How to Insult Your Friends Like a Viking!

One of the criticisms I’ve received about Seidman is that the dialog between Kol and Thorbrand felt a little too “modern.”  This is a perfectly valid criticism, if it brings the reader out of the story.  But it was a deliberate artistic choice on my part, so I’d like to explain my reasoning.

I’ve read a bunch of books on Vikings, in which everyone speaks like Conan the Barbarian or a character from The Lord of the Rings — rather stilted and formal, and using the exclamation “Fool!” quite a bit.  Now, I’m a big fan of Conan and LOTR, but I don’t think people ever really talked that way.  Like the fact that all films about Vikings are scored with heavy kettle drums, low brass that didn’t even exist before the Renaissance and chorsuses of men shouting, “Huh!”, this is simply a modern shorthand for historical dialog.

I suspect the thing that seems the most jarring to some readers are the insults Kol and Thorbrand toss around.  In several places, they use the word, “dummy” or “stupid” and these can break the illusion of the book being a historical novel.  Perhaps words like “dullard” or “fool” or “simpleton” would be more in keeping with the tone of a historical.  (And in fact the adult characters in Seidman do tend to talk a bit more like that.)

But in reality, Kol would not say “dullard” or “fool” or “dummy” in any context.  He doesn’t speak English.  He would say fífl, which translates to…wait for it…”dullard” or “simpleton” or “dummy”.  Maybe “idiot.”  But to Kol and Thorbrand, the way they speak to one another would be perfectly natural and easy to their ears.  Teenagers, no matter what the time period, don’t speak formally to one another.  (Well, unless they’re raised in high society, perhaps.)  So why translate it formally?  Why not just make it colloquial and informal, as it would sound to them?  That was my reasoning for making Kol and Thorbrand talk the way they do in the novel.

But at this point you may be wondering, just how did the Norse insult each other?  This is important to know, if you ever find yourself sucked back through a time portal.  So, leaving out some inappropriately vulgar ones, here are a few common insults in Old Icelandic:

dunga (DOON-gah) — a useless fellow
eldhúsfífl (EHLD-hoos-feef-uhl) — “hearthfire idiot”, an idiot who sits by the fire all day, a good-for-nothing
fífl (FEEF-uhl) — fool, idiot
gløggvingr (GLOHG-ving-uhr) — stingy person
hraumi (HROWM-ee) — braggart
níðingr (NEETH-ing-uhr) — villain, vile person
slápr (SLAHP-uhr) — a good-for-nothing, lazy person
vámr (VAHM-uhr) — loathsome person
vargdropi (VAHRG-drohp-ee) — son of an outlaw* 
veslingr (VEHS-ling-uhr) — puny wretch

*NOTE: vagr (“outlaw”) also means “wolf”.  The Norse weren’t fond of wolves.

It was also popular to call people after various animals, such as dogs or sows, or to say that they were the sons or daughters of these animals.

But beware!  If you start throwing these insults around in Viking Age Scandinavia, you’d better hope the button on your time portal wristband isn’t broken!

(My gratitude to the members of the Old Norse Yahoo! group norse_course for their posts on this subject.)

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.

The Folly of Ex-Gay Therapy

When I was a teenager, I was Christian.  I was very Christian.  I read the Bible frequently, if not exactly on a daily basis, attended the Assembly of God church with my father and stepmother and occasionally attended a Baptist church, because they allowed me to practice piano there after school.  I had a constant dialog going on in my head with Jesus and I felt close to Him.

I wasn’t perfect, of course.  My need to please my friends kept the “Jesus-talk” to a minimum, when I was around them (evangelists seem to believe that you aren’t truly worshiping the Lord, if you aren’t talking about Him constantly) and eventually turned a 16-year-old who couldn’t say anything more severe than “hell” or “damn” into a 17-year-old with an absolutely foul mouth.

And then there was sex.  At seventeen, I was still a virgin.  Worse, I had no interest in girls, at all.  I certainly masturbated — a lot — but when I did, all I could think about was seeing certain male friends naked or touching them.  I tried to force myself to think about girls, but it just didn’t get me aroused.

However, I was a good Christian.  I loved Jesus.  I hadn’t killed anybody or done anything particularly sinful, at this point.  (I still haven’t killed anybody, in case you’re wondering.)  I hadn’t actually been raised to believe that masturbation was a big deal — thank God.  It was inconceivable to me that I could be truly “evil” or “sinful” at the core of my being.

