Animal research: Dog graves and fantasy animals
16 April 2012
That ancient Scandinavians used animals as food is obvious – it is proven by the large numbers of animal bones found in archaeological excavations, among other things. But what other roles animals played at the time is less clear.“It is only quite recently that archaeologists have begun to show an interest in this research field. That is quite strange, really, when you think how central animals are to human life”, says Professor of Archaeology Kristina Jennbert.
She has recently published the book Animals and Humans, in which she examines the relationship between human beings and animals in ancient Scandinavia.
The book is part of the larger Midgård project, in which archaeologists and experts in religious studies have attempted to understand the philosophy of pagan Norsemen. This is an interesting exercise in itself, but it can also provide us with valuable perspectives on humans today. How much has changed, how much appears to have remained the same?
When it comes to pre-Christian attitudes to animals, Kristina Jennbert thinks that modern humans would recognise many of them. It is all about how humans define themselves in relation to animals and the notion of human beings as the “pinnacle of creation”, i.e. considered to have a higher status than any animal.
Animals have been important in the Nordic area as far back as archaeologists are able to see.
“People hunted game, and they did it with the help of dogs who were among the first domesticated animals. There are dog graves from as far back as the early Stone Age, 8-10.000 years B.C.”, says Kristina Jennbert.
At Skateholm outside Trelleborg, a somewhat later archaeological site, there are no less than eleven dogs buried in their own graves, as well as a further seven dogs buried together with humans. One dog even had burial gifts in its grave – a decorated staghorn hammer and three knives – as a sign of affection or esteem.
Horses and bears were also high status animals which sometimes got their own graves. Pigs, sheep and goats on the other hand had a lower rank in spite of their greater significance for the household, and were never buried as grandly.
Keeping livestock, which people in the Nordic area began to do around 4000 B.C., did not mean that all animals were well taken care of.
Animal skeletons have been found with signs of injury, disease and wear and tear, just as for humans. But the keeping of livestock must still have meant an emotional bond: human beings worked closely alongside their animals to provide them with food and water all year round. People probably also attempted to breed animals with desirable traits. This may have involved practical aims such as obtaining good hunting dogs and cows with plenty of milk, but possibly also aesthetic values.
“In textiles from the Bronze Age, a close examination of the wool fibres shows that the weavers were very careful to separate wool of different colours. It is therefore likely that people made efforts to breed sheep with distinctly brown, black or white wool”, thinks Kristina Jennbert.
In her book, she presents animal-related facts from both archaeological finds and from the mythological tales in the Prose Edda, among others. The images the two sources provide coincide in part, but there are also differences.
The finds from the excavations, which reflect everyday life, customs and rituals, are mostly the remains of domestic animals. The old sagas on the other hand give more space to wild animals and to fantasy creatures such as the Midgård serpent and the dragon Fafner. Sheep are not mentioned at all and only one pig and two goats are named in the sagas (the pig Särimner and the goats that pulled Thor’s chariot), whereas many horses are described.
Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir is the best known, but there are also Arvak and Alsvinn who pull the sun over the sky, the horses of Night and Day, Hrimfaxi and Skinfaxi, and many more.
”Mythology represented a masculine warrior ideal in which the horse was important. Sheep, on the other hand, belonged to the feminine sphere and were never included in the myths” explains Kristina Jennbert.
"Warrior animals", wild animals and fantasy animals also play an important part in the ornamentation of swords, belt-buckles and jewelry. These objects feature images of horses, wolves, birds of prey, dragons and serpents.
The serpent was connected to Odin and seems to have been associated with strong powers, since serpent imagery is common both on metal objects and on rune stones from the pagan era.
When the Nordic area was later christianised, the attitude to certain animals changed. The serpent was demonised on the basis of its role in original sin, whereas the sheep and the lamb – symbols of Christ – were seen as "good" animals.
Text: Ingela Björck
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