Queer Life in the Viking Age: In Myth and Daily Living
Much of the modern view we have of the Norse and Northern Germanic tribes today is based on clichés and stock caricatures, stemming from centuries of propaganda and misinterpretation by the other cultures that encountered them. These images have proliferated and metamorphosized down the centuries through art, literature, music, and pop culture until the image we have today is almost comical in its vulgar and intolerant nature. We have tales from Tacitus, Saxo, Bede, and Ibn Fadln describing the Germanic world as a barbaric place based around brute force, volatile temperaments, and relentless conquest. We hear of human sacrifice, extremely brutal methods of execution, and hygiene practices that would not be compatible with survival in an age without penicillin. The subtleties of daily life in a pre-literate society are usually reported by literate outsiders who are only privy to the most superficial details, and then only what the leaders of the observed society consider important for the writer to know. What has frequently been left out of these accounts, as has happened throughout history, are accounts of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other Queer spectrum individuals. Such individuals are alluded to in the Eddas and the sagas of the Icelanders, but little historical or mythological material survives that gives us any specific insight into the lives of LGBTQ people or how their society viewed them. The equation we are left with, at a passing glace, leaves us to extrapolate the answer that the pre-Christian Norse must have despised and abhorred homosexuality to the point of complete suppression. After all, a civilization that bloodthirsty would have no place for a subset of the population that are as frequently persecuted and reviled in our own modern, Christianized world.
But lack of evidence that Queer people had an overtly accepted place in a society is not evidence that they were actually shut out by that society. Despite the Norse and other Northern Germanic tribes (referred to as Norse in this paper for simplification) having a fearsome reputation, there is little reliable evidence of punitive measures being taken against people who fell within the LGBTQ spectrum (referred to as “Queer” in this paper for simplification) in the pre-Christian era. At first glance, the lack of positive portrayals of Queer heroes or mythical figures seems like complicit condemnation. In fact, it is by the very absence of their description as Queer that the acceptability of Queer individuals is revealed. Unlike our modern, Christian influenced society, Queer individuals were not viewed as contemptible or abnormal in Pagan Norse society, and were therefore no more conspicuous or noteworthy than any other relationship. As marriages were normally viewed as unions based more on political allegiances, financial security, or heir production, intimate relationships between same-sex partners would not necessarily have been in direct conflict with the purposes of marriage. Likewise, genderqueer, intersexed, and transgendered individuals were probably able to find their own roles in Norse society, as well as myth, as mystics, priests, warriors, pirates, and mischief makers, and the laws that governed such behavior as cross-dressing are ignored or given exception in many cases.
Male homosexuality is most the most evident “flavor” of the Queer spectrum in the mythical texts of the Norse, as well as being the most visible in Norse society. While the role of sexual aggressor in a homosexual encounter was not viewed with any degree of suspicion, the person in the role of being penetrated was often viewed distastefully. At first, through our modern interpretation of this view, it appears that this is a condemnation of homosexuality as a whole. When we step back and consider, however, how the Norse as a culture treated male homosexuality, a much different picture emerges. Although there are some tales of corporal punishment for homosexual acts from the Roman writers, we must remember that these are being reported through the filter of a culture that itself was beginning to reject both women and homosexual males in favor of a more stringent patriarchy (Evans). Tacitus states that the punishment for homosexual acts was being buried alive (Tacitus 12), but how certain are we of the context of this situation? Tacitus himself never left Rome, all of his information was based on the writings of others, and in many cases was outdated by many years (Gudeman 94). There is no evidence of any law in pre-Christian Iceland governing homosexual behavior, however there are laws governing the accusation of someone of subjecting themselves to ergi, or passive homosexuality (adjective form argr). Theose who made such accusations were subject to either legal We see this at work in The Volsungasaga, when Sinfjotli taunts Granmar in order to trigger combat:
“Sinfjotli answered, “Dim belike is grown thy memory now, of how thou wert a witch-wife on Varinsey, and wouldst fain have a man to thee, and chose me to that same office of all the world; and how thereafter thou wert a Valkyria in Asgarth, and it well-nigh came to this, that for thy sweet sake should all men fight; and nine wolf whelps I begat on thy body in Lowness, and was the father to them all.” (Volsungasaga, Chapter IX).
By accusing Granmar of being sexually receptive to the point of “whelping”, Sinfjotli leaves Granmar with no choice but to fight for his honor. To take the dominant sexual role in a homosexual act was not considered ignoble, in fact the rape of a conquered foe was considered normal as a gesture of symbolic emasculation and display of power over the defeated. Outside of the battlefield, consensual acts of homosexuality were not legally condemned, and to be the passive partner did not mean one was shunned or rejected (Dennis, Foote, Perkins). However, the portrayals of argr men are almost exclusively limited to thralls, male prostitutes, and practitioners of seiðr, a form of shamanic magic associated with women. This seems to indicate that the real objection to male passive homosexuality was not a moral judgment as much as the imposition of a more rigid gender role on males. Male gender roles were very stringently enforced in Norse society, more so than for female gender roles, as we will see later. The expectation that a man will function as a warrior, defender, leader, and alpha male is pervasive in accounts of Norse society. Bravery and virility are valued above all else for the Norse man, to act as a woman is not shameful because women are shameful or because homosexuality itself was shameful, but because to do so negates this ideal male gender role. After all, a man who allows another man to dominate him sexually might allow himself to be dominated on the battlefield, or when conducting business. He could be untrustworthy and unreliable. It is the act of dominance that is key, not the sexual act itself. This is why accusing another man of ergi was grounds for punishment or legally sanctioned combat with the accused party. This was not just schoolyard name calling, it was a questioning of a man’s ability to participate in society as a whole.
The issue of seiðr as a source of ergi is one often questioned by researchers, particularly in light of Odin’s association with the art. Odin, whom no one would question is a fully functional male by Norse standards, is called out by Loki in the Lokesenna of the Poetic Edda of committing seiðr:
“They say that with spells | in Samsey once
Like witches with charms didst thou work;
And in witch’s guise | among men didst thou go;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.”
