Pets and Livestock in the Viking Age

Norwegian Elkhound.

The Viking Age

Vikings (Old English: wicing—”pirate”, Danish and Bokmål: vikinger; Swedish and Nynorsk: vikingar; Icelandic: víkingar, from Old Norse víkingar), were Norse seafarers, mainly speaking the Old Norse language, who raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of northern, central, eastern and western Europe, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries. The term is also commonly extended in modern English and other vernaculars to the inhabitants of Viking home communities during what has become known as the Viking Age. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion constitutes an important element in the early medieval history of Scandinavia, Estonia, the British Isles, Ireland, France, Kievan Rus’ and Sicily.

Facilitated by advanced sailing and navigational skills, and characterised by the longship, Viking activities at times also extended into the Mediterranean littoral, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Following extended phases of (primarily sea- or river-borne) exploration, expansion and settlement, Viking (Norse) communities and polities were established in diverse areas of north-western Europe, European Russia, the North Atlantic islands and as far as the north-eastern coast of North America. This period of expansion witnessed the wider dissemination of Norse culture, while simultaneously introducing strong foreign cultural influences into Scandinavia itself, with profound developmental implications in both directions.

Popular, modern conceptions of the Vikings—the term frequently applied casually to their modern descendants and the inhabitants of modern Scandinavia—often strongly differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and historical sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages began to emerge in the 18th century; this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival.

Perceived views of the Vikings as alternatively violent, piratical heathens or as intrepid adventurers owe much to conflicting varieties of the modern Viking myth that had taken shape by the early 20th century. Current popular representations of the Vikings are typically based on cultural clichés and stereotypes, complicating modern appreciation of the Viking legacy. These representations are not always accurate – for example, there is no evidence that they wore horned helmets.

Pets Kept by Vikings

Vikings were said to keep pets for several purposes. Apart from the usual cats and dogs, there were several others kinds of animals whose existence was recorded by historians. These animals do not only act as companions but at the same time they were used as farm animals. A large number of animals were present during Vikings age. Some of the animals, owned by the Vikings as pet animals or farm animals were: Cats, Dogs, Hawks, Sheep, Horses, Cattle and Goats.

Cats

There is a great deal of historical and archaeological evidence showing that Vikings kept cats. Historical evidence suggests that not only were cats employed to deal with vermin, they were also valued as pets. Vikings were master mariners and spent a great deal of time at sea in Longships – either exploring, trading or raiding; rats were a constant problem and cats were employed to control their population.

Norwegian Forest Cat.

Cats had a religious significance during Viking period. They were directly associated to Freyja, the Goddess of Love. Viking families used to give a kitten to a new bride so that she could successfully establish a happy household with her husband. It was said that Freya or Frayja, (Goddess of Love and Beauty, also; fertility, war, and wealth) was the daughter of Njord, and the sister of Frey. Her daughter, by her husband, Od, is named Hnoss, who it is said: “Is so beautiful that whatever is valuable and lovely is named treasure after her.”

Norwegian Forest Cat during the winter months.

Norse legend tells of Freya, whose chariot was pulled by two black cats. Some versions of the tale claim they became swift black horses, possessed by the Devil. After serving Freya for 7 years, the cats were rewarded by being turned into witches, disguised as black cats. The cats also played around her ankles as a symbol of her domesticity.

Freya aboard her chariot which was said to be pulled by Norwegian Mountain Cats.

Historians believe that the mythological cats that pulled Freya’s chariot were Norwegian Mountain cats. The Vikings used to call them “Skogkatt” which literally means mountain cats in Norwegian. These species of cats are found in the northernmost regions of Norway and Denmark. The bone structure and strong muscle form distinguished these feral animals from domestic cats.

The Viking people did however keep the Norwegian Forest cat domestically. Evidence suggests that they were kept as pets as well as a means of controlling vermin. Archaeological evidence shows us that these animals were revered by Viking elders. Many Forest cats and Elkhounds were buried with their masters.

