Oaths are sworn in court and other legal situations to ensure and promote honesty and responsibility for one’s statements and actions. In the short story Hrafnkel’s Saga, Hrafnkel swore an oath that he promised not to break – an oath that he made as a chieftain, a priest, and ultimately, a man. In Iceland, where the saga takes place, oaths are not to be broken or altered. In fact, oral laws are just as established as written laws (Wen). Hrafnkel is not guilty of Einar’s death because he kept a holy oath with Frey, and because there were logical and legal reasons why Einar had to be killed.
Without Einar’s careless actions, he would not have faced death. Hrafnkel’s overwhelming pride and love for Frey and Freyfaxi are evident throughout the saga. In the beginning of the Saga, the anonymous author describes that Hrafnkel “loved Frey above all other gods and gave him a half-share in all his best treasures” (36). Hrafnkel has dedicated half of the horse to his most favorite god, Frey – the horse is then considered as a semi-divine figure by Hrafnkel, not just a mere animal. However, Einar completely disregarded Hrafnkel’s faith and disrespected a holy entity, which in itself is a deathly crime.
While the saga does not fully provide an opinion on whether Einar worshipped Frey, Einar’s attitude towards Frey does not have any effect on his actions. In fact, in the journal article “Ethics or Pragmatics; Fate or Chance; Heathen, Christian, or Godless World? (Hrafnkel’s Saga),” author William Sayers states, “Frey was not the principal god in pagan Icelandic worship... ” (386). Since Frey was not a principal god, Einar had no obligations to glorify or praise him. However, even if Einar did not worship Frey, Einar still should have respected his employer’s faith for his god.
And as a faithful priest, Hrafnkel had to punish Einar for his evident disrespect of Frey – it was his duty, not his personal will, to end Einar’s life. In addition to dishonoring Frey, Einar also threatened Hrafnkel’s political status by riding his stallion. The author mentions that, “Hrafnkel had one treasured possession which he held dearer than anything else he owned” (38). The stallion is the most “treasured” possession of Hrafnkel – it symbolizes Hrafnkel’s political power in his community.
William Sayers also mentions in his article that, “... although the base color, dun... would have been one of the least common, thus giving the horse a distinctive appearance, in addition to its prominent status as a stallion... " (386). The horse’s “distinctive appearance” and his “prominent status” represent Hrafnkel’s own superior position and prestige in society. Einar, a socially inferior individual, defaced Hrafnkel’s high standing by mounting on Hrafnkel’s favorite possession, Freyfaxi.
This was a serious insult to Hrafnkel’s pride. As a prestigious man and owner, it was Hrafnkel’s responsibility to punish such offensive and prohibited actions. Regardless of Einar’s religious preference or Hrafnkel’s social prestige, the oath between Hrafnkel and his employees had taken effect even before Einar was present in Hrafnkel’s life. The author illustrates Hrafnkel’s love for Freyfaxi as he describes that Hrafnkel “swore a solemn oath to kill anyone who rode the stallion without his permission” (38).
Hrafnkel has had shepherds in the past, and they all agreed to Hrafnkel’s conditions. Einar, like others, agreed to this offer as well. In fact, he desperately sought out for the job himself. After Hrafnkel carefully explained his oath to him, Einar fully agreed: “…he would never be so wicked as to ride the one horse which was forbidden to him…” (40). He calls the action “wicked,” signifying that he understands riding Freyfaxi would be obnoxious unnecessary. However, Einar commits this very deed later in the saga as he is herding the sheep.
The author describes, “Einar… decided to ride the stallion, thinking that Hrafnkel would never find out” (40-41). By performing and concealing this illegal action, Einar acknowledges that he deserves whatever punishment given to him. Although punishment by death may seem too harsh to Einar and those who are related to him, they must understand that it was Einar who fully agreed to be punished if he broke the oath. As a honorable individual in his society, Hrafnkel must abide by the consensual oath that he made in order to set a good precedent for others.
Not only is Hrafnkel is a respected landowner, he is also an admired chieftain. As a chieftain, Hrafnkel must respect all laws and oaths in society, including and especially his own. In fact, he even states his stance on oaths when he declares, “I’d have forgiven this single offence if I’d not sworn so great an oath…” (42-43). Even though Hrafnkel would like to forgive and overlook Einar’s crucial mistake, he swore an oath. As a chieftain, Einar cannot disregard his own actions and oaths.
Although he did swear to kill employees who might ride Freyfaxi, all his employees agreed to the conditions, therefore making Hrafnkel’s oath consensual. Hrafnkel did not commit a murder, but rather performed the punishment required under the contract agreed to by both parties. In fact, Hrafnkel showed a good example as a landowner, chieftain, and a priest by fulfilling his duties and following the laws. Hrafnkel is an exemplary and responsible individual; he is not a murderer.