The skeid phenomenon, being a rather broad spectre of different competitive events in rural society, but including horse- and cow-fights, are mainly known from two different kinds of sources, early modern folk tradition in some inland areas in southern Norway, and Icelandic medieval sagas, although archaeology might also contribute. Even if skeid is often interpreted as referring to horse fights pure and simple, the term actually means ’race-ground’, and horse-racing was an integral part of festivals that also included horse-fights. From areas where memories of the old skeid are best kept, we hear of all kinds of competitions that took place alongside animal-fights and horse-races; people were racing each other, held jumping competitions, wrestled each other etc. All these activities took place within a context that was arguably carnivalesque.
Skeid is first and foremost an aspect of folk tradition in the inland regions of Telemark, Setesdal and adjoining areas. Outside these areas of Scandinavia, the skeids are largely known from place-names or single mentionings only.
Regarding the skeid in Moland, Telemark, the bishop of Oslo gave the following description as early as 1618: About a mile and a half from Fyresdal a crowd of people congregates on St. Bartholomew’s Day with their horses from the districts all round, and the horses are left to bite each other two by two, the notion being that when they bite each other two by two, there will be a good crop and vice versa.’ A later source supplies further information: ’At Molandsmoen … there is a level piece of ground where four pointed stones, which marked a square combat-ground in olden times, have stood. Nowadays it is the scene of a small horse-fair…, when the horses are ridden to be tested and finally let loose to fight for a mare, which a man holds in the middle of the ground and defends with a pole, until one of the horses has proven victor.’ Thus, in Telemark, the skeid seems to have incorporated horse-fights as well as horse-races at certain times of the year.
Further light is thrown upon the phenomenon in the neighbouring Setesdal valley. The skeid there was first described in a late 17th century collection of dialect terms, where the term ’Sckiey-Moenen’ was explained as a level field where people gathered at certain times and practiced horse-fights in a way that must have had clear affinities with the practice in Moland. It was however in Setesdal that the skeids were most widespread in the early modern period; in this valley there was a skeid in each and every parish.
The oldest description of a skeid in Setesdal comes from Valle parish; it dates to 1771, and its author was the local vicar named Gjellebøl. He describes a skeid with two main elements – horse-fights and horse-racing. At a certain day in August a large congregation gathered with their horses at the skeid-field near the vicarage; a mare was then brought forward, as well as two stallions which immediately starting to fight over the mare. This went on, with a new stallion being brought forward every time one of the fighting ones had to call it a day: ’It may easily be imagined what a strange spectacle this is, when nothing can be heard but the fierce neighing of the horses and the foolish shouting and crying of the crowd.’ After this, writes Gjellebøl, people go to another place near the vicarage, called Leikvollen (i.e. the games-field). Here they raced each other, three or four at a time: ’This is done in as strange a manner as is described above, because they do not seek to win the race at a regular trot, but all, by constant beating and whipping, force their horses into a wild gallop. This too is bad for the beasts, which sometimes stumble and fall on hummocks and stones, and also for the riders, who are often thrown and maimed, which easily happens as a result of the mad racing and of their riding without saddles…’
Yet other sources add some details to this picture. Thus, we learn that the skeid involved heavy drinking, that other kinds of competitions also took place during the day (wrestling, etc.), that women and children were watching the events from the roof-tops, and that dancing was also involved, as well as commerce. During the horse-fights, the men were all equipped with a big wooden rod to keep the horses off with; often they used these rods on each other, too. A couple of more obscure practices are mentioned too – the horses were allowed to graze on the infield, and overnight people pulled up the barley with the root in the fields.
The skeid in Valle was abolished c. 1820, and the same thing happened in other parts of Setesdal. The reason given in later folk tradition for why the skeid was stopped, was that a man living near the vicarage was ridden down and crippled during the games, and that people got tired of having to mend the turf-roofs every year because of spectators using the roofs to get a good view of the games.
In the cattle breeding inland region from Jæren in the west to Telemark in the east a particular type of skeid was practiced until the late 19th century. In these areas the cattle was kept in stables during the cold, snowy winters. When the cattle was let loose in springtime, the farmers had their bu-skeid (cow-skeid), i.e. they let the animals fight each other to decide which cow was to be this yea’s bu-konge (cow-king). These cow-fights are best known from Sirdal, an inland valley between the countnies of Rogaland and Vest-Agder.
The local historian Hans Seland wrote in 1928 about the cow-fights of his childhood: ’It was great fun on the pre-improvement farms on the day when the cows were taken out to graze. It was always on the same day, and each and every time the cows were butting and showing off strenght.’ Particularly aggressive cows were sought after by the farmers. If the men couldn’t decide which cow was the strongest one, they fought each other instead.
