Wolves, wild boars, and bears are well-represented creatures in Viking symbolism, their guile and strength assumed by the bearer of the sword or axe.
However, as featured in an ongoing research project, "Tanken bag Tingene – Thoughts behind Things," coiled snakes played a strange role in the lives, and more importantly, deaths, of people in the Viking era.
A writer and Senior Researcher at the museum, Dr. Leszek Gardeła, has written the most recent and most comprehensive study on this niche yet fascinating subject, as outlined in his contribution to the wide-ranging journal, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, published by Brepols in 2020.
In the chapter Uncoiling the Serpent: Snake Figurines in the Viking Age, Dr. Gardeła explores the symbolism behind the phenomenon, as illustrated by the discovery of around 20 pendants across the region in recent years, each featuring a coiled snake.
A copper-alloy snake figurine from Gutdalen, Norway. Part of the collections of the University Museum of Bergen. Photo: Leszek Gardeła
"These are interesting objects as and of themselves," Dr. Gardeła told The Viking Herald. "They have a material beauty, and they're something you can hold in your hand and easily control. Although we cannot say for absolute certain, we think they were probably part of some kind of Viking magic, of ritual practices."
Dr. Gardeła was referring to the fact that a number of these artifacts were placed in a funereal context, alongside other ritual pre-Christian paraphernalia – and exclusively alongside women.
Of the 21 known examples Dr. Gardeła lists, six were found in graves. Whereas previous studies, most notably Viking Age Amulets in Scandinavia and Western Europe by Bo Jensen, published in 2010, could only analyze up to 13 items, Dr. Gardeła was at more of an advantage nearly a decade later: "Thanks to the increase in finds by amateur metal detectorists, I had a far wider corpus at my disposal."
As he also outlines in his recent work: "One fact worth highlighting is that in contrast to many other Viking Age amulets… several snake figurines come from fairly well-preserved and professionally documented graves, which creates unique opportunities to examine how these items were worn on the body (at least on the occasion of the funeral) and how they were employed in mortuary practices".
As Gardeła points out, at the Birka grave in Uppland, Sweden, two snake figurines were found alongside amulets, "strongly suggesting that the people buried with them might have played the role of ritual specialists."
Equally, at a grave in Gutdalen, Norway, the wealth of elaborate material found alongside a woman's remains indicate both her very high social status and her probable role as a ritual specialist.
Their very rarity, and the likely fact that they were part of a more elaborate artifact, a necklace, say, rather than a single pendant on its own, also hint at the elevated standing of the person concerned.
A jet snake figurine from Longva, Norway. Part of the collections of the University Museum of Bergen. Photo: Leszek Gardeła
Of the recent discoveries by metal detectorists, most are so-called stray finds, the items probably lost by their owners and usually of a copper alloy rather than a precious metal.
Not all the snakes are in the same form, most curled counter-clockwise, others clockwise. Some snakes' heads are pointing up, others down.
Apart from the most obvious conclusion that these objects were not mass-produced but individually crafted, there is, as yet, little deeper meaning we can extrapolate from these variations.
Much as another famous Viking snake-shaped likeness, the one curled around the prow of the Oseberg ship, the dating of certain objects buried with the pendants places them in the early ninth century, before Christianity swept the region.
While Viking gods are often transformed into creatures to assume their specific powers, we are still left with the question: Why snakes? In the Icelandic sagas, Odin becomes one to win the favor of a goddess.
"Snakes are ambivalent creatures in both Scandinavian and Slavic mythology," said Dr. Gardeła, whose research in this field originally began in his native Poland and the Baltic region, where there is significantly less reliable recorded material than in the Nordic countries.
"They possessed dark, underground powers, but they also had a protective role. In Slavic and Baltic countries, for example, they were kept as pets. We could also speculate that snakes have the ability to transform themselves, thus being able to cross boundaries between the living and the dead. They live in different environments, on the surface and below ground, on land and in water."
National Museum of Denmark, Ny Vestergade 10, 1417 Copenhagen. Open Tue-Sun 10am-5pm.
Dr. Leszek Gardeła's latest work, The Norse Sorceress: Mind and Materiality in the Viking World, was published in May. You can buy it on Amazon, here.
Senior Researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, Dr. Leszek Gardeła. Photo: Leszek Gardeła
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