From Ravens to Wolves, Cats and Dragons: Vikings and their fantastic Beasts


Ravens and wolves are the most commonly recognizable Viking animals. They are everywhere and most sagas mention one or the other. The sagas also mention  many other animal companions to the Norse Gods and today we will be honoring all of them them, beginning with the most famous.

  

The Raven

Ravens may be the animal most associated with the Vikings. This is because Ravens are the familiars of Odin, the Allfather. Odin is a god of war, and ravens feasting on the slain were a common sight on the battlefields of the Viking Age. The connection is deeper than that, however. Ravens are very intelligent birds. You cannot look at the eyes and head movement of a raven and not feel that it is trying to perceive everything about you – even weigh your spirit.

Odin was accompanied by two ravens – Huginn (“Thought”) and Muninn (“Memory”). Huginn and Muninn fly throughout the nine worlds, and whatever their far-seeing eyes find they whisper back to Odin. The connection is so important that Odin is often called hrafnaguð – the Raven God – often depicted with Huginn (HOO-gin) and Muninn (MOO-nin) sitting on his shoulders or flying around him.

 

Statue of Odin on Raven Throne 1900 by Rudolf Maison

Ravens are also associated with the 9th century Viking hero, Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar claimed descent from Odin through a human consort. This was something that did not sit well with the kings of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (as it implied parity with them), and for that and many other reasons they made war on him. Ragnar’s Vikings charged into battle with a raven banner flying above them, and each time they did, they were victorious.

Hrafnsmerki - the Raven Banner

Various sagas and chronicles tell us Ragnar's success led him to Finland, France, England, and maybe even as far as the Hellespont in Turkey, and wherever he went, he carried the raven banner with him. His sons Ivar and Ubbe carried the raven banner at the head of the Great Heathen Army that conquered the eastern kingdoms of England in the 9th century. The banner continued to bring victories until their descendant, Sigurd the Stout, finally died under it at the Irish Battle of Clontarf about 150 years later. Harald Hardrada (Hard-ruler), the larger-than-life Norse hero historians like to call "The Last Viking” also carried a raven banner he called “Land Waster.” When this raven banner finally fell in 1066, the Viking Age ended. 

In Norse art, ravens symbolize Odin, insight, wisdom, intellect, bravery, battle glory, and continuity between life and the afterlife. For people today, they also represent the Vikings themselves, and the 200 years of exploits and exploration that these ancestors achieved.

 

Anlaf Guthfrithsson, Hiberno-Norse King of Northumbria (date: c. 939-941 AD).

  

Wolf

The wolf is a more enigmatic motif, as it can have several meanings. The most famous to the Vikings was Fenrir.

 

Fenrir

Fenrir is one of the most frightening monsters in Norse mythology. He is the son of Loki and the giantess, Angrboða; the brother of the great sea serpent Jormungand, and of Hel, goddess of the underworld.

When Fenrir was young, the Gods decided to raise him with them, for he was fast, strong and smart. As time passed the Gods saw how quickly Fenrir was growing and how ravenous - and destructive - he was, so they tried to bind him, but Fenrir broke every chain. Finally, the dwarves made an unbreakable chain - Gleipnir - with which they managed to bind him – but only after he had ripped the god Tyr's hand off. The gods placed a sword in Fenrir’s mouth to keep his jaws from snapping, and from his open, drooling mouth a river called Ván flowed as the wolf dreamed of his revenge. Fenrir is fated to escape at the dawning of Ragnarök and battle Odin, slaying him.

Another pair of wolves are important in announcing Ragnarök: Hati and Skoll, who forever chase the sun and the moon. It is said that during the Ragnarök they will finally catch their prey and will devour the sun and moon.

Not all the wolves in Norse culture were evil however. Odin himself was accompanied by wolves, named Geri and Freki (both names meaning, Greedy) who accompanied him in battle, hunting, and wandering. This partnership between god and wolves gave rise to the alliance between humans and dogs.

Geri and Freki

The most famous type of Viking warriors is the berserker – men who “became the bear” and fought in states of ecstatic fury, empowered by the spirit of Odin. There was also a similar type of Viking warrior called an úlfheðnar, which means “wolf hides” (or werewolf). It is not entirely clear whether this was a synonym or a separate class of berserker. Some sources seem to hint that the úlfheðnar could have been like berserkers, but unlike the berserker (who fought alone ahead of the Viking shield walls) the úlfheðnar may have fought in small packs. We may never know for certain. What we do know is that the wolf was sacred to Odin and that some Vikings could channel the wolf to become impervious to “iron and fire” and to achieve great heights of martial prowess and valor in battle.

