The old Norse religion, as well as much of modern Heathenry, could be quite accurately described as shamanistic. As such, it shares many components that are common in shamanistic spirituality. One of these is the belief in guiding animal spirits and power animals.
The fylja, for example, is a personal guiding spirit which takes the form of an animal. What animal shape it takes is influenced by the character of the individual the fylgja is attached to. Warriors, for example, often have bears or wolves as their power animal and in Viking times, the legendary berserkers (bear shirts) and ulfhednar (wolf coats) would wear the skins of bears and wolves, respectively, and work themselves into a violent trance which made them utterly fearless.
Keeping in mind the importance of animal spirits in Norse spirituality, it will be interesting to take a closer look at what animals are associated with Freya.
Freya owns a falcon feather cloak which allows its wearer to soar like a bird in sky. Is this symbolic of something? Perhaps a certain shamanistic ritual which allowed the practitioner to metaphorically ‘soar’? We simply don’t know. But this magical cloak is the reason falcons have become associated with the Vanir Goddess.
The boar is an animal sacred to the Vanir tribe of Deities, likely because of its high fertility. But in the Viking Age, it was also seen as a war animal. Some historians believe, based on archaeological findings, that there were ‘boar warriors’ alongside the berserkers and ulfhednar and perhaps they were worshippers of the Vanir.
The Vanir are often seen as the peaceful, chill Gods while the Æsir are the warrior Ones. Freyr in particular is a Lord of peace. But that the Vanir are associated with a war animal like the boar shows that They can be fierce when necessary; as They well showed during the Æsir-Vanir war.
In the poem ‘The Lay of Hyndla’, Freya rides a boar named Hildisvíni (meaning ‘battle swine’) and it is none other than Her human lover Ottar in disguise. Some have theorised that Freya ‘riding’ Ottar could be symbolic of possession or some other form of shamanic ritual. If there were indeed ‘boar warriors’ then perhaps channelling boar spirits could have been part of Vanir worship.
Freyja’s chariot is pulled by two cats. What they look like or what their names are we do not know as the lore does not say.
One might wonder how do two cats pull a whole chariot? One theory is that the cats are in fact lions. A number of Goddesses further south, such as the Phrygian Mother Goddess Cybele, are described as having chariots drawn by lions. The imagery could have inspired Norse people who came in contact with these cultures. Since people in the North weren’t familiar with lions, things could have been lost in translation and the lions became big cats.
But there is a lot more evidence that cats were associated with Freya and with the art of seidr. Völvur were known to wear hats and gloves made out of cat skin and the animal perhaps functioned as a spirit guide. It’s also interesting to note that cats became associated with witches following the Christianization of Europe.
Cat imagery has also been found alongside religious imagery on the Oseberg wagon, a funeral wagon for two women believed to have been either royalty or high-ranking völvur.
Another clue is that cats were among the animals sacrificed in the old Norse religion – as has been shown by archeological findings – and it is possible this practice was linked to a cult dedicated to Freya. Thankfully, modern Heathens prefer helping and caring for cats as an offering to Freya instead of killing them.
But might wonder: why cats? Why does this specific animal pull Her chariot? One theory is that cats are linked to fertility since they have many young. Another is that they were a symbol of prosperity, a domain of Freya’s, since cats were a rare and expensive animal in the Viking Age.
Cats have also in many cultures and throughout history been associated with femininity and the Norse culture was no exception. So much so that comparing a man to a cat was a way if calling him effeminate, something considered shameful at the time.
Another interesting aspect has to do with the silence of cats’ footfalls. In the story of the binding of Fenrir, the rope created to bind Him is made of things that don’t exist and one of them is ‘the sound of a cat’s footfall’. Well into the 19th century, it was a belief in rural Sweden that heat lightning was Freya riding in the sky. People would say that it meant She was out checking that the rye was ready for harvest. If this was a belief which had survived since the Viking Age, this could explain why Her chariot is said to be pulled by an animal whose footsteps do not make a sound.