Currently on display at the Historical Museum in Oslo until September, Fabulous Animals – From the Iron Age to the Vikings highlights the use of animal motifs in Norse ornamentation. 

This stunning collection of sword scabbards, shields, brooches, and belt buckles also illustrates the closer relationship of man with the animal kingdom over 1,000 years ago and gives an insight into pagan beliefs in pre-Christian Scandinavia. 

Back then, animals were a living part of everyday life and celebrated in ornamentation. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, from the 400s, skilled craftsmen headed north in search of regular commissions, taking their tools and expertise with them. 

The decorative metalwork they created became fashionable in Norse society, depicting the various creatures who aided their pagan gods. 

Chieftains could also model themselves on the most powerful and keen-eyed members of the animal kingdom, summoning their spirit before going into battle.

During the Viking Age, animals were a living part of everyday life and celebrated in ornamentation. Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Museum in Oslo

Norse gods and divine creatures

The Norse gods did not carry out their activities alone. Sleipnir is described in Norse sagas as Odin's horse, said to have eight legs, while the goddess of fertility, Freyja, had two cats to pull her chariot. 

She was often accompanied by a glowing boar, Hildisvíni, who turns out to be her protégé, Óttar. 

This brings in another important point about Norse culture, the transformation of gods into animals in order to change their appearance for tactical advantage. Odin could become a snake, a fish, or a bird at will.

The fearsome god Thor, associated with storms, not only had the goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr pull his chariot, he cooked them, ate them to heighten his strength, then resurrected them thanks to his magic hammer. 

This myth also hints at the shamanic practices and the importance of the spiritual world at the time. 

The sacred ash tree Yggdrasil, where the gods gather for their daily assembly, has its roots gnawed by the monstrous dragon Níðhöggr and its branches nibbled at by the four stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathrór.

Chieftains, meanwhile, would seek strength in depictions of bears, birds, wolves, and boars. 

The objects that are part of the Fabulous Animals exhibition are beautifully presented in both English and Norwegian. Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Museum in Oslo

Fabulous Animals 

Craftsmen, therefore, had plenty of scope for their imagination to run wild when creating intricately detailed artifacts before the gradual arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia

Its introduction from the later 900s onwards changed the relationship between man and animals, which no longer possessed a sense of divinity.

In the pagan era, as can be seen in the golden artifacts displayed at the Fabulous Animals exhibition at the Historical Museum, humans and creatures intertwine.

Brooches warrant particular attention, some thought to be earthly versions of the mythological necklace Brínsingamen belonging to the goddess Freyja and probably worn by Norse priestesses. 

Weaponry, meanwhile, weaves in likenesses of birds of prey and powerful forest animals whose strength could be harnessed by the bearer on the battlefield.

The objects are beautifully presented, with comprehensive documentation in English and Norwegian.   

Fabulous Animals – From the Iron Age to the Vikings

Historical Museum, Frederiks gate 2, 0164 Oslo. Open Tue-Wed, Fri-Sun 11am-4pm, Thur 11am-8pm. Admission NOK 120, students/seniors NOK 90, under-18s free. Exhibition runs until September 2023.

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Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Museum in Oslo

Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Museum in Oslo

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