Úlfheðnar

The wolf has both positive and negative connotations in Norse culture. The wolf can represent the destructive forces of time and nature, for which even the gods are not a match. The wolf can also represent the most valued characteristics of bravery, teamwork, and shamanistic power. The unifying characteristic in these two divergent manifestations is savagery and the primal nature. The wolf can bring out the worst or the best in people.

 

Sleipnir, the 8-Legged Horse

Sleipnir (SLAPE-neer), also known as The Sliding One is Odin's eight-legged stallion, and is considered by all the skalds to be "the best of horses." This title should be no wonder, as Sleipnir can leap over the gates of Hel, cross the Bifrost bridge to Asgard, and travel up and down Yggdrasil and throughout the Nine Worlds. All this he can do at incredible speeds. While the other gods ride chariots, Odin rides Sleipnir into battle.

Sleipnir

Sleipnir has a weird family. He was conceived when the god Loki shape-shifted into a mare to beguile the giant stallion, Svaðilfari (all so that Loki could get the gods out of an ill-advised contract with Svaðilfari's owner - whom Thor killed anyway). Therefore, Sleipnir is the brother of the World-Coiling Serpent, Jörmungandr and the  world-eater wolf, Fenrir.

Some experts hypothesize that Sleipnir's octopedal sliding was inspired by the "tolt" - the fifth gait of Icelandic horses (and their Scandinavian ancestors) that make them very smooth to ride. While this may or may not be true, the idea of eight-legged spirit horses is a very, very old one. Sleipnir's image, or rumors of him, appear in shamanistic traditions throughout Korea, Mongolia, Russia, and of course Northwestern Europe. As in Norse mythology, these eight-legged horses are a means for transporting souls across worlds (i.e., from life to the afterlife). These archeological finds are at least a thousand years older than Viking influence, showing that the roots of this symbol indeed go deep.

 

The Heavenly Horse of Cheonmachong, Korea

Sleipnir symbolizes speed, surety, perception, good luck in travel, eternal life, and transcendence. He combines the attributes of the horse (one of the most important and enduring animals to humankind) and the spirit. He is especially meaningful to athletes, equestrians, travelers, those who have lost loved ones, and those yearning for spiritual enlightenment.

 

Dragons and Serpents

The Vikings had lots of stories of dragons and giant serpents and left many depictions of these creatures in their art. The longship – the heart and soul of the Viking – were even called "dragon ships" for their sleek design and carved dragon-headed prows.

 

Longship

These heads sometimes would be removed to announce the Vikings came in peace (as not to frighten the spirits of the land, the Icelandic law codes say). The common images of dragons we have from fantasy movies, with thick bodies and heavy legs come more from medieval heraldry inspired by Welsh (Celtic) legends. The earliest Norse dragons were more serpentine, with long coiling bodies. They only sometimes had wings, and only some breathed fire.

Some Norse dragons were not just giant monsters - they were cosmic forces unto themselves. Níðhöggr is such a creature. Níðhöggr means "Curse Striker." He coils around the roots of Yggdrasil, gnawing at them and dreaming of Ragnarok.

 

Nidhogg

 Jörmungandr (also called "The Midgard Serpent" or "The World-Coiling Serpent") is so immeasurable that he wraps around the entire world, holding the oceans in. Jörmungandr is the arch-enemy of Thor, and they are fated to kill each other at Ragnarok.

Jörmungandr

Luckily, not all dragons were as big as the world - but they were big enough. Heroes like Beowulf met their greatest test against such creatures. Ragnar Lothbrok won his name, his favorite wife (Thora), and accelerated his destiny by slaying a giant, venomous serpent. One of the most interesting dragons was Fáfnir. Fáfnir was originally a dwarf, but through his greed and treachery, he was turned into a fearsome, almost-indestructible monster who slept on a horde of gold. Fáfnir (as well as Níðhöggr) exhibit one of the most frightening characteristics of dragons: intelligence. Dragons are as rich in symbolism as they were said to be rich in treasure. As the true, apex predator, dragons represent both great strength and great danger. With their association with hordes of gold or as the captors of beautiful women, dragons can represent opportunity through risk.

