Lessons From the Animals of Norse Mythology

Lessons From the Animals of Norse Mythology

Getty/Milan Krasula

Explore what the animals of Norse mythology have to teach us about the gods, the modern world, and the ancient world.

Norse mythology is full of many kinds of beings, from gods and goddesses to trolls, dwarves, elves, and giants. Among the many human-like beings in the Norse mythos, there are also many references to animal beings, several of which are associated with deities. There are many lessons to be learned from the animals of Norse mythology and how people in the Viking age interacted with said creatures.

Goats: Providing the Essentials

Goats were clearly important to people living during the Viking age. The thunder god, Thor, drives a chariot led by two goats, Tanngnjóstr and Tanngrisnir (which translates to “gap-toothed” and “teeth-grinder,” respectively). In one myth, Thor kills one of the goats to provide food for a feast. He warns everyone to eat their fill but to leave the bones alone.

One young man, Thjalfi, breaks a leg bone to suck at its marrow. The next day, Thor places all of the bones on the goat’s hide, raises his hammer, and brings the goat back to life. It walks with a limp, so Thor knows someone has broken one of the goat’s bones. As a result, Thjalfi and his sister Roska become Thor’s servants.

Further, there is the goat Heidrun, who lives in Valhalla (Odin’s hall). She stands on her hind legs and eats the leaves off the tree, Laerad (which may or may not be Yggdrasil, the world tree). From her teats runs the mead that the warriors in Valhalla drink every day.

In the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian world, goats worked with mankind and provided food and drink. In a northern climate where the growing season was short, goats provided essentials, even to the gods themselves.

Cats: Divine Companions

Much like Thor, the goddess Freyja drives a chariot, though hers is drawn by two cats. The names of the cats are not known. In her novel, Brisingamen, author Diana Paxson names them Bee-Gold and Tree-Gold, both kennings for “honey,” a substance often associated with Freyja.

Many Freyja worshippers today keep cats as companions, and modern Norse pagans often consider Freyja’s hall, Sessrumnir, to be the place cats go when they die. It says much about Freyja's power and wisdom that this compelling goddess is able to run two cats in the same direction at any given time!

In the Viking Age, along with representing Freyja's power and her divine companions, cats were also practical companions to humankind, as they hunted rodents and other small pests.

Falcons: Symbols of Feminine Transformation

Both Freyja and Frigga, goddess of motherhood and Odin’s wife, own falcon-feathered cloaks that they use to transform themselves into raptors. We also know that the trickster Loki can transform himself into a bird.

Birds in general were seen as omens for various things in the Viking age, and there exists at least one instance in the Sagas (a set of ancient Norse texts) when Queen Gunnhild (Wife of Erik Bloodaxe) transforms into a bird to distract poet Egil Skallagrímsson from his writing.

In Norse mythology, birds are often associated with women in general, and Frigga is also associated with geese and cranes as protective symbols.

Ravens: The Importance of Memory

Ravens are particularly associated with the god Odin. His two ravens, Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”) travel the world and return to Odin, whispering secrets into his ears.

Odin says if his ravens were lost, he would miss Muninn most. This speaks to the importance of memory—the Norse, for the most part, believed that only the past was permanent, and the future mutable and unpredictable. Hence, memory is vital to the continuation of society.

Wolves: Forces of Chaos

Along with his two ravens, Odin also has two wolves, Geri and Freki. Their names are often loosely translated to “the greedy one” and “the ravenous one,” or “spear” and “greedy,” respectively. The wolves sit at Odin’s feet in Valhalla and run with him when he goes to war.

There are several other wolves mentioned in Old Norse mythology. In addition to Geri and Freki, we have Sköll and Hati, the wolves that pursue the sun and the moon. Sköll translates roughly to “one who mocks” and Hati as “one who hates.” When Ragnarok (the Norse end-of-times) occurs, the wolves will catch and swallow both the sun and moon, plunging the world into darkness.

Perhaps the most infamous wolf in Norse mythology is Fenrir, one of Loki’s children, a massive ravenous wolf who was bound by the gods. The gods challenge the wolf to break various types of bonds, until they present a thin, enchanted ribbon referred to as Gleipnir, made of nearly impossible materials, like a cat’s footfall, a fish’s breath, and so on.

Fenrir, suspicious, asks for one of the gods to put their hand in his mouth as insurance—he would bite the hand off if he were truly bound by the ribbon. Only the god Tyr was willing to make this sacrifice. The bond does not break, and Fenrir bites Tyr’s hand off—we are told this is why the wrist is called the “wolf joint.”At Ragnarok, Fenrir is freed and joins the battle, defeating and killing Odin before being defeated by Odin’s son, Vidarr.

As we can see, wolves are often representatives of dark, fearsome forces in Norse mythology. This is because they were feared in the Viking age; they hunted in packs and would feast on humans if faced with enough hunger. Wolves followed battles and would feed on the dead. These creatures, then, were perceived as inherently destructive forces of chaos. It is important to note today that wolves are carnivores with a societal structure to their packs and should be seen as the creatures they are, rather than have the labels of “good” or “evil” applied to their natures.

Animal Wisdom in Norse Mythology

While the animals of Norse mythology do not necessarily have specific spiritual meanings, we can glean lessons from their presence in the old Norse texts.

We can look at Huginn and Muninn and see that, while they are carrion animals, they represent something rather profound: the human mind. We can look at the transformative nature of birds and see them as omen-bringers, their flight inherently magical. Goats are providers and protectors.

What we see when we consider animals in Norse mythology is how said animals interacted with humans, how they were understood by society, and the importance they played in survival.

Explore ways to work with the goddess Freyja for sensuality.

Lessons From the Animals of Norse Mythology

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