View Full Version : Viking pets and domestic animals

Saturday, November 12th, 2005, 03:14 PM

The Vikings kept cats for their valuable skills as mousers as well as keeping cats for pets. Kittens were sometimes given to new brides as an essential part of setting up a new household. It is especially appropriate that brides should receive cats, since cats were associated with Freyja, the goddess of love. The Vikings believed that Freyja rode a cart drawn by a team of cats. It might seem absurd to imagine a cart drawn by cats, until one realizes that Viking cats were not your standard Felis domesticus -- they were the Skogkatt (Norwegian, meaning literally "Forest Cat"), a wild breed native to the North. In Denmark, these cats are called Huldrekat (huldre are female forest spirits, literally, "the hidden folk"). The Skogkatt is a large breed, known for their strong bones and muscular forms.

The ancestors of the Skogkatt probably were Southern European shorthaired cats which came to Norway from other parts of Europe in prehistoric times. Due to the natural selection imposed by the strange and hostile climatic conditions, only individuals with a particularly thick coat and other adaptations to a cold climate survived.

The earliest literary descriptions suspected to be the Norwegian Forest Cat come from the Norse myths, describing the large, strong cats that drew Freyja's chariot or the cat so heavy that not even Thorr, God of Thunder, could lift it from the floor: Owners of Forest Cats will readily recognize their large-boned, powerful cats in these tales. The first literary description that unmistakably describes the Forest Cat is from the Danish clergyman, Peter Clausson Friis, who lived the greater part of his life in Norway. In 1559 Friis described three types of "lynx": the wolf lynx, the fox lynx, and the cat lynx.

It is believed that the animal which Peter Clausson Friis called the "cat lynx" was in fact the Norwegian Forest Cat, a theory made more likely by the many similarities in general appearance between the Forest Cat and the Norwegian lynx. The most apparent of these is that they are both big, long-legged cats with large ruffs, and tufts at the tips of their ears. Moreover they both like water, and the stories of swimming Forest Cats who catch their own fish in lakes and rivers are innumerable. The Forest Cat evidently utilizes the same methods as the Norwegian lynx when it goes fishing.


There were several types of dogs used in the Viking Age. The great popularity of dogs as pets, working animals, and as companions is shown by the frequency with which they are found in graves, buried alongside their masters. Frigga, wife of Óðinn and goddess of marriage and fidelity, was believed to travel in a chariot drawn by a pack of dogs, perfect symbols of fidelity and faithfulness.

The basic Norse dog is a spitz-type animal, produced by interbreeding of the native Arctic wolf with southern domestic dogs as early as the Neolithic, based on skeletal remains as much as 5,000 years old. There are many modern breeds of dogs which have without doubt derived from Viking Age spitz-type dogs. Although these breeds may well date to the Viking Age or before, a great many were not recognized as formal "breeds" until the 1800's or afterwards.

Viking Age art depicts many dogs, especially in runestone scenes depicting the arrival of the slain warrior into Valhöll: The warrior is greeted by a Valkyrie, bearing a horn of mead, and behind her waits the warrior's faithful hound. Like many dog-owners, the Vikings apparently could not conceive of an afterlife in which their canine best friends were not present. This probably explains, in part, why many warriors' graves contain the bones of one or more dogs, sent to the afterlife to accompany their master.

In Scandinavian belief, the dog is the guardian of the underworld, and it is speculated that one reason for including dogs in Viking Age burials was to provide a guide for the deceased to lead them to the underworld. Prior to the Viking Age, dogs both large and small were found in great numbers in the Vendel graves in Sweden. By the Viking Age, fewer dogs are found in each grave. The Oseberg ship burial contained the remains of four dogs to accompany the women buried there. The Gokstad ship burial contained six dogs buried with their elderly master. Other Viking Age graves in Denmark, Brittany, the Isle of Man and elsewhere containing the remains of dogs show that the custom of sending a person's dogs with them to the afterlife was widespread throughout the Viking World.

