What kind of animals did the Vikings have?
The Vikings' pets
Source : Skjalden
- The bees
- The goats
- The cat
- The dog
- Hunting dogs
- The names of dogs
- The equidae
- The birds
- Falconry birds
- The peacock
- The bear
- The suidae
Beekeeping was widespread in the southernmost regions of Scandinavia, particularly in Värmland, Sweden. The rest of Scandinavia was forced to import honey, making it an expensive food. Mead, an alcoholic beverage brewed from honey, was very valuable, also because of the difficulty in obtaining honey.
Viking Age cattle are the descendants of the aurochs who roamed the forests and marshes of Europe. In Norway, cattle were the main domestic animals, and the ownership of large herds determined the social status and wealth of the farmer.
Milk was a fundamental raw material for food, used to create other dairy products that could be stored and consumed during the winter period (period during which there was no milk production).
In Nordic mythology, Audhumla ("Audhumbla" in Old Norse - meaning "cow without horn which is rich" in milk) is the original and nourishing cow of the first living being: the giant Ymir. It was born from ice and the dawn of time. From his teats flowed four rivers of milk that fed Ymir. From the salt she was licking continuously appeared a being after three days, Buri, who gave birth to Bor.
Fjall is a small Swedish cattle breed (1.35m at the withers). It is an ancient breed that comes directly from the populations raised by the Vikings. It comes from the central mountains of Sweden and is therefore particularly well adapted to the cold climate. After many crosses, the breed almost disappeared in the 1980s. It is a mixed breed, whose milk is suitable for processing into butter and cheese.
Ringamala and Bohuskulla are the other two other ancient Swedish cattle breeds, belonging to the northern branch, directly from the populations raised by the Vikings.
The Icelandic, or Islenskir nautgripir in its country of origin, is an Icelandic cattle breed that comes from specimens that came from Norway during the island's settlement by the Vikings in the 9th century. It has not been crossed due to the isolation of the island. It is a predominantly dairy mixed breed, whose rich milk is suitable for cheese processing.
The breeding concerned goats and goats as well as sheep and sheep, but the former were considered as the animals of the poor man because their fleece was of lower quality than that of sheep, although the goat tends to give more milk than the sheep.
A goat in a fjord in Norway Perhaps because the goat was the farm animal of the humble man, in Nordic mythology Thor's chariot was pulled by two fierce goats - Tanngrisnir ("the one who shows the teeth") and Tanngnjostr ("the one who grinds the teeth).
The episode of Thor's journey to Utgarðr tells how, while the god stopped for the night, welcomed by a poor family, he killed his two goats so that they could be cooked and eaten, providing food for all. After the meal, Thor gathered the bones and placed them in the skins of the goats, then sanctified the remains with his Mjölnir hammer, after which the goats came back to life.
This account of the sacrifice of Thor's goats suggests a well-established tradition of goat or goat sacrifices during ritual celebrations, especially those dedicated to the god himself.
Ibrāhīm ibn Yaʿqūb, a Spanish Jewish merchant born in Tortosa, Catalonia, in the 10th century, wrote a report on his return from his trip about the great Hedeby trading place he visited. He tells of having witnessed sacrifices during which goats and goats were offered to the northern gods, before their remains were fixed to a pole in front of the door of their owner's house, so that everyone would know that they had honoured the gods.
The goat is also present in mythological accounts, where it is mentioned the feeding goat Heidrún feeding on the branches of the Laeradr tree that grows on the roof of the Valhöl. From its udder, instead of milk, flows the mead that provides the cups of the einherjars, the warriors who died in battle and were welcomed into Odin's home.
Heidrún is also associated with the goddess Freyja, but in a pejorative way, in the form of a slander by which the goddess' sexual appetite is assimilated to Heidrún's heat.
Even today, Scandinavian traditions, which date back to the Viking Age and its beliefs, honour this mythical animal.
Julbock (literally "goatskin/christmas cauldron") is a very popular Christmas decoration. These are small goats made of straw. Julbocken i Gävle, or Gävle goat, is a giant version in Sweden of the traditional Julbock, erected in towns and villages every December 1st and burned on December 31st.
Sheep and lambs
Sheep were prized by the Vikings for their fleece. Their meat, and sheep for their milk.
Gutefår, or Gothic sheep, is the oldest type of sheep found in Scandinavia. Archaeological findings indicate that Gutefår is closely related to sheep introduced into northern Europe during the Stone Age, and it would be identical to sheep found in Sweden during the Iron and Viking Ages.
