When picturing the fierce Norse Vikings, the image of their fearsome longships sailing across treacherous seas often comes to mind. These intrepid seafarers were known for their adventurous spirit. But they were not alone on their voyages. Unbeknownst to many, the Vikings had loyal companions aboard their boats—cats. These feline adventurers played a significant role in Norse society and mythology, leaving a lasting mark on Viking culture. This article delves into the fascinating history of the cats that sailed alongside the Norse Vikings.
The Vikings highly regarded cats due to their remarkable hunting skills. These feline sailors proved indispensable on long journeys at sea, where provisions were scarce and vermin abundant. Rats and mice threatened the Vikings' food supplies, gnawing through their provisions and spreading disease. Cats were efficient hunters and kept these pests in check, ensuring the survival of the crew and their valuable cargo.
Cats and the Supernatural:
Beyond their practical purpose, cats also held a special place in Norse mythology and beliefs. The Vikings believed that cats possessed supernatural powers, acting as guardians against evil spirits and bringing good fortune to their owners. These beliefs were intertwined with the Norse goddess Freyja, the goddess of love, fertility, and war, who was often depicted with her two magical cats who would pull her flying chariot, as seen in this artwork painted in 1852. Cats were considered sacred to Freyja, and it was believed that they brought blessings and protection to those who treated them well.
Cats' association with Norse mythology extended beyond Freyja. The god Thor, known for his strength and thunderous power, once lost a fight against a common house cat ... or so he thought. Thor was traveling with Loki through a strange land called Utgard (Outer Realm). The two gods found themselves reluctant guests of a powerful giant who called himself Utgard-Loki. This giant challenged Thor to complete three simple tasks to prove his power. Thor had to wrestle an old woman, drink a cup of beer down to the dregs, and simply pick the house cat up off the floor. To Thor's horror, no matter how hard he tried, he could not accomplish any of these simple tasks. When he tried to lift the cat, the cat's supple, flexible body just stretched while its paws stayed firmly on the floor. Utgard-Loki later admitted to the humbled god that all of this had been a deep illusion. The old woman whom Thor could not defeat was Old Age, the ale horn he could not drain was the Sea, and the house cat was none other than the Midgard Serpent, whose coils wrap around the earth. Perhaps Thor never looked at a cat the same way again.
Legacy and Symbolism:
Cats had a beneficial and mythological role and held symbolic significance within Norse culture. They were seen as protectors of homes and ships, ensuring safe journeys and safeguarding against evil forces. Vikings adorned their ships and buildings with carvings and artwork depicting cats to invoke their protective powers. The presence of a cat symbolizes strength, agility, and adaptability—qualities highly valued by the seafaring Norse people.
Today, evidence of the Vikings' feline companions is part of modern Scandinavian folklore and cultural practices. The Norwegian Forest Cat, known for its sturdy build, thick fur, and rugged appearance, is believed to be a descendant of the cats that sailed alongside the Vikings. These cats' hunting instincts and ability to withstand harsh climates are reminiscent of their seafaring ancestors.
While the Norse Vikings are often portrayed as fierce warriors, it is worth acknowledging the quieter members of their crews—the cats. These feline companions played a valuable role by keeping vermin at bay during treacherous sea voyages. Moreover, cats held a special place in Norse mythology and superstition, symbolizing protection, luck, and divine favor. Their legacy continues in modern Scandinavian folklore, reminding us of the vital bond between humans and animals throughout history.
The presence of cats on Viking longships is a testament to the deep connection between humans and animals, even in the most challenging and dangerous of circumstances. These cats were not mere passengers but valued members of the Viking crews, contributing to their survival and leaving an indelible mark on Viking culture and mythology.
So the next time you imagine the Norse Vikings setting sail on their longships, picture these fearless seafarers accompanied by their feline friends, braving the untamed seas together. The cats that rode the boats with the Norse Vikings were some of the unsung heroes of the Viking Age.
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