Some cows were really wild. One cow in particular was traded from one farmer to the next, and this animal butted several others to death. Still, it gave prestige to own this cow. Especially the men from the Virak farm in Sirdal were known to travel long distances to acquire wild cows with big horns. The bu-konge had to be big, strong, and brave – and preferably have a set of horns sharp as knives. As long as the cow matched these demands, it did not really matter whether or not it was a good milk cow. A farmer who owned a bu-konge took good care of it. The bu-konge was fed hay of the highest quality, which otherwise was a privilege granted only to horses. The ordinary cows only got low quality grass from the mountains. While caring for the cows was typical woman’s work, only men took care of the bu-konge.
As was the case with the skeid horses, the fighting-cows were also fed snake-heads, which people believed had strengthening and healing effects. The animals were given liquor, too. Some farmers sharpened and polished the cow’s horns in preparing for the bu-skeid.
In the 19th century the bu-skeid took place within the framework of multi-tenanted farms. However, only one farm in each settlement district had a bu-skeid. It is likely that the cow-fights in earlier times were organised on a parish level, as were the horse-skeids.
Dating the skeids
As we have seen, the oldest written source mentioning a skeid in Telemark dates to 1618, while the skeid in Setesdal is mentioned in the late 17th century, and the skeid in Sirdal only considerably later. The folklorist Svale Solheim, however, points out that there are obvious similarities between the horse-fights(hestavíg) described in Icelandic sagas and the skeids as they are known from written sources and folk tradition in south Norway. Even some of the more curious aspects of the skeid in Norwegian folk tradition seems to be confirmed by the saga descriptions. Landnámabók, for instance, mentions a Þórmóðr skeiðagoði in a 12th century context, and Elias Wessén argued that such skeid-godir probably had something to do with the horse-skeids. In Sirdal folk tradition there is a story about a skeid-functionary, a certain Svein, who was responsible for the skeid at Skeidsmonen every autumn. Solheim believes that the horse-fights were transplanted to Iceland by Norwegian settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Some Norwegian written sources mention horse-fights at an early date. The regional law-code for the Frostating area (Trøndelag in central Norway) formulates certain rules regulating horse-fights. These rules were incorporated into the nation-wide Landslov in 1274.
To get further back in time than this, we have to turn our attention to archaeology. Looking at the four stones (only two of them are left) which marked the skeid-field in Moland, it is highly interesting that one of the two remaining stones has a runic inscription. The inscription dates to the 12th or 13th centuries, and according to Magnus Olsen transliterates as þórolfr reit. Sá skal ráða rú(nar), er lér stigreips, ie ’Thorolf wrote. He shall command (these) runes who lends (another person) a stirrup’. Olsen’s sketchy interpretation of the meaning of the inscription does not neccessarily ring true. But, provided that ’stigreips’ is really to be translated as stirrup, the inscription could very well be connected to the skeid taking place there.
Pictorial evidence suggests that horse-fights took place in Scandinavia already in the Late Iron Age. The oldest example of a horse-fight being pictured is on a stone from Häggeby in Uppland, Sweden. The stone dates to c. 500AD. On one of the so-called rune-bones from Weser near Bremen is pictured a man (?) pointing a spear-like object at a horse, and this might illustrate a horse-fight, with the man holding a wooden rod to keep the horse off. These bones date to the Migration period. Face-to-face animals is a rather common motif in Late Iron Age art, and some researchers believe that they represent horses fighting.
There is a certain intermixture beween the skeid and the Otherworld in Norwegian folklore. In Telemark as well as in Setesdal one can find the idea that the stallion which won the horse-fights, and which was called the skeid-fole (skeid-stallion), could have supernatural origins, ie it could sometimes be a hulder-hest (fairy-horse). The story of the so-called Gråfole (Grey-stallion) is well known in Valle in Setesdal. The Gråfole appeared by itself for three successive years at the skeid until a man from the Røysland farm got the courage to capture it. For the next to years the Gråfole became skeid-fole, but the year thereafter it lost to yet another hulder-hest. When the Røysland man took the Gråfole home after the skeid, he happened to slap it lightly on the back with the bit. The horse then killed him and disappeared into the mountains. The Gråfole came back for the next three skeids, but noone tried to capture it again. Then it disappeared for good, even if some people claimed to have seen it at far-away pastures in the mountain or carrying people over the so-called Gråfol-åi (Gråfole-river) further west.
The grey fairy-horse also appears in Icelandic saga tradition. Landnámabok relates the story about a mare which was with a strange, long-haired and grey stallion. Later on the mare gave birth to Eidfaxi, ’the horse that went to Norway and in one day killed seven men at Lake Mjøsa and was killed there itself.’
