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Homosexuality in the Viking World

The Norse Sagas and poems have absolutely no mentioning of any homosexual relationships whatsoever.

But that does not mean that there weren’t any gay or lesbian relationships amongst the people of the North.

It also does not mean that gay, lesbian, or bisexual relationships weren’t tolerated either.

Christian influence, along with other male dominated cultures that came into the Norse world, frowned greatly upon homosexuality in any shape or form.  This stigma has carried itself into the present day as there continues to be a tendency for people to retain some of their prejudices and attitudes towards homosexuality.  A prejudice which has continued in the beliefs of many Muslims and Christians today which has heavily influenced modern European culture.

We already know this.  It’s obvious if you haven’t had your head in the sand.

So why aren’t there any records when we know that LGBT individual and relationships existed in every culture on every part of the World throughout time.  Well, first you must ask the question: why would they bother documenting a LGBT relationship?  They didn’t even document heterosexual marriages unless there was a significant reason to do so.  Such a reason would be that of an heir who was significant enough worth mentioning marrying someone else significant enough worth mentioning.

The regular recording of marriages and births didn’t occur until later when the local churches began to keep records of this information.  Prior to that, hardly anything was recorded and all that we have of that time period are fragments of brief hints or mentions of forgotten kings and heroes.   As far as LGBT relationships, there would be no reason to record them unless it influenced a significant event in history, and even then the record may cease to exist anymore.

The Ancient Maya and Ancient Norse share a commonality; most of their histories were burned and erased by forced religious conversion and indoctrination. Our information on these cultures, to this day, is very vague at best.  If any records of LGBT relations were made, they had long been destroyed.  Since then, only modern records exist.

They may be keen to record such relationships today, but not hundreds of years ago when the lack of piousness would cost you and your family’s life.

The medieval era and its wars for religious dominance were unkind to any that did not follow the doctrine.

So what do we know of Old Norse views of LGBT relationships back then? 

Jenny Jochens, in her research mentions, ‘Norse who attempted to avoid marriage because of their sexuality were penalized in law’.  The Roman historian Tacitus had described punishment in his De Origine et situ Germanorum when he mentioned cowards and homosexuals being drowned in bogs.

Is there more to the story of the famous bog bodies found from the Iron Age?

Jochens goes on to explain that this (punishments) was not only because of Christian influence and other male dominated cultures coming into the Norse world, but also because of the need to produce population. It was necessary to build your family and the clan or tribe you belonged to also needed to grow.  Remember, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we stopped having large families and raised the help to operate a simple family farm.  There weren’t any Wal*Marts around back then or very many clean water sources either for that matter. This led to shunning those who avoided marriage and reproducing.

A man who shunned marriage was termed fuðflogi (man who flees the female sex organ) while a woman who tried to avoid marriage was flannfluga (she who flees the male sex organ).

What about after someone had married and reproduced?

We simply don’t know.

The social stigma of being LGBT was never emphasized in any records or sagas.  The only records are of a social stigma placed upon those that did not reproduce and on those considered to be weak. As far as someone having a LGBT relationship who had already married and reproduced, we simple don’t know.

What about the real Lagertha, was she LGBT?

Although the popular television series, “The Vikings” has recently introduced LGBT characters, the Norse Sagas do not mention any LGBT individuals or contain any stories of any gay or lesbian relationships whatsoever.

So, again, was Lagertha LGBT? We don’t know and we will never know. In all truth, we really don’t know all that much about her.  Read all we know about “The Sheildmaiden Lagertha” <here

She, like almost all characters in the Norse Sagas, faded away and disappeared into history.  It is quite possible that she could have been, which is probably the reason the television series “The Vikings” cast her as later being LGBT.

But it must not be forgotten, the television series is a historical fiction, which allows them to throw in the “what-ifs” where history hasn’t any recordings or is very vague.

What about Old Norse name-calling and labels for LGBT individuals?

There is no direct reference to any LGBT individuals in any of the Sagas, but they do contain several instances of revenge enacted by men accused of being a passive partner in intercourse.  This act was considered as being “unmanly” behavior and thus was a threat to a man’s reputation as a leader or warrior.
(Note: There is no mention of those who didn’t care what others thought.) 
Although we haven’t a known word for homosexual, we know a stigma was placed upon a male for being ‘unmanly’ if he played the role of a female.

