Ancient and modern Iceland met yesterday evening at Reykjavik Airport, as Icelandic low-cost airline WOWair held a naming ceremony for one of two brand-new Airbus A321 aircraft purchased by the airline. The guests of honour at the event were Dorrit Moussaief, First Lady of Iceland, and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of the Icelandic neo-pagan religious association, Ásatrúarfélagið.
Common knowledge about squirrels is that they are basically furry rats. Yes, they are adorable in an amnesiac sort of way, what with their inability to remember where they buried their nuts, but the modern squirrel is not typically considered a manifestation of anything monstrous. Interestingly, much like Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks, if you combine Viking aesthetics with squirrels, you produce a malevolent little rodent called Ratatoskr (“Drill Tooth” in Old Norse) that spends his days spreading malicious gossip and trying to start a fight between the eagle at the top of the World Tree Yggdrasil and the angry Wyrm beneath called Níðhöggr, generally with phrases like, “Did you hear what he said about your mother?”
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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Mythology from a Very Rambling Pagan Perspective
So, you want to talk about the nature of mythology. Unfortunately, in my case, that means talking about Paganism, since mythology is the source of my personal belief system. And I apologize for the rambling tone, but its hard to put into a straight up narrative. My personal take is somewhat along the lines of Jung, that mythology is basically the dream of humanity. Much like our dreams serve to work through the complexities and conflicts in our subconscious, myth serves to do the same for the collective unconsciousness. In the Pagan community, there is a lot of debate about the nature of the gods. Beliefs run from almost a secular humanist attitude, to what we refer to as “sock puppeting”, where people believe their personal relationship with a god to be so personal, they almost treat them like they are an imaginary friend. Seriously, I have heard people talk about hanging out and watching tv with Loki. It’s… sad, to say the least. I think this puts me and others like me in an unusual category, since for most people this class would be little more than an academic exercise, and they could freely speculate on the purpose mythology serves on a literary, historical, or psychological level. For those of us who actually believe and celebrate these stories, the question is about the issue my personal faith. Talk about a can of worms! While I am no stranger to the “woo woo” of the universe (show me a Pagan who hasn’t had a mystical experience of some kind and I will show you a Catholic), I can’t say that I (or most Pagans I associate with personally) take these stories as literal events, nor do I think most of us believe there is a group of immortal people living in the sky looking down at humanity with a judgmental eye. However, we still believe these things to be quite real, even though we understand this to be contradictory. The best I can describe it is that is is sort of like when you have a very vivid dream that you can’t get out of your head. It seems real, and even if you know that it isn’t, it haunts your reality, changes the way you look at things. There are levels to reality, mythology serves to wipe some of the dust off the windows between worlds. We tend to think of mythology as being only the stories of ancient religions and tribal beliefs. We forget that Christianity is mythology as well. Mythology does not mean some dusty old story with little relevance to modern life. Mythology is alive and adaptable. Pagans tend to be people who have found solace in a different world view than the Abrahamic religions and Eastern philosophies offered on the census sheet. Mythology provides a mirror to our world and ourselves, a way of looking outward as well as inward. It informs our life decisions, or modes of behavior. We model ourselves after figures in myth. Christians ask themselves “what would Jesus do?”. Likewise, Pagans tend to take the values set forth in their mythology to imitate. In modern Heathenry (you asked if Heathenry was a Pagan movement. It is a blanket term for the followers of the Norse and Germanic Pagan movement, which is actually quite varied and comes in many flavors), you tend to see people who value bravery, adventure, hospitality, kinship, and self-reliance. In followers of the Hellenic traditions, there tends to be an emphasis on intellectualism, mysticism, or artistry. The followers of the Celtic traditions tend to be a little more female-centric and nature oriented, and so on. Mythology is a blueprint to these ways of living. It provides characters who are archetypes for the people we would like to be (or avoid being in some cases). Whether you are the Hero, the Earth Mother, the Trickster, the Sheildmaiden, or the Shaman, mythology has it. Contrary to how many people view Pagans, this isn’t an elaborate game of make-believe or some Ren Faire fantasy. Maybe I feel this way because I tend to see people as their archetypes (of which we each have many), and I tend to see the world in mythic terms. Everything in life has significance, we are all stars of our own epics, we all possess the ability to become something more transcendent than the person who pays the bills, needs to get the car fixed, and gets heartburn every time they eat raw onion. Paganism is about recognizing these qualities within yourself and others and living your life in celebration of that. We are all Odin, Freyja, Medb, Cu Chulainn, and Peredur, and our world is filled with magic. That is the purpose mythology serves for me.
Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces
Brynhild and Gudrun are two women who are, for all intents and purposes, diametric polarities on the scale of Norse women. Brynhild represents a strong, feminine warrior, a valkyrie, a woman of conviction. Gudrun’s character leans toward a more passive role, a woman who is a perpetual bride and the passive victim of the circumstances that surround her. In spite of these pronounced differences, both their stories end with the same basic outcome: death and sorrow.
Brynhild’s story begins when we are introduced to her on a fiery mountain top. She reveals to Sigurd that she is either a valkyrie or a shield maiden (depending on which version you accept), and that she is there as a punishment from Odin. The Sigrdrifumol in the Poetic Eddas says:
“Odin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded. “And I said to him that I had made a vow in my turn, that I would never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear.”
Immediately we know that this is not a woman to be trifled with. She is a warrior, she is a chooser of the slain, and she is self-possessed enough to go against a god. She is also a woman who lives by her convictions. Odin imposes a condition on her future, that she will be forced to lay down her sword and get married. Brynhild counters with a near impossible condition of her own, that he will be a man who knows no fear. Even in the face of divine castigation, she is defiant and insists on calling the shots. It is only through subterfuge and trickery that she is forced into breaking her vow. When the deception is revealed to her by Gudrun, she takes action, and has Sigurd killed. In the end, Brynhild chooses to take her own life, making the final decision about her destiny herself. She is even burned on the funeral pyre of another woman’s husband at her request. It takes a great deal of chutzpa to have a man killed and then ask to have your body burned along with his in front of his widow.
Conversely, all of Gudrun’s actions and decisions are made for her by others. When we first meet Gudrun in the Volsungasaga, she is introduced thusly:
There was a king hight Giuki, who ruled a realm south of the Rhine; three sons he had, thus named: Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and Gudrun was the name of his daughter, the fairest of maidens; and all these children were far before all other king’s children in all prowess, and in goodliness and growth withal; ever were his sons at the wars and wrought many a deed of fame.
She is defined as someone’s daughter, an object of beauty. She is there to be strategically married. Gudrun desires Sigurd, but he only has eyes for Brynhild. It is Grimhild who takes action by poisoning Sigurd and making him forget his love for Brynhild. Then it is Gudrun’s brother Gunnar’s desire for Brynhild that takes Brynhild out of the equation once and for all for Sigurd. Gudrun gets to marry Sigurd not because of any action she has taken or decisions she has made, but by default. When she reveals Gunnar and Sigurd’s deception to Brynhild, it is in response to Brynhild’s boasting and snubbing at the river while washing their hair. Again, she does not act, she reacts. Her character is summarized completely by her response to her husband’s death, which is literally to do nothing. She becomes dormant, inactive, almost catatonic. Gudrun is incapable of independent, unfacilitated action throughout the story.
Both Gudrun and Brynhild share a common thread in the tapestry of fate. They both, at different times, are wed or betrothed to Sigurd, both dream of their shared destiny before it happens, and both end up widowed (Brynhild posthumously). There the similarities end. These women are opposite sides of the same coin of how Norse life was for a woman. While there were opportunities for a woman to fight alongside men, to stand up for herself, and to have an independent personality, far too often they were used as bullet points on a trade agreement, a peace offering, or currency. Brynhild demonstrates the perils of life as an independent woman. She is punished repeatedly for pursuing things that she desires. She is forced to give up the only thing she ever wanted, being a shield maiden, and her anger over this is palpable. Gudrun, on the other hand, demonstrates how a life without self-advocacy leaves an individual at the mercy of the maelstrom of world around her. Both women end up victims of their own actions (or inactions), and in the end neither way seems to be the right way in this story.
The Nature of Níðhöggr
Serpents are everywhere in Norse mythology. Jörmungandr, Fafnir, and the myriad of snakes at the base of Yggdrasil to name a few. Níðhöggr is one of the most intriguing serpents, as his symbolic presence can be interpreted in very flexible ways. The potential for outside influence (particularly Christianity) in the interpretation of its story is large, but the figure of the malevolent death wyrm has a widespread appeal in global mythology, and some natural cross-over is possible. The vicious and destructive nature of Níðhöggr is the only thing we are certain about.