Hunting dogs

Many of the dogs kept by the Vikings were hunting dogs, bred to assist in the chase. Several varieties of Viking Age hunting dogs have survived to the present day.

One of the best-known surviving Norse hunting dog is the Norwegian Elkhound (Norsk Elghund), used for hunting large game such as moose and bear. The Elkhound (a mis-translation, these are literally "moose-hounds") is derived from the Torvmosehund or Swamp Dog, bred by the ancient Danes. Elkhound skeletons have been recovered from a number of sites, including the oldest dated remains from the Viste Cave at Jaeren, in western Norway in a stratum dating from 4,000 to 5,000 BCE.

The Jämthund or Swedish Elkhound is a Swedish hunting dog of spitz type, bred to hunt moose and sometimes bear. The Jämthund is the national dog of Sweden. Some experts believe the Jämthund originated by selective breeding from ancient aboriginal dogs very similar to the West Siberian Laika. Genetic studies show that the Jämthund is also very similar to the Norwegian Elkhound, although larger.

Another spitz-type dog was used for hunting game from at least 1100 CE, especially bear and moose, and modern descendants of this breed are called Karelian Bear Dogs in Finland (also called Bjornhund in Swedish or Karjalankarhukoira in Finnish). An identical breed is known as the Laika in Russia. According to archeological records, dogs very similar to the modern Russo-European Laika and the Karelian Bear Dog existed in northeastern Europe and Scandinavia since Neolithic times. The breed standard for Karelians and Laikas today calls for a black-and-white marked dog, but originally the breed included individuals with coats of wolf gray of various shades, red coats like the standard spitz, and black-and-tan specimens as well.

The Karelian Bear Dog was used mainly for hunting small fur-bearing animals, such as squirrels and marten. Like the Norwegian Elkhound, the Karelian Bear Dog was also used in hunting moose, lynx, wolf and, as its name would suggest, hunting the Eurasian brown bear (a bear species as large and aggressive as the American Grizzly). In hunting bear, at least a pair of Bear Dogs would be used to harry the animal, barking loudly, in order to distract the bear while the human hunter came in for the kill. Karelian Bear Dogs are being used today for bear control at Yosemite and Glacier National Parks and in Alaska in the United States.

Yet another descendant of Viking Age hunting dogs, the Finnish Spitz Dog (Suomenpystykorva in Finnish or Finsk Spets in Swedish) is also known as the Barking Bird Dog. The Finnish name, Suomenpystykorva means "Finnish Prick-Eared Dog" and this animal is now honored as the national dog of Finland. Used in antiquity to track large game such as polar bears and elk, in more recent times the Finnish Spitz has been used as a "bark pointer" for birds and small game: these dogs can bark at an extremely high rate, some as frequently as 160 barks per minute.

The favorite hunting dog in Viking Age Denmark was the ancestor of the breed now known as the Old Danish Bird Dog or Gammel Dansk Hønsehund. Unlike other Nordic dogs, the Old Danish Bird Dog is not a spitz-type, but rather is more closely related to southern tracking type dogs.

The Norwegian Lundehund is the most ancient of the Nordic dog breeds. The name Lundehund means "puffin-dog" after the dog's talent for hunting seabirds. The Lundehund originates from the Lofoten Islands in the fishing village Måstad on Værøy Island. The date of origin for the breed is unknown, however scientific research indicates that the breed has been in existence since before the last Ice Age. The Lundehund survived through the glacial period in the ice-free zones, surviving by eating fish and seabirds. It is thought that the Lundehund is actually a descendant of the primeval dog, Canis forus, rather than the domesticated dog breeds, Canis familiaris.

The Lundehund was valued for its ability to hunt and catch puffins and other seabirds. Lundehunds have several special anatomical adaptations that make them particularly adept at hunting seabirds. Lundehunds are a zoological rarity by having at least six fully developed toes on each foot. They can close their ear canals at will and are able to bend their head 180 degrees backwards over their shoulders. Their legs that are extremely flexible and can be stretched straight out to the side, for greater ease in swimming or in maneuvering in the narrow crevices in Norwegian sea-side cliffs where their avian prey lives.

