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Photo: Saxo Grammaticus: Danmarks Krønike (Gesta Danorum) – tr. Frederik Winkel Horn – illust. Louis Moe (1898).

Origin of Horse Head Used for Pagan Curse Still Unknown

Capital-area police are still trying to determine the origin of the severed horse head that was mounted on a stake on the land of a small capital-area community last week, RÚV reports. The grotesque totem, which derives from ancient pagan tradition, is called a nithing pole and is intended to curse the receiver.

See Also: ‘I take it as a threat’: Nithing Pole Erected at Local Commune 

DCI Stella Mjöll Aðalsteinsdóttir says that police have not received any reports of missing horses. Icelandic horses are microchipped, but this is no use to authorities in this instance, either: the head used on the nithing pole was severed above the neck, where its chip would have been located. Police are still awaiting the final report from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), but are conducting their own parallel investigation, which Stella Mjöll said she was unable to comment further on at time of writing.

Animal did not suffer

Police believe it unlikely that the head was taken from a slaughterhouse, as there are strict rules about the disposal of byproducts at such facilities. According to the information that MAST has been able to provide about the animal thus far, the horse was two years old and was killed with a single shot to the head. Sigríður Björnsdóttir, a veterinarian of equine diseases at MAST, noted that the head has not started to rot, which either means that the animal was shot shortly before the nithing pole was erected, or that the head was stored in a refrigerator beforehand.

Under Icelandic law, horse owners are permitted to slaughter their animals without a veterinarian present, as long as it is done correctly. Thankfully, this seems to have been the case with the horse in question. Hallgerður Hauksdóttir, chair of the Animal Welfare Association of Iceland, says the organization will not be investigating the incident themselves, as it does not appear that the animal suffered.

Nithing poles in recent years

As mentioned, nithing poles are used in pagan tradition to curse the receiver. It is only considered a true nithing pole if a horse head is used.

One of the most famous uses of a nithing pole occurs in ch. 60 of Egill’s saga, which was written around 1240 AD, but nithing poles—or symbolic variations thereof—have been erected in Iceland several times in much more recent memory.

The last instance of a real nithing pole being erected was in the Reykjavík suburb of Breiðholt in 2012. In that case, it remains unknown who the pole was intended to curse, or where the horse head was sourced.

In 2006, a farmer in Otradalur in the Westfjords attempted to curse a neighbor using a nithing pole topped with a calf’s head. The man was charged with making a threat on the neighbor’s life.

In 2018, an opponent of salmon farming erected a nithing pole topped with a cod’s head in Bíldudalur in West Iceland.

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