The current Swedish name for this breed, Gutefår (literally, "Got sheep") was formalized in 1974 to specifically designate the outward pointing horned sheep on Gotland and distinguish it from other breeds on the island.
The breed survived thanks to a rescue undertaken in 1940. The ancestral race of Gutefår was known to develop several horns. The Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné had identified the existence of sheep with 2, 3 or even 4 pairs of horns during his trip to the island of Gotland in 1741. In 1910, the last truly multi-horn Gutefår were slaughtered, and only a few experimental herds, resulting from a back-crossing of Gutefår with the British long-tailed Jacob sheep, have nowadays allowed this characteristic of the breed to be restored.
The loaghtan, or Isle of Man sheep, is very similar to the early specimens of the Gutefår breed, with its multiple horns ranging from 2 to 3 pairs.
This breed is a descendant of a primitive short-tailed race that once lived throughout Scotland, the Hebrides and the Shetland, which may have been introduced to the Isle of Man by Viking settlers in the 9th century.
There were only 3 specimens left in 1950 and the breed is still threatened with extinction today, despite the fears of the Manx people to preserve it.
Its name comes from the mannois lugh dhoan ("mouse brown") after the dark brown colour of its fleece. Loaghtan wool, very light, of high quality and highly sought after by collectors, is used to make clothes but is never dyed to avoid damaging the fibres.
In Iceland, the most common farm animal is sheep. "A household without a sheep is hungry," according to an Icelandic saying. Historically, sheep were raised for their milk, used to make butter, cheese, yoghurt or the Icelandic variant of yoghurt called skyr. Icelandic sheep are mainly raised for their meat.
Icelandic sheep's fleece has a wide variety of shades, and has the particularity of being double. The outer coat is called tog and the thinner sub coat is þel. Separated, they are used to make different products.
The Vikings owned cats as pets but mostly for their valuable skills as hunters. The principal author of a recent scientific study on the DNA of ancient feline breeds, Eva-Maria Geigl, highlighted the important role cats play in farming communities to eradicate rats and mice, based on the discovery of cat bones in a Viking Age burial site in northern Germany and 8 others in Denmark, among others.
It was customary for kittens to be offered to new wives as an essential part of the home for the new household. In addition, it was particularly appropriate for wives to receive cats, as they were associated with Freyja, the goddess of love from whom the chariot was pulled by cats so strong and so great that even the god Thor could not lift them off the ground. It might seem absurd to imagine such a carriage, but it would be ignoring that Viking cats are really out of proportion with the domestic cat.
The Norwegian cat, also known as the Norwegian Forest Cat or Norsk skogkatt, is a wild breed from the North, with strong bones and muscular bodies, perfectly adapted to the climate. In Denmark, these cats are called Huldrekat (huldre refers to a female spirit of the forest, literally "the hidden people").
Nowhere in Old Norse literature do we find the names of the cats of the goddess Freyja. Novelist Diana Paxson, in her book "Brisingamen", imagined the poetic names of Tregul ("golden tree", or "amber") and Bygul ("golden bee", or "honey").
The first literary source that undoubtedly describes the forest cat is that of Peder Claussøn Friis, a Norwegian pastor, historian and topographer. In 1559, Friis described three types of "lynxes": the wolf lynx, the fox lynx and the cat lynx.
It is very likely that the latter was in fact the Norwegian forest cat, a theory all the more likely given the many physiognomic similarities between the Norwegian cat and the lynx: both large, with long legs, a fur collar and toupees at the tips of their ears. In addition, both love water, and there are many stories of Norwegian cats diving, like lynxes, into lakes and rivers to catch fish.
There were several breeds of dogs common in the Viking Age. The great popularity of dogs as domestic animals, both for work and companionship, is demonstrated by the large number of archaeological discoveries in the graves of the time.
The art of the Vikings represents many dogs, especially in the scenes of the runic stones depicting the arrival of the dead warrior in combat at the Valhöll: the warrior is greeted by a Valkyrie wearing a mead horn, and behind her, awaits the warrior's faithful dog.
Like many dog owners, the Vikings apparently could not conceive of their lives, even in the afterlife, without the presence of their canine companion. This probably partly explains why the graves of many warriors contain the bones of one or more dogs, sacrificed to accompany their master to death.
In Scandinavian beliefs, the dog is the guardian of the underground world, and one of the reasons why the dog followed his master into death was probably to serve as a guide to the deceased. Dogs, both large and small, have been found in large numbers in tombs in Sweden dating from the Vendel period, just before the Viking Age.