Níðhöggr, whose name variably translates as “Malice Striker” or “Curse Striker”, lives entwined in the roots of Yggdrasil. It spends its days chewing on the roots, causing the tree great suffering and agony. Are the roots of Yggdrasil Níðhöggr’s prison and it is trying to chew its way out? Is it deliberately trying to torment the World Tree? Its intentions are clearly malicious, as its name states its foul nature. The fact that once it is free of the roots of Yggdrasil it will fly to the aid of the giant armies during Ragnarök proves that this thing is a rancorous honey badger of doom. According to Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning), Níðhöggr trades insults and spreads discord with the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil via the squirrel Ratatöskr. It is clearly not a benevolent creature, as its daily “to do” list is filled with “make the world a more miserable place”.
Níðhöggr is also represented as almost being an “Eater of the Sinful Dead”. Its chthonic origins and propensity to gnaw or chew on the very roots of the tree that gives the universe life invokes the image of a dark and cruel creature with vile motives. In the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, it is described:
A hall I saw, far from the sun,
On Náströnd it stands, and the doors face north,
Venom drops through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls do serpents wind.
I saw there wading through rivers wild
Treacherous men and murderers too,
And workers of ill with the wives of men;
There Níðhöggr sucked the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?
Náströnd is the “Shore of Corpses” where oathbreakers and murders go after they die. The implication is that part of Níðhöggr’s role is to torment the “sinful” dead, but it is possible this is a reinterpretation of the myth through a Christianized filter. The role of the snake or serpent of Genesis in Christian mythology is to sit in a tree in Eden and sow discontent and sorrow for the world. This serpent is associated with Satan. Satan is also the considered to be the ruler of Hell, where Christian sinners are tormented eternally. However, contrary to popular belief, this is a contemporary literary view, not a biblical one, and it was probably not particularly popular during the time the Eddas were being written down. This does lead one to wonder if the influence went the other direction, with the Norse mythology flavoring the Christian viewpoint through oral tradition.
That Níðhöggr is a dragon raises questions about the physical origins of the myth. It has long been theorized that tales of dragons had their origins in the discovery of dinosaur fossils in ancient times. There are many modern dig sites in Northern Europe to attest to an abundance of fossils to choose from as a possible proto-Níðhöggr (including the charmingly named Grendelius, an ichthyosaur found in Great Britain). The discovery of a large, toothy, lethal looking skull that resembles no other known living creature buried deep in the ground is bound to start people talking.
Ultimately, many of the creatures that call Yggdrasil home have meaning that is lost to us in the modern age. They no longer represent to us what they represented to our ancestors, the stories behind their births are shrouded in time. They have become the victims of conflation, confusion, revision, and filtration, and Níðhöggr is no exception. Instead, the best we can offer is an attempt to understand the world of the ancient Norse and try to project the implications of a figure like Níðhöggr for a man or woman living in that age.
Loki vs. the Kinsey Scale
In recent comic book news, it was announced that the character of Loki in the Thor comics is going to be portrayed as being both bisexual and being able to switch genders. This has become a polarizing subject for people on both sides of the fence. Some people are pleased to see more LGBTQ characters being introduced into the world of comics, some are offended. Some LGBTQ people are irritated that Loki is a villain in the books and consider this to be negative stereotyping, others applaud the historical accuracy of the character’s portrayal. It’s interesting to see Loki’s sexual activity still has the same ability to churn up chaos and discord even in the 21st century. Loki’s sexuality and fluid gender identity generates change within the universe on an epic scale, creating mythical beasts and monsters, while altering the course of mythic events.
The first of Loki’s unions of note is his relationship with female jötnar Angrboða (Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning XXXIV). Although the nature of his relations with the Angrboða is never made entirely clear, we do know that they had procreated on more than one occasion, producing the monsters Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel. Whereas most fertility gods/goddesses will have offspring that are natural phenomena or gifts from the gods, Loki’s offspring are literal agents of chaos and death. Loki is capable of sowing the actual seed of discontent. Fenrir is an instrument of Ragnarök, destined to kill Odin and be destroyed by Odin’s son Víðarr. He is a harbinger of the death of the gods. Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, is a fearsome beast, destined to poison the sky and slay (and be slain by) Thor during the last battle. Hel is the embodiment of death with out great honor. Those not worthy of the pleasures of Valhalla go to Hel. All three of these offspring are death incarnate. Because Loki represents a reversal of expectation, the results of his sexual union are the antithesis of life.Loki’s fluid gender identity comes into play so frequently and at such important moments in the timeline of the gods, that it can’t be seen as anything but his “specialty”. His role as a trickster includes episodes of cross dressing, feminized behavior and appearance, and outright gender-swapping, and this is almost exclusively his domain (Thor’s adventures in drag and Odin’s predilection for seiðr not withstanding). Lokasenna is rife with accusations of his intrinsic feminine nature. Njord says of Loki:
“Small ill does it work, though a woman may have
A lord or a lover or both;
But a wonder it is, that this womanish god
Comes hither, though babes he has borne.”
