Beasts of burden were an essential part of the Viking economy and everyday life.
Moreover, these people held animals in such high regard that the sagas are littered with a menagerie of animals, from the wolves of Loki to the 8-legged horse of Odin and the original "cat lady," the goddess Freyja.
Yet perhaps the most impressive relationship between man and beast that the Vikings fostered (and copied) was with the falcon.
The perfect predator
Whilst much has been made about the ravens that accompanied Odin (Huginn and Munnin), a different type of bird was, perhaps, even more important to Viking society and culture on a daily basis - the falcon.
They are one of nature's most perfect predators. Not only do falcons have one of the most superior eyesight in the natural world but their speed (they can dive from the sky at speeds of up to 200 miles / 321 kilometers per hour) and strength allow them to hunt for game much larger than their size.
With a bit of patience and training, the falcon was a perfect hunting aide allowing the owner to catch delicacies beyond their normal reach.
Archaeological evidence has uncovered the use of falconry, by Germanic tribes, during the 6th century CE.
As these Germanic tribes headed north and west, this use of falconry was slowly adopted by the local societies that they had migrated to.
Falconry appeared to play a large role in the court of Anglo-Saxon kings, especially from the 9th century CE onwards.
The great West Saxon, then first "King of all the Anglo-Saxons" and scourge of many a Viking intruder, Alfred the Great, was said to be so obsessed with falconry that he even managed to go hunting with his favorite falcons during an illness!
Fit for royalty
By the time of the very first Viking raids (the exacting dating is controversial and part of an ongoing debate about the inception of the "Viking Age" but has been traditionally dated to the raid on the monastery on the British island of Lindisfarne in 789 CE), falconry had already gained an important place in Viking society.
Gravesites uncovered in Sweden, from the mid-to-late 8th century CE, at the very dawn of the Viking Age, revealed the bones of falcons alongside their human counterparts – all believed to be of high political status.
In both Norway and Sweden, rune stones have been found depicting humans hunting with both dogs and our feather friends, falcons.
The adoption of falconry as a sport for the wealthy and powerful political elite, which had gained ground during the "Migration Period" in various European societies (not least the Franks and Anglo-Saxons), accelerated during the 8th and 9th centuries CE.
Danish King Godfred (r. 804 – 810 CE) was said to have been assassinated on a hunting trip whilst releasing a falcon.
Further north in Norway, King Haakon the Good was said to have paid a tribute to Danish King Harald Bluetooth that included 60 hunting falcons.
Despite their use to royalty, this did nothing to prevent Norwegian King Olaf Trygvasson from plucking the feathers from his sister's favorite falcon in an atrocious fit of rage and animal abuse!
Gyrfalcons were considered the ultimate status symbol for royalty throughout Europe. Photo: aaltair / Shutterstock
Contrary to popular opinion, the Vikings did more than just simply raid, pillage, and plunder. Many people in Viking societies were gifted merchants, traders, and entrepreneurs.
Whilst they were not the first to use the myriad of European river routes to their economic advantage, Vikings were, perhaps, the canniest during the early medieval period.
They helped "plug in" Scandinavia and the Baltic region to vast trade networks that linked the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid Caliphate with the Frankish realms, the British Isles, and the lucrative "Silk Road" networks to South and East Asia.
One of the most coveted, and lucrative, items of trade for the Vikings was the white Gyrfalcon, whose habitat is the far Arctic climes of the world.
These were considered the ultimate status symbol for royalty throughout Europe and were often caught in the north of Norway and Sweden and then journeyed down to the bustling Viking entrepots - at Birka or Hedeby - to be traded throughout Europe and beyond.
A later account, from the First Crusade (1089 CE), reveals that a ransom for a captured European Prince consisted of either 200,000 golden ducats (1 Gold Ducat has been estimated to be worth today around USD 150, so about USD 30 million) OR just 12 Gyrfalcons!
One of the economic foundations that would underpin the Norse settlement of Greenland, believed to have begun with Erik the Red at the turn of the 11th century CE, was the capture and export of Gyrfalcons.
This would provide enough income and trade to support the fledging settlement as it slowly grew during its first few decades.
This export had become so regular by the end of the 11th century CE that the Domesday Book (a snapshot of economic and social life in the newly Norman-controlled England) mentioned the extensive import of falcons from Viking societies, especially from Norway.
Popular in lore and popular in life
One only has to skim through some of the Norse sagas to see how references to falcons are littered throughout legend and lore.
The goddess Freyja had a cloak of falcon feathers that she put on whenever she wanted to fly. This is the same cloak that the Norse trickster God, Loki, would often steal and use to fly to the land of the giants.
The very same cloak is also similar to a cloak, made of hawk feathers, that Odin's wife, Frigg, is gifted.
As the process of the Christianization of Scandinavia gained pace in the 11th century CE, the popularity of owning falcons presented a problem for the clergy of the Christian faith.
They had become so popular that men and women of all classes would own them as either a hunting tool, for companionship, or a combination of both.
A clerical law in 11th century CE Sweden forbade both men and women from letting their falcons accompany them to attend service at the local church!
World History Encyclopedia has more on the relationships between humans and animals in the Viking era here.
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