Why would Odin, the All-Father, be party to such an activity? One possible explanation could be Odin’s age and already established status. A proverb from the Icelandic saga Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða states “at svá ergisk hverr sem eldisk “, or “The older a man, the more argr” (Viðar 126). As a man aged, his responsibilities within Norse society would wane. After producing heirs, protecting the realm, and accumulating wealth and status, and in light of his flagging physical virility, he would not have been expected to participate in the normal activities of most prime-aged males. Since this appears to be viewed as an inevitability of aging, activities such as seiðr may have become acceptable behaviors for the older Norse male. As Odin has been the progenitor of gods, a great warrior, and a father figure who sacrificed of himself for knowledge multiple times, his gray beard and advanced wisdom point to his being an older, possibly even elderly man. This is a man beyond his peak virility. He is not portrayed as a god preoccupied with philandering or active combat, he is a logistician and leader, a poet and a mystic. His age has liberated him to cross over to the more receptive, feminine side of his unconsciousness. Thusly, Odin’s association with seiðr is not necessarily the contradiction it appears on the surface. In light of this, Loki’s accusations seem petty and pointless, and are easily rebuffed by Frigg’s admonitions of his own argr behavior. In contrast to Odin, Loki’s behavior exemplifies how ergi was commonly viewed by the Norse. Loki is also a god and a father, but he is portrayed as a young and sexually viable male. While Loki is not a completely irredeemable character, his willingness to engage in argr behavior goes hand in hand with his untrustworthiness. When he takes on a feminine role, it is almost always to deceive. In his ultimate act of ergi, Loki transforms into a female horse and engages in sexual congress with the stallion Svaðilfari to trick him and distract him from his work. As a graphic illustration of his adopted “womanhood”, he even conceives a foal from this union, further solidifying his image as an argr or feminized male. It is his association with this womanly state of supplication and submission that made the Norse leery of his nature. Seeing as we are reminded time and time again how the Norse viewed women as inherently untrustworthy figures, it leads us to wonder how the perception of Queer women in Norse society contrasted with the view of the Queer male.
Aside from their perfunctory roles as wives and mothers, the intimate lives of women are not as well represented in Norse myth and legend. As keepers of the home, their deeds and actions are far less likely to end up in the annals of history or become the legendary exploits that are the foundation of myth. The portrayals of women in the Norse myths are mostly limited to supernatural shieldmaidens and goddesses of fertility or other womanly virtues. They are invariably paired with a god, king, or hero as their mate and expected to produce offspring for him, preferably male. It was not uncommon for women to shun this existence in favor of adventure and battle, nor was this choice rejected by society. However, there are virtually no historical documents attesting to lesbianism or bisexuality in woman whatsoever. This leaves the field ripe for conjecture and assumption in a vain attempt to see ourselves reflected back at us in the murky waters of time. However, once again, lack of evidence does not mean lack of existence.
One of the greatest obstructions to research in this area seems to be a case of academic wishful thinking on the part of LGBTQ researchers. Strong female role models who exhibit independence and a preference for female company are not automatically indicative of lesbianism. Many mythic and heroic historical women have become associated with lesbianism with only the most tenuous evidence to back up these assertions. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore is a popular resource for those who study the intersection between sexuality and spirituality, however many of the entries regarding Norse figures lack substantial evidence to back up their hypothesis that these people were acting in a way that was considered extraordinary for their time and place. The text describes Alfhild as a 10th century Gothic pirate woman who disguised herself as a man to avoid being forcibly married to Alf as she fought alongside her sheildmaiden and “comrade-lover” Groa (Conner, Sparks, Sparks 49). Tracing the story back to its roots in the Gesta Danorum shows no indication of this kind of relationship. Groa is mentioned once as Alfhild’s attendant who marries Alf’s comrade Borgar after Alf captures and forcibly marries Alfhild (Gesta Danorum, Book 7). Interestingly, we see the term comrade being used to describe Alf and Borgar’s relationship, but find no suspicion cast on the intimacy of their relationship. Because Alfhild and Groa are engaged in gender-norm defying behavior, we are lead to believe they must be lesbians by modern scholars. At best, this is a liberal interpretation of the truth, at worst it is “pink washing” history to serve our own self-interests by retro-fitting Queer role models throughout history to compensate for centuries of neglect and persecution. While it is important, even critical, to reassess many historical relationships and individuals in a same-sex context, we must be careful not to project the values of our age onto the behaviors of the past. Regardless of whether we are sanitizing Queer culture from history books or desperately trying to wedge it in where it doesn’t belong, we are only doing historical truth a disservice in the end.
However, it is safe to say lesbianism happened. Kinsey reported in 1953 that 13% of women had achieved orgasm through contact with another woman (Kinsey, Alfred C. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female). Times may change, but human sexuality is shockingly constant. Private, unobstructed access to other women was plentiful. It was not uncommon for a household to include a wife, female servants, concubines, and thralls. These women would spend much of their day in the kvenna hús, or women’s house. This was a place that the man of the house would not enter, as it bore the stigma of ergi. (Jochens 80) Also, in a society where marriage is an expected outcome, often based on material or strategic gain, marriage to a member or the opposite sex would not automatically place an individual into the heteronormative category. The statistical likelihood of same-sex encounters between women combined with the privacy to engage in such behavior leads us to accept that same-sex encounters between women were probably quite prevalent. The lack of evidence that lesbianism was a punishable offense versus the evidence that women caught in romantic trysts with other men were often punished severely only confirm this possibility. Lesbianism would most likely not only be acceptable, but preferable, as it would not result in unwanted offspring nor be seen as conflicting with the interests of the husband.