The Lundehund was a valuable working animal, for the export of down to Schleswig in Germany was a major commercial enterprise from the Viking Age through the 16th and 17th centuries. In addition, puffins were considerted a delicacy during the Viking Age. Households on Værøy would have anywhere from two dogs to a pack of a dozen, and at one point the Lundehund's value was as great as a good milch cow. One Lundehund could capture up to 30 puffins in one night, bringing them back alive to their master. The popularity of the Lundehund waned after the introduction of nets into the local bird-hunting practices.

Herd Dogs

A variety of dogs were used by the Vikings in tending sheep, goats, and cattle, and several of these breeds are still bred today. The most common type of herd dog was a spitz-type sheep-herding dog, and these were apparently in use throughout Scandinavia from the time of the Maglemose Culture in Denmark (ca. 6,000 BCE).

The Norwegian Buhund is one of the oldest known Nordic breeds, and the ancestral Viking herd-dog. The Gokstad ship burial includes the bones of six Buhund dogs. The name "Buhund" comes from then Norwegian word bu, which means homestead, farm or house: this term was first used in 1968 in J. Ramus's book, A Sample Of Words From Norderhov. By the last quarter of the 7th century, the Vikings brought Buhunds to Shetland, Iceland and Greenland. It is thought that the Shetland Sheepdog and Iceland Sheepdog are descended from Buhund ancestors.

When the first settlers arrived in Iceland in 874 CE, they brought with them the ancestors of the Iceland Sheepdog (Ísländshunden in Icelandic), sometimes called Fårehund or "Friar-Hound". In addition to herding sheep, the Icelandic Sheepdog was also used in working horses.

There are references to the Icelandic Sheepdog in many of the Icelandic Sagas, dating from 900 to 1300, and further references in 1400's and 1500's. The Icelandic Sheepdog also appears in English literature such as William Shakespeare's Henry V ("Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!"; Act II, Scene I). In 1650, Sir Thomas Brown wrote: "To England there are sometimes exported from Iceland . . . a type of dog resembling a fox . . . . Shepherds in England are eager to acquire them!"

The Vikings also used dogs to herd cattle. One of this type was the Swedish Vallhund, also known as Västgötaspets, which are still bred today. The Vallhund dates back to the 500's in Sweden. The Vallhund looks like its close relative, the Welsh Corgi, and it is unknown whether the Vallhund is the ancestor of the Corgi or vice versa.

The Lapp Reindeer Dog (in Finnish: Lapinporokoira) was used by the Saami to domesticate and herd reindeer. Like the other spitz-type breeds, the Reindeer Dog's origins are lost in antiquity, but almost certainly predate the advent of the Viking Age. The Saami tell the legend of the Reindeer Dog:

A long, long time ago a couple of dogs sat on a hill chit-chatting and watching humans who were desperately trying to gather up a herd of reindeer. Having looked at the idle yelling and running around for a while the dogs decided: "We could do that better". And so did the reindeer herdsmen get an irreplaceable helper, a dog who himself wanted to help.

Even modern Reindeer Dogs are often considered to possess the gift of speech - they don't say much, say their owners, but they understand much.

There are both Swedish or Finnish variety of the spitz-type reindeer-herding dog originally bred by the Saami. The Swedish variant is the Swedish Lapphund (Swedish) or Suomenpystykorva (Finnish), while the Finnish variety of this dog is the Finnish Lapphund or Lapinkoira (Finnish). Both varieties of Lapphund were developed by the Saami as reindeer-herding dogs: after WWII breeders in Sweden and Finland independently undertook to preserve the species, resulting in two slightly varying types. Of the two varieties, the Finnish Lapphund has best retained its instinct for herding, and is often used on farms in Finland, while the Swedish Lapphund is more often found as a pet.


Wild animals which had been trapped as cubs were at times domesticated, especially bears. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) were considered a noble gift for a king, but brown bears (Ursus arctos) were widely domesticated, and were even imported into Iceland as pets where they were known as "house bears." Eventually importing brown bears into Iceland was prohibited because these animals became such a nuisance. Owners of either brown bears or polar bears were liable to stiff fines under the law if their pets injured people or damaged property.