Here is a reference used for “unmanly’ behavior:

Ergi and argr are two Old Norse terms used to insult which denoted effeminacy or some other behavior considered unmanly.  Argr (also ragr) is “unmanly” and ergi is “unmanliness”. To accuse another man of being argr or ergi was a legal reason to challenge the accuser to a holmgang (a Viking duel).  <Read about Holmgang>

Again, there is nothing mentioned about those who didn’t care about what others thought or said. Being called Argr was considered a legal reason to challenge someone to holmgang if you felt insulted by it, but it wasn’t a requirement. 

So what else do we have on the subject?

It has been suggested by Saxo Grammaticus, in his “Gesta Danorum,” that Freyr, a Norse god of fertility, may have been worshiped by a group of homosexual or effeminate priests.  This ties to the magical practices of the Vanir gods which were mocked by the Aesir gods, which they considered as being unmanly.  Odin is mentioned as being a practitioner of seiðr, a form of magic considered shameful for men to perform, so was reserved for women. It is possible that the practice of seiðr involved passive sexual rites and Odin was taunted with this fact.

Additonally, some of the Norse gods were capable of changing sex at will, for example Loki frequently disguised himself as a woman. In one myth, he turned himself into a mare and after having sex with the stallion Svaðilfari, he gave birth to a foal which became Odin’s eight-legged steed Sleipnir.

We have LGBT behavior in the Sagas and mythologies, but what about the view of the common Norseman?  This is were we come back to the mentioning by the Roman historian, Tacticus.

The Roman historian, Tacticus, when describing Germanic law and offenses said that “moral infamy (cowardice and homosexuality) was punished by throwing the condemned into a bog.”  

When Tacticus wrote: ‘ignavos et imbelles at corpore infames,’ the ‘corpore infames‘ part is translated as “unnatural prostitutes.”  This translation is believed to be how Tacitus referred to male homosexuality (unnatural prostitutes).  He’d pointed out the differences in punishments whereas murderers and such would be publicly hanged and coards and homosexuals drowned and/or buried. He explained the “glaring iniquities” must be exposed in plain sight, while “effeminacy and pollution” should best be buried and concealed.  So in this record, we know the Norse persecuted homosexuals during the Iron Age.

In Celtic mythology, there are no direct representations of any gay or lesbian relationship.  Ancient Greek and Roman commentators attribute sexual activity between males, including pederasty, to pre-Christian Celtic tribes.

However, Peter Chicheri argues in Celtic sexuality: power, paradigms, and passion that homosexual affection was severely punished in Celtic culture due to influence from Christianity and suggests that any non-procreative sexual experience was subsequently expunged from mythic tales.

Which again brings us back to the fact that because of the bias doctrine of the recorders towards such relationships, there were no records made of them.

So where does that leave us on the subject?

We simply don’t know what the average Norse individual thought on this subject.  We know pre-Christian Norse were only concerned about reproducing and having descendants.  We know that it was considered unmanly by men who were the submissive ones in a homosexual relationship.  However, once someone reproduced there is nothing said of what they did with their lives afterwards.

After the Christianization of the Norse, the rules of Christian doctrine at the time dominated social thinking and practices.

What about being called, ‘Argr‘?  Doesn’t that imply ‘faggot‘ or ‘queer‘?  Meaning they didn’t like homosexuals, so as an insult they called you a faggot or argr?  No, argr means unmanly and is more like calling someone a ‘wimp‘ or ‘snowflake‘ in today’s comparison with American English slang.  For example: Are you going to be able to help me lift this, or do I need to go get my daughter to help me because you’re too Argr to lift it?

Were there LGBT individuals during the Viking Age?  Yes and before and after the Viking age until mankind ceases to exist.  We know this because we know why more about human nature than we used to – that answer is obvious.

Were they persecuted for being LGBT?  An individual that married and reproduced, we know nobody gave two bits of silver what they did.  For those that avoided marriage and reproducing, we know they were shunned.  Not because of sexuality, but because of not reproducing. Roman records give us an account going both ways – 1 attributing it to early non-Christian Celts and another describing it as being punished by death (bog drowning).

