Freyja’s Cats: Perspectives on Recent Viking Age Finds in Þegjandadalur North Iceland
By Brenda Prehal
Master’s Thesis: Hunter College of the City University of New York, 2011
Abstract: In Iceland, cats are not a common find in any archaeological contexts. Therefore, when a partial cat skeleton was found with human skull fragments in a pit in the midst of the Norse Pagan grave field of Ingiríðarstaðir, Iceland, during Summer 2010, curiosities were ignited. This find may hold tantalizing clues to the importance of the cat in the Norse worldview. Cats were more significant in the Norse world than generally assumed, for they are found in art, myths, burials, magic, and in some cases sacrificial activity. With evidence from the Oseberg ship burial, other sites and historical accounts, the Ingiríðarstaðir cat potentially holds clues to an elite fertility cult of Freyja in Iceland.
Introduction: Despite its modern popularity, the domestic cat has been overlooked as a valuable tool in symbolic and interpretive understandings of the Viking Age. The cat’s importance in some cultures, such as Ancient Egypt, is abundantly clear, but since they rarely appear in the Norse archaeological record, they are overlooked. This project proposes that the scarcity of the cat in the Norse archaeological record is in fact quite telling of its significance, and it can be an effective tool in recognizing Norse beliefs and cultic practices. Although somewhat hidden, cats are there and quite prominent. One just needs to know how to find them and distinguish their meaning.
What we know of the Norse religion is that it was a part of everyday life. It centered on the intertwining of man and nature, where everything from rocks to groves and animals were sacred. In Germanic cultures, such as the Norse, animals were foundational in the worldviews, “…not strictly for one part of a society, but more widespread.” (Bond 2006:89) Animals are seen all throughout the Norse material and literary culture. From jewelry to sacrificial rituals, animals are everywhere.