be found in the title of Vo˛lsa þáttr, a short
story depicting pagan traditions from the 9th century. The family described in
the story consists of old parents, their children and two thralls (þrællir, slaves).
When the male slave butchers a horse, the son saves its penis and takes it to
the women’s place in order to mock the female slave with the disgusting (to
his sister’s opinion) organ. However, the female slave is laughing about the joke,
and the old mother decides to conserve the penis in onions and herbs. Later in
the story, the whole family is praying to the horse’s phallus, addressing their
gods. The Old Norse god of fertility, Frey, appears also in Hrafknel’s saga, the
main protagonist of which dedicates his beloved stallion, Freyfaxi, to the god.
Another link between the horse and its magical functions lays in the so-
called scorn-pole (níðstöng). This pagan tradition, mentioned in Icelandic sagas,
was probably maintained till the 14th century.38 Níðstöngar were risen in order
to both shame arival and put acurse on him; words of the curse were curved
in runes on the wooden pole, and on the top of it, an animal’s head (usually
a horse one) was stuck. Such poles were put in an enemy’s land, aiming his
house, so to curse his possessions and family, but sometimes they also related
to his vices. If ahorse’s head was used for aníðstöng, the horse to be killed was
of the addresser of the curse.39 According to Rudolf Simek, apole with insult-
ing runes was a powerful níðstöng; however, adding a dead’s horse head was
of special potency, or it had aclear magical significance.40 What is interesting
is that a head used was usually that of a mare. This can be described by the
concept of ergi, which encompasses “unmanly,” the most powerful insult in the
Viking world.41
In Gisli Sursson’s Saga, Skeggi rises a pole in order to humiliate Kolbjörn,
as both men were trying to get the same woman. On the pole, Skeggi portrays
his enemy in asubservient sexual position, suggesting his “unmanly” nature.42
In another saga, Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, Jokul warns his rival, who is
supposed to take part in aduel with him, with the words: “You must now turn
up to the duel if you have aman’s heart rather than a mare’s. And if anyone
fails to turn up, then aníð will be raised against him with this curse – that he
will be a coward in the eyes of all men […].43 Jokul uses the rhetoric of ergi
in order to emphasize his enemy’s cowardice and weakness.
38 Karl Seigfried, How to Make a Níðstöng, accessed November 20, 2018, https://www.nor-
semyth.org/2013/09/how-to-make-nistong-part-one.html.
39 Einarsdóttir, The Role of Horses, 19.
40 www.norsemyth.org, accessed November 20, 2018.
41 Baron Fridrikr Tomasson, Segja Hvada?! Or Insults in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature,
accessed November 14, 2018, http://www.medievalists.net/2015/04/segja-hvada-insults-in-old-
norse-icelandic-literature/, 10.
42 Tom a s s o n , Segja Hvada?!, 12.
43 Tom asson, Segja, 12.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 13
More contemporarily, an example of ergi can be seen also in Benedikt
Erlingsson’s film Of Horses and Men. The abovementioned scene leads to an
awkward and humiliating situation: Kolbeinn is taking part in the horses’
intercourse, as he did not manage to dismount his mare on time. He is thus
depicted in subservient sexual position, as if it was him being covered by the
stallion. Everything is seen not only by nosy neighbors, but also by Solveig.
Kolbeinn appears “unmanly,” which can still be regarded as the worst trait
of a man in the traditional society of an Icelandic countryside depicted in
the film.
Having the film scene in mind, it is interesting to juxtapose it with StefánV.
Jónsson’s painting, Spring Play (Vorleikur). It was exhibited at Lækjartorg,
Reykjavik, in the early 1960s and became areason for the artist’s arrest.44 The
composition with two horses having an intercourse was regarded as “viola-
tion of public decency”45 and was heavily discussed by contemporary critics.
