Viking Cats

Cats in Norse mythology: A guide to Viking cats

Have you ever wondered whether Viking cats were common in the middle ages? There are certainly plenty of cats in Norse mythology, suggesting Viking warriors did have some encounters with our feline friends.

However, it’s difficult to know for certain whether the relationship between cats and humans during Viking times was the same as it is today.

As formidable warriors, hunters, and relatively independent creatures, cats make an excellent companion for all kinds of communities, particularly the adventurous Vikings.

Research shows Vikings may have used cats for a multitude of reasons, to protect their cargo on sea-faring voyages, and perhaps even to keep pests away from farms.

Here’s your guide to Viking cats, and the presence of cats in Norse mythology.

An introduction to cats in Norse mythology

Let’s start with an introduction to cats in Norse mythology. Animals are relatively commonplace in Viking stories, from Odin’s ravens to the wolf Fenrir. Perhaps the most significant cats referenced by old Norse tales are Freyja or “Freya’s” cats.

Freya was the most renowned of the Norse goddesses, in charge of fertility, death, battle, and love.

According to Nordic tales, Freya frequently drove a chariot pulled by two giant “gib cats”, which were blue or grey in color. These felines were apparently a gift from Thor, and used to travel to the funeral of Baldur, Freya’s son.

The cat was also Freya’s sacred animal, and some Vikings believed treating cats well would earn them the favor of Freya.

Other cats in Norse mythology include Jormungandr, a mighty serpent who transforms himself in a cat in a story about the Frost Giants tricking Thor. Even Fenrir the wolf was said to be restrained by a chain with 6 magical properties, including the sound of a cat’s footsteps.

Cats have also appeared throughout various Scandinavian folk tales. For instance, there’s a story about a cat who helps a poor man and eventually asks him to cut of its head. When the cat is decapitated, it turns into a beautiful princess, who marries the man.

What were the Viking names for cats?

We already know the “gib cats”— the name given to the felines who pulled Freya’s carriage. These cats were given the names Biegel and Trjegul by Thor.

They were kittens when Thor first found them, and taken from an older cat who was struggling to care for them after being abandoned by his mate.

So, are there any other Viking cat names to be aware of? In general, a cat in Old Norse was referred to as “köttr”, which isn’t too dissimilar to the name we use today. The term “Skogkatt” was used for larger “forest cats”, like the ones given to Freyja.

Viking Cats
Credit: A.Davey

Where did Vikings get cats? The origins of Viking cats

If you’re wondering where Norse cats came from, you’re not alone. There are a number of theories about how domesticated cats found their way to Norway. All domesticated cats come from the same species “Felis Catus”, which originated in the Middle East.

DNA evidence suggest multiple cat migrations occurred throughout the middle ages, to help felines spread around the world. The first migration took felines from the Middle East to Europe and Africa.

The second migration began in Egypt, enabled by the introduction of boats. Cats on boats travelled throughout the world, including to Scandinavia.

Currently, experts don’t know for certain when the Norse cat first emerged in Scandinavia. There is some evidence that they began to make their way into the region during the iron age, but the presence of felines seemed to significantly accelerate during the Viking era.

Did Vikings have cats as pets?

Discoveries of cat bones and remains at Viking settlements indicate Vikings did keep cats around, though perhaps not for the same qualities of companionship and friendship people value today.

When they weren’t raiding and pillaging, Vikings also spent a lot of time farming crops and growing food. Since rats were a common problem in Scandinavia, Viking cats likely played an important part in protecting produce.

To acquire Freya’s blessing for their fields and crops, Vikings may have also gifted cats with saucers of milk and fresh food.

Some experts believe Viking cats would also be given to brides for their wedding day, as a symbol of love and a reference to Freya.

Viking academics even believe males were more likely to be drawn to women who had their own cats, as there was a common belief a couple with cats would be more likely to have a happy marriage.

Perhaps the most common way Vikings used cats, was as a form of protection for their ships. Sailing with cats meant Vikings could protect their food supply from rats and vermin. Genetic research has proven felines were a common part of the crew for many Viking sailors.

Plus, researchers also believe Vikings may have helped to introduce cats to Greenland and Canada.

What did Vikings use cats for?

As mentioned above, Viking cats were most commonly used to protect food and belongings either on a Viking farm, or ship. However, there was another reason why Vikings cultivated cats, and it might not be as appealing to today’s feline lovers.

Living in the harsh climate of Scandinavia, Vikings were constantly seeking out furs to keep themselves warm during the winter. Vikings often traded in the pelts of a wide range of animals, including seals, goats, and even wolf fur.

Archeological evidence of cat remains indicates many of these creatures were skinned for their fur coats.

Although it’s entirely possible Vikings waited for a cat to die of natural causes before using its fur, there’s also a good chance they were killed when other sources of fur were not available for the winter.

In the Viking fortress of Odense, the remains of 68 cats were once found in a well, and analysis showed they didn’t die of natural causes.

Viking Cats
Credit: Johannes Gehrts/Eduard Ade

What kind of cats did Vikings have?

Cats in Norse mythology are often large creatures, similar to the wild cats we know today. However, the domesticated cats in the Viking era were likely to be a lot smaller.

According to a study published in the Danish Journal of Archeology, cats have grown about 16% larger on average since the middle ages. However, there were likely to have been some much larger cats in Scandinavia too.

The Norwegian forest cat is a descendent of some much older cats from the Norse landscape.

Some DNA studies from a Viking site in Germany found cats there were similar to Egyptian felines in their genetics. This makes sense, as cats are likely to have migrated to the Scandinavian region from Egypt.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the Viking age when humans began to influence cat development directly and deliberately. The tabby gene, for instance, is evidence of a non-uniform type of cat coloring, taken from multiple different types of ancient feline.

The emergence of the tabby gene didn’t begin until the middle ages, when the Vikings roamed the earth.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean Vikings were actively involved in breeding tabby cats.

Where did Vikings keep cats?

Viking cats were a common part of the family on farms and boats throughout Scandinavia. They may have been kept in the home with other animals, as many Vikings did keep some of their livestock indoors, or they may have been allowed to live primarily outdoors.

Our knowledge of Viking felines is somewhat limited, based on the small amounts of evidence we have about how Vikings cared for animals.

Cats in Norse mythology do offer an excellent insight into how Vikings viewed their feline companions, as symbols of independence, and strength.

The chances are, Vikings maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with cats, where their feline friends hunted pests and vermin, in exchange for a warm home and regular meals.

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