However, recent archaeological evidence discovered shows that many Vikings, in fact, kept bears as pets. How and why did the Vikings want this most unusual and dangerous animal as a pet?
Common Viking pets
Many peoples in Viking societies, from "Vinland" in modern Canada to the Russian steppes, kept animals as pets. They were not only an important companion to the often drudgery and backbreaking labor of everyday life. Some pets also had a dual role, often involved in labor-saving work.
From the Icelandic sagas, mostly compiled in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, we know that many people in society – from the highest ruler to the lowliest peasant – kept dogs. These were an important source of companionship but also a nasty protector of property. They were treasured so much that they were often buried with their owners.
There was a tradition in many Viking societies to give a newlywed couple a kitten. A home was not considered truly a home if it did not possess a cat, and raising a kitten was seen as practice before having children. To this extent, the Vikings are quite similar to many young couples throughout the world today. Often these cats were domesticated from Norwegian forest cats – which still remain a popular cat breed in Norway today.
One more interesting pets – mainly acquired by rulers and the Viking elite – were peacocks. Due to their extensive trade networks with Arab societies, these fine-feathered fowls were sporadically sent overland from India to those powerful and wealthy enough to afford them. Peacocks were perhaps the most elegant symbol of conspicuous consumption in Viking societies.
The Oseberg Viking ship, discovered in 1903, unearthed a wealth of historical and archaeological treasures. Amongst everything that glittered, the discovery of the bones of four dogs and a number of farmyard animals (chickens and horses) showed the importance of pets, even in the afterlife.
The Oseberg Viking ship burial mound. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo / Olaf Væring
And what about bears?
There has been much historical and archaeological research on whether peoples in Viking societies kept bears as pets. Surprisingly, most of the research points to "yes."
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) was, during the so-called "Viking Era," a fairly common sight throughout the Scandinavian peninsula and beyond. These bears were often captured as cubs and then domesticated in villages. Some were even thought to have lived in a household and were given the name "house bears." These "house bears" were thought to have been a rather fearsome protector of property.
These large pets, however, could cause some trouble. Many had been imported to the Norse settlements in Iceland. Yet, due to their size and power, bears could often cause harm and damage. Laws were made to fine bear owners severely if they damaged property or injured people. In fact, they became such a nuisance that the importation of bears was prohibited.
People who lived beyond the Arctic Circle encountered polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in their everyday lives. Some were domesticated to be useful property protectors whilst, more commonly, they were sent away as a present for ruling elites around Europe. Iselif, the first bishop of Iceland, sent a polar bear as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, in 1050 CE.
Pet bears in literature
Norse legends, lore, and mythology are littered with stories about pet bears. Perhaps one of the most famous is the saga, Auðunar þáttr vestfirska (The Tale of Auðun of the West Fjords).
In this account of a poor Icelander's travels through the Viking world, he travels from Iceland to the Norse settlements in Greenland. Here, he captures a polar bear and, on pilgrimage to Rome, presents the bear as a gift to the Danish court of Sweyn II. Not only is this a rollicking adventure whereby we were given a glimpse into the mid-11th century CE Norse world, but it is also one of the first mentions, in literature, of keeping a bear as a pet.
There is also mention of polar bears as pets in the mid-13th century CE book, Speculum Regalae, written after the end of the so-called "Viking Age."
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