Sheep and goats were both common food animals during the Iron Age, although oddly enough there are no images of sheep from the pre-Christian period. There aren’t a lot of goats, either, but there are a few among the rock carvings on the west coast of Sweden and the east central part.
The horns have a single goat, which stands below the well-known image of a three-headed man. Another image on a gold bractate may or may not be a goat; the horns could also be the pricked ears of a horse. The animals on the bractates are stylized, and often composed of bits of different animals, like heraldic ones would be later. Like the wyvern and manticore, they are probably meaningful, but the meaning is lost to us.
Goats in Myth
In myth, apart from Loki’s nanny-goat, there are few goats, although the few that do appear have connections to Odin and Thor. The first is the goat Heidrun, who eats leaves from the world-tree Yggdrasil, which she converts into the mead that flows from her udders. This mead is what the warriors at Valhalla, and Odin, drink.
Thor has a more mundane use for his two goats, they draw his chariot. They can, however, provide him with sustenance, just as Heidrun does for Odin (who does not eat, leaving his food for his pet wolves).
When Thor was travelling to visit Utgard-loki, he stayed overnight with a farmer and his family. For dinner, since the farmer could hardly be expected to satisfy Thor’s great appetite, Thor slaughtered his two goats Tanngnióstr and Tanngrisnir (Tooth Gnasher and Gap-Tooth). When they were cooked and being eaten, Thor instructed the family to put the bones on the goatskins, which Thor had laid next to the fire. The farmer’s son, Thialfi, split one of the goat’s ham-bone for the marrow.
When Thor woke the next day and set out, one of his resurrected goats was lame, and his wrath was only eased when the family gave him Thialfi and his sister Roskva as his servants. That Thor would be associated with a domestic animal makes sense, since he was a favourite deity with farmers, and a regular traveller, one of his names being Oku-Thor (Charioteer-Thor). (Orchard: 352)
Sheep, not so much
By contrast, the only mention of sheep in the myths is to illustrate how good the watchman-god Heimdall’s hearing is – he can hear wool growing on the sheep’s backs. (You wonder if, like the young Clark Kent in Man of Steel, he had to learn to filter noise just to keep sane.) Sheep were definitely the more popular domestic animals, which is not surprising. They taste better, they have wool, and they don’t eat the laundry.
Goats by nature are more individualistic than sheep, and can live on extremely marginal land. They eat brushwood tips and vines, whereas sheep prefer grass. Both sheep and goats are usually kept as free-range animals; goats in particular are impractical to keep as stall-raised animals.
Goats can even lead a herd of sheep, and the yudasgoat Terry Pratchett introduces in Feet of Clay is based on reality; the goat that led the animals into the slaughterhouse was extremely useful to the butchers. While people in real life may have preferred sheep, the Hávamál depicts even owning goats as better than total poverty:
Dwelling is better, though it be little,
in one’s own home;
though there be only two goats and ropes for rafters,
it is still better than having to beg.
Later in the poem the hope of a cow is shown as a pleasure (Háv. 70); clearly goats were the minimum for subsistence.
A popular Scandinavian custom is the Yule Goat, a figure made of straw and bound with red ribbons. There was also a custom where the last sheaf of grain was kept and saved for Christmas; one of the names for it was the Julbocken (Yule Goat).
A man-sized goat is known from 11-century remembrances of Childermas, where it was led by a man dressed as Saint Nicholas, symbolizing his control over the Devil. (Childermas is known now as Holy Innocents’ Day, the commemoration of the children Herod’s men slew. Lutherans and Catholics celebrate it on the 28th December, while the Eastern churches have it on the 27th.)
In the Middle Ages, the Northern countries celebrated it as a carnivalesque feast where children were in charge for the day, boy bishops presided over church services, and slaves and apprentices were masters for the day.
The inversion of normal hierarchies and the goat being led (presumably on a rope) makes one think of Loki’s trick with the nanny-goat to make the giantess Skadi laugh, but you do have to wonder how he became St. Nicholas. Presumably, as Jennebert theorizes, the goat’s association with pagan mythology and popular pagan gods (Thor) made it dominical in Christian eyes, while the sheep became a symbol of Christ.
He may have been comparing Skadi and the goat; a goat was seen as a symbol of lust, and we know that he later accused her of abandoning her quest for vengeance in exchange for amusement and a husband. Also, the beard that the nanny-goat wears would be a burlesque of the armed giantess who took on the male role of prosecuting a bloodfeud.
Their stubborn individualism and resourceful nature probably suited Skadi’s temperament as well. (Dubois: Loc. 1112) As I noted before, there is also a giantess named Geitla, ‘goat’. (Motz: 502)
Ram vs. Bill: Heimdall and Loki
One final note: I have stuck here to goat-symbolism in northern Europe. However, two aspects of southern European folklore might be illuminating on the subject of Loki and goats generally. First, in Andalusian folklore, a cuckolded man is compared to a nanny-goat, presumably because it has horns but is not male. (This may have been what Skadi laughed at.)
Second, in the Mediterranean area rams and billy-goats are seen as opposites, with the ram viewed favourably. This is probably because a ram will tolerate no rivals, while a goat is more easy-going, which is not perceived as very masculine behaviour. Rams are seen as honourable, while goats are associated with shame.( Blok: 429) I can’t help but wonder if this illuminates the otherwise mysterious enmity between Heimdall and Loki.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
The Elder Edda: a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, London.
Blok, Anton 1981: “Rams and Billy-Goats: a Key to the Mediterranean Code of Honour,” Man (New Series) 16:3 (Sept. 1981): 427-40.
Dubois, Thomas 2012: “Diet and Deities: Contrastive Livelihoods and Animal Symbolism in Nordic Pre-Christian Religions” in More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions, eds. Catharina Raudvere and Jens-Peter Schjødt, Nordic Academic Press. (Kindle Book)
Jennbert, Kristin 2011: Animals and Humans: Recurrent Symbiosis in Old Norse Religion, Nordic Academic Press. (also on Scribd)
McKinnell, John 1986-9: “Motivation in Lokasenna,” Saga-Book of the Viking Society XXII: 234-62.
Motz, Lotte 1981: “Giantesses and their Names”, Frühmittelalterliche Studien 15: 495-511.
Orchard, Andy 1997: Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.