Vikings and Cats

Did the Vikings keep cats as pets? A recent study reveals that felines were much more part of Norse society than previously believed.

In an article published in Current Swedish Archaeology, Matthias Toplak presents a re-evaluation of the roles of domestic cats in Viking Age Scandinavia. He challenges traditional interpretations shaped by medieval mythology and shows how archaeological evidence provides a more nuanced perspective on the significance of cats in Viking society.


If one looks only at written sources about cats among the Norse, there are only a few references, most of which are associated with negative forces, sorcery, and demonic attributes. In the Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða), for example, there is a Greenlandic sorceress who is described as wearing a black hat of lambskin lined with cat skin and cat skin gloves. Stories from Norse mythology also feature the goddess Freyja riding a chariot pulled by two cats. However, Toplak thinks this depiction is not what it seems:

This might indicate that the association of cats with Freyja does not originate in Viking Age mythology but could be interpreted as an interpolation from Christian or antique traditions. The chariot pulled by cats seems to be an adaption of the antique trope of female deities of fertility or mother goddesses with a wagon pulled by big cats such as lions or panthers, for example Cybele or Artemis.


Most of the sagas and other Norse literature were only written down in the thirteenth century, a time when Christianity was the dominant religion in Scandinavia while Viking-Age beliefs were increasingly shunned. Toplak believes that the negative association of cats in Norse literature might not “reflect Viking Age beliefs but may result from Christian influence.”

Freyja and her cats, as depicted in the 1874 book, Manual of Mythology : Greek and Roman, Norse, and Old German, Hindoo and Egyptian Mythology, by Alexander Murray – Wikimedia Commons

Instead of relying on literary sources, Toplak examines the evidence of cat fur being used for clothing and the absence of cat fur in certain archaeological sites, highlighting the potential significance of cats as companions and pets. While we do see archaeological remains of cats that were skinned for their furs, we also increasingly find the presence of cats buried with people. They can be found in the burials of men and women, and as time goes on with children as well, sometimes being the only grave good with them.

Toplak even notes that by “the later Viking Age, cat bones became more common in average burials as well, apparently since cats had established themselves as a regular element of the domestic fauna in Scandinavia during the eleventh century.”

Back of the Oseberg wagon with elaborate carvings showing cat-like creatures. Photo: Annie Dalbéra / Wikipedia Commons

The Norse of the Viking Age, especially those of high status, were buried with a variety of goods, ranging from weapons to household goods, as well as animals. But why would they be buried with cats? Toplak rules out the idea that they were added in as potential food sources, as cats were rarely eaten in Scandinavia except during times of famine. There also does not appear to be any particularly religious significance. Instead, the author suggests that the Norse had these cats as household companions (for their ability to catch mice) and as pets, and wanted to bring them into the afterlife.


There is other material evidence to suggest closer connections between cats and humans in the Viking Age. These include the use of the cat-like ‘gripping beast’ motif in Viking swords and the discovery of a cat figurine made from amber at Birka, which might have been a children’s toy.

Viking Age cat figurine – photo by Ola Myrin / SHM (Creative Commons 4.0 )

Toplak writes:

The picture of the role and function of cats in Viking Age society as depicted by archaeological as well as historical and later mythological sources is highly ambivalent. Cats appear as grave goods in high status burials of both females and males. They were kept as pest control and presumably also as pets. They were slaughtered for their fur and mythological traditions link them with a special cultic role, associated with magic and female fertility. It appears difficult, indeed meaningless, to ascribe to them a consistent and defined symbolic meaning. They inherited a broad range of functions which, in part, seem to contradict each other – on the one hand as grave goods in high status burials and on the other hand as provider of fur, whose carcasses could be dumped in waste pits.

The article, “​​The Warrior and the Cat: A Re-Evaluation of the Roles of Domestic Cats in Viking Age Scandinavia,” by Matthias S. Toplak, appears in Current Swedish Archaeology. Click here to read it.


Matthias S. Toplak is the Head of the Viking Museum Hedeby. You can read more of Matthias’ research through his page.

See also: Medieval Per Names