A Viking Bound Gripping Beast Pendant and the Lokasenna Story


A very distinctive 10th century Viking Borre-style gripping beast pendant portrays a four legged figure with an impish cat-like face, two arms bound to a framing structure and one paw gripping part of the creature's own contorted back.

The figure itself is hard to interpret, lacking a tail, apparently a quadruped and bearing a forward-facing short mischievous face with long ears. The creature appears on the older "Carolingian" animal-head post from the Oseberg burial (Graham-Campbell 2013) and in a number of later Borre-style designs. A distinctive feature of the design in this pendant, however, is the binding of two of the creature's arms to the circling frame.

The motif was widely used in pendants in the tenth century, with findspots ranging from Scandinavia to England to Ukraine and Russia (e.g. Graham-Campbell 2013), which makes me think that it may refer to a well known story. The two main clues may be that the creature is bound and that, given its lack of consistency with any known animal, it could be interpreted as a mischievous shapeshifter.


A 35 mm copper alloy pendant with remains of gilding. 10th century, Ukraine.

Drawing of the pendant shown above to clarify the design elements with the bound gripping beast emphasised with darker shading.


Searching for a story involving the binding of a shapeshifter, I came across the "Lokasenna" in the Poetic Edda, with the poem thought to have a possible date of the tenth century or earlier, roughly equivalent to the time when Borre-style artefacts such as the pendant shown above were being created.

Loki spake:
"Though on rocks the gods bind me | with bowels torn
Forth from my frost-cold son,"

"according to the prose note at the end of the Lokasenna, the gods bound Loki with the bowels of his son Vali, and changed his other son, Narfi, into a wolf. Snorri turns the story about Vali being the wolf, who tears his brother to pieces, the gods then using Narfi's intestines to bind Loki. Narfi--and presumably Vali--were the sons of Loki and his wife, Sigyn. They appear only in this episode, though Narfi (or Nari) is named by Snorri in his list of Loki's children."

Could the pendants represent something along the lines of the "containment of chaos" or "the restraint of wild impulses" as represented by the binding of Loki?


References

Dronke, Ursula (ed. and trans.), The Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems, Oxford: Oxford University/Clarendon, 1997, repr. 2001

Graham-Campbell, James, 2013. Viking Art. Thames & Hudson.

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Prose Edda.

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