and more than once Thor states, “Unmanly one, cease, or the mighty hammer, Mjollnir, shall close thy mouth.” (Poetic Edda, Lokasenna 57). Loki changes gender to betray the gods on several occasions; when he fools Frigg into revealing Baldr’s one vulnerability is mistletoe (Snorri’s Edda Gylfaginning) and again when Hel states she will only release Baldr if all the creatures of the earth will weep for him. Loki, presumably in the guise of a giantess, refuses, and Baldr is consigned to Hel’s domain until Ragnarök. Conversely, Loki’s twitchy gender has been used playfully and in service to the gods, as when he assists Thor in regaining Mjollnir (which was probably stolen by Loki in the first place).
Allegedly, Loki promises the moon, the sun, and Freya to an unnamed giant in exchange for fortifications around the realm of the gods, provided he finish the job within three seasons. When it looks like the giant might actually achieve this goal and deprive the gods of Freya (not to mention the sun and the moon), Loki is basically told, “Fix it. We don’t care how.” Loki then transforms not only his gender but his species, and becomes a saucy mare to seduce the giant’s faithful stallion. After spending a lost weekend in the forest with the stallion, the deal with the giant has been nullified and Loki finds himself in a family way. Eleven months later, out pops Odin’s horse Sleipnr While this story seems to have an innocent (if not slightly deviant) ending, it is interesting to note that Sleipnr is believed by some to be more than just your average magical eight-legged horse. The eight legs of Sleipnr are thought to represent the pallbearers that carry a body to their final resting place (Ellis Davidson, H. R Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe). Sleipnr is also the steed taken by Hermóðr to Hel to beg for Baldr’s life. Sleipnr is the steed of the shaman, a conveyance between this world and the world of the dead. Yet again, the issue of Loki’s loins subverts the convention of procreation.
Loki’s sexuality is oddly potent, in fact more is made out of his sexual exploits than any of the gods associated with fertility and fecundity. He is prolific in his progeny, although all his children bear the stigma of death somewhere in their genetic make up. At the same time, he is perceived as being androgynous and even effeminate, and doesn’t seem to shy away from sexual partners regardless of gender or even species. Within Loki is a transgressive representation of the spectrum of human sexuality, with all of its joy, comedy, humiliation, drama, and pain.
Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate
To bring the Norse Mythology portion of this class to an end, let’s talk about Odin and his strangely fickle nature. Odin gives his favor as easily as he takes it away again. I don’t know that many people notice that in the Norse tales, Odin tends to be the only god who actually intercedes in mortal affairs (sometimes it’s Frigg, but she seems to do so with Odin’s involvement). If you want a baby, want to win in battle, whatever, ask Odin. I also love how Odin usually doesn’t show up with great pomp and circumstance. I almost picture a bunch of guys arguing and yelling, when this old dude just sort of saunters in, stabs a sword in a tree, nonchalantly says “pull this out and it’s yours” and then meanders off into the night. The scene where he shows up as Sigurd is preparing to kill Fafnir cracks me up. It’s like that slightly annoying elderly neighbor who shows up anytime you are working on a project in the garage. John Deere hat (with an eight legged deer) over the crew cut he’s had since “dubya dubya two”, plaid shirt, red suspenders, eyepatch, chewing on a toothpick, rocking back on his heels, hands (with one missing finger) shoved in his pockets and squinting up at the sky, “Hullo der! Sooo… whatcha got going on der? I remember back in tha’ day when we’d kill a dragon, we’d dig TWO trenches. But dat’s just me…. I hear da fishin’s good up at da lake dis year…” (My grandparents were old school rural Washingtonians, I couldn’t help casting my grandfather as Odin. As a completely tangential side note, many of my grandparents friends were loggers, farmers, etc and were missing body parts either from the war or hazardous work. When I was a little girl I thought that as you got older parts of you fell off like leaves on a tree.).
Odin’s favor is fleeting. I firmly believe that this is due to his knowledge of future events. He manipulates events like Bobby Fischer with a chess board. He stacks the deck by filling his hall with the best einherjar he can, but not before he has ensured they have done as much to further the plot here on earth. Odin doesn’t take away his favor because you have failed him, he does so because it’s time to do so.