On the mythological side, we see that Freyja, not unlike her brother, is associated in the modern age with bisexuality (Conner, Sparks, Sparks 144). The fact that she was considered a goddess of love, fertility, and eroticism, would almost demand that she cover both hetero and homosexual relationships. After all, sex is a part of same-sex relationships, and Freyja was known to cavort with a variety of lovers, including dwarves, elves, and her own brother (Larrington 90). While there are not direct attestations of Freyja engaging in same-sex sex, it does feel correct to assume that as her role was not limited to presiding over only marriage or reproduction, but was instead explicitly erotic in nature. Her modern casting as a patron of Queer individuals may not be as revisionist as we might think at first glance.
Although some contemporary Christians tend to characterize bisexuality as being a modern “invention” created by lax attitudes about sexual preference, the fact is bisexuality has been prevalent in human society just as long as any other sexual preference. What is new is the consideration of bisexuality as specifically defined identity. The term “bisexual” was not introduced until Krafft-Ebing first used it in his 1909 publication Psychopathia Sexualis. However, bisexuality has been depicted in ancient art and myth around the world. The Norse world was no exception. In fact, clandestine bisexuality was probably more socially acceptable than other, more exclusive expressions of Queer love, as it allowed for marriage and the production of children as well as the ability to satisfy one’s affections and urges with a same -sex partner. An oddly enforced variant of bisexuality may have been the only safe way for Queer members of Norse society to fulfill their same-sex inclinations and avoid the insecurity of circumstance and loss of status of being unmarried and without offspring in a culture that considered such things a moral obligation. Surprisingly, there is some possible evidence of same-sex marriage or unions in the Norse world. Guldgubbers are gold ingots carved with depictions of one or more individuals that have been found through out Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Their origins date back to around 500-800AD, and among the many theories regarding their purpose is the idea that they are a kind of legal document for a pre-literate society. (Ratke 149) Since many gubbers depict male-female characters facing each other and clutching arms in very specific and repetitive poses, it is quite possible that these may have served as a kind of “marriage certificate” to document a union between two people. It is interesting to note that a small few depict same-sex couples, and may have represented a Queer union (Ellis-Davidson 31-31 and 121). However, this is only conjecture, and there is no solid evidence of legally sanctioned same-sex unions. While we can’t definitively say that same-sex marriage or unions occurred, we do need to consider that the need for offspring was still existent. In a harsh world where few children survived into adulthood, replenishing the population would have been an ongoing struggle. Norse society put a great deal of pressure on people to produce a male heir, to the point that female infanticide was not uncommon (Jochens 86). That an individual would marry was a foregone conclusion, and children would be expected from that marriage, which as we all know (hopefully) means sexual intercourse. While we may never know how open people were about actual bisexual activity as we know it today, or how acceptable it was to take a same-sex lover outside of culturally sanctioned marriage, it is clear that such events did happen, although in some cases we might be stretching our definition of bisexuality to its breaking point. Was battlefield rape considered a bisexual act? A woman in a forced marriage with a lesbian lover? To our modern sensibilities, we would most likely reject these scenarios as being representative of bisexuality, but we have no idea how the Norse saw these actions or if they differentiated between these situations and more ideal (not to mention consensual) acts of bisexuality. However, it is clear that at the very least they had some understanding that an individuals sexuality and gender identity was not always monofaceted.
Transgendered, intersex, and other genderqueer individuals (referred to as genderqueer in this paper for simplification) were evident in the mythology of the Norse age, if not the historical record. Unlike the androgynes of Greek myth, Norse mythical figures of fluid gender tended to be viewed as switching between two genders, rather than a combination of genders or being or indeterminate gender. We do see characters such as Ymir, who is referred to as being male, but physically gives birth to to numerous denizens of the universe through various body parts. These androgynous figures are the minority, compared to stories of characters like Loki, who time and time again subverts gender to become or disguise himself as women, giantesses, and even female animals. That Loki is male is not in doubt, but he is more than happy (in fact in some stories he appears quite gleeful at the prospect) to switch genders in order to deceive or manipulate others. Contrasting this with Thor’s clear consternation at having to disguise himself as Freyja in the Thrymskvitha of the Poetic Edda, we see that this is not necessarily something indigenous to being a Norse god; this is Loki’s particular domain. We are left with a conflicted argument regarding how his bigenderism is tied to his duplicity. Is it his bigendered nature that makes him untrustworthy? Is it his association with deceitful femininity? Or was his deviousness the cause of his gender-switching abilities? His role as the trickster would typically demand a certain level of fluid identity, but Loki is frequently demonized to an extent many other tricksters aren’t. In comparing him to Odin as we have previously, we see that both share this association with an aspect of ergi, but no one (except Loki himself, interestingly enough) would judge Odin for his involvement in seiðr. It is Loki’s completely transmutable gender identity that makes his presence so unsettling and disquieting.
The issue of gender identification raises its head once again in the subject of cross-dressing. As we have seen with the story of Alfhild, it was not uncommon to see women adopting the attire of men, cutting their hair short and living their lives in what we would consider a manly fashion, despite this being an outlawed activity in some areas (Dennis, Foote, Perkins). There is evidence of women being being buried with grave goods that are normally attributed to men, such as swords and armor (McLeod 332-53). While the valkyries and shieldmaidens of the Norse were not usually described as wearing specifically male clothing, the existence of women who did defy convention and use gender disguise raises the question of whether or not these legal sanctions were reserved for women who lived as women regardless of their vocation versus women who lived as men. A women who dresses as a man while living with her husband might be seen as a threat or an insult to her husband’s status and masculinity. A woman who lives as a man would not present such a threat, as she would either remain single or be the argr member of her marriage. Without an historical record or legal precedent to guide us, it is impossible to say if people living as another gender were accepted, or to what extent gender switching or bending was tolerated. On an intriguing note, Bronze Age scholar Lise Lock Harvig from the Department of Forensic Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen has stated that the physiological differences between male and female skeletons from Viking age Scandinavia show remarkable similarities in facial structure and dimensions. Female skeletons were found to have broader cheekbones and jaws than average females, and males a more feminized bone structure than average males. This degree of androgyny would have aided anyone in their attempt to conceal or express their gender contrary to what society had already assigned them.
