The Viking era, which spanned from the late 8th century to the early 11th century, was a fascinating period of history characterized by exploration, trade, and conquest. Among the many aspects of Viking life, their relationship with dogs often raises curiosity. Dogs were not merely pets to the Vikings; they were hunting companions, protectors, and in some cases, spiritual symbols. This article explores the breeds of dogs most likely found amongst the Viking clans, giving an insight into the relationship between the Vikings and their four-legged companions.
Viking Dogs Breeds: A Historical Overview
Viking dogs were primarily utilitarian animals. They were bred and selected for their specific abilities, such as tracking, hunting, or guarding. The archeological finds from Viking settlements, combined with historical literature and genetic research, allow us to make educated guesses about the dog breeds that Vikings might have owned.
The Viking Age dogs likely resembled what we now know as Spitz breeds, characterized by their pointed ears, dense fur, and bushy tails that curl over their backs. This includes present-day species like the Norwegian Elkhound and the Icelandic Sheepdog. However, it’s important to note that modern breeds have been shaped by hundreds of years of selective breeding since the Viking Age.
A breed that undoubtedly shares a deep history with the Vikings is the Norwegian Elkhound. This dog breed is one of the ancient Nordic dog breeds that have been around since before the Vikings. Known in Norway as the Norsk Elghund (which means “Norwegian Moose Dog”), these dogs were used for hunting moose and other large game. Their keen sense of smell and high endurance made them excellent trackers, able to hold the big game at bay while barking to alert their Viking masters.
Another breed that shares its roots with the Vikings is the Icelandic Sheepdog. Vikings who settled in Iceland likely brought these dogs with them. Icelandic Sheepdogs were primarily used for herding sheep in the harsh Icelandic terrain. They are small, agile dogs known for their intelligence and alertness.
What Kind of Dogs Did Vikings Have in Vikings?
“Vikings,” the historical drama television series written and created by Michael Hirst, has gained international fame for its depiction of the Viking Age. While the show often strives for historical accuracy, it takes liberties with narrative and drama.
When it comes to dogs in the series, they are not a prominent feature, and the show does not delve deeply into the specific breeds that might have been present during the Viking Age.
Yet, in a few instances, dogs do appear. They are typically medium to large, Spitz-type dogs with thick fur and pointed ears. These dogs are probably meant to represent the ancestors of modern Nordic breeds, such as the Norwegian Elkhound or the Icelandic Sheepdog.
It’s important to note that although these dogs might indicate the types of dogs the Vikings had, they’re not necessarily accurate down to the breed. Modern dog breeds, as we understand them, didn’t really exist in the Viking Age, and the dogs of that time would have been more diverse and less standardized than the breeds we know today.
Remember, “Vikings” is a dramatized interpretation of history, so while it can provide a visual impression of Viking life, it shouldn’t be seen as a definitive historical source.
Norse Dog Breeds: The Spiritual Connection
Dogs had a profound spiritual significance in Norse mythology, symbolizing attributes such as loyalty, protection, and guidance. They were often associated with certain gods and goddesses and were believed to have roles in the afterlife.
In Norse mythology, the goddess Freyja had a carriage pulled by large, cat-like creatures, but in some sagas, they were described as dogs. These dogs were not of a specific breed but symbolized the goddess’s beauty, love, and fertility attributes.
Garmr, The Guard Dog of Hel
Garmr was a dog associated with Hel, the goddess of the underworld in Norse mythology. Garmr was often depicted as a blood-stained watchdog standing at the entrance of Hel, the realm of the dead. Even though Garmr’s breed is not specified, it is portrayed as a monstrous, powerful dog, a far cry from the domesticated species we’ve discussed.
The Role of Nordic Dog Breeds in Viking Society
In Viking society, dogs were more than hunting companions or herding animals. They played a significant role in daily life, social events, and spiritual practices. Dogs were not just working animals; they were also companions and protectors. Their barks would alert the Viking settlements of any approaching danger, and their loyalty made them excellent companions in both life and death.
