The Snake Motif in Viking Art: 10­th – 12th Centuries

The Snake Motif in Viking Art: 10­th – 12th Centuries

Daria Andrieieva (translated by Peter Tanatarov)

In popular culture, the Vikings usually appear as crude and uneducated warriors, but this wasn’t actually true; they were also traders, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and technology. They travelled far, and were able craftsmen, weaving and dying fabrics, making embroidery, cast and incused jewellery, wood and stone carvings. Their art’s distinctive character and austere beauty, have influenced the art of the British Isles, as well as Slavic art, and have been of great interest to scholars and artists alike.

To make our Vikings collection of clothing and armour, we at Armstreet decided to track how images of snakes changed in the Viking patterns from the 10th-12th centuries.

Early images of snakes in the Viking art
One of the earliest snake appearances in the Viking art is the carving on the Oseberg wagon, found in a burial mound with one of the best­ preserved Viking ships, in 1904. This wagon is dated to around mid­-9th century CE. On one of the ends of this wagon, there are various animals, along with snakes inside some of them:

Pattern detail on the front­end of the Oseberg wagon. Drawing by Sofie Krafft (detail), photo by Mårten Teigen. © 2015 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO / C C BY­SA 4.0

On the other end of the wagon there are also people and animals, that appear to be fighting snakes:

Pattern on the front­end of the Oseberg wagon. Drawing by Sofie Krafft, photo by Mårten Teigen. © 2015 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO / C C BY­SA 4.0

Both of these carvings might be called ornamental; they are midway between a narrative scene and an ornamental pattern.

Another early image of snakes is the Gosforth Cross (early 10th century). At the bottom of the cross, there is a scene of Thor fishing with Jormungand, the World Serpent, and Thor with Hymir the giant in a boat. At the top, there is an animal with its legs tangled in snake coils.
Thor fishing, part of Gosforth Cross. Reproduction by Julius Magnus Petersen, photographed from Finnur Jónsson. P ublic domain.

Lions and snakes
The next example is Harald’s runestone. It was erected circa 965 CE by Harald Bluetooth in memory of his parents and to commemorate Denmark’s conversion to Christianity. One side of the stone shows Jesus Christ with branches winding around him, the other, a four­legged animal, possibly a lion, entangled by a snake.

Harald’s runestone, photo by Casiopeia, C C BY­SA 2.0

Again, there is the theme of the battle between an animal and a snake, as in some of the carvings on the Oseberg wagon, but this image is very ornamental, and the animals are stylized.

The same motif a four­-legged animal fighting a snake returns is Ringerike­style images from the early 11th century, e.g. on this metal weather vane from Kallunge:

The Källunge weather vane, Gotland. © 2015 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO / C C BY­SA 4.0

Another example is the north portal of the XI­century Urnes stavkirke:

The north portal of the Urnes stavkirke. Photo by Nina­No CC BY­SA 3.0

Again we see the same animal and snake combat motif, both biting each other.

The later images of this style, e.g. on runestones, look like a tangle of snakes, but if you look closer, the smaller snakes are shown as if seen from above. There is almost always only one larger snake, with a massive head shown in profile, an almond­ shaped eye, and often, legs with characteristic curls instead of joints. Both this shape of head and this leg structure are obviously close to the way the four­legged animal is shown on the Urnes stavkirke portal or in the Ringerike images.

This similarity leads to the suggestion that these large snakes are really the transformed lion, and that the motif stays the same. In the earlier images the snake and the animal are clearly opposed to each other not just because they are fighting, there is a visual contrast between them as well; the snakes’ bodies are flowing curves, while the beast is a lot more massive, its shape has more angles, and it occupies the central place in the composition. On the Urnes runestones, on the other hand, the visual and narrative tension is mostly dispelled; the large snakes more often bite themselves than the smaller snakes, or bite no one at all.
Left:Uppland Runestone 871, public domain.
Right: Runestone U152, Hagby. Photo by Berig, C C BY­SA 3.0

The meaning of snake and animal motifs in the Viking art

We see a recurrent motif turning up in the span of two centuries, the battle of an animal, often a lion, and a snake. The interpretation of this plot is a difficult problem; some scholars see it as the fight between Christianity (the lion) with Paganism (the snake). Others believe it’s a depiction of Ragnarök and the beast symbolizes Thor, who is destined to kill the World Serpent and to be killed by it. In art where there are branches depicted, as on the Urnes stavkirke portal, it is suggested that the branches are Yggdrasil, and the snake is Nidhogg gnawing on its roots, and the four­-pawed beast is one of the deer eating on its branches.
The ash­tree Yggdrasil from a 17th century Icelandic manuscript. The spotted animal at the bottom is the dragon Nidhogg, the green one on the left is the squirrel Ratatosk, the brown ones in the middle are the deer called Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór. (Public domain)

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