This was also true of men who were practitioners of magic and certain spiritual paths. As we have seen, seiðr is considered argr, or unmanly, and is attributed to women and men of a feminine persuasion. Its origins are in the Vanir, as it was taught to the Æsir by Freyja. The priests of Freyr, Freyja’s brother, are said to wear women’s clothing and dance and sing in a feminine manner (Dumézil 115). Freyr was not directly connected to seiðr, however it does seem likely that the similarity of Freyr’s priests’ behavior to shamanic and ecstatic cults makes it likely that some similarities can be found. Most likely seiðr also has it’s roots in a worship of the Vanir that pre-dates their incorporation into the Æsir. Not unlike the maenads of Dionysus, the practice of seiðr is usually viewed as a type of shamanic practice with overtones of a female-centric ecstasy religion in which only men willing to surrender themselves to their femininity were able to participate. Shamanic practices require a state of complete surrender and ego-death. This willingness to allow oneself to become receptive to a loss of control and self could have contributed to the view of seiðr as an argr activity. A true Norse man would never abdicate control of his body or mind to anyone or anything. In spite of this, we are certain that males did have some role in seiðr. We need look no further than Odin himself to find one.
For people of the Queer spectrum in the lands of the Norse, life would not have been without challenges. Statistically speaking, they would have still been in the minority, and life outside the norm is never easy under the best of circumstances. However, as the historical and legal records show, the Queer life was not reviled or scorned the way we have seen in the modern Christian age. Rather, men, women, and genderqueer individuals were most likely able to find places within Norse society where they could survive and, in some cases, even thrive. While Norse culture was far from a “gay paradise” where people of different sexual preferences and gender identities were completely accepted and embraced, the lack of legal repercussions and the few hints that we do have regarding the treatment of Queer individuals in Norse culture indicate the likelihood that people of the Queer spectrum were probably integrated or at the very least tolerated as contributing members of society.
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Celtic Women: Victims and Victimizers
Women of both Irish and Welsh Celtic mythology are integral parts of the stories they inhabit, however unflattering their portrayals may be. Even in stories where they are unnamed, imprisoned, or have little to no actual dialogue, the entire plot can hinge on a single action by the woman in question. However, how these separate mythologies portray these women could not be more different or polarized.
The first woman who stands out is Medb, the goddess/queen of Connacht from The Tain. She is arguably the catalyst for the events of the entire story. Her vain and competitive nature causes her to strike a bet with her husband, Ailill, to see who has the most wealth. When she comes up slightly short in the comparison, she launches a war to steal the prize bull of Dáire mac Fiachna (The Tain 58). It is this ruthless, blind ambitiousness that compels her character throughout the tale, and drives the fates of every man, woman, and child caught up in her wake. While Medb is clearly a very “strong female character” (a term I personally hate. You would never refer to Cu Chulainn as a “strong male character”), her degree of selfishness and willingness to throw her own people into a “warp spasm” meat grinder over and over again for a minor gain in wealth casts her in the role of the villain in this story. While Cu Chulainn is a trickster hero, Fergus is the Voice of Reason, and Ailill is the obedient husband, Medb’s heartlessness casts her as the sole legitimate antagonist in the book. What makes Medb intriguing is that her character is not portrayed as being being much different from a male. Unlike most modern female villains, she is not shown as a femme fatale of unsurpassing beauty. While she is not afraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants, she makes it clear that this is literally at her pleasure. You are left with the impression that she puts sex on the table more because she would like to bed the man in question than she thinks it will sincerely help manipulate him. Her sexuality is so completely within her control that she even outright states that one of the reasons she married Ailill was his lack of jealousy, for “if I married a jealous man that would be wrong too: I have never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.” (The Tain 53). Unlike so many other stories we have read, Medb has no fear of retribution for extramarital dalliances. She is also clearly in charge on the battlefield, if not particularly honorable, and her armies follow her in spite of some extremely questionable decisions. Clearly, there is some precedent set to instill that degree of loyalty. It is only at the end that they question her ability to lead (The Tain 251). She is determined, she is strong, she is flawed, and she is one of most real female characters we have read in both the Celtic and the Norse mythologies. The unsavory nature of her personality only serves to put her on equal footing with the men of the story, who are not much more honorable in most cases. She is painted as neither virtuous womanhood nor a spiteful bitch goddess. She is a person first, a woman second.
Contrast this with a character like Branwen from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion. Branwen is a paper doll character. She has no dimension or desire, no personal ambitions or personal quirks. She exists simply as a reason for war. She is a pawn in the games of men. When Matholwch shows up out of the blue to seek her hand in marriage, the entire proceeding is treated as if he and Llyr were trading livestock. Matholwch has not even seen Branwen at this point. When she is finally introduced, we are only told of her beauty, nothing more. She does not even speak until close to the end of the story, and then it is only in response to questions posed her about the invading Welsh armies. The very first words we hear her speak are “Though, I am no “lady” (The Mabinogion 29). Her abnegation of her status (intended ironically or otherwise) is glaring in light of her helpless enslavement and persecution as Matholwch’s chattel. We know her by the things that are done to her, not the things that she does. Her character drives the plot, not because she is at the helm or because of any manipulation on her part, but because she plays the same role as the coveted bull in The Tain. The horses that were mutilated by Efnysien play a role that is almost equal in importance to the plot (The Mabinogion 23), and receive almost as much description as Branwen .
We can see that the juxtaposition between these two women is striking. The fact that both manage to influence their stories to the degree they do despite their clear differences is interesting in light of the fact that they both come from cultures of Celtic origins and the stories were both written down around the 11th-12th century. The Irish Medb is an empowered, if not always likeable, queen who’s ambition propels the story forward. Branwen is a puppet, and a victim to her circumstances who’s presences propels the story forward. These disparate women serve as good examples of how women are portrayed in their respective mythologies as well as how their mythologies treat their women.
