At a time when most medieval Europeans were content with entertaining themselves by watching roosters battle it out (unfortunately named cockfighting), the Icelanders and their Norwegian relatives chose to watch battles between larger animals—horses. Interestingly, horse fighting, known as hestavíg, found a great following in medieval Icelandic society. Numerous Icelandic sagas mentioned horse fighting, including Grettir’s Saga, Viga-Glum’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Kormac’s Saga, and Reykdæla Saga.
Horse fighting had become common in Norway and Iceland by no later than the 10th century, when laws were being written about the practice. Not much is known about the rules of Icelandic horse fighting, but a vague picture can be drawn from the scenes contained in the sagas. It seems that the horse fights were held in the warmer months, and the events were large regional social gatherings, where multiple communities participated in the festivities. Horse owners employed handlers called seconds, usually family members or friends, who were responsible for enticing the specially-trained stallions to fight, and also to keep the violent horses safely away from the crowd of onlookers once the battle began. These seconds were apparently armed with sticks, which they used to prod the horses and it was apparently not unheard of for the opposing handlers to sometimes fight amongst themselves. Even if the seconds kept the peace, the owners and clans were also known to sometimes erupt into feuds over the results of horse fights.
Even though the practice of horse fighting in Iceland began to peter out as time progressed and ethics began to change, the grisly sport managed to persist for many centuries. Icelandic horse fighting was still supposedly in practice as late as the 19th century.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Fighting Stallions painted by George Stubbs (1724–1806), [Public Domain] via creative commons).
- Grettir’s Saga (anonymous Icelandic saga, c. 14th century) translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.