The Kengala of the sagas was a dun-colored mare with a dark stripe down her back. The meaning of her name is obscure, but could come from kenna, “to know,” or kengur, “a bowed back.” She was owned by the farmer Asmundur, Grettir’s father, and was “so wise about the weather” that a storm invariably followed when she refused to graze. “If she does this,” Asmundur told Grettir, “you are to stable the horses, but otherwise keep them grazing up north on the ridge, once winter sets in.”
Grettir was a rebellious teenager and hated the chores his father gave him. This one, at least, was “man’s work,” as he put it, and things went well until “it became cold and snowy with poor grazing. Grettir was thinly clad and not yet fully hardened, so he began to feel the cold bitterly, but Kengala grazed away in the most exposed places during the worst of the weather.” Grettir resented having to obey the horse’s weather-sense, and one morning he came to the stable with a sharp knife and jumped onto her back. “There was a fierce struggle, but in the end he succeeded in cutting loose her back skin all the way to her loins”—essentially flaying off her dorsal stripe. When he drove the horses out to pasture that day, Kengala, not surprisingly, ran straight back to the barn.
Asmundur was alarmed to hear that Kengala refused to graze, and told the household to prepare for a blizzard. After two nights and still no sign of a storm, he went out to the stable to see Kengala for himself. Greeting his favorite mare, he ran his hand along her back and was horrified to find the skin coming away at his touch. Grettir stood there grinning; his father “went home swearing violently.”
The weather-wise Kengala had to be put down, but Grettir also came to a bad end, living most of his life as an outlaw, chased from place to place. Some people reading Grettir’s Saga think of the outlaw as a tragic hero. From the horse’s perspective (and mine), he got what he deserved.
Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.