The Good Son
There are surprisingly few similarities between the Celtic Irish mythology of The Tain and the Celtic Welsh mythology of The Mabinogion. The characterizations are vastly different, the settings are different, the social etiquette is different, even the combat styles are different. One place we see some degree of consistency is in the symbols that surround the two main heroes, Cu Chulainn and Pryderi. Many of the symbols we see in The Tain regarding Cu Chulainn are used in The Mabinogion to describe Pryderi, in spite of being very different stories written in very different styles about very different heroes.
One of the most visible examples of this symbolism is in the origins of the heroes Cu Chulainn and Pryderi. Both of their birth stories have the conspicuous presence of horses on the night of their birth. Cu Chulainn’s birth story is complicated, as he is in a way thrice conceived (and I just had an occasion to use the word “thrice” for the first time ever). The first time, Deichtine and Conchobar take shelter at house where the host’s wife goes into labor and gives birth to a boy. At the same time, a mare gives birth to two foals (The Tain 22). The next morning, the house is gone, but the boy and the foals remain. The boy survives for a few years, raised by Deichtine, but dies in early childhood. Later, she is visited by the god Lugh, who tells her he was the host the evening the child was born, and he makes her pregnant through mystical means. This baby dies before birth and is “reabsorbed” by Deichtine, and she finds herself a virgin once more (which is quite convenient). She eventually conceives Cu Chulainn by her husband, and although these seem to be separate events, they are told in a way that implies they are all somehow required in the conception of Cu Chulainn. It is as if his essence had to be filtered and distilled in this process somehow, so he could become the hero he was meant to be.
On the night of Pryderi’s birth, he vanishes from Rhiannon’s care and appears at a manor where a lord is standing watch against a great beast that is killing a newborn foal every year on that night (The Mabinogion 17). When a giant claw comes in through the window and snatches the foal, the lord hacks of the beast’s hand and gives chase. It is then that he finds the infant Pryderi and decides to raise him as his own. In this way, Pryderi is symbolically the result of multiple births, the first to his mother, Rhiannon, and the second when the lord finds and rescues him. It can be argued that his return to his real parents could be construed as a third rebirth, although that argument is a bit of stretch.
The presence of the foals, born the same night as the hero, is significant. That the horse was a symbol of fertility is not in doubt, look no further than Macha giving birth while racing against horses in The Tain to confirm that this is more than coincidence, it is a reoccurring theme (The Tain 7). In a culture that relies on the horse in battle, the horse would have held a great deal of significance as a symbol of authority and military strength. The horses being born into the world at the same time as the heroes is the equivalent of being born with a sword in your hand. It signifies his future power.
Another similarity is that neither hero goes by his name given at birth. Cu Chulainn is born Sétanta and gains the name Cu Chulainn after he kills Culann’s hound in self-defense and agrees to become its replacement, becoming “the Hound of Culann” (The Tain 84). This is his rite of passage and the point where he becomes a sworn warrior. Similarly, Pryderi starts life named Gwri by his foster parents. When his foster parents realize he is the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and return him to the castle, his real parents rename him Pryderi, the name he will wear as ruler of the land he will now inherit (The Mabinogion 20).
Our heroes also share the common trait of accelerated growth in early childhood. This serves to set them apart from the rest of the mortal world. These heroes are, after all, more or less demigods. Cu Chulainn is the son of Lugh, and is therefore half god. Pryderi is the son of Rhiannon, and is therefore half god as well. Their accelerated growth signifies this aspect of the divine within them, as if their mortal bodies can not contain the power within them. We see similar tales of mythological figures maturing at unnatural rates in the story of Väinämöinen in the Kalevala, who is born to Ilmatar a fully formed 700 year old man, or Athena springing from Zeus’ head fully formed.
These similarities in early childhood point to both Pryderi and Cu Chulainn possibly being a common archetypal Celtic hero. Both heroes are born under auspicious circumstances and in the presence of horses, both heroes have a specific identity that they assume once they ascend from boyhood to manhood. These similarities seem to be the ingredients that are used to signify that they are heroes of supernatural origin and destined for great things.
Welsh Women are Punching Bags in This Book
What. The. Hell.
Soooo… Unlike many of those of the Pagan persuasion, I have no illusions of this great Northern European Matriarchal Paradise that once existed, where women governed and were revered as sacred vessels of the perpetual cycles of universal life blah blah blah. That never happened, and whenever I hear people spout this crap I want to smack the ever-loving Marion Zimmer-Bradley out of their heads with a history book. Were there possibly times in history where women had more power and status than others? Sure. But most of history looks a lot like The Mabinogion. I have to say, when I read the Eddas or even The Tain, it sounded like a fairly decent time in history to be a woman. Reading The Mabinogion is making me want to go all Valerie Solanas on some menfolk. From the very beginning, Peredur’s mother advises him “if you see a woman you want, take her, you’ll be a better man because of it.” Great advice, mom. Then we see Gwenhwyfar’s humiliation at the hands of the unknown knight. He douses her face and breasts with wine, cuffs her upside the head, and steals her chalice. None of this has anything to do with her or anything she herself has done, it’s all done to incite combat with Arthur’s knights. She is just one of the king’s possessions. Then we get into some serious dwarf abuse. What is it with these stories hating on dwarves? They get kicked into fire and beaten to death (is she dead? I’m not sure from the narrative). Again, she seems to just be a victim of Cai’s rather malicious nature. Then there is the countess whose brothers decide to give her against her will to Peredur to try and save their kingdom. In all these cases, these women have no character, they are not described beyond their physical appearance, and they seem completely incapable of defending themselves or standing up to their oppressors. Maybe I am just particularly sensitive to the subject because I have been working on gender roles for my research paper, but honestly, the atrocities committed against these woman makes me hate the male characters to the point where I no longer care what their mythical significance is. I have to admit, I just couldn’t finish Peredur’s story. Because I hate him. And stuff. But I did watch Excalibur this afternoon, so that counts as something, right? (Trivial side note: part of the reason I married my husband is because he can recite the Charm of Making from Excalibur. Such are the feats of strength nerds use in courting.) I did enjoy the very surreal quality of The Lady of the Well, but the story itself felt a bit rambling and confused. I know I keep criticizing these stories for their lack of character development or coherent plots, like I am supposed to be critiquing modern literature. I am actually rather disappointed with myself in my inability to wrap my mind around the Celtic and Welsh myths in a meaningful way. I have spent years studying the Norse and Germanic stories and history, but I have always dodged the Celtic stuff because I just didn’t feel the same internal pull towards them. I had hoped that this was just my own short-sightedness and that I would take to them once I delved in. I think one of the most important aspects of mythology is that people have to be able to feel it in order to truly understand it. This isn’t the academic subject it seems like on the surface, it isn’t just the study of history or literature, the meanings of these stories are important, and in the absence of being able to understand the meaning to the people who wrote them, we have to find what these stories mean to us.
