This fact in my upcoming ebook on the domestic cat was inspired by one little comment in a groundbreaking 2017 DNA study on how cats spread across the world (Ottoni and others):
In medieval times it was compulsory for seafarers to have cats onboard their ships…
Whose ships? They don’t say, and unfortunately the reference given is an obscure one that I can’t check. All of my usual sources of information, mostly online, came up blank, too.
It might have been the Vikings, because the reference given is about the remains of domestic cats found at Hedeby, an important Viking trading center back in the day.
As odd as it seems to most of us, the presence of cats among the Vikings doesn’t surprise scholars.
These experts know that cats have been found in Viking graves as well as in settlements; they are often the central character in a certain type of Viking art known as Borre; Vikings harvested domestic cat pelts; and cats even may have been a part of Norse religious rituals.
The Vikings and cats
It’s anyone’s guess how Vikings and cats first met.
Norsemen raided their way into recorded history with an attack on Lindisfarne Island in the late eighth century–around eighty years after the island’s monks had begun adding cats to their beautiful illustrations of the Bible.
But this wasn’t the first time that Vikings and domestic cats had met.
A century earlier, according to that 2017 DNA study mentioned above, descendants of the original Egyptian cats were living in the Viking port of Ralswiek–a small but busy Viking town on the Baltic Sea. (Ottoni and others) The earliest cat remains in Sweden go back even farther, to around 200 AD. (Prehal)
Domestic cats weren’t common in the north back then. That wouldn’t happen until the tenth or eleventh century, after Vikings had well-established trading connections with the Frankish Empire in Europe as well as the Byzantine Empire and Arabia’s Abbasid dynasty. This is when cats were sometimes bred for their pelts. (Prehal; Sindbaek)
Those first few Viking cats were very rare, probably the pets of high-ranking families or individuals who may have come across the beautiful little ex-gods on a raid or some voyage of exploration into the east, south, or west.
While traveling, Vikings might have picked up cats even if this feline loot hadn’t been so valuable because of its association with the glory days of Rome and Ancient Egypt. They just loved animals and included images of them in all Viking artwork.
The “gripping beast” was one of their signature designs. It’s found in intricately interwoven brooches, pendants, and other artwork and is exactly what it sounds like: an animal holding on to the frame, to other animals, or to itself.
Cats were common gripping beasts in the Borre style that Viking artists used during the ninth and tenth centuries. Here is one shown on a pendant from Hedeby:
That is clearly a cat’s head, and you can follow its ribbon-like body well enough until it meets the first gripping paw. Then things start getting weird, with dragon/serpent heads, a strange assortment of arms, and apparently–another body?
It’s hard to describe what is going on here. Everything is broken up, connected but dreamy.
This type of portrayal is one reason why some researchers suspect that domestic cats were a very important part of Norse magic and rituals.
Vikings, cats, and magic
Next to nothing is known about Viking religion.
All that about Thor, Loki, Odin, Yggdrasil, and Asgard? Apart from recent takes by Marvel Studios, it comes from collections of legends and poetry that were written down a few centuries after Scandinavia had converted to Christianity.
In other words, the writers were not believers and so aren’t totally trustworthy narrators.
There is no Norse “Bible”–just some observations by visiting foreigners, like someone who described the sacrifice of 99 people and some animals every nine years in Lejre, Denmark. (Prehal)
Most animal sacrifices were horses or livestock, but sometimes cats were offered even when they were still rare in Scandinavia and therefore very expensive.
Archaeological evidence like cremations or burials is helpful, but there isn’t all that much from the Viking Age. Too, there are no tomb paintings or other clues about what a site might have meant to people back then.
The most famous cat-related Viking religious story is that Freya, Odin’s wife, got around in a sled pulled by two male cats.
You might have come across that tale already, but did you know that Freya was also in charge of a warrior heaven like Valhalla (Odin’s place)?
It was called Folkvang, and apparently it was separate from but equal to Valhalla. No one knows what their criteria were, but Freya and Odin went halvsies on the fallen warriors. In both places, heroes partied on forever in exactly the same way.
These two Norse gods were also sorcerers. Indeed, legend has it that Freya taught the All-Father seiðr, the Norse magic. Most human practitioners were female, and they were known to wear garments and gloves made of white cat fur–this, again, at a time when that was very costly material.
Unfortunately there isn’t much evidence to support some very intriguing suggestions by Prethal (see source list):
- A high priestess of seiðr would be a very prominent person, someone who could afford to own a highly treasured cat.
- Some Borre jewelry, with the trippy-looking cats, might represent a magical transition between secular and magical worlds.
- Vikings may have seen cats as magical beings whose fur, like that of the bear and wolf that Berserkers draped themselves in, granted certain powers.
Of course, this is a long way from laws that may have required Vikings to pack cats along with their axes, swords, and shields for a trip.
But you never know where you might end up when you follow the domestic cat and its winding, curious path down through human history.
Featured image: Cat illustration in Lindisfarne Gospel. Eadfrith at Wikimedia.
Aberth, J. 2012. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: the Crucible of Nature. Routledge. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=7a28UnCLPIIC&lpg=PA265&dq=haithabu%2C%20skeletal%20remains%20of%20cats&pg=PA174#v=onepage&q&f=false
Fairnell, E. H. 2003. The utilisation of fur-bearing animals in the British Isles: a zooarchaeological hunt for data. University of York MSc thesis. Retrieved from http://www.fairnell.co.uk/content/documents/eva-fairnell-msc-thesis.pdf Accessed April 2, 2018.
Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1:0139.
Overton, N. J. 2016. More than skin deep: Reconsidering isolated remains of ‘fur-bearing species’ in the British and European Mesolithic (abstract only). Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 26(4): 561-578.
Prehal, B. 2011. Freyja’s cats: Perspectives on recent Viking Age finds in Ϸegjandadalur North Iceland. Hunter College MA thesis. PDF download, accessed April 1, 2018.
Westerdahl, C. L. 1995. Society and sail, in Ship As Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia: Papers From an International Research Seminar at the Danish National Museum 5th-7th May 1995, 41-50. Nationalmuseet. https://www.abc.se/~m10354/publ/soc&sail.htm Last accessed April 2, 2018.
Hatting, T. 2012. Cats from Viking Age Odense. Journal of Danish Archaeology. 9(1): 179-193.
Sindbæk, S. M. 2007. The small world of the Vikings: networks in early medieval communication and exchange. Norwegian Archaeological Review. 40(1), 59-74.