Viking Pillows were Stuffed for Comfort: Thanks to Ducks, Geese, Eagle-Owls, Cormorants, Seagulls, and Crows!
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
And he [i.e., Jacob] lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. (Genesis 28:11)
Pillows, if they are good soft-yet-somewhat-firm head supports, facilitate restful sleeping – this is a fact repeatedly emphasized by MyPillow.com (manufacturer of really good pillows!). Besides serving as head-rests for sleeping upon, pillows can also be used as cushions on chairs or sofas, for soft-yet-somewhat-firm back support. Pillows can be used decoratively, too, to provide visual motifs or color coordination, so pillows can provide both physical comfort and visual décor. But, mostly, for centuries, pillows have been used to give comfortable head-rest. Don’t you, like me, like to relax your weary head on a good pillow?
For softness pillows are stuffed, with a variety of materials — feather, foam, down, etc. During Viking times pillows were often stuffed with down and/or feathers of sea-ducks, such as eiders. However, feathers (and/or down) from other birds were also used, often, such as form geese, seagulls, cormorants, owls (including the largest owl of Scandinavia, the Eagle-Owl), and even crows! In other words, the Vikings stuffed their pillows with whatever was available!
“When I invented MyPillow®, my dream was to help as many people get a good night’s sleep as possible. I personally guarantee MyPillow® will be the most comfortable pillow you’ll ever own.” [Mike Lindell, Inventor of MyPillow®]
In fact, pillows have been mentioned as having been involved in some very important events reported in the Holy Bible, with the first mention of the word “pillow” appearing in Genesis 29:11 (and soon thereafter in Genesis 28:18).
In Genesis 28:11, “pillow” is used to describe how the patriarch Jacob used a stone under his head, as a support for resting his head (like a supportive “pillar”) while sleeping, during a scary night when Jacob, in deadly danger, was fleeing north, from Beersheba (in southern Israel) toward Haran (in Turkey, near the Syrian border – in earlier times Haran, n/k/a Harran, was part of Syria/”Aram”).
And he [i.e., Jacob] lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. [NOTE: according to John 1:1:51, that vision of the heavenly ladder was a prophetic foreshadowing of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who Himself is, as 1st Timothy 2:5 notes, the only Mediator between God and mankind.] And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful [i.e., scary-awesome] is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel [i.e., “house of God”]; but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and [if God] will keep me in this way that I go, and [if God] will give me bread to eat and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God; and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee. (Genesis 29:11-22)
Interestingly, the Bible’s first use of the verb “anoint” (mâshach, the root verb of the Hebrew noun mâshîach = “Messiah”/“Christ”/“Anointed one”; see Psalm 2:2) occurs in Genesis 31:13 (where the English verb “anoint” translates for the Hebrew verb mâshach), recalling when Jacob poured oil on his stone “pillow”. Specifically, Genesis 31:13 refers back to the events of Genesis chapter 28, especially Genesis 28:18, which reports that Jacob “poured oil” on the stone (or stones) that Jacob’s head used for a pillow during that scary-awesome night.
The next reference to a “pillow”, in Scripture, appears in 1st Samuel chapter 19, where Israel’s future king David, in deadly danger, put “a pillow of goats’ hair” (1st Samuel 19:13 & 19:16) in his bed, as a decoy, in order to fake that his body was in bed, sick or sleeping. When Saul ordered that David be seized from his “sickbed” – so that Saul could kill David – Saul’s men discovered that David had duped them, having already fled (with Michal’s help) out of his room’s window.
The greatest moment for pillows, in world history, is reported in Mark 4:38, which records how the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, while in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee, used a “pillow” (proskephalaion = “for/before [the] head”) while sleeping through a furious storm that threatened the safety of the ship and its occupants.
And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And He [i.e., the Lord Jesus] was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow [proskephalaio]; and they awake Him, and say unto Him, Master, carest Thou not that we perish? And He arose, and He rebuked the wind, and He said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And He said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him? (Mark 4:37-41)
So pillows have sometimes provided rest during events of historic importance!
Mostly, however, pillows serve in less historic contexts. But to all of us when our weary heads need rest, a good pillow (or combination of pillows) is helpful for a night’s sleep – or just a nap.
