The Story Of Sam, The Medieval Irish Guard Dog

A flashy figure named Olaf “Peacock” Hoskuldsson was said to have been a chieftain in the Laxardal region of Iceland and reportedly lived around the years 938 and 1006 at his farm estate called Hjardarholt. According to the folklore preserved in the Icelandic sagas, Olaf Peacock’s mother was allegedly an Irish captive, and young Olaf believed that his mother had been connected to Irish royalty, inflating the man’s pride and ego. Another defining characteristic of Olaf Peacock’s legend was his lucky knack for receiving luxurious gifts. In the pages of the Laxdæla saga (written c. 13th century), which focused on Olaf Peacock’s family, Olaf received a hefty gold armband of Irish design from his mother. He also obtained a fancy helmet with gold plating in Iceland or Norway, as well as a beautiful sword that was covered from blade to pommel with stylish gold inlay. Additionally, Olaf obtained an ornate shield decorated with a golden lion and inherited a golden arm ring supposedly given to his ancestors by King Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940). Olaf’s Norwegian treasures were increased by Jarl Hákon (r. 970-995), who gave the Icelander a gold-inlaid axe. Finally, Olaf obtained a magnificent spear with inlaid gold during a trip to Ireland—a location that will be of importance to this article. While the Laxdæla Saga focused on the golden spear and Olaf’s search for his regal family in Ireland, other legends emerged about a living gift that Olaf Peacock reportedly picked up from the Irish. This living creature was an intimidating dog named Sam.

Sam played a short but memorable role in Njal’s Saga, in which the character of Olaf Peacock made several cameos in the narrative and eventually introduced his dog, Sam, to the saga. Olaf told his brother-in-law, Gunnar of Hlidarendi, about certain Irish gifts, including the dog. Olaf Peacock claimed he possessed, “a cloak which King Myrkjartan of Ireland once owned, and a dog which was given to me in Ireland. He is large and no worse as a companion than a strong man. He has also the intelligence of a man—he will bark at anyone he knows to be your enemy, but never at your friends. He can also see in any man whether he means you well or ill, and will lay down his life out of loyalty to you. The dog’s name is Sam” (Njal’s Saga, chapter 70). As the story goes, Olaf Peacock gave his mighty guard dog to Gunnar of Hlidarendi. It was a much-needed gift for Gunnar, as he was a figure prone to constant fighting and feuds, garnering him many enemies in Iceland. Suffice it to say, he could definitely use a trusty hound watching over his household.

Sam’s relocation to his new home caused potential assailants to think twice about launching direct attacks on Gunnar’s estate. Yet, Sam’s presence did not put a stop to the schemes of Gunnar’s many enemies. Instead, the conspirators simply recognized that they had to eliminate Sam before they could make a move on Gunnar. This, regrettably, is exactly what the conspirators did. Gunnar’s enemies knew that they had a chance to fool the guard dog by bringing into the conspiracy someone who was familiar to Sam. The treacherous man in question was a certain Thorkel, who worked on a farm adjacent to Gunnar’s land. Njal’s Saga narrates the tale about how Thorkel allegedly lured Sam into an ambush: “The farmer Thorkel went down to the house; the dog was lying on the roof, and Thorkel lured him away up the lane. But as soon as the dog saw that there were men up there, he jumped at Thorkel and bit him in the groin. Onund of Trollaskog hit the dog in the head with his axe, and it went right into the brain. The dog gave out a loud howl that was like none they heard before, and then he fell down dead” (Njal’s Saga, chapter 76). Shortly after the dog’s death, the assailants attacked Gunnar at his home, but he did not go down without a fight. According to famous legend, Gunnar killed two of his attackers and injured sixteen more, before succumbing to the blows of his enemies.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped Vignette of a dog by Gerhard Munthe, dated 1899, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Norway).


  • Njal’s Saga, written anonymously in the 13th century, translated by Robert Cook. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.
  • Laxdæla saga by an unknown 13th century Icelander, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

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