And this is all we know about it historically and from Norse Sagas.

Homosexuality

Sources:

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What Was It Like to be a Gay Viking?

 

What Was It Like to be a Gay Viking?

I’ve been posting a lot about being gay in a Christian world lately, because it is after all what most young people in this country have to deal with as they’re coming to terms with their sexuality.  But as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am no longer Christian.  Furthermore, religion in general isn’t the main thrust of this blog or of my YA novels.  No doubt relgion will come up again, but for now I thought I’d cover a topic that readers of Seidman might find interesting:

What Was It Like to be Gay in Viking Age Iceland and Scandinavia?

WARNING:  Though I’ve attempted to keep this discussion from becoming too graphic, it does contain some referrences to sexual practices.  It really couldn’t be avoided.  Anyone old enough to read Seidman (recommended 14+) should be old enough to read this post.

I’ve had people try to tell me that there were no gay people in the Viking Age.  This is flatly ridiculous.  First of all, there have always been people with same-sex attractions, throughout history, all over the world.  Always.  Anyone who thinks homosexuality suddenly appeared out of nothing in the past century simply hasn’t bothered to crack a book on the subject.

Secondly, we know that people experienced same-sex attraction in Viking Age cultures, because they had words to describe it and laws to regulate it.  You don’t make something illegal, if it doesn’t exist to begin with.

So how did the Norse actually feel about homosexuality?  Well, the answer is a bit complex.  In general, they didn’t approve of it, which isn’t much of a surprise.  But like many cultures, they mistakenly equated homosexuality with a lack of masculinity, as if being attracted to men (if you’re a man) somehow makes you behave in a “womanly” manner, and likewise being attracted to women (if you’re a woman) somehow makes you “mannish.”  (Obviously, this attitude is still with us in modern western culture.)

But this is where it got a little weird.

The key to understanding the Norse attitude towards same-sex attraction lies in their concept of “manliness.”  We don’t have much evidence one way or another that the Norse gave much thought to same-sex attraction or other forms of sexual contact besides anal intercourse between two people of the same gender.  But we do know that they were obsessed with manliness.

Men had to behave in a masculine fashion (and conversely, women had to behave in a feminine fashion).  Men who acted effeminitely really upset people and in some cases were put to death.  A similar fate awaited women who wore men’s clothing!  And for a man to be accused of being effeminite was a horrible insult — so horrible that the accuser could be challenged to a duel to the death, if he couldn’t prove his accusation, and the law would not protect him.

Two of the words commonly used to describe “effeminite” men in the Sagas are ergi (a noun) and argr (the adjectival form of ergi).  The definition of these words is uncertain, because they are used in so many contexts.  In general, it appeared to refer to a man allowing himself to be used sexually by another man.  (In other words, a man who took the passive role in anal intercourse.)  We might translate ergi as “effeminacy” and argr as “effeminate.”

But there were other usages that suggested somewhat different meanings.  For instance, when used to describe a woman, it meant that she was lecherous or immodest — in other words, too masculine.  It was also said that old age made a man argr and the god, Oðinn, was said to become argr after practicing seiðr.  (Technically, the phrasing was that the practice of seiðr was accompanied by a great degree of ergi.)  However, I seriously doubt that this meant old men suddenly turned gay or Oðinn became effeminite after performing trance magic.

What does make sense is that being old might make a man frail and performing trance magic might make a man feel temporarily weak.  As with the case of women who were called ergi or argr, the main implication appears to have been that a person was violating gender taboos.  The terms were also sometimes applied to men who were incapable of fathering children — another “failure” to be masculine — and argr was also synonymous with cowardice.

So the next question might be, did this association of ergi and argr with masculinity provide a loophole of sorts?  Did it mean that a man might have sex with other men, as long as he was still verifiably masculine?

It might have.