Hawks and Falcons

Falcons were kept, though these beautiful animals cannot ever be said to be truly domesticated. Falconry was the sport of the wealthy, for the common man was more likely to use nets for fowling. Norway in particular was famous for its hawks and falcons, many of which were exported. The Norwegian king maintained a monopoly on all hunting birds in his domains, regardless of private ownership of land. In Iceland the Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus) was especially numerous, and was trapped and sold to Danish merchants. In Greenland the Vikings trapped the great white Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), the bird of kings. The Gyrfalcons were worth enormous sums, and were given to kings or exported to rich men abroad.

Domesticated Animals


Bees were raised in the most southerly portions of Scandinavia, most especially Vermland in Sweden. The rest of Scandinavia was forced to import honey, making it an expensive food item. Mead, an alcoholic beverage brewed from honey, was highly valuable as well due to the difficulty of obtaining honey.


Another animal common to the southern portions of Scandinavia was the pig. Pigs of the Viking Age were descended from the Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa). Although pigs were known throughout Scandinavia, pig farming was particularly important in the south, especially in southern Sweden and Denmark.

Pigs were esteemed within the Viking religion as well, within the cults of the Vanic gods Freyr and Freyja. Freyr's steed was the magical boar Gullinbursti ("golden-bristled") whose bristles were golden and shining like the sun. Not only a god of fertility and plenty, Freyr was also a warrior god, and thus Viking Age warriors believed that wearing the symbol of Freyr's boar upon their helmets would protect them in battle.

Freyja, the sister of Freyr, also had a magical boar-steed, Hildisvín ("battle-swine") that she rode when she was not using her cat-drawn chariot. It is interesting to note that the Swedish kings were said to own a legendary helm, also called Hildisvín.


The Vikings valued their sheep for their wool, which was gathered by plucking or after it was shed naturally (instead of being sheared as we do today), for their meat (both lamb and mutton) and for their milk

The Gutefår or Gotlandic Sheep represents the oldest type of sheep found in Scandinavia. Archaeological finds indicate that the Gutefår are closely related to the sheep brought to Northern Europe and Scandinavia during the Stone Age, and they are thought to be identical to those found in Sweden during the Iron and Viking Ages.

The modern Swedish name for this breed is Gutefår (literally, "Gotlandic sheep") was formed in 1974 for the horned outdoor sheep of Gotland for the purpose of distinguishing the Gutefår from the numerous other breeds of sheep found in Gotland.

The breed nearly died out, but concerted efforts to save the breed began in 1940. The ancestral variety of the Gutefår was known to be multi-horned. Linnaeus noted that there were 4-, 6- and 8-horned sheep during his journey on the island of Gotland in 1741. In 1910, the last of the true multi-horned Gutefår were slaughtered, and there are only a few modern experimental herds which have backcrossed the Gutefår with the longtailed British Jacob Sheep to achieve the multi-horned characteristic.

The Manx Loghtan Sheep is very similar to the early Gutefår breed, and like ancient Gotlandic sheep, often had multiple horns, sometimes growing the expected two horns, but could also have four or even six horns. This breed is found today only on the Isle of Man, where it was introduced by Viking settlers as early as the 9th century.

The wool of the Manx Loghtan Sheep is shed naturally, and the Vikings collected the shed tufts of wool rather than shearing the sheep.

In Iceland, the most common domestic animal was the sheep. The saying in Iceland was, "A sheepless household starves." The Vikings raised North European short-tailed type sheep, and the same Icelandic Sheep that the Vikings knew are still being bred in Iceland today. Due to selective breeding and a ban on import of sheep to Iceland, the modern Icelandic sheep is the same as the sheep brought by the Vikings to Iceland in the 800's.

The Hebridean Sheep was introduced by Viking settlers to the Hebrides Islands. This breed is known for its hardiness and ability to thrive on sparse vegetation.

