Viking Dogs

Viking dogs: Dogs in Norse mythology and Viking life

It’s hard to imagine Viking dogs playing fetch and curling up by the fire with their masters after a long day of exploring and raiding. However, historical research into the bones and burial sites once belonging to the Vikings suggest dogs were a big part of Viking culture.

Pets were relatively commonplace in the Viking world, though they may not have had the same relationship with humans as we know today. For Vikings, the dog was an important symbol, a guide towards the afterlife, and a valuable partner in day-to-day life.

Scholars believe domesticated dogs and Norse dogs shared homes with Viking families, and various Viking dog breeds were even responsible for joining their masters in battle. In some cases, Nordic dogs even helped look after the Viking home, by getting rid of pests.

Here’s everything you need to know about Viking dogs…

Viking dogs: Dogs in Norse mythology

We can learn a great deal about Viking dogs, and what the old Nordic people thought about their canine companions, by looking at dogs in Norse mythology. Various depictions of Viking dog breeds have been found in paintings, illustrations, and other artistic pieces from the Viking era.

There are also numerous tales of dogs throughout Nordic folklore.

Perhaps one of the most famous dogs in Norse mythology was Garm, or Garmr. According to experts in Nordic tales, Garm was responsible for guarding the gates of the afterlife for the realm of “Hel”.

This was the original name for the world of the dead in the Norse region, and despite the title it didn’t necessarily refer to the “hell” we know today.

According to Snorri Sturluson, a famous Icelandic historian, Garm was helped to keep the souls of Hels firmly behind the walls, while stopping the living from trespassing in search of their lost loved ones.

Garm was also referred to as the “best of hounds” by the All-Father Odin in the Grimnismal section of the Poetic Edda. Garm’s duties protecting the underworld led many Vikings to associate dogs with concepts like life and death.

Viking Dogs
Credit: Internet Archive Book Images

Other Norse mythology dogs

Outside of the famous Garm, the other best-known Viking dog in Nordic tales is Fenrir. Perhaps one of the better-known dogs in Norse mythology to members of the modern world, Fenrir is described as both a dog and a wolf.

He was much larger than your standard dog, according to poets and mythological experts of the time, and the son of the chaotic god, Loki.

Because Loki and the other gods feared the potential strength of Fenrir, they decided to bind him with a magical chain made of various elements, such as the breath of fish, the sound of a cat’s footsteps, and the bear of a woman.

Fenrir is also associated with the concept of Ragnarök, when the Vikings believed he would break free of his bonds and swallow Odin whole.

Though Fenrir is commonly considered a bad omen among the dogs in Norse mythology, most Vikings didn’t regard dogs in general as a negative animal.

What did Vikings use dogs for?

Since Vikings were notoriously poor at recording their own history, we don’t have a great deal of first-hand information about how they interacted with their pets.

However, according to some archeologists, more dog remains have been found in the burial sites throughout Scandinavia than in any other culture.

This may be due to the important role they played in the concept of the afterlife.

While Vikings loved their dogs, they were often buried alongside their human masters when they died. They were also sacrificed as part of the funeral rights for some warrior Vikings. Some Vikings were said to believe placing dogs in a grave would provide a guide for the dead.

Dog skeletons were also found alongside the remains of horse and cattle in the huge Scandinavian ship burials from the Viking age. This indicates many Viking dogs may have accompanied their masters on voyages overseas, and even taken part in battles.

Like Viking cats, Viking dogs also played a role in the everyday operation of the Viking homestead. Dogs were fantastic working animals, capable of herding cattle, and hunting potential pests.

Viking names for dogs and Viking dog breeds

While there are only a handful of dogs in Norse mythology with their own specific name, there were various different words used to refer to dogs in the time. For instance, festargarmr was used to refer to the Viking chain dog, while garmr was often used to refer to dogs in general.

The Vikings also gave names to different types of dogs.

