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.
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.
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.
- Jochens, Jenny. “Women in Old Norse Society“. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998. Print.
- Rapp, Linda. “Iceland.” GLBTQ Archive. 2004, 2015.
- Dumézil, Georges. “From Myth to Fiction: the Saga of Hadingus.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1973.
- Cherici, Peter. Celtic sexuality: power, paradigms, and passion. Tyrone Press. 1995. Print.
- Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe New York: Villard Books, 1995.
- Conner, Randy P, Sparks, David, & Sparks, Mariya. “Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Lore (Cassell Sexual Politics Series).” Cassell. 1998. Print.
- Saxo Grammaticus, Mark Ludwig Stinson (Editor). “The Nine Books of the Danish History: Gesta Danorum.” 2012. Print.
- David F. Greenberg. “The Construction of Homosexuality“. University Of Chicago Press, 1990. 978-0226306285
- Publius Cornelius Tacitus. “De Origine et situ Germanorum (On the Origin and Situation of the Germanic Peoples)”. 98AD.
- “Bog Bodies of the Iron Age” Nova: PBS.
by Njord Kane © 2017 Spangenhelm Publishing
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