Early European and Greenlandic Walrus Hunting: motivations, techniques and practices

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In northern and western Europe, the use of walrus ivory in decorative arts can be
traced back at least as far as the 9th century CE. (Curnow, 2000, p. 293;
Roesdahl, 2005, p. 185). Around this time, walrus ivory was being sourced along
the Arctic coasts of Scandinavia and Russia. The ivory was then traded westwards into the markets of northern and western Europe, but also eastwards via the Muslim lands, into the Orient and even into the Far East (Tegengren, 1962, p. 7ff.). This chapter examines the role played by western European societies in the active hunting of walruses across the remote North Atlantic periphery. Chronologically, it spans the 9th to the mid-15th centuries CE; that is, from the earliest written descriptions of the lucrative trade in walrus products, through tothe eventual decline and abandonment of the Norse colonies in Greenland. By
this time, Greenland had taken over from Arctic Russia as the main supplier of
walrus ivory to the luxury markets of North-West Europe.
The hunting of walruses for ivory and hide is first mentioned in the early travel
accounts of Ohthere, a North Norwegian chieftain, who made a journey to the
Arctic territories of European Russia, and later relayed his experiences to the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred at the end of the 800’s. Ohthere’s account suggests that large and impressive walrus tusks were already circulating as prestigious objects and were highly sought after in northern European markets and trade networks as a valuable raw material for decorative pieces of artwork. In addition to the ivory, walrus hide was also valued as a material for producing tough and waterproof ropes. The demand for walrus products—and especially ivory—grew rapidly. The early stages of the ‘boom’ in ivory coincided with the Norse settlement of Iceland around 870 CE and subsequent arrival of Icelandic settlers in Greenland at the end of the 900’s. Both events allowed new access to North Atlantic walruses to meet European commercial demands. For the remote colonies of Iceland and Greenland, the trade in ivory generated valuable opportunities to supply the markets of northern Europe. Much of the demand appears to have been driven by the leaders of emerging kingdoms and the Roman Catholic Church elite. Both were keen to use magnificent and valuable ivory artworks in events and ceremonies that signalled their wealth and reinforced their claims to power and authority.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Atlantic Walrus : Multidisciplinary Insights into Human-Animal Interactions
EditorsXénia Keighley, Morten Tange Olsen, Peter Jordan, Sean Desjardins
Number of pages20
Place of PublicationLondon, San Diego, Cambridge, Oxford
PublisherElsevier Academic Press
Publication date2021
Article number7
ISBN (Print)978-0-12-817430-2
ISBN (Electronic) 9780128174319
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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