Saturday, June 23, 2012 ― Ponies and Polities

I’m read­ing a lot of Ice­landic his­to­ry, late­ly, and came across this fine descrip­tion of the Ice­landic horse in Mag­nus Magnusson’s Ice­landic Saga. It sounds very like the stur­dy lit­tle native ponies I saw in Wales:

Phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions were daunt­ing. Tor­ren­tial rivers, for­mi­da­ble moun­tains, impass­able reach­es of lava and huge dis­tances were for­bid­ding obsta­cles to social inter­course. But the set­tlers from Nor­way brought with them a crea­ture which made light of dif­fi­cul­ty and dis­tance ― the hardy, nim­ble-foot­ed Ice­landic horse, the pure-bred equ­us scan­di­nav­i­cus. It was as impor­tant a cat­a­lyst for set­tle­ment by land as the knörr was by sea. Stur­dy and docile, the horse car­ried every­one and every­thing on its back ― and con­tin­ued to do so, indeed, for a 1,000 years; the first road for wheeled vehi­cles was not built in Ice­land until 1874. The Ice­landic horse has not changed in the slight­est over the cen­turies; it has nev­er inter­bred with for­eign stock, and it is still the orig­i­nal Nordic horse. It has a unique range of five gaits: step (fet­gan­gur), trot (brokk), gal­lop (stökk), pace (skeið), and run­ning walk, or rack (tölt); this is the dis­tinc­tive gait of the Ice­landic horse, set­ting it apart from oth­er Euro­pean breeds ― the rid­er sits per­fect­ly still in the sad­dle, while the horse pos­i­tive­ly glides along. Horse-rid­ing in Ice­land is now a plea­sure and a sport rather than a neces­si­ty; to own a herd of free-run­ning hors­es is some­thing of a sta­tus sym­bol. There are some 90,000 hors­es in Ice­land now (one for every three of the human pop­u­la­tion), adding romance and glam­our to the land­scape as they range free in the upland pas­tures. In the long Ice­land Saga the bond between man and horse hasw always been close and affec­tion­ate.

It was pos­si­ble to cov­er tremen­dous dis­tances on the rugged Ice­landic land­scape with these ani­mals. Con­se­quent­ly, any farmer could attend the Allth­ing, the par­lia­ment of the medieval Ice­landic repub­lic. This had the pecu­liar effect of turn­ing a com­plete­ly non-urban soci­ety (there were not even vil­lages or ham­lets, only iso­lat­ed farm­steads) into the equiv­a­lent of a city state. For it is clear from the sagas that the per­son­al and polit­i­cal inter­ac­tion between these far-flung set­tlers was as inti­mate as in any Greek city. Real­iz­ing this adds a dimen­sion to our under­stand­ing of poli­ties.

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