If you teach this course again (and I really really hope you do, this has been fantastic and you have done an amazing job with some really difficult subject matter. I know I have groused a lot about the Celtic stuff, but the fact that you actually got me to finally read and contemplate these books speaks loudly) I think having a “cast sheet” of characters to watch for in a story before starting a story or book or encouraging students to keep their own would be great. I know it sounds simplistic, but in retrospect, this would have been a big help keeping things straight, especially during The Tain. I think I would have enjoyed the stories a bit more if I had thought of this earlier. Monkey learn!
WTF Mabinogion, Why You So Weird?
What the hell did I just read? No, seriously, what the hell was that all about? Pryderi gives his mother, Rhiannon to Manawydan… because loyalty?? Not sure. But Rhiannon seems ok with this. So tra la la, all is well until BOOM! A curse descends on the land, and all the crops and critters are lost. Rhiannon, Manawydan, Pryderi, and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa seem to be the only people living in this desolate land. So Manawydan and Pryderi decide to hunt and fish for a while. Somehow, this life becomes tiresome, and they decide to move to London and open a saddle shop. Sure, why not, two crazy kids in the big city with a dream to make the best damn saddles around. Of course, when the other saddle makers find out how awesome Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Emporium is they take the logical course of action and decide to create a better product at a reasonable price to encourage a healthy and competitive market. No wait, they decide to try and KILL them. A reasonable response, don’t you think? Pryderi wants to kill them in retaliation, Manawydan says, no, let’s go into business making shields. So they do, and Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Emporium is a big hit. Then the other shield makers get their knickers in a twist and decide to get stabby. Pryderi wants to kill them, Manawydan says, no, let’s going to business making shoes. Thus, Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Shoe Emporium is born. Oddly enough, in spite of Manawydan prediction that shoemakers are yella’ bellied, they get homicidal at their success as well. Why these guys didn’t just open up Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Shoe Pointy Things & Seige Weapon Emporium in the first place is beyond me. Somehow, the shoemakers are the final straw, and Manawydan and Pryderi head home. One day, they are out hunting when a white boar appears and leads them to fort or caer. The dogs chase the boar into the fort, and Pryderi decides to go in after his dogs. Inside he finds a golden bowl that freezes him in place as soon as he touches it. Manawydan, like the mensch he is, waits until sundown and then just leaves without Pryderi. When Rhiannon asks where her son is, Manawydan shrugs and says, “Dunno. Somewhere.” Rhiannon is annoyed at his slacker attitude, and goes in search of Pryderi herself, only to fall victim to the same fate when she finds him. Perhaps if they had had some OSHA training at the castle, she would have known to knock him away with a stick, rather than grab it herself. Cigfa sees that only she and Manawydan are left, and she is distraught. Manawydan basically promises not to rape her (I think) and then says, “Hey, you know what we should do?” to which, Cigfa should have replied, “Go in search of our missing mates in the exact place we know they are?”. “Naaaah,” says Manawydan, “Let’s go to London and become shoemakers!” (I somehow missed the fact that the caer had vanished when I first read this… but still). “ Wait,” says Cigfa, “didn’t you and my husband try that and it ended up with hoards of wrathful cobblers chasing you with torches and pitchforks?” “Shhhhh, let’s not speak of such trivial things.”, said Manawydan the sub-genius. Off they went, and Manawydan and Pryderi’s Cigfa’s Saddle Shield Shoe Pointy Things & Seige Weapon Shoes Again Emporium is open for business. Of course, after a year of this the shoemakers once again go on a rampage. And Manawydan and Cigfa head back to their empty kingdom. This time, he plants some wheat. Just as he is about to harvest it, some magical mice destroy his crops. So he captures one in a glove and plans on executing it for it’s crimes. After a dude begs him repeatedly and in different disguises not to kill it, he finally asks they guy why he wants this mouse so badly. Guy admits it’s his wife, and that he had cursed the land in retaliation for Gwawl being subjected to Badger-in-a-Bag two stories ago. Manawydan negotiates the freeing of Pryderi and Rhiannon, as well as the restoration of his land. Then dude tells them that Pryderi and Rhiannon were held in place by door knockers and ass collars. Then I just “noped” outta there, cuz this shit be cray cray.
(I wrote this before reading the 4th branch because I was running out of time. Now I wish I had written about the 4th branch instead of this nutso thing)
Wow. How awesome is the phrase “Badger-in-a-Bag”? LOVE IT. So this is my first time reading the Mabinogion, however I have read about some of the stories and characters before. So far, the writing style is…. well, let’s just say I can see the influence on English writing. It’s a bit stiff compared to The Tain, and it definitely lacks a lot of the comedy and wit (although, Rhiannon telling Pwyll that he could have spared his horse a lot of grief if he had just asked her to stop rather than chase her was a total “OOOH! SNAP!” moment). And I swear, if Pwyll said, “Between me and God” one more time… What? Is he Rainman? He starts every sentence with it!