Sentenced for spreading pornography, the artist then explained that he painted
no pornography, as “no genitals are seen on the horse.”46 Stefán V. Jónsson was
an amateur artist, and his style can be linked to primitivism, the movement
that was inspired by everything untouched by civilization: children, men-
tally unstable and folk artists. Having the basic, psychical, primitive needs as
a source, primitivists usually depicted subjects that were unkind to “civilized
audience. Pagan rites and customs are part of these origins, so it was natural
for the painter to portray an intercourse of two animals. What was thought as
pervert and inadequate in the 1960s, was part of the visual identification of
fertility in the Old Norse mythology. No coincidence it happened to use the
horse, amythical symbol of fertility and sexuality.
Horses from Foreign Cultures
Nowadays, artists employ international and global motifs more often, reinter-
preting the role of amythological horse in Icelandic tradition. Since the begin-
ning of the 20th century, Odin’s favorite steed has given way to more universally
known horses, such as Pegasus, centaurs or unicorns. In this case, artworks
by Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson attract the greatest attention because he exploits
all these mythological hybrids in his oeuvre, sometimes combining them with
other creatures: humans, dogs and other animals. In apainting from 2005 (see
Figure 4), he represents anude man and aunicorn, accompanied with birds and
two mirrors, reflecting the composition in some parts. Friðjónsson has been
44 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 52.
45 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 52.
46 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 53.
Emiliana Konopka
14
referring to unicorns since the 1980s47: some of them are very peculiar hybrids
mixed with other species (dogs, humans), while some are compilations of all
mythological horse creatures: unicorns, centaurs, Pegasus. Sometimes they look
like Icelandic horses, sometimes they are much closer to sleeker continental
breeds.
Ashrewd reinterpretation of mythical motifs is one of Friðjónsson’s oeuvre’s
characteristics. However, the fact that they appeared in arts no sooner than in
the 20th century does not imply that unicorns are prominent in the Icelandic
tradition. It is important to underline that foreign motifs have been known
in Iceland since the Middle Ages and described in Old Icelandic literature;
take Njál’s saga, where finngálkn (centaurs) are mentioned, or late Chivalric
sagas (Riddarasögur), inspired mostly by continental chansons de gestes, where
47 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 85.
Figure 4. Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson (b. 1953), Unicorn, 2005. Photo by: Einar Falur Ingólfsson,
Published by courtesy of the artist.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 15
fantastic animals such as unicorns appear. Moreover, Icelanders contributed
to unicorns’ success in medieval times; they sold narwhal tusks to Europe as
unicorn horns, as the tusk’s shape and length looked exactly the way aunicorn
horn was imagined.48 Some of them are exhibited as “unicorn horns” nowadays,
for instance in Grünes Gewölbe’s collection in Dresden.
The motif of horses in Icelandic art is deeply rooted in the artists’ imagi-
nation, and yet these fantastic beasts are losing their supernatural powers and
magical value. Nowadays, mythological horses can be treated as auniversal tool,
a“transnational figure”49 that can be applied to more than one culture. Iceland
now partakes in globalization processes, so the horse becomes globalized, too.
A successful Icelandic painter of our times, Erró, refers for instance to pop-
culture horses, such as Disney’s Horace Horsecollar (Lovesong, 2008).
Horse as Part of Icelandic National Identity
The two previously analyzed elements: horses as companions of Icelanders
(profane, everyday role of horses in the society) and horses as a crucial part
of Icelandic customs and tradition (sacred, supernatural and magical traits of
horses) can lead to the statement that the Icelandic horse is an important symbol
of the Icelandic nation as awhole.50 In this part, Iwill give examples of horses
being an important part of Icelandic national identity in relation to tradition
(collective memory) and personal memories of painters.
Horse as Part of the National Landscape
Gísli Sigurðsson notices that the Icelandic landscape played a crucial role in
the creation of the national identity.51 Very often Icelandic horses are depicted
as part of it and they can even become an embodiment of Icelandic nature:
beautiful – but unpredictable, wild – but free.