I am still convinced that Brynhild’s continued sorrows are due to her defiance of Odin. She chooses to kill the king that Odin has promised victory to, and he puts her in a state of suspended animation on a mountain top surrounded by flame. This seems like an odd punishment, aside from the fact that inactivity would be hell for a shieldmaiden. In reality, I believe he is punishing her by setting up a lifetime of having break to every oath she has ever made to herself. She broke her oath to Odin, there for all her oaths will be broken. He has taken her free will from her, and forced her to give up the one thing that means anything to her; being a shieldmaiden. Brynhild/Brunhilde has always been my favorite character, and one that I can personally relate to. As someone who was, in a very literal way, raised by my mother to be a “sheildmaiden” (she made sure I knew how to fight, that I was tough, that I was unafraid to compete with men, that I had a sense of honor, etc. She was like the Great Santini in a Maidenform bra), I know how hard it is to lay down your arms. I always joked that I married my husband because he was the first man I ever met who could best me in a fair fight, not to mention he really did ride through the fire for me early in our courtship (the first year we were dating I ended up unemployed, both my grandparents died, and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The fact that he didn’t run for the hills still amazes me.). She is a woman who trusted her own judgment over Odin’s and paid by always having her heart’s desire dangled just out of reach. This may seem like a particularly cruel act on Odin’s part, but when you think about it the message is that you don NOT mess with Odin’s plans. Because Odin’s plans are Fate’s plans, and you can not change fate in the world of the Norse. The warp is set, the weft must follow. If Odin were to go easy on someone who meddled with the order, there would be chaos. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! (I have now quoted Ghostbusters in my English class. Good night, Bellingham!)
People More Interesting Than Sigurd (Just About Everyone)
OK, this is where things start getting confused for me. Because the story of Sigurd the Dragonslyer is basically the “ur-myth” for Northern Europeans, I always get it confused with millions of similar stories. Even rereading it now I am confused, and I keep having to refer back to it to remember what happened. I am going to try and stick with the saga version for this, but please be forgiving if I wander a bit.
The interesting thing about Sigurd is how completely uninteresting he is. The heroes of Norse mythology tend to be extremely flat and one-dimensional. They are large, brave, strong, and great warriors… and that’s about it. It’s the ancillary characters that are truly fascinating. Take Fafnir, for example. Fafnir starts out as your average dull Norse warrior, brave, strong, blah blah blah. Then Loki kills his brother, his father takes Odin and Hoenir captive, and Loki has to pay to get them back. Suddenly, Fafnir becomes greedy, kills his father, steals the gold, and becomes a horrific poisonous serpent and J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal poster boy. I’m not really sure why he suddenly goes from honorable warrior to fire-breathing patricidal douche, but he’s at least more interesting as a dragon. Sigurd, on the other hand, seems to drift from life event to life event. “Go kill the dragon, Sigurd.” “Switch bodies with me, Sigurd.” “Drink this magic potion, Sigurd.” Dude is either bone stupid or just really eager to please. We never really get a sense of how he feels about what he is doing, what is driving him. All of his actions are punctuated with “raaaaaahhhhrrr!” and a mighty charge towards the danger, or which ever direction someone has pointed him in.
The women of these stories are far more often the real stars. Brynhild is complex, driven, and tormented. She has stated values and a very specific world view. She has motives for her actions, she interacts with her world, Sigurd only reacts to his. In the Poetic Edda version of his fight with Fafnir, Fafnir warns him repeatedly that the gold will be his undoing and that Regin will betray him. Sigurd’s response is to continue on his single-minded path to ruin. Snicker-snack, the deed is done. In many of these stories, the concept of the concrete tapestry of “urd” (or wyrd, fate or destiny) is demonstrated by the actions of bull-headed heroes who blindly ignore all warnings and forge ahead with their mission. They are pathologically incapable of veering off course. Sadly, this does not lead to very sympathetic or relatable characters for modern readers. Sigurd has no inner conflict, in fact the one place where he could have had inner conflict, his betrothal to Brynhild being obliterated by Grimhild’s memory wipe potion, is taken away from him.