During the latter, however, their number in graves decreased. The one in Oseberg contained the bones of four dogs to accompany the women buried there. Gokstad's tomb contained six dogs buried with their master. Other Viking tombs containing dog skeletons, discovered in Denmark, Great Britain, the Isle of Man or even elsewhere, confirm his psychopump role and the extent of this custom in the Viking world.
The northern hound is a Spitz-type animal, resulting from a crossbreeding between the native population of Arctic wolves and domestic dogs from the South, present since the Neolithic period according to the analysis of bone remains dating back more than 5000 years. Several current dog breeds are probably derived from the Spitz breed of the Viking Age.
Although some breeds probably date from the Viking Age or even earlier, most were not recognized as "official breeds" until the 19th century or even later. Most of them are hunting dogs, trained to help in the pursuit of game.
The Norwegian Elkhound, or Norsk ElghundThe Norwegian Elkhound (Norsk Elghund) is one of the best-known surviving northern hunting dogs used for hunting big game such as moose and bear.
The Elkhound (literally "Elk dog") is derived from the Torvmosehund or swamp dog, bred by the ancient Danes. Elkhound skeletons have been found at a number of sites, the oldest remains having been found in the Viste Cave in Jaeren, in western Norway, in a stratum dating from 4000 to 5000 BC.
The Jämthund, or Swedish Elkhound, is a Swedish Spitz hunting dog, bred to hunt moose and sometimes bears.
The Jämthund is Sweden's national dog. Some experts believe that Jämthund is the result of the selective breeding of ancient Aboriginal dogs very similar to the Western Siberian Laika. Genetic studies have shown that Jämthund is also very close to the Norwegian Elkhound, although larger.
The Karelsk Björnhund in Swedish, or Karelian Bear Dog (Karjalankarhukoira in Finnish) is the descendant of a Spitz-type dog that was used for game hunting at least 1100 years ago, especially for bears and moose. An identical race is known as the Laika from Western Siberia in Russia.
According to archaeological research, dogs very similar to the Russian-European Laika and the Karelian bear dog had existed in northern Europe since the Neolithic period. The standard of the current breed is based on a black and white coat, but originally the breed had dresses of different shades of grey similar to that of the wolf, tan in colour as in the Spitz standard, and also black and cream.
While the Karelian bear dog can be used to hunt small furry animals, such as squirrels and martens, such as the Norwegian Elkhound, its vocation is to hunt moose, lynx, wolf and Eurasian brown bear (a species of bear as large and aggressive as the American Grizzly), from which it takes its name.
Bear hunting requires at least 2 of these dogs, whose barking is used to harass the animal to allow the hunter to approach and kill. Karelian bear dogs are still used today to control the bear population in Alaska and United States National Parks.
The Finnish Spitz (Suomenpystykorva in Finnish or Finsk Spets in Swedish) is another descendant of the Viking Age hunting dogs, also known for its natural barking ability. The breed was designated "Finnish National Dog" in 1979.
Once used to track big game such as polar bears and moose, the Finnish Spitz is now used for its ability to bark in the presence of game birds on trees: this breed can give up to 160 barks per minute.
The Gammel Dansk Hønsehund, or ancestral Danish pointer, also known as the Danish pointer, is Denmark's favourite hunting dog.
Unlike other Nordic dogs, the Danish pointing dog is not of the spitz type, and is believed to result from a cross between stray and farm dogs. In fact, he is probably only a distant cousin of breeds known in the Viking Age.
The Norwegian Lundehund, or puffin dog, is probably the oldest breed of Nordic dog. The name Lundehund means "puffin hunter", according to its suitability for seabird hunting.
In the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway, this dog was used to hunt puffins from May to mid-June and then in August for two to three weeks. A Lundehund can capture up to 30 puffins in one night, and bring them back alive to its master.
The popularity of Lundehund declined after the introduction of nets into local bird hunting practices. In 1939, Eleanor Christie saved the breed by collecting a small herd from Måstad, Værøy Island, where the dog was so prized that its value was equivalent to that of a dairy cow.
The Lundehund has some anatomical specificities, with regard to its hunting skills: an elasticity of the neck that almost allows him to touch his back with his head thrown back, front legs able to make the "big gap", 6 fingers on the front legs and 4 on the hind legs and ears with a cartilage able to retract - so the ears fold and fold down specifically, either backwards or at right angles upwards to close the ear canal to make it hermetic to water and dirt.