We know that Norsemen often violated male prisoners or slaves, and there did not appear to be a stigma associated with doing this.  (Yet it was still one more reason that being on the “bottom” had such a horrible stigma attached to it — because it was allowing another man to treat you like a slave or a defeated prisoner.)  We also know that there were male prostitutes who served men, and they seemed to have been regarded with contempt.  Yet men did avail themselves of their services.  And in Snorri Sturlusson’s Edda, a man named Sinfjotli boasts that he impregnated another man (as an insult to the second man), which might not be something he would boast about, if being a “top” had any great stigma attached to it.

So it may be that there were certain contexts in which sex between people of the same gender was considered acceptable or at least ignored.  Keep in mind that the only references we have to homosexuality concern accusations of anal intercourse.  We have no record at all of how the Norse felt about mutual masturbation or oral sex.

It was also not unheard of for men to live together as “bachelors” once they were past the age where they were expected to marry and father children.  While these would not have been open same-sex relationships, advanced age might have made it possible for others to look the other way.

One last point to keep in mind:  all of the information we have about Norse attitudes toward homosexuality comes from Christians who wrote about the Viking Age centuries after the events they were describing, and by this point homosexuality was widely condemned by the Christian Church.  It’s difficult to know how much the writers’ personal religious beliefs may have colored their accounts of their ancestors.

Resources:

Probably the best source of information on this subject is Preben M. Sørenson’s The Unmanly Man:  Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society, but that can be hard to come by and it’s somewhat dry reading.  A more accessible discussion of the subject can be found at the Viking Answer Lady site:

The Viking Answer Lady doesn’t appear to be updating her site anymore, which is sad, because she really knows her stuff.  But as long as the site is still up, it’s a fantastic reference for a lot of aspects of Norse culture.

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7 thoughts on “What Was It Like to be a Gay Viking?”

  1. How Vikings called neutral homosexuals? I found a lot of sources, but most of it is abusive or negative. (sorry for my English).

    • The best source on this subject, if you can track down a copy, is Preben M. Sørenson’s “The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society.” But I don’t think they really had a word for a man who didn’t have receptive homosexual intercourse. I hope the Viking Answer Lady doesn’t mind me quoting her, but she’s put together a nice list of the words we do know, concerning homosexuality:

      “The Old Norse word used in the law code and literature for an insult was níð , which may be defined as “libel, insult, scorn, lawlessness, cowardice, sexual perversion, homosexuality” (Markey 75). From níð are derived such words as níðvisur (“insulting verses”), níðskald (“insult-poet”), níðingr (“coward, outlaw”), griðníðingr (“truce-breaker”), níðstông (“scorn-pole”) (Markey 75, 79 & 80; Sørenson 29), also níða (“to perform níð poetry”), tunguníð (“verbal níð”), tréníð (“timber níð”, carved or sculpted representations of men involved in a homosexual act, related to niíðstông, above) (Sørenson 28-29). Níð was part of a family of concepts which all have connotations of passive male homosexuality, such as: ergi or regi (nouns) and argr or ragr (the adjective form of ergi) (“willing or inclined to play or interested in playing the female part in sexual relations with another man, unmanly, effeminate, cowardly”); ergjask (“to become argr”); rassragr (“arse-ragr”); stroðinn and sorðinn (“sexually used by a man”) and sansorðinn (“demonstrably sexually used by another man”) (Sørenson 17-18, 80). A man who is a seiðmaðr (one who practices women’s magic) who is argr is called seiðskratti (Sørenson 63).”

  2. Great article, informative and well written. I would like to ask two questions however. First, did you ever come across any information of whether there had been any relationships between older men or younger such as could be found in ancient Greece? Second, are there any good sources that you know about that talk about how the coming of Christianity affected the Norse stories?
    I ask because I am interested in writing about this subject for my BA thesis in history and would like to know more. Perhaps I should also ask, is Sørenson’s very extensive on this subject? I might try and track down a copy.

    • Did I ever come across anything about that type of relationship? No. We don’t have much to go one of course, but I confess it seems unlikely to me. In the first place, a boy was considered old enough to be marriageable by the time he was fifteen, which doesn’t allow for a lot of time before that kind of relationship would destroy his reputation. In cultures that fostered relationships between men and adolescents, such as ancient Greece and feudal Japan, homosexuality among adult men was considered inappropriate, but it didn’t have an enormous stigma. This was certainly not the case in Viking Age Scandinavia. But I would certainly recommend Sørenson’s book, if you can find an affordable copy, or get it through the library. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the most extensive work on the subject (and sadly, it’s very short).

