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.