These characteristics allow it to swim easily or manoeuvre in the sometimes narrow crevasses of the cliffs by the sea where its favourite prey lives.
Various breeds of dogs have been used by the Vikings to guard goat and cattle herds, many of which are still raised today. The most common breed is the Spitz, which is widespread throughout Scandinavia. In addition, most of them are among the oldest dog breeds in the world, which highlights the well-known role of the sheepdog.
The names of dogs
Some names of dogs in literary sources in Old Norse:
- Floki - (fuzzy etymology, perhaps in relation to modern Norwegian: "outspoken/entrepreneurial").
- Garmr - "howler", the monstrous dog that kills the god Týr during the Ragnarök.
- Gífr - "raptor, wild", one of Fiôlsvinn's dogs.
- Geri - "voracious", one of Fiôlsvinn's dogs. It is also the name of one of Odin's two wolves.
- Gramr - "anger", Fullafli's dog in the saga Þorsteins.
- Rosta - "fight, riot".
- Sámr - "swarthy, black", Irish dog - a wolf dog? - given by Ólafr Pái to Gunnar.
- Saurr - "dirt mud".
- Strútr - "hood", the name given to a dog with a white head and neck.
- Overtr - "black", the name used for a black dog.
- Vígi - "fighter, killer", king Óláfr's dog.
The Vikings worshipped the horse as a symbol of fertility. The horse was a precious asset, a social marker of the prosperity of its owner, or the warrior's steed. In both cases, at the rider's death, the horse became a funeral offering, as evidenced by many burials from the Viking Age.
Nordic mythology gives the horse a place of honour, particularly with the major figure of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of the god Odin.
In the Landnámabók (book of colonization) in the 12th century, the first Icelandic horse known by its name was the mare Skalm: Chief Seal-Thorin founded a colony where Skalm stopped and lay down with his load.
In Icelandic sagas such as Hrafnkel, Njáll the Burned and Grettir, horses also play a key role. This literature is still influential and many Icelandic equine clubs have names from mythology or sagas.
The literature and official writings of the Icelandic Free State between 930 and 1262 describe the practice of stallion fighting, which made it possible to train and select the best breeders.
Stallion fights are an important part of Icelandic culture and fights between spectators, both verbal and physical, were commonplace at the time. Conflicts during these events gave rivals a chance to strengthen their social and political image at the expense of their enemies, and could have significant social and political repercussions, sometimes leading to the restructuring of political alliances.
However, not all human conflicts were serious, and stallion fights provided an opportunity to fight with friends and enemies without serious consequences. It was also an opportunity for young people to court each other.
The horse, for all that it symbolized in beliefs, was sometimes killed at feasts and sacrificial ceremonies. These beliefs persisted during the colonization of Iceland, long after the end of the Viking Age.
Icelanders have always been hippophagous by tradition: the island has never been affected by the papal ban on eating horse meat, issued by Pope Gregory III in 732 and his successor Zechariah. The Pope had first demanded that the local populations who had become Christians abandon this practice, which was assimilated to paganism, before reversing this demand and tolerating hippophagy.
The Fjord, Fjording or Fjordhest is a Norwegian breed with ancient and pure origins because it has known few crosses. A rustic traction horse intended for agricultural work and forestry skidding in its country of origin, the Vikings probably first employed its ancestors for war based on rock carvings and runic stones on which the horses depicted resemble it.
Indeed, its arched mane and coat colour make it almost certainly identifiable, even compared to other Nordic horses. Its relatively small size does not prevent specialists in the Middle Ages from thinking that it could have been used as a steed, its Trappist appearance reflecting the great force it can deploy.
The Nordlandshest, or Lyngshest, is a saddle horse breed originating from Lyngen in Norway. It is the smallest of the three Norwegian horse breeds. The Nordlandshest is a very old breed that was used by the Vikings. It would be at the origin of the Icelandic horse with which they still share many similarities.
The Icelandic is a small saddle horse that forms the only horse breed native to Iceland. These animals are probably the direct descendants of the mounts brought by the Vikings by boat during the colonization of Iceland.
In 982, the Althing passed laws prohibiting the import of horses into Iceland, making the Icelander a pure breed for over a millennium. For a very long time, it remained an exclusive breed on the island of Iceland and natural selection allowed it to acquire great resistance to climatic conditions by being satisfied with poor food.