48 www.thevintagenews.com, accessed November 28, 2018.
49 Konefał, Kino, 253.
50 Gréta Vilborg Guðmundsdóttir, “Product or Being? Development of the Image of the
Icelandic Horse” (MA thesis written at Department of Design and Architecture, at Iceland
University of the Arts, Reykjavik, 2014), 15, https://skemman.is/handle/1946/19227?locale=en.
51 Gísli Sigurðsson, “Icelandic National Identity: Icelandic National Identity: From
Romanticism to Tourism,” in Making Europe in Nordic Context (Turku: Nordic Institute of
Folklore, University of Turku, 1996), 43.
Emiliana Konopka
16
Figure 5. Þórarinn B. Þórláksson, Thingvellir (Þingvellir), 1900, The National Gallery of Iceland,
Reykjavik, source: Wiki Commons.
When Þórarinn B. Þórláksson came back to Iceland from his studies in
Copenhagen, he spent summer in Thingvellir, sketching and painting en plein
air. Thingvellir, the Valley of Assembly (Alþingi), plays a significant role in
Icelandic collective memory.52 Here, in these special surroundings, Þórláksson
places two horses, and only abuilding in the background can suggest people’s
presence in this pristine landscape (see Figure 5). The animals seem to integrate
with the land; their bay coats suit the earthly colors of the moss and correlate
with the blue haze of the sky and mountains reflecting in the Öxará river. All
creates aharmonious scene and stillness of nature in relation to time: time has
also stopped, because this place is (almost) exactly the same as one thousand
years ago. Horses and buildings were “added” by the settlers, but the painter
depicts them in the way they fit the surroundings perfectly.
Þórláksson depicts a fairytale-like setting of a summer night, giving lots
of emotion to the landscape he was portraying, probably because he missed it
while studying abroad. However, other artists would rather show the dark side
of the unpredictable Icelandic weather and conditions, putting horses in the
middle of it. Snorri Arinbjarnar, for example, painted Icelandic horses as one
52 Iwrite more about the significance of Thingvellir and Þórláksson’s painting in: Emiliana
Konopka, Pejzaż – narodowy gatunek malarski Islandii (Warszawa: Studencki Klub Islandzki,
Uniwersytet Warszawski, 2017), 61–89.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 17
of the elements, “his intention had been to treat the horse as a natural force
rather than turn it into a symbol of nature.”53 Þorvaldur Skúlason painted
ablack horse with red eyes (Stallions, 1941), as aproof that horses can be wild
and untamable, furious and dangerous, as many Icelandic natural phenomena
(avalanches, volcanoes, geysers, etc.).
Horse as an Embodiment of Freedom
An exceptional trait of the Icelandic horse, underlined by both painters and
poets, is their freedom. This can be interpreted both in terms of virginity,
primitivity and purity of nature, unchanged by humans despite industrialization,
such as in relation to freedom of the nation. The latter is grounded in Romantic
visions that spread on the island around the 1830s and 1850s. Romantic poets
gentrified horses by creating their images based on glory of the past and would
describe horses as brave and sturdy creatures fighting with terrible weather con-
ditions, symbolizing astruggle for independence, deeply rooted in the Icelandic
communal imagination.54
Iceland lost its freedom in the 13th century and for the next 700 years
remained under foreign rules: first Kingdom of Norway (1262–1380), then
Kingdom of Denmark (1380–1918). After the First World War, Icelanders re-
gained sovereignty in 1918, but stayed in apersonal union with Denmark. They
gained full independence in 1944, becoming the Republic of Iceland. In arts,
differently than in literature, there was no visible independence movement par
excellence. However, artists could relate to some ideas and symbols given by
writers. For example, Erlingur Jónsson executed asculpture of Krapi, a horse
that appears in Halldór Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed (The Horse Named
Krapi, 1987). The Nobel Prize winner uses Krapi as asymbol of Iceland getting
weaker and losing its glory under the Danish rule; at first, the horse that was
given to the Danish king was strong and beautiful, resembling protagonists
of the Old Icelandic literature, but once it was taken to Denmark, it became
degraded to a pony55 by pulling a carriage for children and serving on the
court.56 Here, Krapi represents aloss of freedom and Iceland’s situation during
the harsh times of political dependence.
