Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

Chapter II The Horse Cult

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Chapter II

The Horse Cult

The horse was unquestionably an important animal in Scandinavia starting as far back as the Bronze Age. It served not only practical purposes, like those involved in transportation or labor, but also seems to have had strong correlations to ideology and religious symbolism.

Symbols of the horse show up on rock carvings throughout the period, such as on the Kivik grave in Scania dated to 1300 BC33 and in the remarkable Sagaholm find,34 and as a few Bronze Age artifacts, like the famous Horse and Sun Chariot from Trundholm on Zealand in Denmark (fig. 1). This preoccupation with the creature takes on even greater significance when one looks at the finds of horse bones that begin to appear towards the end of the period, bearing the marks of sacrifice. These testify to the development of a cult involving horses that would persist in one form or another for the next thousand years.

(Fig. 1. The Horse and Sun Chariot from Trundholm, Denmark. Courtesy of: Sagaholm 1999).

Horse sacrifice was certainly not unique to Scandinavia. Horses were venerated in this manner by early as well as later Indo-Europeans, ever since their earliest domestication in the Sredny Stog culture in the Dnieper river valley of modern-day Ukraine.35 Horses were also not the only sacral beast, as animal sacrifices of various kinds in the North occurred as early as the Late Bronze Age and continued far into the Iron Age.36

In this chapter I will present the reader with a review of the horse-related worship and sacrifice that took place both prior to and contemporary with the emergence of horse burials in Scandinavia. The main issue we will be looking at is whether the horse as a votive offering or as part of a sacrificial feast would have had the same or related purpose as when it appeared as a grave good.

One possible way of determining this is by looking at the very remains of horses from cult sites and comparing these with horse remains found in burial contexts. Disparity in how the horses may have been killed and how their bodies were thereafter handled would suggest that their deaths served different symbolic goals. This discussion will serve as our point of departure in the forthcoming chapters where horse burials will be directly addressed.

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