The Faroese Pony, Faroese Horse or Danish Pony is a small pony whose presence has been documented for centuries on the Faroese Islands. There are two hypotheses about his arrival on the archipelago: the first is that he arrived with the first hermits in 726, the second is that he arrived with the Vikings in the 9th century. In fact, its physiognomy is similar to that of the Fjord and Iceland.
Gotland, Gotland Russ, or Skogsruss, which means "little wood horse" or "little goat" in reference to its sure foot, is a breed of pony native to the island of the same name, in eastern Sweden. This rustic native pony has long lived in the isolation of the forests of its native island.
Probably the oldest Scandinavian horse, popular opinion traces its origin back to the Stone Age and evokes the ancestry of the Tarpan or the horse from the forests of northern Europe. According to the study by the University of Oklahoma, traces of these ponies have been documented since 1800 BC. They look very much like the horses in the sculptures of the year 1000 depicting horse-drawn wagons.
Jutland, or Den jyske hest in Danish, is a draught horse breed originating from Denmark and takes its name from the Jutland peninsula in the west of the country. Although its distant origins are not certain or sufficiently documented, it is possible that the ancestors of Jutland were used by the Vikings at the beginning of the 9th century.
The representations of the time show Viking raids on what is now Britain with horses apparently similar to modern Jutland. The first documented mention of the breed dates back to the 12th century, and refers to war horses with many useful attributes.
Falcons are not, strictly speaking, domesticated, but falconry, or the art of capturing game in its natural environment using a collapsed (i.e. trained) bird of prey, was the prerogative of rich and powerful men.
In Nordic mythology, the goddess Freyja has a coat of falcon feathers, called Valshamr. It allows the wearer to change into a bird and fly from one world to another. This magic coat is sometimes attributed to Frigg.
Norway in particular was famous for its raptors, many of which have been exported. The white-tailed eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon or gyrfalcon find an ideal environment with the mountains bordering Norwegian fjords and the King of Norway has maintained a monopoly on all falconry birds in his domains.
In the northernmost regions of Scandinavia and Greenland, the Vikings trapped the gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), the white bird of kings and the largest falcon in the world with a wingspan of 1.35m. The gyrfalcon, which was worth a lot of money, was offered to kings or exported abroad for rich men.
In Iceland, the European Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) was particularly abundant. It was captured and sold to Danish merchants.
The peacock, absent from the European wild fauna, is a bird that has been imported and raised since ancient times. In the Middle Ages, peacock meat was considered rotproof, and for this reason it became a delicacy as well as a symbol of immortality. Perhaps this is why a peacock was discovered in Oseberg's fall boat.
In Scandinavia and Europe, the bear, admired and revered for its strength, courage and invincibility, is considered the king of animals. It was the attribute of the powerful and the object of rituals aimed at appropriating its powers. It was also the attribute of berserkir. In addition, it was customary to offer a teddy bear to kings.
The brown bear (Ursus arctos), which is still widespread in Scandinavia today, was even imported into Iceland as a pet and was considered a "house bear". This import was finally banned and owners of brown or polar bears were subject to the law, with heavy fines, if their animals injured people or damaged property.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus, or hvítabiôrn in Old Norse) was considered one of the most noble gifts to give to a king. A tale in Iceland tells the story of a young man, Auðunn, who captured a polar bear and offered it to the King of Denmark (Auðunar þáttr vestfirzka).
According to written sources, the polar bear seems to have been first introduced into Europe by Ingimund the Elder, who gave a specimen to the King of Norway around 900 AD. Isleif, the first Bishop of Iceland, also offered one to the Emperor of Germany in 1050.
Swine is a subspecies of the Eurasian wild boar (sus scrofa) found throughout Europe and Scandinavia. In the Viking Age, pigs are much more like wild boars than the domestic pig we know. Pig farming at that time was mainly concentrated in southern Scandinavia, particularly southern Sweden and Denmark.
The wild boar is included in the animal pantheon of Nordic mythology, in connection with the vanic gods Freyr and Freyja.
Freyr's messenger is the magic boar Gullinbursti ("golden silk") whose hairs were of a gold shining like the sun. Freyr was not only a god of fertility and abundance, but also a god of war, and the Viking warriors wore the symbol of Freyr's boar on their helmets to protect them in battle.
Freyja, Freyr's sister, also had a boar as a magic steed, Hildisvín ("battle pig") on which she moved when she was not on her cat-drawn cart. It is interesting to note that the kings of Sweden are said to have a mythical sceptre, also called Hildisvín.