17 August 2011

Viking Cats and Kittens I

As the proud slave of two Siamese (one pictured left), and general lover of all moggies, I have often wondered about the Vikings and their relationship (if any) with felis catus, the domestic cat. This is a complex topic which will involve archaeology and art history, as well as texts, and I'll leave the difficult bits, as well as some of the more obvious references, to another post. In fact, I'm thinking of making this an occasional series. But today I'll start gently with two very minor, but I think illuminating, feline felicities.

The Old Norse translation of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus compares Satan, crushed by the falling cross, to a mouse in a mousetrap, except that it doesn't say that, it says mús undir tréketti, literally 'mouse underneath a wooden cat'. There has been much learned discussion of whether this interpolation is native or patristic in origin, and Thor, the World Serpent, Leviathan and much else get dragged in. But who cares about all that - it's the word itself that I like, for 'wooden cat' is of course a simple kenning. Trust those Vikings to make poetry out of an everyday object.

My other reference concerns an anecdote about Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon, an early 12th-century king of Norway who, according to an anecdote in Morkinskinna, was spending time on a farm in Iceland (eh?), when he helps a fellow-Norwegian beat an Icelandic farmhand at a board game with the following trick (quoted from Andersson and Gade's translation, pp. 369-70):
The man who was playing with the Norwegian had a sore foot, with a toe that was swollen and oozing matter. Sigurðr sat down on a bench and drew a straw along the floor. There were kittens scampering about the floor, and he kept drawing the straw ahead of them until it got to the man's foot. Then the kittens ran up and took ahold of the foot. He jumped up with an exclamation, and the board was upset.
Really quite a pointless anecdote, as the learned translators note, but at least it shows that kitten behaviour is as it ever was. (Funny thing about sore toes, too, remember Hrafnkels saga?).

But enough serious textual analysis. If you want to laugh (or at least smile) at something even more frivolous, I suggest you google 'viking kittens led zeppelin' and enjoy the video.


  1. tréketti is a very interesting word. The Dalarna horses are of course famous, but is there any evidence or surviving culture to support these wooden kitties of scandinavia you can suggest looking up? Or should I just be patient? =)

    Thanks for the post, I'll look forward to hearing more!

  2. I very much doubt that this word means a 'wooden cat' in the same way that the Dalarna horses are wooden horses, rather it has always been assumed it means a mousetrap. But I have not yet done the research to find out what evidence there is (if any) for Viking Age and medieval mousetraps, if such things existed. I'll be blogging about it if and when I do!

  3. Fascinating! Personally I think the pointless anecdotes are the most interesting and fun in texts like those. It gives us glimpses of things we wouldn't otherwise have seen.

  4. I admit to owning a Viking Kittens t-shirt...Great post, I wonder when the domestic cat was introduced into the Northern lands.. Those damn Romans again? Trade? Have a great one!

  5. RIP my beloved cat Tasso, pictured above. Died today, aged 13.

  6. Anonymous7/8/12 23:47

    Aww... it's sad to hear Tasso died. Will you get a Norse cat this time? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_Forest_Cat

  7. I wonder if those Norse pirates were really just trying to get their hands on a few Meezies. Not an easy voyage for dark ages navigation, of course.

  8. I wonder if those Norse pirates were really just trying to get their hands on a few Meezies. Not an easy voyage for dark ages navigation, of course.