Beasts, Birds and Other Fauna: Animals and Their Meaning in the Early Middle Ages

Posted on May 15, 2020


In the Early Middle Ages (the period from 6th to 12th century) animals accompanied human societies. Birds started every day with a choir of their songs, big mammals were hunted (or bred) for meat and skins, and dogs were kept for protection. Several animal species held important roles during the various pre-Christian rituals, and after the conversion some of them become symbols linked to Christian religion.

Recently, during excavations on archaeological sites in Europe, numerous bones of inter alia mammals and birds have been discovered in various contexts. They were found on settlements or on the beds of lakes (or rivers). Moreover, their bones have also been discovered in various inhumation and cremation graves of men, women and children. After Christianisation, these creatures were no longer present in the graves, but their depictions appeared in ornamentations on grave monuments (e.g. hogbacks or shrines).

The variety of  animals, as well as fantastic beasts or fauna, were depicted in simplistic or more detailed way on numerous artefacts. They were part of the complex pre-Christian ornamentation on weaponry, jewellery and Christian art (e.g. illuminated manuscripts, liturgical paraphernalia, architectonic details).

This session will explore different aspects of human-animal relations in Europe in the Early Middle Ages. Its aim is to discuss the roles of animals in pre-Christian and Christianised societies (e.g. Anglo-Saxon, Vendel Period, Viking Age or Western Slavic societies) from interdisciplinary angles. The meaning of various fauna in farming, craftsmanship, trade and rituals will be taken into account.

Klaudia Karpińska (University of Rzeszów)

Birds of Battle? Myths and Materialities of Eagles and Ravens in the Old Norse World

It is often accepted among scholars that eagles and ravens were viewed as being in some way sacred by the Old Norse peoples of Scandinavia. This is largely based on the prominence of these birds in the Prose Edda and in eddic poetry, particularly their connections with the god Óðinn. This interdisciplinary paper will draw upon the field of Human-Animal Studies to investigate the nature of this apparent sacred nature by inspecting sources beyond eddic materials to model how humans interacted with eagles and ravens. This will include sources such as laws against eating them in the law codes such as Grágás, and a search for marks indicative of human interference, such as hunting, butchery, or captivity on skeletal remains of these birds from Viking Age finds. This will aim to model a more complex and holistic image of how Old Norse peoples perceived and interacted with eagles and ravens.

Kathryn A. Haley-Halinski (University of Cambridge)

The Birds of the Manx Crosses

After the Vikings settled in the Isle of Man, they gradually became Christian, and in the middle of the 10th century adopted the local custom of erecting memorial stones for their dead. They enthusiastically adapted this new medium to their taste and created intricately carved monuments – the so-called Scandinavian ‘Manx Crosses’. Apart from interlace and runic inscriptions, they frequently feature scenes with human figures and animals, which have constantly been a challenge to scholarly interpretation, as despite of the everpresent Christian cross clearly the old pagan images had not been forgotten.
Among the animals in the carvings are a number of birds, many of which can be identified zoologically with some certainty. Being carved on gravestones, at least most of them appear to have religious significance – and to be illustrating both Christian and pagan traditions and thought, respectively: the doves of Christ meet Óðin’s ravens. It seems, however, that regardless of spiritual background they may have been small parts of a common message, indicating the transitional character of both the cross-slabs and Manx society in the mid-/late 10th century, when (formerly) pagan Vikings and the Christian Manx mixed.

Dirk H. Steinforth (Independent Researcher)

Dead Dogs are so 9th Century: Challenging the Dramatic Turn in the Interpretation of Viking Mortuary Animal Sacrifice

My research looks at specific acts of ritualised mortuary violence enacted on objects, animals, and people by Vikings in the British Isles, and aims to develop a new interpretative framework with which to consider them. Utilising examples from Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man this paper will outline the challenges in interpreting the use of animals in furnished Viking graves. Recent scholarly trends in the interpretation of Viking mortuary practices have highlighted the performative and dramatic in mortuary ritual. However, death rituals also have highly conservative aspects. Close analysis of the archaeological evidence of Viking burials, especially from antiquarian excavations, often produces opaque results- yet artistic recreations and scholarly narratives of those same graves can imply graphic and emotive death-scenes. We are left with a question- what if such sites are in fact the product of continual reworking and reuse of places of burial, rather than single, discrete, dramatic events? Were these sites of climactic, transformative ritual or arenas for the conservative repetition of practices already considered ancient in their own time? Does this help explain the speed with which such rituals were dropped by Viking-age settlers in Britain and Ireland, where despite mass migration from Scandinavia, the tradition of animal sacrifice is confined to the geographical fringe and quickly dies away?

Thomas Davis (University of Glasgow)

Shifting Baselines of the British Hare Goddess(es)?

Life in the Middle Ages was inherently connected to both the natural world and complex and shifting religious ideologies. Studies of past religions tend to fall into one of two camps: tightly-focused empirical examinations of a particular religious culture, or wide-ranging phenomenological studies divorced from any local context. Little scholarship engages with the middle ground of longue durée development of particular phenomena within the same geographic region or ecological niche. This interdisciplinary paper seeks to prove the value of just such an approach by examining the worship of female beings that negotiated the relationships between humans, animals, and their shared environment. Employing a combination of archaeological and textual evidence, we examine three female beings associated with hares in the British Isles: an anonymous Romano-British figure, the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre – whose name shares an etymological root with ‘Easter’ and its lagomorph attendants – and the medieval Welsh St. Melangell, the Catholic patron saint of hares. We propose that these figures’ key roles and attributes may have been significantly different, but that they nonetheless show remarkable continuity in their secondary characteristics. This evidence is used to argue that the temporally-local concerns of each society found expression in ‘the same’ figure of the British Hare Goddess, whose origins and ‘meaning’ is today frequently discussed on online internet fora – perhaps reflecting the Digital Age’s own anxieties regarding the flow and reliability of information.

Luke John Murphy (University of Leicester) and Carly Ameen
(University of Exeter)

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