02 July 2010

Friday night folklore: Doing business with a sorcerer

Icelanders in the old days believed strongly in magic, both good and bad, as may be seen from the many folktales about the subject. Contrary to many other European countries where practitioners of magic were in the main thought to be women, in most Icelandic folktales they are men, and during the witch-hunts of the 17th century only one of the 20 executed victims was a woman. However, when featured in folktales about sorcery, women tend to be better at it than men, and are often featured as the ones who help to lift an evil spell, as in the story below.

Once upon a time a group of men were on a journey far from home. The aim of the journey was to buy stockfish for the winter. This was long before the automobile was invented, and most roads in Iceland were just well-trodden paths, so everyone travelled either by foot or by horse. The men rode their saddle horses and brought with them a train of pack horses to carry provisions and to load up with stockfish for the return journey. They arrived at a farm where they had hope of buying fish from the farmer, and raised their tent near the farm late one night.

In the morning the farmer awoke and saw the tent and went out to meet the travellers. They discussed their wish to buy stockfish from him while they all walked back to the farm. Passing where the travellers’ horses were grazing, the farmer stopped to look at the horses and noticed a chestnut and white skewbald(*) horse that outshone all the others in grace and beauty. He said to the horse’s owner:

“I will sell you fish in exchange for that horse.”

But the owner replied that although he would be glad to have the fish, he would prefer to return home without it rather than sell this horse, which he loved very much. The farmer persisted in trying to make a deal for the horse, but the owner kept refusing.

“You will not make any profit by that horse, then,” said the farmer finally, but the owner said the didn’t care. All that mattered to him was to keep the horse.

The travellers then bought fish from the farmer, but when the time came to saddle up and go home, the beautiful horse lay dead in the grass. As they stood over the carcass and the owner was bemoaning its fate and saying that he could at least take the horse's skin home with him as a memento, a young girl, about ten or eleven years old, came by on her way with a heard of cows she was taking out to pasture. She looked at the horse and said to the owner:

“You’re not so cocky now, mister. You should have sold the horse to my father. Say, what will you give me if I bring it back to life for you?”

He didn’t think she could do it, but said he would reward her if she did manage it.

The girl now walked widdershins around the horse three times, muttering something under her breath. At the end of the last round the horse rose to its feet and shook itself. The girl laughed and said:

“He wasn’t dead. My granny also taught me some tricks.”

The traveller paid her handsomely for the favour and the horse lived out a long life in his possession.

Notes:
* Translation for Americans: Pinto

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

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