There had to be some mistake.

Perhaps I was a late bloomer.  Or perhaps this was some sort of test that God had come up with for me.  But then, why me?  The very thought that God was testing me, struck me as ego-centric and therefore sinful, as if I were thinking that I was somehow favored by God and deserving of His special attention.  But I could think of no other reason for God to put me through this anguish.

And anguish it was.  I was so lonely that I often cried myself to sleep, longing for someone to hold and be held by.  Other teenagers were lonely, of course — perhaps even most — but they could hold onto the fantasy of a happy life someday with somebody they loved.  I saw nothing but a future of loneliness and self-loathing, stretching ahead of me for decades, until I finally died, never having been loved.

Now, the standard response to all of this is that God doesn’t make mistakes, of course, and regardless of whether it was a “test” or simply something I happened to be burdened with, faith in God would help me overcome it.  After all, people are able to overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual addiction, infidelity and a host of other “problems” through prayer and devotion to God.  Certainly, God would help me overcome homosexuality!

So I prayed.  And I prayed.  And I prayed.  During this time I kept journals, documenting my struggle, analyzing sexual dreams and struggling to find hope in them — some sign that the prayer was working.  There were times when I thought I saw it, when I convinced myself that it must be “working.”

But it didn’t really work.  What it did was increase my despair, because the longing for another boy to love was constant.  It never lessened, no matter how much I prayed.  I knew that, if I got into a relationship with a girl, it would feel terrible.  Deep down in the pit of my stomach, the thought of being in a straight relationship nauseated me — as much as the thought of being forced into a gay relationship probably nauseates a straight person.

We know, at the core of our being, when something feels…wrong.

And the absurdity of it all was that the people who said heterosexuality was what was right for me…they were all heterosexual.

They.

Didn’t.

Know.

They were all people who would be unhappy if they were forced into a gay relationship.  Of course.  So they could state with “authority” that gay relationships lead to misery and despair, because that’s what was true for them.  But the thing is, they didn’t know that it would lead to misery and despair for me.  They couldn’t possibly know that, because they had no idea what being gay was like.

One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was when I gave up the fight against my own nature — when I stopped listening to people who had never experienced what I was feeling, yet had the unbelievable arrogance to claim that they knew more about what I needed than I did.

“But wait!” you might be thinking, “What about those people who were gay, but did find a happier life after praying to Jesus and rejecting homosexuality?”

Well, it would be hypocritical of me to insist that they’re wrong.  If they say they’re straight now, then I can’t say they’re not.  On the other hand, it has certainly not worked for a lot of people.  Several people who have had so-called “reparative therapy” have later stated that they did not feel that it worked for them.  Worse, many have attempted suicide, as a result.

One of the earliest “success stories” of reparative therapy involved subjecting a young boy to beatings and a cruel system of rewards and punishments to discourage his “effeminite behavior” (which was equated with homosexuality).  As an adult, he behaved in a “manly” enough fashion for supporters of the study to claim that it was successful and use it to back their claims that homosexuality could be cured.

Unfortunately, that was far from the case.  The young man in question did, in fact, turn out to be gay and he had sex with men off and on over the years.  But the guilt he felt over it eventually led him to take his own life, and his family now feels immense guilt about the cruelty they subjected him to at the recommendation of his therapist.

Recently, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, the largest organization in the “ex-gay” movement, recently admitted that he still feels same-sex attraction, despite his marriage to a woman, and said that the organization would no longer support reparative therapy:

“As the president of Exodus International and, even more than that, as a Christian leader who is out in front of people all the time, it is my responsibility to lead honestly and transparently and to share with people that, just because you become a Christian,…your struggles don’t always go away.  You don’t get to a place where you’re never going to be tempted again.”

The American Psychological Association released a position statement in 2000 that basically stated that 1) there has been no actual proof that reparative therapy works, apart from isolated anecdotes, and 2) the theories behind it are highly questionable.

I cannot say with certainty that it is impossible for a gay man or woman to become heterosexual through prayer and devotion, anymore than I can say that it is impossible for prayer to heal someone of an illness.  I cannot say with certainty that miracles cannot occur.

But miracles, by their nature, are extremely rare.