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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