 

 

Thor Goats: Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr

Thor has two goats that pull his chariot, Tanngrisnir, or "teeth-barer, snarler”  and Tanngnjóstr, the "teeth grinder” in old Norse. Always faithful and always willing to take Thor on his journeys, the goats’  flesh can also provide Thor with sustenance should he need it for, as long as their bones remain unbroken, Thor is able to resurrect them in their full strength on the next day.

In Scandinavian folklore, witches who magically replenish food sometimes appear in tales, the food usually being herring. However, in fear that one would waste away for eating the same morsel again and again, folk tales describe the breaking of the herring bones when eating as a form of precaution. 

 

Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr

 

Boars 

There are numerous other animal motifs in Norse art and culture. Many of these are the fylgja (familiars or attendant spirits) of different gods. Thor had his goats, and Heimdall had his rams. Freya had a ferocious boar to accompany her in war, named Hildisvini ("Battle Swine").

 

Hildisvini

Her brother, Freyr (or Frey) - the god of sex, male fertility, bounty, wealth, and peace (who, along with Freya, aptly lends his name to Friday) - had a boar named Gullinborsti ("Golden-Bristled") as his fylgia. Seeing Gullinborsti's symbol or other boar motifs would make a Viking think of peace, happiness, and plenty.

 

Gullinborsti

  

Cats

When not riding Hildisvini into the thick of battle or using her fabulous falcon-feather cloak to shape shift into a lightning-fast bird of prey, Freya travelled in a chariot drawn by gray cats.

Some folklorists see the image of the goddess getting cats to work together and go in the same direction as a metaphor for the power of feminine influence – a reoccurring theme in the Viking sagas. The cat probably reminded Vikings of Freya because of the common personality traits: cats are independent but affectionate when they want to be; fierce fighters and lethal hunters but lovers of leisure, luxury, and treasures. This association between the goddess of magic and her cats may be why cats became associated with witches during the later Middle Ages and through our own time.

 

Freya cats

In Norse art or jewelry, the symbol or motif of the cat is meant to denote the blessing or character of Freya, with all her contradictions and strength: love and desire, abundance and beauty, valor and the afterlife, music and poetry, magic and wisdom.


Bears

The bear was one of the most powerful and ferocious animals the Vikings knew. The very sight of a bear in the wild would make the bravest of men back away slowly. They are massive, fast, and deadly, and their hide and fur resist most weapons. It is easy to see why the Vikings would be fascinated by them and would want to emulate them.

Viking kings loved to own bears as pets. Saxo Grammaticus tells us that the great shield maiden, Lagertha, had a pet bear that she turned loose on Ragnar Lothbrok when he first came to court her. Understandably, this incident got brought up again in their later divorce.

 

The Bear is sacred to Odin, and this association inspired the most legendary class of all Vikings: the berserkers. Berserkers were Viking heroes who would fight in a state of ecstatic frenzy. The word berserker comes from two old Norse words that mean "bear shirt" or "bear skin." It is also where we get the phrase,"to go berserk".

The berserker took on the essence and spirit of the great bears of the Scandinavian wilderness. He became the bear in battle, with all the creature’s ferocity, bravery, strength, and indestructibility. Thus, he put on the bear’s skin – which he may have also done literally, using bear hide for armor. Or, he wore no armor of any kind and had bare skin (the play on words is the same in English and Old Norse). In either case, the berserker was a warrior who entered battle furious and inspired with Odin’s lethal ecstasy.

Instead of fighting as a team, as other Vikings would, the berserker would sometimes go in advance of the line. The method to this madness was two-fold. His valor was meant to both inspire his comrades and to dishearten his foes. By single-handedly attacking the enemy lines (often with sweeping blows of the huge, powerful Dane axe) before his forces could make contact, he sought to disrupt the enemy's cohesion and exploit holes in their defenses that his brothers in arms could drive through.

Berserker

 

Auðumbla the Cow and Other Animals 

The very first being into existence is said to be a cow, Auðumbla, who licked away the salty rime rocks and revealed into existence Búri, grandfather of Odin himself. Little else is said about Auðumbla, other than her milk fed the first Jotunn Ymir.

There are several other important animals in the Norse Mythology, but the information about them is sparse. We know for example that the God Heimdal has   a golden-maned horse Gulltoppr and that he is associated somehow with rams, but the details are lost to history. We know about the eagle who sits in the boughs of Yggdrasil and the squirrel that scurries along the trunk of the world tree, but if they had any special significance, we no longer know.


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