As with the Manx Loghtan Sheep, the wool of the Hebridean Sheep is shed naturally, and the Vikings collected the shed tufts of wool rather than shearing the sheep.

The sheep of the Shetland Islands and from the Orkney Islands also are descendants of Viking Age sheep. Their ancestors were brought to the British Isles approximately one thousand years ago.


The Viking Age cow was a descendant of the great aurochs that roamed the forests of Europe. This descent is recorded in the rune poem describing the rune uruz, symbolizing the aurochs:

Uruz is fearless
and greatly horned
a very fierce beast,
a famous roamer of the moor
it is a courageous animal.

- Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem

The importance of cattle to the early Germanic peoples is shown by the fact that, as aurochs became domesticated cattle, a second rune in the runic alphabet was created to describe the domesticated animal, symbolized by the rune fehu, which literally means "cattle". Over time, the rune came to mean "wealth, money, fee," for cattle were the measure of wealth in early Germanic society.

By the Viking Age, the concept of wealth had transferred instead to the gold with which one could purchase a cow. In Norway, cattle were the chief domestic animals, and status as well as wealth came from the ownership of large herds of quality animals.

When Iceland was settled, the immigrants brought with them cattle from their homes in Norway. As with other animal types, Iceland has preserved the Viking Age cattle breed.

Cattle were important in Viking mythology as well. The world was created by the actions of a great primeval cow, Auðhumla (the name means "rich, hornless cow"):

In the beginning there were two regions: Muspellheim in the south, full of brightness and fire; and a world of snow and ice in the north. Between them stretched the great and vast empty chasm, Ginnungagap. As the heat from Muspellheim met the cold and ice from the north within Ginnungagap, and amid vast glaciers of ice, a great cow was formed, named Auðhumla. Auðhumla began to lick the ice for its salt, and as she licked she exposed the first giant, Ymir, and Ymir fed upon Auðhumla's milk to sustain himself. From Ymir's body grew the first man and woman. Auðhumla continued to lick the ice, and released yet another giant, named Buri. Buri's son was Bor, whose sons were the gods, Óðinn, Vili, and Vé. These gods slew Ymir and from his body they created the world.


Goats were kept wherever sheep were raised, however they were regarded as a poor man's animal, as their fleece was of lesser quality than that of the sheep, though the goat tends to give more milk.

It is perhaps because the goat was the humble man's farm animal that Þórr's chariot was said to be drawn by two fierce billy goats, Tanngniostr ("tooth-cracker") and Tanngrisnt ("tooth-gnasher"), for Þórr (Thor) was the god of the common man. The tale of Þórr's journey to Utgarðr recounts how, when the god stopped his travels for the night staying with an humble family, he slew his two goats so that they could be cooked and eaten, providing food for all -- a necessity when staying with a poor family. After the meal, Þórr gathered the bones and placed them within the goatskins, then hallowed the remains with his hammer, Mjollnir, whereupon the goats were restored to life.

The tale of Þórr's sacrifice of his goats suggests an established tradition of sacrificing goats for ritual feasts, especially those dedicated to the god himself. Ibrahim ben Ya'qub at Tartushi, a 10th century Spanish Jew from Cordova wrote an account of sacrifices at the market town of Hedeby, where he said that rams and goats were offered to the Vikings' gods as sacrifices, and then the body was fastened to a pole outside the door of the owner's house, to show that he had made his sacrifice in honor of the god.

Goats appeared in other religious contexts as well. In descriptions of Yggsdrasil, the World Tree, it is told that the nanny goat Heidrún feeds from the branches of the World Tree, and from her udders, instead of milk, there runs the mead which supplies the drinking cups of the einherjar (chosen warriors) in Óðinn's hall. Heidrún is also associated with the goddess Freyja (specifically in a slander alleging that Freyja's sexual habits were like those of Heidrún in heat). As chief of the Valkyries, Freyja was intimately connected with the serving of mead to the einherjar in Valhöll, which adds depth to the imagery of the mead-producing goat:

Heidrún, the goat is called,
who stands in Warfather's hall
and eats of Lærath's limbs.
She fills the vat full of bright mead.
That drink cannot be drained.