Skeids and carnival
When Solheim published his great study of the horse-fights in Norway in 1956, he stressed that the skeid in Setesdal took place at the same time as the livestock was returned from summer mountain pastures to the home farms. For him, then, the skeid was first of all a shieling-festival, ’a festival celebrating the work completed at the sæter (ie shieling).’ While this is an interesting hypothesis, the evidence is not altogether clear. While the horse-fights in Moland in Telemark happened at St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24, one of the two big annual skeids in Sirdal took place in-between the sowing-season and the harvesting-season, which means earlier than the Setesdal skeid. The testimony from Moland in 1618 suggests a connection to harvest rituals.
Be that as it may, I would like to briefly point to another aspect that seems to link all the skeids, without regard to when they took place, and including the cow-fights. This is the carnivalesque side of the skeids. As theorised by Mikhail Bakhtin, in the carnival ready-made truths as well as hierarchies of everyday life, their solemnities, pieties, and etiquettes were profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies; fools became wise and kings beggars, and opposites were mingled. Through the carnival the world was turned-upside-down, ideas and truths were endlessly tested and contested, and all demanded equal status.
A number of the oddities associated with the skeids can be made sense of in light of the carnival. Seemingly strange customs like the fact that animals were allowed to graze on the normally off-limit infields, that people in Setesdal were pulling barley plants from the fields, roots and all, that the Molanders rode horses without a saddle, or that otherwise peaceful cows were put on a ’killing spree’ in Sirdal. The same goes for men performing women’s work when preparing for the bu-skeids, as well as for the intermingling of real horses and fairy-horses in the popular imagination, etc.
Since the carnival often explicitly mocks aspects of official culture, itis worth noting that Magnus Olsen’s interpretation of the runic inscription at Molandsmoen not only implies a connection with the skeid, but also indicates that the inscription – even though it seems to describe a ’punishment’ of bending over (in a way that suggests sexual defamation, one might add) for some offence linked to the skeid – is formulated as a legal rule. If Olsen is right, this seems to be an explicit mockery of law, and perhaps even of the thing (assembly) with its fixed procedures and reliance on written law.
Uplanders, mountain people and their culture
While skeids and animal-fights might once have been widespread all over Norway and beyond, like place-names and to some degree folk legends suggests, the skeid was exlusively an inland, not to say mountain, phenomenon in the 17th century and later. Thus, one has to pose the question why the skeid tradition was kept in the inland valleys, even though it disappeared in the coastal districts?
The cultural anthropologist Jan-Petter Blom has made important contributions to our understanding of the inland areas in southern Norway as a cultural zone. He argues that the traditional farming population in southern Norway shared the same culture, but that the mountain farmers nonetheless had developed certain cultural traits or ways of living in response to ’adaptive requirements and opportunities provided by variations in ecological conditions.’ While the lowlanders were bound to their farm and led a stable life, the life of a mountain farmer was bound up with the exploitation of extensive areas. He was constantly on the move, crossing the mountains; he was a hunter, a dealer, a cowboy and a horse-trader. ’As a result’ Blom writes, ’the mountaineer is often attributed a certain type of character: he is a gambler, an artist and a ruffian in contrast to the sturdy, mild lowlander. … The more a mountaineer involves himself in social competition with peasants of the lowlands, and through them with most Norwegians, the more his overt style of living must diverge from that of people in other tactical positions. Through this specialization, distinctive regional cultures emerge...’
However, it would be wrong to reduce the valley culture to a question about ecology. We are, after all, dealing with parts of Norway that also share some structural features as well as having a common history. Regions like Telemark and Setesdal, the Robyggjalog of medieval sources, was integrated into the Norwegian kingdom at a relatively late time, and one could argue that the valley culture was established in opposition to the process of state formation that in the end saw Robyggjalog pacified and subdued. These are also regions where freeholding farmers, and not tenant farmers, remained the norm throughout the Middle Ages and later. This customary pattern of land-holding differed from the one found in coastal areas, and this fact also gives us some idea about why the inland culture, and here we must include the skeids, was so competitive.
At a basic level, the skeids were part of a mountain valley culture where the surplus from farm based activities in the outlands – be it animal husbandry, bog-iron extraction, or large-scale hunting – were converted into prestigious objects and practices. The archaeologist Irmelin Martens writes about the mountain farmers in Telemark that ’dress adornments and buildings strongly indicate the inhabitants’ need for cultural re-assertion, which is also demonstrated in the development of local styles.’ The mountain valleys are not only the home of skeids, but also of prestigious wooden architecture in the shape of stave-churches and high loft buildings. It was a place where prestige could be acquired by having the highest loft, the longest house, the sharpest knife, the prettiest wife, the biggest fiest, and the most costly dress – or even the strongest horse and the wildest cow. But it was also a place where the prestige and status acquired through intense competition could be profaned and equalised through carnival.