top of page

Book Review and Summary - "A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual, and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources"

"A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual, and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources"

Author: Professor Jon Hnefill Aðalsteinsson

This short and interesting book is composed of lectures written by Professor Jon Hnefill Aðalsteinsson of the Department of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. The lectures are translated into English from the original Icelandic. There are also some Icelandic summaries of the material.  The lectures/articles cover a wide range of topics related to the beliefs of the Norse, as well as how they continued into modern Iceland.  The title itself refers to the heathen custom of sacrificing and eating horse flesh and an incident involving Hakon, a Christian King of Norway, who did not want to eat horse meat at a Yule Sumbl.  However, because the farmers present were heathens King Hakon is supposed to have tried to avoid eating horse flesh (forbidden by the Church) by trying to inhale the broth and when that did not appease the farmers Hakon may have had a tiny bite of horse liver.

On this subject.  Our heathen ancestors ate horse meat.  They considered it a practical matter for survival at times, but it was also sacred as we see from the lore and epic tales as well as an important part of everyday life.  There were plenty of other sources of protein so eating horse meat – a valuable animal - was not a daily thing.  For the Viking heathens, fish was probably 25 percent of their diet.  The Vikings also ate beef, goat, pork, mutton, lamb, chicken, duck, freshwater fish, and saltwater fish, whale, (seals, caribou, polar bear in Greenland), reindeer, and occasionally horsemeat. 

I enjoyed reading this book, I recommend it, and offer some thoughts on it.  I had meant to get this review finished earlier, but then I picked up H.R. Ellis Davidson’s “Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe” and read that.  I will need to review it as well as recommending H.R. Ellis Davidson’s works, which I used in college to study the Norse religion.

"A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual, and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources" is scholarly, but remains readable.  The book is composed of eight articles that were lectures presented at University level by the author.

The first article is titled, “Hraesvelgr, the Wind Giant, Reinterpreted.”  This lecture concerns the relationship of the Gods and Giants (Jotnar) how they interact and are even related.  The article draws on the Eddas, Icelandic Sagas, and Scandinavian folk tales.  Of these, the author concludes the Poetic Edda is the most reliable.  There is a discussion of Jotunheim, the love relationships between some Gods and Giants, how the Giants played a crucial role in the formation of the world when Odin and his two brothers made the world out of the giant Ymir’s body, knowledge and wisdom that the Giants have (Mimir and his well where Odin offers an eye for one drink) , and finally how some Giants have God-like roles representing the forces of nature – wind, fire, the earth, and the sea.  In modern “Asatru” as it is practiced in Iceland, the elements of nature are important and form part of many rituals.

The second article deals with the functions of the 10th Century Gothi.  I found this one remarkably interesting because we in the Tribe seek as traditional a path as we can make in heathenry.  We spend a great deal of time researching our rituals.  For anyone who serves as a Gothi for their Tribe, Kindred, Group or whatever you prefer, this is a useful chapter.  The lecture gives accounts from among the very few surviving descriptions of Norse heathen altars and Hofs and the objects/idols that were found within.  For example, the oath ring of a Hof had to be of at least two ounces of silver, and it was reddened in blood before legal or other proceedings.

The third article discusses Norwegian King Hakon who was a Christian around 950 CE in a country that was still largely heathen.  This is the lecture that gives its name to the book.  King Hakon was raised a Christian in England and when he became King of Norway, he had to be diplomatic because most of his subjects were still heathen.  Overall, he subverted heathenry in Norway.  The episode of the horse liver is covered in the lecture.  King Hakon fell in the Battle of Stord and he was buried according to the ancient heathen rites as far as the historical accounts inform us.

“Sacrilege in the Marital Bed” is the title of the next lecture in the book.  This chapter discusses the cultural environment of the Sagas that take place in the 9th, 10th and 11th Centuries as they were written down in the 13th Century. The title of the article centers on Gisli’s Saga and Gisli’s sneaking into Thorgrimir’s Hof and killing him as he lay next to his wife in his bed.  It also discusses Freyr and fertility rites and cults. The full Saga can be found here:

“Myth and Ritual in Gluma and Hrafnkatla” is the name of the next article and it discusses the theme of how similar, or different were, the actual traditions of heathen Icelanders in the time that the Icelandic Saga events took place from when they were recorded during a time after the conversion to Christianity.  The author makes the point that not only were Icelanders prolific writers they were prolific story tellers.  Here he is saying that the Sagas were passed down faithfully in oral form for the 200 plus years before they were written down.  In this lecture, Aðalsteinsson analyzes how different Icelanders had relationships with different Gods.  The chapter points out that Odin was the God of Kings, heroes, and poets, but also men of violence and lawbreakers. 

Hrafnkell was for example, a devoted follower of Freyr who dedicated his horse to Freyr and vowed that anyone who rode it would be put to death.  Of course, someone does ride the horse and this sets in motion a lifelong chain of violence and events that only after many trials ends well for Hrafnkell though he abandons the Cult of Freyr, which to me at least seems like a 13th Century Christian varnishing of the tale.

“Giants and Elves in Mythology and Folktales” is the next article.  This seems to be an area not studied widely in our faith, but one that merits study if one intends to travel to Iceland where these beliefs are very strong and as the author says, “fully alive.”

The next lecture is “Wrestling with a Ghost in Icelandic Popular Belief.”  This covers tales in the Sagas, most famously perhaps Grettir’s Saga of battles with the undead.  This chapter draws connections to tales from the 19th and 20th century in Iceland that these beliefs persist of ghost wrestling persist.

The final lecture in the book is “The Ghost that Wrestled with Gudmundur.”  This chapter continues the theme of wrestling with ghost wrestling stores in Iceland during the 20th Century.

Overall, in his lectures, Aðalsteinsson considers efforts by those who recorded the Sagas to blend elements of Christianity and the earlier heathen beliefs. Throughout the book, there are many extracts from the lore presented in Old Icelandic (Old Norse) with English translations.  If you are a student of Old Norse, as I seem to be perpetually, these are interesting.

“A Piece of Horse Liver” is available on Amazon.  Please consider supporting Odin’s Warrior Tribe and our military Veterans’ support mission by using our Amazon Affiliate Storefront Smile where we are registered as a charity. 


317 views0 comments


bottom of page