Sheep and goats in Norse paganism
By Kristina Jennbert
Pecus, Man and Animal in Antiquity: Proceedings of the conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002. Ed Barbro Santillo Frizell (Rome 2004)
Abstract: Sheep and goats are some of the most important animals in prehistoric Scandinavia. The habitus of the animals was used and transformed into cultural categories. Owing to their important and long-term utility they were ritualised during the pre-Christian periods. The role of these animals and the attitudes towards them in and beyond Norse paganism is discussed with habitus perspectives applied to the animals themselves and to the field of modern research
Introduction: Sheep and goats were very important animals during prehistory, as they are today in many parts of the world. Along with cattle and pigs, sheep and goats were the most significant domestic animals ever since the Neolithic in Scandinavia. Yet, sheep and goats, or “sheepgoats”, as a consequence of the dominant classification in research, are very often categorised as utility animals. They are more rarely interpreted as symbols or metaphors in mentality or cosmology. Sheep and goats appear in the archaeological material culture and in Old Norse texts, but in different ways. They become visible and invisible in our interpretations of Norse paganism, hidden between a strong utility and a kind of unspoken symbolic meaning.
My study of animals, or rather my study of the relations between humans and animals, is a part of the larger project Ways to Midgard: Norse paganism in long-term perspectives. This is a multidisciplinary project at the University of Lund, Sweden, involving archaeology, medieval archaeology and history of religion. As one of the archaeologists in the project I am working with a long-term study of ritual practice in Norse paganism, and how rituals could relate to Norse mythology. Domestic animals, wild animals, exotic animals and imaginary animals play a part in my study. The animals are my clues, and I involve animals from farmyards, grave finds, votive finds and pictorial representations from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, as it were, animals as material culture in archaeological contexts. Also of great importance, of course, is the Old Norse literature, the Eddic poems and the Icelandic sagas, written down much later, in medieval times. The perception of Norse paganism and the use of animals today are other important aspects of my study and my understanding and practice of the interpretative archaeological framework.
However, my principal concern in this paper is to present some ideas about the role of sheep and goats in Norse paganism. I would like to suggest that the dissimilarity between the representation of sheep and goats in the archaeological record and that in the written sources could be due to various social and ritual customs within paganism, and attitudes to paganism within Christianity. However, the interpretations of their role in pre-Christian societies and attitudes towards them in Norse paganism depend on our specific habitus in modern research in the fields of archaeology, osteology, and history of religion.