And the same was true for Vikings – they used pillows stuffed with feathers. Archaeologists have studied Viking pillows, and it seems that Vikings were characteristically resourceful; for stuffing pillows Vikings used whatever down or feathers were available, including feathers from Eagle-Owls (see photograph below), ducks, cormorants, sea gulls, geese, or even crows!
For technical studies on Viking pillows, especially identification of feathers and down used therein, see Carla J. Dove & Stephen Wickler, “Identification of Bird Species Used to Make a Viking Feather Pillow”, ARCTIC, 69(1):29-36 (March 2016). Dove & Wickler report:
“Given the apparent exclusive use of bird feathers from sea-dwelling birds in the Øksnes pillow stuffing, a brief review of the important role played by these birds in the Iron Age is useful. Gull and other seabird population densities are known to be among the largest in the world in Norway because of productive waters and adequate nesting sites (Barrett et al., 2006). Large-scale bird distributions are known to have been similar through recent historical times, so it is expected that bird densities were at least the same during the Viking Age as in modern times, making it fairly easy to obtain gull species for human use. Given the vast population densities of gulls and other seabirds in northern Norway, it may not seem unusual that gull and Great Cormorant feathers were used in the making of this pillow; until now, however, these feathers have never been reported or documented as species used in Viking Age pillow making. Thirteenth-century Norse sagas report the collecting of eider duck and goose down as a profitable trade item from Greenland and other North Atlantic regions. The Norse “cultivated” down for clothing and duvets by constructing small bird-sized boxes with upright rock slabs. Eiders preferred these cozy shelters to wind-blown boulders and lined them with fluffy down plucked from their breasts, making it possible to reap several “harvests” from each nest during the laying season. Traditional exploitation of seabirds for food and feathers is well documented in the islands of the North Atlantic and coastal Norway (Shrubb, 2013). Feathers were traditionally regarded as more valuable than meat for some seabird species, such as puffins, fulmars, and gannets, in the North Atlantic (Shrubb, 2013). The right to collect feathers, down, and eggs on so-called bird islands (fuglevær) in northern Norway has been taxed since the Iron Age, and feathers and down were commonly used for tax payments. The earliest known record of this practice is the AD 890 account to King Alfred of England by the northern Norwegian Viking chieftain Ohthere, who reported payment of taxes by the Sámi with feathers and down (Bately and Englert, 2007). Seabirds were important in Viking life for both fresh and preserved food, and feathers and down were used for bedding and clothing. . . . The most frequently occurring species are European Shag, eiders, Great Black-backed Gull, Great Auk (now extinct), puffins, and guillemots. Cormorant species are particularly abundant in a number of the faunal assemblages. In an Iron Age settlement mound not far from Øksnes, at Bleik on the island of Andøya, with occupation from ca. AD 200 to 900, birds represented 30% of the identifiable bone midden (Jørgensen, 1984). Sea-dwelling birds accounted for nearly all of the 25 bird species identified, with gulls and the Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) being the most common. Five of the eight gull species within the genus Larus that occur in northern Norway were represented (Jørgensen, 1984). . . . . In contrast to the documented occurrence of feathers and down in high-status graves, the pillow with feather stuffing from Øksnes is more suggestive of an everyday item, potentially owned by the deceased, that had been used for some time before being placed in the grave. The use of a common, coarsely woven wool textile for a pillow cover, and pillow fill in which gull feathers were predominant, along with a lesser quantity of Great Cormorant and sea duck feathers, may be indicators of a mundane domestic context rather than the luxury goods typical of a high-status grave.”
Quoting from Carla J. Dove & Stephen Wickler, “Identification of Bird Species Used to Make a Viking Feather Pillow”, ARCTIC, 69(1):29-36 (March 2016).
[ See also Norwegian University of Science & Technology (institutionally co-authored), “What Vikings Really Put in Their Pillows”, PHYS-ORG (February 27, 2018), posted at https://phys.org/news/2018-02-vikings-pillows.html#jCp — as well as “Birds of a Feather — A Story of Vikings and Pillows”, ZME Science Newsletter, 28 February AD2018, by Mihai Andrei, posted at https://www.zmescience.com/science/bird-viking-feathers-28022018/ ]
So, what’s in your pillow?