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. Why did Vikings keep peacocks as pets, and what does it tell us about the interconnectedness of the early medieval global economy?

Poor West, rich East?

One of the most common factors, pointed out by many historians and academics, as to why the so-called Viking era started is simple: greed. Scandinavian pirates and warriors took to the seas to begin to raid wealthy monasteries full of golden treasure and hapless monks. This factor, however, tells us the difference in economic standing in parts of Europe and Scandinavia during the early medieval period.

Scandinavia was never part of the formal Roman Empire, and thus, countries lying to its south, especially areas of modern-day France, Germany, and the British Isles, had centuries of interconnected trade and trade networks that help built richer economies. The Scandinavian societies had to start at a lower base but, after two centuries of raiding, trading, and land grabs, peoples in Viking societies had closed the gap to richer European polities.

Somewhat similar to the situation emerging now, in the 21st century, the economic center of the world was not Europe but Asia. The richest medieval kingdom in Europe paled in comparison to the riches of the much larger and more sophisticated kingdoms, empires, and economies that lay in Asia.

Trade networks, especially utilizing the river systems of the Russian steppe, Eastern and Central Europe saw trade, goods, and people flow from the more economically sophisticated Tang Empire (China), Parama Dynasty (India), Abbasid Caliphate (West Asia), and Byzantine Empire (West Asia) to Scandinavia.

The flow of money

For those merchants and political elites, the history of the Viking Era is one of ever-increasing wealth and power. Rulers who had started as small local elites in early medieval Scandinavian communities soon saw their influence spread across vast tracts of the North Atlantic world, from modern-day Canada to Constantinople.

Though the Vikings are renowned for being raiders, they were, arguably, just as successful as traders. The various river systems of Eastern Europe and the Russian steppe soon saw a steady flow of commerce and goods flow from the Scandinavian heartland through Europe and into direct contact with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world. 

More wealth meant more disposable income, more cash (or treasure "loaned" from an English monastery or silver dirhams "borrowed" from an Arab merchant vessel) to flash. One such way to splash one's cash during the Viking era was to acquire expensive and exotic animals as pets.

Peacocks were seen as the ultimate luxury good in Viking societies. Photo: Lorisha Bühler Ferrara / Unsplash

Viking pets

Pets were an important part of Norse mythology and Viking societies throughout the early medieval period. Cats and dogs were so common that they feature in many of the Old Norse sagas. 

Yet almost as common a sight as a pet dog or a cat, for some Viking communities, was a "house bear." In fact, these mainly brown bears became so much of a nuisance (have you ever had to try and train a bear?) that huge fines were levied on owners whose pet bear wandered through a neighbor's garden (or house), often destroying it.

Yet the most impressive of Viking-era pets was the peacock. The two most familiar peacock species originate in Asia. The blue peacock lives in southern India and Sri Lanka, whilst the green peacock's natural environment is in Myanmar and also on the Indonesian island of Java. 

By the time of the first recorded Viking raid in 793 CE, peacocks were already an important status symbol and pet of many political elites throughout southern, southeastern, and eastern Asia.

As Viking merchants, raiders, and settlers expanded eastward, there was an increased flow of luxury goods between Asia and Scandinavia. One of these luxury goods, for any nouveau riche Viking trader or ruler who wanted a sign of his power, status, and wealth, was a peacock.

The Gokstad Ship and other cultural references

Peacocks were thus seen by many, in Viking societies, as the ultimate luxury good and a sign of one's wealth and influence. However, despite being such a rare pet, peacocks became embedded in Viking-era social practices. 

One of the more interesting finds that archaeologists uncovered during the excavations of the Gokstad Viking ship, near Gokstad, Norway, in 1880 (as if uncovering a Viking ship wasn't exciting enough!) was the skeleton of a peacock. 

The skeleton was discovered alongside the bones of twelve horses and six dogs. Whoever the man buried in this ship was (he has been referred to as the Gokstad Chieftain), he was rich enough to be able to afford a peacock as well as a burial fit for a king… sorry, a Viking chieftain.

Due to their exotic nature and beauty, Peacocks became so embedded in Norse society that they infiltrated the Norse language. People in Viking societies obviously had a sense of humor and loved a good descriptive nickname – think Harald Bluetooth, Sweyn Forkbeard, or Bjorn Ironside. 

However, hats off to whoever dubbed the 10th-century Icelandic merchant and medieval metrosexual, Olaf Hoskuldsson, "Olaf the Peacock" – due to his expensive wardrobe and arrogance!

For more on the Viking's complicated relationship with cats and other pets, visit the website here.

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