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Queer Life in the Viking Age: In Myth and Daily Living

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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