Archaeologists Prove That Vikings Rode ‘Stallions’ Rather Than Mares, Especially into The Afterlife
More so than females, the male Norse explorers who took residence in Iceland more than 1,000 years were buried with their horses and new DNA evidence proves that the horses slaughtered to accompany their masters in the afterlife, were also mainly male.
Riding into the Afterlife
In Norse mythology, in the 13th century Poetic Edda , Sleipnir was an eight-legged horse ridden by the god Odin to the location of Hel and it is possibly for this reason that for several decades, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of horses buried with, on the whole, male Vikings.
Now, according to a new paper published online in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science , many of the buried horses “appeared to have been healthy adults when they died.” Archaeologists also noted that the animals “Seem well cared for in life” which all amounts to their having been ritually buried with their owners.
DNA Data Revealed the Age and Sex of Vikings and Their Horses
The archaeologists paper acknowledges “355 Viking graves” dating between the 9th to 11th centuries and “more than 175 horses appear in 148 graves.” The team of scientists concentrated on DNA analysis "of bones from 19 horses in Viking graves.” The human remains in these graves were mostly middle-age men, and the scientists “found that nearly all of the animals were male,” according to co-author Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir, a doctoral candidate with the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo in Sweden, in an email to Live Science .
Albina Hulda Pálsdóttir – left and Sanne Boessenkool have removed all doubt: Horses buried with Icelandic Vikings were male. (Albina Hulda Pálsdóttir, University of Oslo / CC by 4.0 )
In the paper Pálsdóttir said that if remains are in good condition experts are able to identify female horses by the wider pelvis shape and generally only male horses develop canine teeth. Examining “22 horses from 17 sites, of the 19 horses found in graves, 18 were males” which more than suggested that male horses were favored for ritual burial by the Viking noblemen whose graves they shared, Pálsdóttir said in the email.
For the study, the researchers cut a small piece from the animal, cleaned it, and extracted enough ancient DNA to determine the sex of the animal that was buried by Vikings on Iceland. (Albina Hulda Pálsdóttir, University of Oslo / CC by 4.0 )
Equestrian Viking Ritual Burials
Archaeologists have always known that horses were very important to Vikings for farming and as early battlefield tanks in warfare. The paper details that the “majority of the animals were clearly associated with the human skeletons and they appeared to have been slaughtered “specifically for burial,” the scientists reported. But knowing the sex of the buried horses, Iceland opens the door to a deeper understanding of Viking funeral rites and specific rituals.
The discovery that mostly male Vikings were buried with stallions suggests the people related the animal’s archetypal traits: virility, strength, nobility, and aggression; symbolically to young males with similar qualities. A secondary observation strengthens this claim, for the paper tells that “three horses were found outside graves” and were all found to be female, “and they had probably been eaten,” the study authors believe.
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Vikings sacrificed their male horses to be buried with the dead. (PD-OLD / Public Domain )
How Were the Viking’s Horses Sacrificed?
Firstly, according to the description of a horse sacrifice ritual detailed in Hervarar saga of the Swedish inauguration of Blot-Sweyn, the last pagan Germanic king, 1080 AD “the horse is dismembered for eating and the blood is sprinkled on the sacred tree at Uppsala. Additionally, the Völsa þáttr mentions a Norse pagan ritual involving “veneration of the penis of a slaughtered stallion” and “A freshly cut horse head was also used in setting up a nithing pole for a Norse curse.”
Nithing Pole. (Danmarks Krønike / Public Domain )
An article in Horse Talk discusses how the archaeologists believe the animals in Iceland were killed before being interred in the Viking graves and quotes the new paper:
“If a horse skull has a fracture on the forehead, it is very clear that it was slaughtered with a hit on the forehead… But there are also a few cases where the horse has been beheaded, meaning the head has been separated from the rest of the body.”
The archaeologist’s inferred that the horses had been slaughtered “in a festivity where skulls were put on stakes outside the Viking hall” and this perfectly matches the horse ritual and sacrificial traditions given in the Hervarar saga .
Modern Icelandic horses are likely descended from the horses that Vikings were buried with, more than 1,000 years ago. (Albina Hulda Pálsdóttir, University of Oslo / CC by 4.0 )
Top Image: Modern Icelandic horses are probably descendants from the horses that were buried by Viking. Source: Albina Hulda Pálsdóttir, University of Oslo / CC by 4.0
By Ashley Cowie