53 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 55.
54 Sigurðsson, “Icelandic National Identity,” 43.
55 In popular texts about Iceland it is usually underlined that Icelanders get offended when
somebody calls the Icelandic horse a pony. Recently, “Guide to Iceland” published a video en-
titled “See why you don’t mess with the Icelandic horse” that closes with words “Definitely not
a pony” (produced by Haukur Valdimar, 2015), see: https://www.facebook.com/guidetoiceland.
is/videos/709900795776330/, accessed November 20, 2018.
56 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 6869.
Emiliana Konopka
18
Figure 6. Tólli Morthens, Horse, 2008, 140 × 160 cm, source: Ingólfsson 2011. Published by
courtesy of the artist.
The complicated Danish-Icelandic relations can be seen in Horse by Tólli
Morthens (see Figure 6). The horse plays a central role in the composition,
standing in an open landscape, yet with a surreal motif of a door, decorated
with colorful pennants. The horse is covered by flags: Danish and Icelandic,
the Danish one is on top, nearly hiding the Icelandic one. What kind of sym-
bol can it be in 2008, when Iceland has been afree country for more than 60
years? Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson suggests that Tólli represents his personal problem
of double identity. Half-Icelandic, half-Danish, he is struggling with finding his
own self.57 If so, why does he paint the Icelandic horse in an Icelandic landscape?
There are other horses in the background, unsaddled and free. Only the one
on the hill is “tied” to the door and decorations, as if it did not belong there.
Can it symbolize (artistic) freedom of the artist?
57 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 68.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 19
Horse as aMemory in an Emigrant’s Mind
Many Icelandic artists decided to stay abroad and work there. Studying in big
centers, artists starting their careers around the 1950s and 1960s understood
that the way to international success does not lead through Iceland. Louisa
Matthíasdóttir studied in Denmark, then moved to Paris, but when the Second
World War broke out, she left for New York. Although she would come back
to Iceland for summers, her most “Icelandic” landscapes were executed in the
States, painted out of memories of her native country.
Icelandic horses constituted a large part of her “memory database” from
Iceland, and they appear in different compositions and combinations, yet always
painted in the same, flat and simplified way. In Matthíasdóttir’s Two Horses
in Landscape the body of horses, as well as all elements of the landscape, are
painted with broad brushstrokes, with intense, vibrant colors. Matthíasdóttir
based her paintings on her memory, and judging by the light palette she used,
it can be assumed that she thought very kindly of Iceland. This is not apoetic
and somnambulist vision of aRomantic poet from the beginning of the 20th
century, but avivid and cheerful representation of longing for the country of
birth.
Here, Matthíasdóttir projects her memories of Icelandic horses on her per-
sonal style and intense colors that were the aftermath of her encounter with
color-field painting in New York. Horses on Matthíasdóttir’s paintings get the
angularity and simplicity due to her technique, but they are also represented in
away they really are: hard and undemanding. Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson wonders
“whether the artist is in part creating her horse as a reification of the qualities
which she connects with the country and its people,58 which suggests that
Matthíasdóttir did not necessarily feel part of Icelandic society. Maybe the
horses and other images she remembered from her childhood, were more of
colorful postcards she wanted to keep in her head. However, the artist would
come back to Iceland from time to time, yet had her first own show no sooner
than she turned 70. Nowadays, 18 years after her death, she is one of top art-
ists on the island, and her landscape paintings got on covers of the renewed
series of Halldór Laxness’s novels, becoming illustrations for the most popular
Icelandic books.