Dogs in Viking Burials
The Vikings believed in an afterlife, and archaeological evidence shows that they often buried their dead with grave goods, which included their dogs. The inclusion of dogs in Viking burials signifies their importance to their owners and the belief that these loyal companions would follow them into the afterlife. The dogs found in these burial sites are believed to be similar to the Nordic breeds we see today, further corroborating the historical connection between these breeds and the Vikings.
Dogs in Mythology and Symbolism
The influence of dogs extended beyond practical uses in Viking society and into the realm of symbolism and mythology. As mentioned, dogs are frequently found in Norse mythology, associated with gods and goddesses, or seen as guides to the underworld. This reverence indicates the high regard in which these animals were held.
In Viking symbolism, dogs often represented loyalty, protection, and the guidance of souls. They were seen as guardians, warding off evil spirits and guiding souls in the afterlife. In many ancient cultures, including the Vikings, dogs were seen as bridge figures, able to traverse between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Did Vikings Have Wolf Dogs?
The concept of the Vikings having wolf dogs or wolf-dog hybrids is one that captures the imagination, given the Vikings’ renowned connection with nature and the wild. However, the historical evidence supporting this idea is limited and somewhat contested.
Dogs and wolves are closely related, sharing a common ancestor, but by the time of the Vikings (around 800-1050 AD), domestic dogs had been separated from their wolf cousins for thousands of years. Selective breeding over generations had developed dogs that were smaller, more docile, and more suited to human companionship and work than their wild counterparts.
There is a possibility that some Viking dogs may have had more recent wolf ancestry, resulting in what we might call a “wolf dog.” This could occur through natural cross-breeding in areas where dogs and wolves share the same habitat. Yyet, such instances were likely the exception rather than the norm. The offspring of such unions would not have been as predictably behaved or trainable as fully domesticated dogs.
One breed often associated with the Vikings, the Norwegian Elkhound, has a wolf-like appearance and is known for its ability to hunt big game, including moose and bears. Nevertheless, despite its lupine look, it is a dog breed, not a wolf hybrid.
In mythology, wolves held an important place in Norse culture. The most famous is perhaps Fenrir, the monstrous wolf prophesied to kill Odin during Ragnarok, and his offspring Skoll and Hati, who chase the sun and moon. But these were spiritual and mythological connections rather than evidence of Vikings keeping wolves or wolf dogs.
So, even though it’s an intriguing idea, there’s no substantial evidence to suggest that Vikings commonly kept wolf dogs. The dogs of the Vikings were likely similar to northern Spitz-type breeds we see today, bred over generations for specific tasks in the Nordic environment.
Did Vikings Have Big Dogs?
When we think of Viking dogs, we often imagine large, powerful breeds capable of hunting big game or fending off threats. While it’s true that some Viking dogs were likely larger breeds, it’s important to remember that the Vikings’ needs would have dictated the sizes and types of dogs they kept.
The Norwegian Elkhound, one breed with deep historical ties to the Viking Age, is a medium-sized dog, robust and hardy, bred for hunting large game, like moose. While not particularly large by today’s standards, these dogs would have been substantial enough to fulfill their roles in Viking society.
On the other hand, not all Viking dogs would have been large. The Icelandic Sheepdog, another breed linked to the Vikings, is a smaller, agile, intelligent dog perfectly suited to herding sheep in the rugged Icelandic landscape.
Moreover, the archaeological evidence, including dog remains found in Viking graves, indicates a variety of dog sizes. This suggests that the Vikings had both larger dogs for hunting and protection and smaller dogs for herding and companionship.
Overall, it’s likely that the Vikings had dogs of varying sizes suited to different tasks. While they certainly had some bigger dogs, especially for hunting large game, their size would have been less important than their abilities, toughness, and capacity to survive in the harsh Nordic climates.
Did Vikings Use Dogs in War?