Close up portrait of a Norwegian Forest cat.

The Norwegian Forest Cat was valued by the Vikings for it’s strength, intelligence and ability to survive and hunt in the harsh Norwegian winters. Today, the Forest Cat is “The Official Cat of Norway” and is a highly prized pet in Norway, Denmark and across Scandinavia. The Vikings introduced the breed to many countries across Europe and even perhaps North America.

Dogs

The next most common type of pets owned by the Vikings were dogs. Archaeological evidence from grave finds suggests that dogs were kept as pets by Vikings. They would have been used for hunting, companionship, as working animals and even as ‘War’ dogs.

Norwegian Elkhound.

Frigga, the Goddess of Fidelity and Marriage, wife of Odin was said to travel in her chariot pulled by a team of dogs. Thus according to Vikings, the dogs represent a perfect symbol of loyalty and faith towards their owner. Dogs are also part of Norwegian society today. But it was the Vikings who first kept dogs as pets in Norway and Denmark.

According to the Viking artifacts, the historians have found out that the dogs and owners were so attached to each other that they were buried side by side. Pictorial historical evidence shows that the Viking people had a good relationship with their dogs. The most common breed owned by the Vikings was somewhat related to the spitz; these dogs were hybrids of the Arctic Wolf and Southern Domestic dogs. There were several other dog breeds which were found later on by historians stated which illustrates the wide range of dog breeds that was present during the Viking age.

Norwegian Elkhound.

Some of them which were identified by the experts were:

  • Hunting dogs
  • Norwegian Elkhound
  • Karelian Bear Dog

These were some of the dog breeds owned by the Vikings during 8th to 11th century. Each had specialized skills. For example; the Elkhound was used for hunting deer and small animals, the Karelian Bear Dog, as it’s name suggests was bred for hunting bears.

Karelian Bear Dog.

Wild Animals

The Viking people utilised many wild animals. Animals such as hawks, cattle, sheep and many others have been recorded by historians over the years. Vikings attempted to domesticate many wild animals such as bears. For instance, they would send a hunting party to capture a young bear that had been caught in a trap. The bear would be reared and semi-domesticated.

It isn’t entirely clear how the adult bear was used by Viking communities, however it is possible that these creatures may have been kept for entertainment or used as a training tool for the Karelian Bear Dog.  Hawks and Falcons were also used by the Vikings. They were trained and used as hunting tools, much like the Falconers of today. The Vikings considered falcons as the kings of birds.

Accipiter gentilis, Scandinavian Goshawk, Hønsehauk. 56cm.

Cattle and Farm Animals

Certain livestock were typical and unique to the Vikings, including the Icelandic horse, Icelandic cattle, a plethora of sheep breeds, the Danish hen and the Danish goose. The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to extract the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as the black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found.

An Icelandic cow, in a pasture with Icelandic sheep.

Seafood was important, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimps were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important.

The invention and introduction of the mouldboard plough revolutionised agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even poor soils.

The Medieval mouldboard plough.

In Ribe, grains of rye, barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and are believed to have been cultivated locally.

Ribe is a Danish town in south-west Jutland.

Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread.

Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did. Flax was a very important crop for the Vikings: it was used for oil extraction, food consumption and most importantly the production of linen. More than 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be traced as linen. This suggests a much higher actual percentage, as linen is poorly preserved compared to wool for example.

References

 

8 thoughts on “Pets and Livestock in the Viking Age”

      1. Thank you. Norse Mythology is a wonderful concept. The Vikings believed in an ethereal realm where wolves, birds of prey, cats, Dwarfs, Elves, horses, humans and Gods all co-existed in an otherworldly realm. Who is to say they were wrong? I much prefer the Norse understanding of the afterlife than the Christian one – it seems so much more exciting!

      2. It’s so much more than just a concept of an afterlife. I prefer this world view to the mundane perspective under which modern society lives. All my life, it made me so sad to think there was no magic in the world. How much better to think there might be more worlds where magic does exist! It’s why I love mythology and fantasy.

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