- Grimnismal 25-26


Horses were especially highly valued, and were probably owned only by the well-to-do in most cases.

The horses found in Viking Scandinavia all tended to be fairly small but hardy and strong. White horses were the most highly prized, but black and sorrel horses were also favorites (Social Scandinavia, p. 197). The descendants of Viking horses are the Icelandic Horse breed. Horses were brought to Iceland from 874-930 C.E. These horses have remained essentially unchanged to the present day.

Horses served a number of purposes in Norse culture. First, they were used for riding. Poor men rode their horses bareback, while chieftains and the wealthy might own elaborate saddles and bridles, richly ornamented with metalwork, using gilded bronze or silver in many instances. The saddle itself was constructed over a wood saddle tree which could be elaborately carved and painted, and which was often upholstered in leather and cloth. The Vikings also imported some high quality saddles from Spain and Portugal (Social Scandinavia, p. 197). The saddles found in Norway seem to have rested well forward on the horse's back so that the rider's leg's pointed forward (Brøndsted, p. 125). Womens' saddles were different from mens' saddles (as is still the case even today in Iceland) -- womens' saddles were shaped more like chairs. Elaborately ornamented saddle blankets were used to protect the horse's back and to keep the horse warm. Horses' feet were also protected with horse shoes, however unlike our modern shoes which are nailed to the hoof, the Viking horse shoe was made with flanges projecting over the sides of the hoof and were strapped to the horse's foot (Social Scandinavia, p. 197).

Further reading:

- Norwegian Forest Cat (http://home.powertech.no/skogkatt/NFOfaq.html)

- Norwegian Elkhound (http://www.hoflin.com/B/NorwegianElkhound.html)

- Swedish Elkhound (http://www.furrycritter.com/resources/dogs/Swedish_Elkhound.htm)

- Karelian Bear Dog (http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/karelianbeardog.htm)

- Finnish Spitz (http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/finnishspitz.htm)

- Old Danish Bird Dog (http://www.thebreedsofdogs.com/OLD_DANISH_BIRD_DOG.htm)/ Gammel Dansk Hønsehund (http://www.gdh.dk/index1.htm)

- Norwegian Lundehund (http://members.aol.com/puffindog/apuffin.html)

- Norwegian Buhund (http://www.buhund.org/)

- Icelandic Sheepdog (http://www.icelanddog.org/)

- Swedish Vallhund (http://www.swedishvallhund.ws/)

- Lapinporokoira (http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/lapinporokoira.htm)

- Svensk Lapphund (http://www.slk.nu/)/ Swedish Lapphund (http://www.the-kennel-club.org.uk/discoverdogs/pastoral/swediahlapp.htm)

- Finnish Lapphund (http://www.finnishlapphund-club.co.uk/)

- Sparrow Hawk (http://www.hawk-conservancy.org/priors/sparrowhawk.shtml)

- Gyrfalcon (http://www.hawk-conservancy.org/priors/gyr.shtml)

- Gute Sheep (http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/gute/index.htm)

- Manx Loghtan Sheep (http://www.iomguide.com/loghtansheep.php)

- Icelandic Sheep (http://www.isbona.com/)

- Hebridean Sheep (http://www.hebrideansheep.org.uk/)

- Shetland Sheep (http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/shetland/)

- Icelandic Horses (http://www.forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?t=9883)

Saturday, November 12th, 2005, 03:35 PM
A very interesting read indeed. I wonder how one would safely domesticate a bear. I wouldn't want such a thing to be near my playing children, that's for sure.

Saturday, November 12th, 2005, 04:45 PM
A very interesting read indeed. I wonder how one would safely domesticate a bear. I wouldn't want such a thing to be near my playing children, that's for sure.

Check out this site (http://www.kenny-bear.com/) (only in German, unfortunately)

Anyway, I think the bears were no pets to cuddle with, but more something like a status symbol and "watchdog".