Viking Pets – Were Vikings Cat People? by Rob Shackleford
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Were Vikings Cat People?
Were Vikings really pet people?
Pets were as important to the Norse of the Viking Age (c. 790-1100 CE) as they were to any other culture, past or present. The Vikings kept dogs and cats as pets and both feature in Norse religious iconography and literature. The Norse also kept pet bears and birds, such as the falcon, hawk, and the peacock. Although it may be hard to imagine a Viking chief bringing his favourite dog or cat along on a raid, recent genetic studies point to precisely such a scenario as it is now thought that Vikings transported cats and dogs on their raids on foreign shores and that these were kept as both working animals and pets in Norse households.
Cats were in Norse Mythology
Cats were the favourite animal of the fertility goddess Freyja,
Freya (or Freyja) was a fertility goddess and was associated with domesticity, womanhood, and female sexuality. She was also associated with sorcery and magic, as well as war and death. It was said that after a battle, Freya would lead a band of Valkyries to gather the fallen warriors—or half of them, at least. She would take her share of the dead to Folkvang, her hall in the home of the gods, while the other half went to Odin, god of wisdom and war. Freya might also have been the goddess to greet women after death.
Freyja’s chariot was pulled by cats, specifically the skogkatt (Norwegian Forest Cat), which is larger and more powerful than most domesticated housecats. One tale suggests Freya’s cats were a gift from Thor. The association of cats with Freyja in her role as goddess of luck and chance, able to tell the future and shape one’s destiny, has to do with the nature of the cat itself: it was considered as unpredictable as life itself.
Even though cats were sacred to Freyja, or at least favoured by her, they were often sacrificed in rituals and their fur used in lining gloves and other apparel. But it was considered bad luck to kill a cat. According to mythologist and scholar Jakob Grimm, “when a bride goes to the wedding in fine weather, they say `she has fed the cat well’. Treating cats well guaranteed similar treatment of a human by the goddess.
Cats were considered pets and important working animals who controlled the rodent population. Further, they appear as spirit animals, divine guides, and mediums for the volva (seeress) who interpreted the will of the gods for the community or travelled from town to town telling people’s fortunes and making predictions.
In the first story, Fenrir breaks the first two fetters the gods place him in, and the gods then go to the dwarves, makers of magical items, and bring back a cord named Gleipnir (“open one”) made from the sound of a cat walking, the beard of a woman, the roots of the mountains, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird or, as scholar Rudolf Simek notes, “from everything that does not exist” This cord, though incredibly light, is strong enough to hold Fenrir.
In the second story, Thor is challenged by Utgarda-Loki to perform three feats which will show his worth. The second of these challenges is to lift a large gray cat off the floor. Thor thinks this will be simple but is only able to lift the cat so that one paw is in the air. Thor fails at all three tasks but is later told by the giant that magic had transformed everything and none of the challenges had actually been what they seemed. The gray cat was actually the Midgard serpent which encircles the world.
Cats were likely to have been imported to Scandinavia through trade with either the Phoenicians or Romans and the first cats to make the trip were probably smuggled out of Egypt. The Egyptians had a strict prohibitions regarding the sale and transport of cats from their country. Still, that did not stop traders from smuggling cats on board their ship in Alexandria and carrying them off to other lands. Evolutionary geneticist Eva-Maria Geigl notes the same maternal DNA found in cats from ancient Egypt is present in those found at a Viking site in northern Germany dated to the 8th and 11th centuries CE.
In Norse everyday life, cats were an important aspect of the household who controlled rats and mice and were also carried aboard Viking ships. There is archaeological and genetic evidence of Vikings carrying cats to Greenland, and it is possible, though not proven, that cats – as well as dogs – were also aboard the Viking ships of Leif Erikson when he landed at Vinland (Newfoundland, Canada) in the New World.
Cats, then, played an integral part in the lives of the people of Scandinavia whether they stayed home on their farms or went raiding as Vikings.
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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