From strutting peacocks from India to polar bears from beyond the chilly Arctic Circle, these are some of the most luxurious pets owned by Vikings.
A furry friend
People in Viking societies, like most societies throughout history, had a special and close relationship with animals.
Although we like to think of most people in Viking societies as pirates or traders, raiding and trading their way through vast swathes of Eurasia, most, in fact, were small tenant farmers.
As such, animals had a significant and important role in everyday life. Horses were needed for transport or to help with agricultural work, whilst cows, sheep, and goats were kept for the sustenance they provided.
The most common pets were, as they are now, cats and dogs. Cats were believed to have reached Scandinavia through a long series of trading routes originating from Alexandria, Egypt.
Cats helped with rodent control, especially on Viking ships. There is even archaeological evidence that cats made it as far as the Norse settlements on Greenland.
Dogs were used for hunting (Norwegian Elkhound or the Danish bird dog were two such hunting breeds) and herding sheep. They could also be used as guard dogs to protect houses and homes from intruders or livestock from foxes.
However, aside from the more mundane pets (if you can ever call a dog a "mundane" pet, I write this as a dog lover myself!), the rich and privileged in Viking societies also kept a wide variety of more exotic pets. Some of the more extravagant were peacocks, bears, and falcons.
Only the wealthiest of merchants and the highest nobility in Viking societies could afford to buy these luxurious pets that originated in faraway South East Asia. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Conspicuous consumption, Viking style
Peacocks were, for peoples in Viking societies and many societies further abroad, too, the ultimate sign of power and privilege.
There was no greater sign of conspicuous consumption for a person living in a Viking society than owning a peacock as a pet.
- READ MORE: Why did Vikings keep peacocks as pets?
Trade networks established by Viking traders saw Scandinavia be linked, either by sea, river, or overland networks, first to the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid Caliphate, and broader Islamic world and then onto the Tang Empire in China or the Parama Dynasty in India.
As the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) progressed, the accumulation of wealth, either from raids on monasteries or through increased trade with other societies, cultures, and civilizations, saw more money become available for exhibitions of conspicuous consumption.
Peacocks were valued not only for their aesthetic quality but also exactly because they were so hard to source. They were often traded from half a world away from the Indian subcontinent.
Peacocks were only available to the rich, the elite, and very much the privileged class. When the remains of a Viking ship were uncovered near Gokstad, Norway, in 1880 CE, amongst the usual buried treasure was an unusual find: the skeleton of a peacock!
Whoever the Viking chieftain buried in this ship was, he (or she) was rich enough to afford an exotic peacock and vain enough to want to be buried with it as the ultimate sign of early medieval conspicuous consumption.
Pets fit for Goldilocks… or royalty
One of the less practical pets that peoples in Viking societies kept were bears, normally called "house bears."
These were often brown bears (Ursus arctos) that had been trapped whilst a cub and then slowly domesticated over time.
- READ MORE: Did the Vikings really keep bears as pets?
Soon Norse settlers started to import them to Iceland, and they became so much of a problem that they were eventually prohibited. If a "house bear" injured someone or damaged their property, their owner was liable to a fine under Icelandic law.
Viking rulers or royalty could be gifted a polar bear (Ursus maritimus). One of the first recorded instances of a polar bear gracing a royal court was from the 10th century CE Viking warlord, Ingimund the Old, who gifted a polar bear to Norwegian king Harald I Halfdansson in about 900 CE.
The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III received a polar bear too from the Archbishop of Iceland, Isleif, in 1050 CE.
Some of the sagas even mention that polar bears made it as far as Greenland to accompany Norse colonizers in the two settlements there.
Norwegian forest cat
Although we have touched on how common cats were in Viking societies, there is widespread evidence that some people kept a Norwegian forest cat (Pans truls) as a pet.
In many of the Norse myths, these cats are described as so strong that even the "Thunder God" himself, Thor, could not lift them up, and they were so powerful they could pull Freyja's chariot.
This image of Freyja in her cat-drawn chariot became a powerful symbol. In fact, in the Gylfaginning section of the Prose Edda, compiled by 13th century CE Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson, the following image is described:
Her hall is Sesrúmnir, and it is large and beautiful. When she goes abroad, she drives in a wagon drawn by two cats. She lends a favorable ear to men who call upon her, and it is from her name that the title has come that noble women are called freyjur…
Yet could these cats be mixed up with a similar feline, the Norwegian lynx (Lynx lynx)? The Norwegian lynx is slightly more dangerous than the humble Norwegian forest cat. Still, the two share many similarities in appearance.
Furthermore, like the Norwegian forest cat, the Norwegian lynx uses the same method when trying to catch fish in lakes, rivers, or streams.
There is no doubt that Viking traders must have made some serious wealth from the export of falcons. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Birds of a feather…
Though never truly domesticated, falcons were kept as pets and used mainly for hunting.
Falconry was the sport of the elite, of the privileged, and only developed in Scandinavia towards the end of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE).
In Norway, towards the end of the transformation from Viking societies to the early medieval Kingdom of Norway, the monarch marinated a state monopoly on all of the hunting birds in their realm. Norwegian falcons were particularly prized and often exported abroad.
When Norse settlers started to colonize Greenland, from the late 10th century CE onwards, they managed to trap local falcons (Falco rusticolus).
This soon became to be known as the "Bird of Kings" due to its size and the difficulty in obtaining one. In fact, in European courts, they were reserved only for the monarchy.
Writing later in the 13th century, Arab historian, Ibn Sa'id al-Magrihibi, wrote of how one could fetch up to 1,000 dinars.
There is no doubt that Viking traders must have made some serious wealth from the export of this bird. With Viking trade networks often flowing through Eastern Europe to West Asia and the broader Islamic and East Asian worlds, these birds made it as far away as China and were, apparently, prized by the last Liao Emperor, ruling parts of China in the 12th century CE. From Greenland to China with a little help from a business-savvy Viking trader or two, no doubt…
Science Norway has published an article on the complex relationship between Vikings and animals, available to read here.
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