Another contrast is the women. Oh, the women. We are only about 35 pages in and already I am leery of the way women are going to be treated in these stories. Point number one: Pwyll desires Rhiannon based solely on the fact that she is a hot chick on a fast horse. She’s the Welsh Malibu Barbie (Barbi ap Mallybw?). She manages to negotiate the marriage on her terms, but then at their “engagement party”, Pwyll ends up giving her to another guy, who clearly sees nothing wrong with this arrangement. Seriously, who wants to be married to someone who doesn’t want you? Marriage is hard enough when you both want to be there. Of course, in the end, she gets his dumb ass “badgered”, so again she wins, but what a lousy way to treat a gal. Next, she has a baby, and somehow the six handmaidens lose it. Talk about sucking at your job. Instead of butching up and dealing with the situation, or, I don’t know, LOOKING FOR THE BABY, they decide to frame Rhiannon for eating her kid. Nice. Way to throw a sister under the bus. They persist in their lies until Rhiannon is sentenced to do public penance and tell everyone her story. To make me even more rage-filled, when their lies are exposed and it is shown that Rhiannon clearly did not eat her baby (several YEARS later), not only is she not particularly bitter, NOBODY SEEMS INTERESTED IN PUNISHING THE GAGGLE OF BITCHES THAT ACCUSED HER. Why? Ooooh if I were Rhiannon I would be in a state of mind to retaliate with god-like fury. THIS calls for a warp spasm. You know, I probably would be so hateful towards these women, except 1. Backstabbing women is a hot button issue for me. And 2. They killed puppies to achieve their goal. PUPPIES. Puppy killers get no mercy from me. So far, Rhiannon seems like she’s being bullied left and right, and while in each instance she more or less comes out on top in the end, it still fills me with what my husband calls my “bear rage”.
Interestingly, Rhiannon, like Medb, is associated with the goddess of the throne, that by ritually marrying her a king married his kingdom (Proinsias Mac Cana’s Celtic Mythology- a cool book if you can find a copy). So far, the two seem vastly different as characters. Rhiannon seems to fit that description more, as she seems easier to manipulate in this story and lacks her own motives. She seems less like an actual queen and more like the embodiment of a concept. Medb was nothing BUT motive and seems more like a leader, albeit a lousy one.
Don’t get me started on Branwen. Abused, enslaved, held captive, and then they throw her baby on the fire? Again, we have no idea what her motives or desires are in life. She’s just there to be the Golden Vagina that men want… because vagina. She has zero agency or character. Something tells me The Mabinogion is going to be like a Lars von Trier movie: filled with woman being victimized, abused, and traded like cattle. (Seriously, have you seen his movies? I mean, I actually loved Dogville, but it’s hard to take everything the leads up to the ending. Breaking the Waves was like some kind of really negative personal fetish fantasy, and Dancer in the Dark was like making a musical out of torture porn. Melancholia basically makes a woman’s inability to control her emotions the cause of the apocalypse. I won’t even watch Antichrist, seeing as the woman in the story is supposed to be the titular character, not to mention she mutilates her genitals with scissors. Eeech! I am convinced the man just hates women.)
This weekend it was very difficult to write. I’ve had several rather serious personal dramas fall in my lap, and even though I’ve done the reading I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing my journal. I have also been spending a large amount of time researching my research paper, and my brain is having a hard time shifting gears. I have also noticed that I am having a hard time writing about The Tain in general, even though I didn’t have a problem discussing it in class. I finally figured out that this is because there is something about the style of the tale that lends itself more to dynamic discussion rather than dry prose. I mentioned in class that I felt the Norse wrote great poetry, but the Celts told great stories. Maybe it’s because I am used to dissecting the symbolism and cultural relevance of the Norse stories, but I haven’t really gotten the feel for the Celtic stories. I find the complete futility of the entire raid baffling. All these people die to serve the egomaniacal needs of one pair of jackasses, and in the end both the bulls die anyway (cue 70s sitcom ironic trumpet “loser” sound effect). What in the heck was that all about? I keep looking for some deeper, esoteric wisdom to be gleaned from all this, but I can’t even come up with something akin to a simple moral parable. Were these stories for the sake of entertainment? Historical documentation? I think that their lack of “mythic” feel is what has made them hard for me to put into context. I can discuss what happened in the stories, but not what it means. The best I have been able to reason is that these stories aren’t any kind of moral or spiritual guide, and they aren’t strictly historical documentation, rather they feel like a map of ancient Ireland. The constant listing of names and places, who did what where, etc seems like a way of mapping out the history of the land, rather than the people. As someone who was a habitual gypsy in her youth, I often joke about how the worst thing about moving to a new town is the way people give directions based on what USED to be there. When I first moved back to Seattle from Los Angeles, I had a job in the Greenlake area. Any time I asked how to get somewhere, I was invariably told a list of directions based on where the “Honey Bear Bakery used to be”. Just this weekend, my husband and I drove to the Mukilteo area where I grew up to visit my family. We had to meet my mother at a restaurant in Everett for lunch. I knew the restaurant was where “The Ranch” used to be, and I remembered where “The Ranch” used to be because that’s where my mother met stepfather #2. I knew it was past the apartment complex where my friend Shanel and I got drunk in high school and she had a huge fight with her boyfriend, so I ended up walking 5 miles home at 3am in lousy shoes. I also knew that if we reached the mall that I worked at when I was 18 we had gone too far. By describing the landscape in a way that is relatable and personally engaging gives it meaning. Since ancient Ireland didn’t have signs, stores, and Google Maps, being able to point to the 3 hills Fergus sliced the tops off of was useful. Being able to envision Cu Chulainn’s deeds and movements across the countryside gives you a visualization of what the lay of the land is. As was pointed out in that article you sent, being able to clearly delineate property boundaries would have been crucial to a culture that practices pastoral transhumance. The seasonal migration of cattle with out barbed wire fences, maps, or signposts would risk confrontation between herdsmen, or worse you could end up not finding your pasture land if you didn’t have a way of navigating efficiently. And as anyone here can attest to, navigating in a gloomy, overcast environment without starts or sun to guide you can be tricky. By generating a history of the land with outrageous stories and great feats that carve the landscape, you create memorable landmarks to navigate and mark borders. I think this is a valuable illustration of the different functions of myth in a culture. The Norse used their myths to guide behavior and turn an eye inward. They wanted to make sense of their place in the world. The Celts wanted to describe their world to avoid conflict and strife and ensure survival.
