However, the story of the semi-legendary Norwegian King, Augvald, whose sacred cow was the supposed source of his power and victory, is the stuff of Norse legends.

 A petty king

The story of early medieval Norway is a story of petty kingdoms, of semi-legendary kings who traced their ancestry back to mythical creatures and animals. 

Augvald was one such character, perhaps a real historical figure, but the historical record for this period is rather murky. Nonetheless, Augvald was said to be a petty king reigning sometime between 580 – 630 CE.

His kingdom centered around what is now the region of Hålogaland in southwestern Norway, centering around what would become the Viking capital of Avaldsnes. 

Despite his royal title, Augvald was just one of many kings and powerful rulers in a region that saw a widespread fragmentation of power. 

Mirroring somewhat the history of the Anglo-Saxon centralization of power, Norway was, during this period, made up of many petty kingdoms that would eventually (after more than two centuries) be centralized under one individual king. 

Throughout his reign, Augvald was a mere provincial power, perhaps unheard of in other parts of Norway.

Despite his rather provincial influence, Augvald was said to be a wise ruler. This was an era that was dominated by the gradual building of trade networks and routes between richer parts of Europe, especially the former provinces of the Western Roman Empire – the Frankish realms that would later become the Holy Roman Empire – and Scandinavia, which was always outside Rome’s direct rule and control. 

He was said to be a fierce warrior, conducted raids along with his warriors (thus earning their respect and admiration), and was generous.

His generosity and good statesmanship, however, came from an unlikely bovine source.

Holy cow

The story of King Augvald – which may have some basis in the historical record – gets slightly more interesting when we learn that he kept a sacred cow as a pet. 

In fact, this was no ordinary sacred cow. The cow was said to provide an abundance of milk and possess extraordinary abilities. 

It was said, if we believe the Norse sagas, that this was the source of Augvald’s martial skill and would never participate in a battle without bringing his trusty bovine pet along.

A cow may, to us, seem like an odd choice of animal to worship; however, for many people in Viking societies, this choice was an obvious one: milk and dairy products were highly valued. 

Furthermore, cattle were seen as prized possessions, essential for sustenance, trade, and social status. The cow’s abundance of milk was said to bring prosperity and good fortune not only to Augvald but also to his kingdom at large. 

The sacred cow was more than a pet; it was a symbol of Augvald’s good luck and wealth management credentials, a sort of bovine MBA, if you will.

As a prized possession, however, Augvald’s cow was soon coveted by many.

Augvald's cow was said to provide an abundance of milk and possess extraordinary abilities. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Royal cow-napping

With Augvald setting up his royal court on the island of Karmøy, the largest island in the area, he set about dominating the area like few before him. 

However, he was convinced that his cow was responsible for his victories on and off the battlefield, with its milk providing special strength and vitality. 

According to the Norse sagas, word then got around and the special power and position of this royal bovine. A group of thieves stole the royal cow one night, and Augvald was beside himself with anxiety and grief. 

Sending men to the four corners of his kingdom, he eventually tracked the cow down at a farm. The farmer admitted to being a culprit in the cow-napping, and soon Augvald was reunited with his pet cow, Audhumla (said to be named after the famous primeval cow in Norse mythology, Auðumbla).

Whilst this may seem like a funny saga – a cow being kidnapped that produces milk good for the martial skills as well as the bones – there is a lesson in this story. 

The story was said to reflect Augvald’s commitment to the protection of his kingdom and private property. Furthermore, it also shows how important a sense of justice was for Augvald – the cow-napper being held responsible and accountable for his dastardly actions.

Bloody butchered

Even though Augvald was said to be a respected and wise ruler, he had his enemies. The western part of Karmøy was said to be ruled by another king, Ferking. 

The two never saw eye to eye – two big fish in a small pond - that was further soured at a midwinter banquet. Though he came in the best of spirits, the night took a turn for the worse when his two daughters were taken hostage. 

Augvald was eventually lured into a trap, with his army, where Ferking and his men lay in waiting in a gorge. The result was a slaughter. 

Augvald and his cow were killed, and Ferking wrestled overlordship of the region. Augvald’s daughters were said to be so distraught they drowned themselves in a nearby river.

 A very bloody end to a very magical cow.

Despite some mythical elements weaved into the story of King Augvald’s cow, the core themes of justice, royal wisdom, prosperity, and respect for animals were an important part of the culture of people in Viking societies. 

Whether King Augvald was a real historical figure is debatable, but his respect and reverence of an animal should be a lesson to all of us in the 21st century.

For more information on the Vikings' relationship with animals, visit the Science Norway website here

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