Before I start, I know that many people will think it is obvious which animals the Vikings had on their farms. But we cannot expect everyone across all cultures and ages to have the same knowledge, so I still think it is an important piece of the puzzle to understand how it was to live in Scandinavia in the Viking age.
Said I have said before, the animals were not separated into two groups in the Viking age. Most of the domestic animals in the Viking age lived inside their houses and were not seen as either pets or farm animals, all the animals had their uses, and were part of the household for a reason.
Sheep in the Viking age
Sheep and goats are some of the oldest domestic animals in Scandinavia, and there has been found evidence from them as far back as 3790 BCE. Initially, sheep were not domesticated for the sake of wool, but for the meat.
However, sheep changed its appearance over many thousands of years, from being shorthaired to having a thick coat of wool. The Vikings valued the sheep for both their meat and their wool, and especially the wool was important to them for their textile production.
The sheep would not be sheared for its wool, which is a common practice today, instead, they would go around and pluck them, or just wait for them to shed it naturally.
Manx Loaghtan Sheep
The oldest type of sheep in Scandinavia is the Gotlandic sheep, a term that is still used in Sweden where they call this breed for Gutefår (”Gotlandic Sheep”). However, the Gotlandic sheep has changed its appearance in the last 1000 years, and it could be argued that the Manx Loghtan sheep is more similar to the early Gotlandic sheep breed.
As most people know, the Vikings loved to travel, not just for raiding but also to find new lands where they could settle and start a new life. The Vikings did not leave their homelands empty-handed, they did, of course, also bring everything with them that they owned and as much they could fit on their ships, including their livestock.
It is therefore highly likely that the Manx Loghtan sheep, that is pretty much only located on the Isle of Man, is a descendant of the ancient Gotlandic sheep, and was brought to the Island by the Vikings sometime in the 9th century. The Manx Loghtan sheep is probably not like the picture of the sheep you have in your mind right now.
The sheep have light to dark brown wool, with four or sometimes even six horns. The Manx Loaghtan sheep is well-known to shed its wool naturally, which falls well in line with how the Vikings collected their wool from their sheep.
The kind of sheep that was brought to Iceland in the 9th century by the settlers from Norway and Denmark, is one of those sheep with typical Northern European characteristics. The appearance of the Icelandic sheep has pretty much been unchanged since the Viking age, due to the Icelandic ban on the import of sheep to Iceland, so it is like a window to the past.
Surviving on Iceland is much harder than where the settlers came from, so having sheep as part of the household was very important to the early Icelanders, and families that could not afford to have sheep as an insurance for tough times, would often starve in the winter months.
Other Sheep from the Viking age
But there where many more places where the Vikings brought their sheep along for the ride. The sheep on the Hebrides Islands, Shetland Islands, and from the Orkney Islands, are all descendants of the sheep that the Vikings had in Scandinavia.
Goats in the Viking age
Goats were a common farm animal in the Viking age, however, the goat was seen as a poor man’s animal. That was because a goat does not grow wool as a sheep does, instead, it grows hair which typically is of lesser quality than the wool from a sheep.
Goats are reflected in the sagas from the Viking age, which to some just are stories but they have a deeper meaning if you have an understanding of how it was to live the Viking society. Thor, who is the God of thunder, is often referred to as the God of the common people.
Goats in Norse mythology
Thor has on many occasions traveled to Midgard and spent the night with some of the common folk. Even though Thor could have chosen to stay with the rich or even Kings, but he always chose to stay with the poor or the average family.
One of these sagas is Thor’s journey to Utgard, where he stops at a farm of a poor family to spend the night. The family was so poor, that they could hardly offer him anything to eat. But Thor is a generous God, and he slew his own two goats, who are called tooth-cracker and Tooth-gnasher (”Tanngrisnir” and ”Tanngnjóstr”) so the family, and Thor and Loki had something to eat.
Thor’s two goats are very important to him because he uses them to pull his chariot whenever he travels across the sky, which is something that can be heard from miles away in form of lightning and thunder. So it might sound like a bad idea to slay your own two goats that you use for transportation, just for an evening meal, but it is really not that big of a deal if you know of the powers of Thor’s hammer.
Thor’s hammer is not just a weapon of violence and destruction but it can also be used to create life. Thor used his hammer, which is called Mjolnir the next day to revive his two goats again.
Not only is Thor’s two goats clearly a symbol of Thor’s connection to the common folk, but the people also sacrificed goats at their rituals in honor of the God Thor.
But it is not just Thor who is connected to the goats in the old Norse sagas. In Asgard, there is also a she-goat called Heidrun who feeds on the branches of the great world tree known as Yggdrasil. From her udders flows a neverending stream of mead into a big barrel in Valhalla, which supplies Odin’s chosen warriors with mead every night for their great feast.
Pigs in the Viking age
Another common farm animal in the Viking age was the pig. The pig that the Vikings had was descended from the wild boar also called the Eurasian Wild Boar which was first seen in northern Europe in around 4000 BCE.
The pigs were very easy to have as farm animals, they were not hard to feed, and they would eat pretty much anything they were given or could find in their surroundings. The pigs were also good at adapting themselves to the seasons and the different environments throughout Scandinavia.
The pigs were food for the common people, and they were not seen as something that was luxurious. Or at least we think so because there have never been any pigs in the bog sacrifices from the Viking age.
But the people loved the pigs and there has been found plenty of evidence for this in their graves and in the layers of waste that have been examined by the archeologists.