58 Ingólfsson, Jór!, 67.
Emiliana Konopka
20
Conclusion
Icelanders often relate to their original Viking roots. Since Romanticism, see-
ing themselves as Viking descendants has been a part of Icelandic identity,59
asource of pride and ademonstration of the nation’s determination to establish
a new country despite difficult climate conditions and other factors. So hard
and resilient the Vikings were that they could only be accompanied with evenly
strong and sturdy horses. This special bond between the Vikings and their
horses can be proven by numerous sagas and other medieval texts, showing
the importance of the species not only during the Age of Settlement, but also
the following years of creating the country. Ideas and concepts created in the
Viking times lay foundations for Icelandic identity and mentality nowadays, so
the medieval image and role of horses had avisible impact on contemporary
artists depicting the motif.
Although the Icelandic horse has lost its prestige and its profane role di-
minished due to industrialization,60 the sacred elements of the horse’s place
in the Icelandic tradition saved the positive image of the animal in the 20th
century. Astrong bond with medieval past has influenced the attitude to the
horse’s value at present; since the 13th-century collection of laws Grágás horses
have been regarded as valuable belongings, not to mention that they would also
constitute an equivalent of wealth and their owner’s status.61 Despite the fact
that nowadays an Icelander’s fortune is mostly represented by his house and
an all-terrain vehicle, many make business on owning horses, especially in the
tourist sector, which is acrucial part of Iceland’s economical growth since the
crisis in 2008.62
Referring to tourist campaigns of Iceland, where the Icelandic horse appears
more than often, it is true than the animal has become its unofficial national
symbol in the 21st century. Nowadays foreigners associate the country with the
most frequently reproduced images of Icelandic horses, shared them on social
media and in guidebooks, which makes them globally recognized.63 Tour ists
come to Iceland to enjoy horse-riding in open space, while breeders arrive to
make businesses with local sellers. Although devoid of its sacred value and tra-
ditional purpose in the profane sphere, the species remains an important part of
common imagination and visual culture of the country. However, these images
are made for/ by tourists, foreigners, the others, who tend to have asimplified,
stereotyped and subjective vision of Iceland.
59 Sigurðsson, “Icelandic National Identity,” 43.
60 Einarsson, The Role, 11.
61 Benjamin, Horses, 1.
62 Sigurðardóttir, Hestatengd, 2004.
63 Guðmundsdóttir, Product, 23–24.
Of Horses and Men Symbolic Value of Horses… 21
What is the real importance of the horse in Icelandic society today? How
many “horses” are there in Icelandic souls? Since the beginning of the 20th
century, the species has been part of leisure and sports sphere of life, and
tournaments or races are very popular among Icelanders nowadays, bringing
almost Romantic pleasures of freedom, pleasure and strong bond with the ani-
mal. Moreover, the interest of tourist and foreign breeders, mostly caused by the
horses’ medieval genotype, has helped in restoring the image of the Icelandic
horses as avaluable stock.64 The question is whether this value is defined mostly
in economic terms, which makes the horse only profitable goods,65 or whether
it is regarded in more spiritual ways. The ancient roles of the Icelandic horses
have thus survived in the contemporary world, yet they have taken a modern,
globalized and up-to-date form.