      • Thank you for a quick reply. I did find a copy of Sørenson’s book, by a lucky accident I found it in my University’s bookstore on a very affordable price. I look forward to reading through it.
        But I wonder if there had been a certain hierarchy, even though boys were affected by this need for a masculine reputation at an early age? Then I mean that perhaps those of a higher social standing or with a stronger, more masculine, reputation could play the active,or would have to do to his reputation, role in a gay relationship. And without much scorn then if he could still prove his manliness. Going by what you say in your article, there seems to have been some such of hierarchy where the bottom seems to be the one who really get’s scorned.
        I guess I have a lot of reading and re-reading ahead. 🙂 Thanks again.

  3. From what I understand. Vikings had no proble with men having Sex with men; as long as the men married and had wives nobody cared. So I guess it was OK to be straight and bisexual; but gay and only gay as in only sleeping and being attracted to only meN; there is no info on that.

    Also the Vikings looked more favorably on tops than on bottoms.

  4. Read this article before but I’m reading it again since I’m interested in trying the book mentioned. About half of the viking raiders were discovered to be raiders. Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t matter. Women in viking society were treated with value and had privileges many women in other places didn’t have. INCLUDING the freedom to don armor and go out to be a warrior. Hence “shieldmaidens.” It was a perfectly okay thing to do, so I doubt that women would get in trouble for dressing as a man. That being said, I’m also certain that they weren’t perfect either and did hold men higher than women, just in fewer cases. (The handicapped were welcome to participate in society, as well).

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Why is homosexuality such a controversial topic for Vikings?

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Lyonel Perabo
Lyonel Perabo, M.A. in Old Norse Religion

While I was unable to find any kind of information about lesbianism in the Viking Age, I was able to dig through a few sources regarding male homosexuality, most stemming from early-Medieval literature compiled in Iceland.

What surfaces, after reading a few chapters here and there, is that for Norsemen, manliness was paramount. Being unmanly = being a social outcast essentially. Several examples of what brings unmanliness (argr) are found in the sagas, including quite a few tying this concept with passive homosexual male intercourse.

While there is no evidence that “gay sex” was forbidden in the Viking Age (it was, at least in Norway, shortly after the end of the Viking Age), it is interesting to note that accusing someone of it was forbidden. Why? Because it was considered the worst of slander and would most often result in blood-feud and vendetta that could last for years. Interestingly, while there are also cases of slander against women, I was unable to find examples of women being accused of lesbianism.

Yet, only passive homosexual male was considered that shameful. B*tt-f*cking other men, while not considered a noble thing to do, was simply not quite as revolting, kinda like how the dynamics of prison rape/ intercourse play to this very day.

In conclusion, while the Norsemen likely understood the concept of (at least male) homosexuality, it’d appear that they most often considered it, among others, an immoral shameful practice.

Hope this helped.


P.S: Here’s some quotes from Norse academics that could be of interest:

The Viking Age societies in Scandinavia held extreme prejudices against homo- sexuality. The law codes, such as Grágás, show that it was a very grave crime to accuse or even hint that a man was involved in a homosexual relationship. The point is that the accusation was directed at the man’s masculine status. A man who was hinted to be willing to play the female part in sexual relations was labelled as effeminate and cowardly, and indeed perverse. (Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe. Carol J. Clover. Speculum No. 44 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 1-28 Medieval Academy of America. 199)

Thus a cowardly man can be seen as switching genders, and the same would go for men who have had sex with each other. It is less easy to understand why excessive female lust should be integrated into the same concept as male lack of courage, effeminate behaviour on the part of men and homosexual relations. One explanation might be that women were not supposed to demonstrate lust, and ergi would then refer to those of both sexes who do not fulfil their gender role. But, on the other hand, there are no clear examples of the word being used about those women who dress up in the clothes of the other sex. (The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímr the Witch: The Meanings of Troll and Ergi in Medieval Iceland. Ármann Jakobsson. Saga-Book 32 (2008), 39–68. 65).

 

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