I think I have figured out my problem with writing the journal entries, especially for the Celtic portion of the class. I am so accustom to writing in this very formal, dry tone for my clergy classes, and I am really wanting to just let loose and blather on here. So, I’ma gonna blather, mmm kay?
I am still feeling a love/hate thing with The Tain. When it is good, it is brilliant. This is one of the most amazingly quotable books ever written. Seriously, these are better comebacks than you will find at a Dean Martin roast. There is this deadpan humor that absolutely floors me. The things people say when they are dying are bizarre, I can’t even tell if they are supposed to be humorous or not. When he kills Ferdia, Ferdia actually says, “That is enough now. I’ll die of that”. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not. On the one hand, the scene is very serious and poignant, as Cuchulainn is killing his foster brother by Scathach. On the other hand, what a weird and wonderful thing to to say. The death of Etarcomol is gruesome, but so extreme and outrageous it’s hard to see it as less than extremely gory slapstick. It’s like a Monty Python skit. The sheer volume of effortlessly brutal slayings in this book is absurd, even by mythological standards. I find the non-stop onslaught of hyperbolic narrative of Cuchulainn’s deeds extraordinary. In almost every hero myth I have ever encountered we are reminded how exceptional and superhuman the hero is, but Cuchulainn edges into the realm of the Tall Tale. He doesn’t just kill men, he obliterates them. In the words of my husband, “I’ma gonna kill ya, swim across the River Styx, and kill ya again! All without mah water wings!” (My husband does the best redneck battle taunts you have ever heard. Of course, he also once chased a friend’s abusive boyfriend through the soft North Carolina night while brandishing a trident, so yeah, he is no stranger to the warp spasm. I have no idea where he got a trident, however, if nothing else it. worked as a psychological deterrent and the guy stopped hurting his girlfriend). He is the ultimate in swagger, capable of “feats” and stunts that aren’t even superhuman, they defy all laws of natural reason.
I wanted to add that I was a bit befuddled at his encounter with The Morrigan. I am wondering if there will be more on that later, but it was a bit of a head scratcher for me. What does she want? Why? The only way we know it is specifically her is the fact that the title of the chapter mentions her. I know from outside reading that she is associated with cattle as well as war, but I guess I am stuck in the Norse paradigm of fate being something already determined, so her attempts to change the course of battle are hard for me to understand. I do find the overlap between her and the valkyries fascinating. She is a chooser of the slain in her own right, and associated with crows and ravens. I also find it telling that the Celts, who were a pastoral culture prone to cattle raids, would combine their Cattle Goddess (usually the Cow Goddess is a nurturing, life affirming figure) with their War Goddess. She’s like a mythical Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, two great tastes that taste great together. I must learn more about this…
I feel like I really need a stronger background in this subject matter to fully appreciate it. I should have spent this past week studying this, but I was wrapped up in working on my research paper, practicing the ukulele, catching up on housework, and getting ready for Yule. Now I just feel like a chump, since we are almost done with the book and I don’t have nearly the depth of understanding I would like to have. Of course, it’s taken years to have the modest level of understanding I have of Norse mythology, so I am probably expecting way too much of myself. It’s more than just knowing the stories, it’s knowing what the stories are about, what they most likely meant to the people who told them. I just don’t have the broad spectrum of knowledge behind it to feel confident in how I am interpreting the story.
So, I am trying to wade through this book. I have to be honest, so far this story is less than scintillating for me. There is a great deal of detail to the stories, and sometimes that makes for magnificant yarn spinning, other times it’s like painting a small room hot pink. The tale gets weighed down with the utter hyperbole and over-abundance of names and places. I think this story stars every single living human in Ireland at the time it was written. I am desperately trying to see it as more than just a really flowerey story about cattle rustling, but I have fallen asleep twice now while reading it. The thing that makes this really lame is that not all of it is bad, the parts that are good are BRILLIANT. I am trying to flesh out my knowledge of the mythoilogy outside of the Tain, but it’s a lot to read in a short amount of time.
As far as why the story is the way it is, I think I am starting to get it. I think I have found one image to completely sum up ancient Celtic culture.
Yep. That pretty much says it all.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge is about a cattle raid. Medb decides she wants Dáire’s splendiferous bull so her wealth will be equal to her husband Ailill. Of course she does, this is a perfectly reasonable justification for war. These folks declare war at the drop of a hat. I think it’s kind of interesting that they seem to hide behind the geis and other restrictions to limit the number of casualties they have and avoid battle altogether.
The Pangs of the Ulstermen is a perfect example of this. Time to march off to battle? UGH! LABOR PAINS! No war for you today my friend (or the next 5 days and 4 nights).This isn’t cowardice (I dare you to day that to their faces), it’s casualty abatement. And seriously, how many times are they going to use this gimmick? I envision their enemies rolling their eyes and checking their watches. Another way of avoiding battle? “Oops! We can’t just go charging in, the guy we want to fight has left this hobbling device here with a message! We wouldn’t want to make him mad, now, would we?”. Why waste the lives of dozens of warriors when you can just send Cú Chulainn in to do single combat with one guy? Contrary to popular belief, life was not any cheaper then than it is today, just more fleeting if you weren’t careful. A king needed his soldiers. If you can resolve a conflict with a minimum of death and without losing face, that was a win-win situation for everyone involved.
I know I am supposed to write more, but I spent all day trying to catch up and my brain is completely fried. To the point where I am adding pictures of Bugs Bunny to my mythology homework assignments. I think I am going to do better with the class discussion with this one.
(I actually started writing this before I read your email with the pages about rituals of conflict reduction. I don’t know if these subjects are related, but it would be funny if they were!)
I will leave you with a lousy haiku:
Rolling hills of green
Cú Chulainn is a bad ass
What’s with the place names?