Another important thing to note, Brynhild’s oaths are to herself, she is not beholden to anyone else. The men tend to take oaths to one another. Gunnar and Hogni can’t kill Sigurd because they have sworn oaths to him, but Guttorm can. As restrictive as a woman’s world was in that time, men were bound by equally stringent and confining social rules. Of course, this doesn’t make them any less impulsive. When Brynhild is told of Sigurd and Gunnar’s deception, she outright accuses Sigurd of impropriety. Her husband Gunnar then reacts by devising a plan to kill Sigurd, confirming that it was not Gunnar who rescued her from her bower (he would have know if things had gotten extra friendly on the mountain if it had been). Brynhild has confirmation, but Gunnar just assumes she is being truthful. Just like Sigurd assumes the birds are being truthful when they tell him Regin means to do him harm. Time and time again, the men of Norse myth burst forth with swords drawn at the slightest provocation, whereas the women are more than happy to bide their time before getting their revenge. Just know that the longer that revenge festers, the more painful it will be in the end. Not to mention the more dead children she will leave in her wake. Seriously, I am going to start a dead baby body count for these stories. There is this attitude of “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out again for the simple reason I don’t like your daddy”.
Vengeance is a Bitch
(For some reason, this was especially hard to write about. I have taken a much more informal tone, since it was the only way I could squeeze out my journal entry this week.)
Wow. These Volsung women are absolute pros when it comes to revenge. Let’s start with Sigyn, shall we? Girlfriend is promised to a man she doesn’t want to marry (thanks, dad). Because her dad is an arrogant jerk, he slights the new husband, ignores her warnings, and ends up crow-fodder for his efforts. Meanwhile, Sigyn is sitting back rolling her eyes at the massive “dick-measuring contest” going on around her and putting her plans for revenge into motion. Her vengeance is amazing in it’s heartless indifference to every other person in the story. Bitch is a one woman juggernaut of death and destruction. She begins by throwing her brothers to the wolves- literally. She has them subjected prolonged torment and death, until only Sigmund is left. Then, in a display of extreme Viking bad-assery, dude bites the tongue out of a giant she-wolf’s head and uses her death throes to free himself.
Now comes a display of physical stamina and patience unparallelled in history. Princess Sam Peckinpah decides to start having babies. Once these boys are old enough, she tests their mettle by sewing their sleeves to their wrists and ripping them off again. And I thought my mother was bad. She then sends them to live with their dear Uncle Siggy in the forest. When the boys fail the flour sack test, her reaction is to shrug and say, “Kill the little bastard, I’ll make more”. Eventually, she ends up impregnated by her own brother through an oddly convoluted “Freaky Friday” switch with a sorceress (which is a word we should bring back in to the common vernacular. I think I want to be known as Scarlett the Sorceress. Or maybe “The Scarlett Sorceress”. Yeah, that rolls off the tongue well… but I digress). The end result of this unholy union, Sinfjotli, passes the tests and runs off with Uncle Siggy to be raised in the family tradition of murder, mayhem, and windpipe biting. Meanwhile, Sigyn is back at the ranch, popping out more royal crib lizards (just in case, ya know?) and waiting for Volsungageddon. When Siggy and Son show up to hand out ass-kickings and lollipops, her precious little darlings immediately run and narc them out to her husband. When Sigyn learns of this, her advice to her brother is to squash the little bugs and be done with them. He isn’t up to the task, but their Stockholm Syndrome victim of a son had no problem making toddler kebabs out of them, like any inbred psychopath raised in a hole in the forest would. Things happen, people die, our heroes are bested and then freed by Sigyn the Human Wrecking Ball. The story culminates in Siggy and Son lighting the castle on fire with King Fuckmuppet and his Merry Band of Morons (because, seriously, he never questioned the fact that his first three sons just disappeared? Or that his wife was constantly in the corner twirling her mustache and cackling like a silent movie villain?) inside. Sigyn, having destroyed everything that ever came out of her vagina and most things in the general vicinity of it, decides that a world without anything to kill is no world for her, and jumps into the fire.
This story is a prime example of why I love the way women are portrayed in Norse mythology. Unlike so many women of yore, they aren’t just motivated by petty jealousy or victims of the men around them. These women inherit a crapsack world where they are traded for goods and services like Monopoly money, but instead of whining about it, they sink the whole bloody ship. We get to see them fight for honor and revenge, they are fearless and sacrificing. No wonder women are viewed as duplicitous and untrustworthy. If you kick a dog enough that it bites you it becomes a bad dog. Is Sigyn a hero? Depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, she is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want and her entire family is killed, so spends 30 years of her life plotting her vengeance with a single-mindedness that is awesome in it’s tunnel vision. On the other hand, she is willing to annihilate everyone in her path to get to that goal, including her own offspring. I feel a certain amount of admiration for her dedication and cunning, but damn, bitch, you scary!