History of the Breed

06/28/2023

Origins - Myths and Lore


"Freya", Johannes Gehrts, Public Domain
"Freya", Johannes Gehrts, Public Domain

Norse legends refer to a "mountain-dwelling fairy cat with an ability to climb sheer rock faces that other cats could not manage" (Nikel, "The Norwegian Forest Cat"). Cats are mentioned a few times throughout Nordic myths and legends, and were an important part of Scandinavian life and culture. It is said that cats were the favorite animal of the fertility goddess, Freyja, who also governed love and luck. She was believed to have had a chariot that was pulled by two male cats. It was believed that if the weather was pleasant on a bride's wedding day, she must have "fed the cat well" and had been blessed by the goddess Freyja. Kittens were often gifted to new brides as "housewarming gifts", and were viewed as an essential part of starting a new household. Cats played an important role in Scandinavia as mousers, whether that was within the home, on the farm, or on their ships. In Norway, they are called "skogkatt" (Literal - "forest cat"), and in Denmark, they are called "Huldrekat" (Huldre are female forest spirits; literal - "hidden folk" or "troll").


Origins - Factual History

Norwegian Forest Cats are a landrace of domestic cats, local to Norway, and are considered a natural breed. They have adapted over hundreds, if not thousands, of years to survive in the harsh Scandinavian climate. 

The origins of the ancestors of these cats are unknown, though there are several theories. One theory that has a decent amount of evidence to back it is that domestic cats were imported to Scandinavia through trade with either the Phoenicians or the Romans. Evolutionary geneticist Eva-Maria Geigl notes the same mitochondrial (maternal) DNA found in cats from ancient Egypt is present in those found at a Viking site in northern Germany dated to the 8th and 11th centuries C.E. These cats were likely originally smuggled out of Egypt, as it was strictly prohibited to sell and transport the cats outside of their country (Mark, "Norse Pets in the Viking Age"). Another belief is that Norwegian Forest Cats are the descendants of Turkish longhaired cats, brought from the Byzantine Empire to Scandinavia, or that their ancestors may have been related to the Russian Siberian cat (Nikel).


Figure by M.T. Krajcarz
Figure by M.T. Krajcarz

It is unknown when exactly cats reached Scandinavia, but there is small amounts of evidence that they were present during the iron age, roughly 200 B.C.E. Evidence of cats in Scandinavia became much stronger from the Viking Age and forward. Remains in a Viking trading port in Northern Germany hints that by the middle ages, cats were accompanying Vikings on their ships, controlling the rodents. There is also recent evidence, found at a Viking fortress at Nonnebakken, in Odense, that shows that Vikings may have also farmed cats for their fur.

Interestingly, the cats seemed to have grown in size since becoming domesticated, rather than shrinking, as domestication typically tends to lead to. A specific study by researcher Julie Bita-Thorsen found that modern cats in Denmark are found to be, on average, 16% larger than their Viking-era ancestors. It may be that contact with humans allowed the cats to direct their energy into growing in size, as less energy was needed for hunting to survive, and food was more abundant (McKay, "Viking Cats: The Preferred Pets of the Northmen").

FIFe's General Assembly 1977 © L . M. Blythe
FIFe's General Assembly 1977 © L . M. Blythe

By the 20th century, the Norwegian Forest cat was at risk of extinction, likely due to hybridization with other domestic cats entering their homeland. Conservation groups and plans to officially recognise the breed began in the 1930's but were put on hold during World War II. These plans were able to resume after the war had ended, and the breed was officially recognised with the help of Norske Rasekattklubbers Riksforbund (Norwegian National Association of Pedigree Cats) and its president, Carl-Fredrik Nordane, in 1976. The Norwegian Forest Cat was recognised internationally with FIFe in Paris, November of 1977 (Saetre, "About the Norwegian Forest Cat Breed: Norwegian Forest Cat Society UK"). The breed was presented to the CFA Board for registration acceptance in February of 1987, and was accepted for full championship status in 1993. Championship status within The International Cat Association was granted in 1984.


Norwegian Forest Cats in the U.S.

The Norwegian Forest Cat was not exported from Norway until the late 1970's. The first pair arrived in the United Stated in November of 1979. Today, many people in the US have heard of and are aware of the breed, but few have actually owned or have seen a Norwegian Forest Cat in person. They are recognized as a larger-built cat with dense fur, and most mistake long-haired domestic cats for Norwegian Forest Cats. Many of the Norwegian Forest Cats living in the US today were born here, but are sometimes imported for breeding programs. Commonly, when imported, they are imported from the Netherlands, though they are also sometimes imported from Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. Despite having been introduced to the U.S. over 40 years ago, Norwegian Forest Cats are still considered rare and uncommon.


Citations

Mark, Joshua J. "Norse Pets in the Viking Age." World History Encyclopedia, 26 May 2023, www.worldhistory.org/article/1313/norse-pets-in-the-viking-age/.

Ward, Christie. "Viking Pets and Domesticated Animals." Viking Answer Lady Webpage - Viking Pets and Domesticated Animals, 27 May 2023, www.vikinganswerlady.com/vik_pets.shtml.

McKay, Andrew. "Viking Cats: The Preferred Pets of the Northmen." Life in Norway, 16 Jan. 2022, www.lifeinnorway.net/viking-cats/.

Nikel, David. "The Norwegian Forest Cat." Life in Norway, 28 Aug. 2018, www.lifeinnorway.net/norwegian-forest-cat/.

"Norwegian Forest Cat." Welcome to TICA - The International Cat Association, TICA Cats, TICA Pedigreed Cats, Pedigreed Cats, Pedigreed Cats Registry, Household Pet Cat Registry, Domestic Cat Registry, Savannah Cat, Bengal Cat, Persian Cat, Maine Coon Cat, www.tica.org/breeds/browse-all-breeds?view=article&id=1875. Accessed 28 May 2023.

"About the Norwegian Forest Cat." The Cat Fanciers Association Inc, cfa.org/norwegian-forest-cat/. Accessed 28 May 2023.

Saetre, Raymond. "About the Norwegian Forest Cat Breed: Norwegian Forest Cat Society Uk." Edited by Lorraine Twyman. Translated by Bjørn Steensrud, About the Norwegian Forest Cat Breed| Norwegian Forest Cat Society UK, 2011, www.tnfcs.co.uk/History/BreedHistory.html.