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Emiliana Konopka
22
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dycką. Autorka wygłaszanego na wielu uczelniach wykładu Inne światło. Cechy charak-
terystyczne skandynawskiego malarstwa pejzażowego XIX iXX wieku.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Islandia, kraj o wysoko rozwiniętej kulturze i wyobraźni, posiada paradoksalnie bardzo krótką tradycję malarską. Początki islandzkiej historii sztuki sięgają przełomu XIX i XX wieku, a za oficjalną datę narodzin prawdziwie islandzkiego malarstwa uznaje się rok 1900, kiedy po raz pierwszy zorganizowano wystawę prac lokalnego artysty w jego ojczyźnie. Þórarinn Benedikt Þorláksson zaprezentował wówczas zbiór pejzaży ukazujących islandzki interior oraz miejsca ważne dla historii Islandczyków. Pejzaż stał się wówczas ulubionym gatunkiem malarskim artystów, którzy poszli w ślady Þorlákssona. Jón Stefánsson, Ásgrímur Jónsson czy Jóhannes S. Kjarval, po studiach wyższych w Kopenhadze, wracali na wyspę, aby utrwalać piękno ojczystego krajobrazu. Pejzaż odegrał ważną rolę w kształtowaniu „sztuki narodowej” Islandii. Choć wynikał z doświadczeń XIX-wiecznego romantyzmu niemieckiego oraz skandynawskiego nacjonalizmu przełomu wieków, unikalny krajobraz wyspy z nierzadko ukrytymi w nim postaciami z folkloru islandzkiego pozwolił na podkreślenie odrębności Islandczyków, co było szczególnie ważne w momencie politycznego usamodzielniania się od Duńczyków. Popularność pejzażu jako gatunku malarskiego również w sztuce II połowy XX wieku pokazuje jednak, że przyroda Islandii – wykorzystywana w przemyśle turystycznym czy wyspiarskiej kinematografii, wciąż pozostaje fundamentalnym składnikiem budowania islandzkiej tożsamości.
Detecting Icelandic Horse Origins
  • Pamela Nolf
Nolf, Pamela. "Detecting Icelandic Horse Origins." Icelandic Horse Quarterly, vol. 4 (2012): 18-23.
Hestatengd ferðaþjónusta á Íslandi
  • Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir
Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir, "Hestatengd ferðaþjónusta á Íslandi" (Bachelor thesis written at Operations and Business Department faculty at University of Akureyri, 2004), https://skemman. is/handle/1946/1010.
The Role of the Icelandic Horse
  • Sigfús Örn Einarsson
Sigfús Örn Einarsson, "The Role of the Icelandic Horse." 59 Sigurðsson, "Icelandic National Identity," 43.
Horses as Status Symbols: Medieval Icelandic Horses as Symbols of Masculine Honor in a One-sexed World
  • Megan Benjamin
Benjamin, Megan. Horses as Status Symbols: Medieval Icelandic Horses as Symbols of Masculine Honor in a One-sexed World. Falk: Published Online, 2008.
Product or Being? Development of the Image of the Icelandic Horse
  • Gréta Guðmundsdóttir
Guðmundsdóttir, Gréta. "Product or Being? Development of the Image of the Icelandic Horse" (Master thesis at The Department of Design and Architecture, Iceland Academy of the Arts, 2014, advisor: Ţorleifsdóttir Kristín). Reykjavik: Iceland Academy of the Arts.
The Role of Horses in the Old Norse Sources
  • Katrín Einarsdóttir
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Einarsdóttir, Katrín Sif. The Role of Horses in the Old Norse Sources. Transcending Worlds, Mortality, and Reality (Medieval Icelandic Studies, Hugvísindasvið). Reykjavik: University of Iceland, 2013.
Kino Islandii. Tradycja i ponowoczesność. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo w Podwórku
  • Sebastian Konefał
  • Jakub
Konefał, Sebastian Jakub. Kino Islandii. Tradycja i ponowoczesność. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo w Podwórku, 2016.
Þorláksson: Pioneer at the Dawn of a Century
  • Kvaran Orvar
  • B Þórarinn
Kvaran Orvar. Þórarinn B. Þorláksson: Pioneer at the Dawn of a Century. Reykjavík: Listasafn Íslands, 2000.
Segja Hvada?! Or Insults in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature
  • Baron Tomasson
  • Fridrikr
Tomasson, Baron Fridrikr. Segja Hvada?! Or Insults in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. 2010. Accessed November 14, 2018. http://www.medievalists.net/2015/04/segjahvada-insults-in-old-norse-icelandic-literature/.