For instance:

  • Dýrhundr: deerhound, foxhound.
  • Búrakki: farm-dog.
  • Hjarðtík: shepherd’s dog.
  • Kofarn or kofarnrakki: lapdog.
  • Smárakki: little dog.
  • Veiðihundr: hunting-hound.
  • Varðhundr: watchdog.

Some of the names for dogs in Norse mythology which we haven’t covered above include “Geri” one of the names of Odin’s wolves, and Fiolsvinn’s dogs.

The name “Floki” was also given to Hjôrleifr’s dog from Hálfs saga og Hálfsrekka.

Viking Dogs

What kind of dogs did Vikings have?

Many Viking dogs were a combination of wolves and domesticated dogs, bred to be excellent at hunting, fighting, and braving the cold winters of the Nordic region. Many Nordic dog breeds have evolved to become well-known throughout the Scandinavian landscape today.

Based on the archaeological research conducted over the years, some of the most common Viking dog breeds may have included:

  • The Norwegian Elkhound: Bred by the ancient Danes to hunt large game.
  • The Swedish Elkhound: A spitz type dog bred to hunt moose.
  • Karelian Bear dogs: Ideal for hunting larger game.
  • The Finnish Spitz dog: A barking dog with excellent hearing.
  • Gammel Dansk hound: One of the most popular hunting dogs.
  • Norwegian Lundehund: Excellent for hunting sea birds.

Outside of hunting dogs, the Vikings also bred and kept a number of “herding” dog breeds, specially created to assist with farm work. The Norwegian Buhund is one of the oldest Nordic breeds, and bones have also been found among ancient ships.

Vikings were also known for living with the Icelandic Sheepdog, Swedish Vallhund, and the Lapp Reindeer dog.

The Lapphund may have been a popular Viking dog too, and still has various generations of descendants today, including both the Swedish and Finnish Lapphund.

Where did Vikings get dogs?

It’s hard to know for certain where Viking dogs and Nordic dogs originally came from. Many may have been bred from wolves and other dogs brought home from Viking missions.

Dogs like the Buhund were likely to be included onboard the Viking ships when they travelled throughout Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

Interestingly, the Buhund shares many traits with the Welsh Corgi, which has prompted some historians to believe the Corgi may have descended from Buhund dogs brought with Vikings to Welsh shores.

The majority of Viking dogs were spitz-type animals, characterized by pointed muzzles and ears, a curling tail, and long, thick fur, ideal for the winter months.

Where did Vikings keep dogs?

According to archeological digs and skeleton findings, experts believe Vikings shared their homes, ships, beds, and farms with their canine friends. Dogs even occasionally had their own collars, which helped to identify them, and leashes and leads were used to keep them close.

After all, while the Viking dog might have been relatively common among the older Nordic people, they were also expensive to acquire and keep. Dogs were often highly valued, and took a lot of work to train, which led them towards becoming a kind of status symbol among the Norse.

Paintings and depictions of dogs around powerful Viking warriors indicate Nordic dogs were seen as a symbol of great strength. Additionally, the more dogs one had, the wealthier that individual was considered to be.

Did Vikings use dogs in battle?

While Norse dogs often spent a lot of time at home with the Vikings, they may also have played a role in various battles. The Norwegian Elkhound is a descendent of the Torvmosehund, which was considered so important to the Vikings it would often be included in the crew of ships.

This particular Nordic dog was considered the “war dog of the Vikings”. This meant if the master was killed in battle, the dog would also be killed and placed on a burning ship for the journey to Valhalla.

What did Vikings think of dogs?

Although the information about dogs in Norse mythology and Viking dogs in general is somewhat limited, what we do know indicates dogs were very popular in the Viking age. They were highly valued and useful members of the family, particularly for warriors and those living on farms.

Viking dogs were experts in hunting and hounding, and were also capable of providing companionship and protection to their masters.

At the same time, Vikings considered dogs to be an important symbol and guide to the afterlife, which is why dogs were often buried with their masters when they passed away, to help them find their way to the next life.

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