Pigs in Norse mythology
Pigs are also part of Norse sagas, which can be read in sagas such as in the poetic edda that was written by Snorri Sturluson, who was an Icelandic author. The Poetic Edda was later translated into many languages, so we all do not have to learn the old Norse language to enjoy them.
If we take a few examples from the Norse sagas were a pig is mentioned we can start by looking at Valhalla. For those of us, that the Gods and Goddesses in Asgard, deem worthy enough to step foot in Valhalla after we die, there will be a great feast for us to enjoy each night. At this feast the pig Saehrimnir is the main course, Saehrimnir is not a normal pig, but a magical pig, and every time the cook Andhrimnir cuts a piece from the pig, it will immediately grow back.
The two siblings, Freyr and Freyja both have a boar as a pet, which they use for transportation. Freyr and Freyja do not originate from the Aesir branch of Gods and Goddesses, they belong to the Vanir and moved to Asgard as a part of the treaty after the great war between the Aesir and the Vanir.
The boar that Freyja has is called Hildisvini (”Battle-swine”), and she rode the boar around when she didn’t feel like using her cat-drawn chariot. Loki has on many occasions accused the boar to be a magical boar and has said that it is her human lover Ottar in a disguise.
Freyja’s brother Freyr has a magical boar named Gullinbursti (”Golden-bristled”) that he uses as his steed. The bristles are so golden that everywhere he travels night turns into day.
Pigs are still to this day a big part of the Danish farming industry and the Danish pigs have gotten a great reputation in many parts of the world, especially in England where they love a few slices of Danish bacon for their English breakfast.
Cattle in the Viking age
Cows and oxen were extremely useful animals in the agricultural community during the Viking age. Not only were they used as labor to help plow the fields to grow crops, but they were also valuable because of their meat, and their milk which they either drank or used in the production of cheese and butter.
Most cattle in Scandinavia and the rest of the world are descended from the extinct aurochs. The aurochs was widespread throughout Europe after the last ice age and the first signs of the domesticated bovine in Denmark were in 3955 BCE. Which we know because of a test that was conducted on some bones that were found at Åkonge in the western part of Zealand (Sjælland).
Cattle in the runic alphabet
We can again link the importance of animals, which in this case is cattle to the old Norse sagas, but cattle are also linked to the runic alphabet that was used in the Viking age.
The cattle were so important, that there are, in fact, two runes that symbolize cattle. However, one has changed its meaning over time, both of the runes are very ancient and they are both represented in the elder futhark and the younger futhark.
If we take a look at the first rune and the rune that still symbolize cattle, it is the rune Uruz, which you can hear in just saying the name of the rune Uruz, sounds like aurochs. Aurochs has probably been desired for their meat and hide for thousands of years, so it would make sense that such an important animal would get its own rune. Aurochs has been mentioned in historical texts such as poems.
Aurochs is fearless and greatly horned a very fierce beast, it fights with its horns, a famous roamer on the moor it is a courageous animal. -Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem.
The second rune from the runic alphabet that symbolizes cattle is the rune Fehu, which literally does mean cattle, but the meaning of the rune has changed over time from cattle to mean wealth and money.
It could be argued that the rune Uruz is more of a term for wild aurochs while Fefu could have been used to describe the domesticated aurochs, at least before its meaning changed to symbolize wealth. Owning cattle was not something for the common people in the Viking age, and it was seen as having a high status within the Viking society, not only were they expensive to purchase, they did also require that you owned a large piece of land for them to grass on.
Although cattle were expensive, they did still get sacrificed from time to time, and since they were not cheap, they might only have been sacrificed when they really needed the Gods and Goddesses to lend them an ear.
Cattle in the Norse sagas
As I said earlier, the use of cattle is also mentioned in the old Norse sagas, for instance in the saga of how the Island Zealand (Sjælland) was created. There are two different versions of this saga, which can be found in either the younger Edda or in the Ynglingesaga. But just to give you a short summary of the story. Gefjon travels to Sweden to entertain the King, and as a reward for her entertainment, she is allowed to plow as big a piece of Sweden as she can in one day and one night.
Gefjon then straps her four sons who are all oxes to a plow, and because her sons are big and strong, her plow cuts very deep into the Swedish soil. The plow cuts so deep that a huge part of Sweden breaks off, which her sons then drags out into the sea, and that is how Zealand according to the myths was created.
Chickens in the Viking age
The Vikings also had chickens, to roam around their farm, and not only were they a great source for both eggs and meat but as anyone who has raised chickens will tell you, they can pretty much take care of themselves.
The chickens in Scandinavia were not that big, which is probably because of the seasons, but they were resistant to diseases and produced a lot of eggs. The chicken in Scandinavia is a descendant from the Indian junglefowl, which through the Romans spread all the way to northern Europe.
Beekeeping in the Viking age
Most of you have heard about how the Vikings loved to drink mead, and therefore it should not come as a surprise to you that some of them specialized in beekeeping. We do however not know how far spread this profession was in Scandinavia, and most people might just have wandered into their local forest to search for a beehive, so they could get their hands on some of that sweet and delicious honey.
Icelandic horses in the Viking age
Horses were also raised on the farms in the Viking age, and the horses were very valuable because they could be used for heavy labor at the farm, but also to travel great distances on land. The horse that the Vikings used, is the one we today know as the Icelandic horse, which was the horse that the Vikings brought with them when they traveled to Iceland in the 9th century. Horses are also mentioned in the old Norse sagas, for instance, Sleipnir, which is Odin’s horse.