While dogs were undoubtedly a crucial part of Viking life, their role in warfare is a historical debate. There’s no concrete evidence in historical texts or archaeological records that the Vikings systematically used dogs in battle. Unlike the Romans or the later European armies, the Vikings did not have “war dog” units or employ dogs extensively for military purposes.
That being said, the Vikings were known for their pragmatism and adaptability in battle. Given their close relationship with dogs, it is possible that dogs might have been used informally during conflicts. For instance, a dog’s keen sense of smell and hearing could have been used for early warning of an enemy approach. A large and protective breed like the Norwegian Elkhound could certainly have provided an intimidating presence and acted as a deterrent in a skirmish.
It’s also important to mention that dogs held significant symbolic importance for the Vikings. They were associated with certain gods and goddesses and believed to guide souls in the afterlife. In this sense, dogs could have been seen as spiritual allies or protectors during the war.
However, the image of a Viking warrior charging into battle with a dog by his side is more myth than reality. Most likely, dogs were left behind when Vikings raided to protect the home and the family and continue their essential roles in hunting and herding.
In the end, while dogs were an integral part of Viking society and may have played a role in warfare in a broader sense, there’s no evidence to suggest that they were used as “war dogs” in the way we might imagine. Their role was more focused on hunting, protection, companionship, and spiritual symbolism.
Viking Dogs Names at the Glance
Naming a dog has always been a personal choice reflecting the owner’s preferences, and the Vikings were no different. While there aren’t extensive historical records of individual dog names from the Viking Age, we can infer from the Norse language and mythology what some Viking dogs might have been named.
- Fenrir – Named after the monstrous wolf in Norse mythology who is prophesied to kill Odin during Ragnarok.
- Freki – One of the two wolves accompanying the god Odin, meaning “ravenous” or “greedy” in Old Norse.
- Geri – The other wolf accompanying Odin, with a name meaning “greedy” or “ravenous.”
- Garmr – The dog associated with Hel, the goddess of the underworld.
- Skoll – A wolf in Norse mythology who chases the sun, meaning “Treachery.
- Hati – A wolf who chases the moon, Skoll’s brother, meaning “He Who Hates.”
- Bjorn – Meaning “bear,” this could be a fitting name for a large, strong dog.
- Ulfr – The Old Norse word for “wolf,” a powerful name for a canine companion.
- Leif – After Leif Erikson, a famous Norse explorer.
- Asta – An Old Norse name meaning “love” or “godly beauty,” perfect for a beloved pet.
These names reflect the Vikings’ respect for the strength and ferocity of nature, their deities, and their profound connection with their canine companions.
Modern Descendants of Viking Dogs
Over the centuries, the breeds that were common during the Viking Age have evolved and diversified. Nonetheless, some modern species are considered close descendants of the dogs that the Vikings would have known.
The Swedish Vallhund, also known as the “Viking dog,” resembles the Welsh Corgi but is believed to have Viking roots. This small, sturdy dog was used for herding cattle and is known for its intelligence and agility.
The Finnish Spitz, known as the “barking bird dog,” has a history dating back thousands of years. It was primarily used for hunting game birds and small mammals. Its keen sense of hearing and unique yodel-like bark made it a superb hunting dog.
The Norwegian Buhund is a versatile farm dog that originated in Norway. Its ancestors were likely among the dogs that sailed with the Vikings. The Buhund was used as an all-purpose farm and herding dog, and their loyal and friendly temperament makes them popular pets today.
The Danish-Swedish Farmdog is a versatile, friendly breed used for various tasks on Viking-era farms. While not as directly linked to the Viking Age as the Norwegian Elkhound or Icelandic Sheepdog, this breed shares many characteristics and traits that Viking dog owners would have prized.
Archeological findings, sagas, and genetic studies inform our understanding of the exact breeds of dogs the Vikings had. Even though it’s impossible to know for certain, it’s clear that dogs played a significant role in Viking society, from their functional roles as hunting and herding companions to their symbolic and spiritual significance. The Viking dogs, represented today by the Nordic dog breeds, are a testament to the enduring bond between humans and dogs, a relationship that even time and history cannot erase.