Introduction: Homosexuality and Gender-Bending in the Viking Age
After the introduction of Christianity in Scandinavia (early 11th century AD), laws were passed that may have forbidden same-sex couples from living together like married couples. To be more exact, there was no exact law against homosexual relations or co-living as such, but rather a rule that outlawed homosexuality and homosexual relationships as a valid reason to refuse offers of heterosexual marriage. As any historian knows, laws against a phenomenon strongly indicates that the phenomenon was known and practiced before the law was introduced. Thus it is likely that homosexual couples were known and that some may actually have lived together before the Conversion, in Pagan Scandinavia, or at least refused to marry hetereosexually for those reasons.
No records of lesbians are known to us, but in the penalising legal texts they are at least described by a native term: flannfluga (“ she who flees the penis”). No other term is known that describes lesbians, probably because they are not mentioned in the post-conversion texts that we are left with. Male homosexuals were in the legal texts correspondingly called fuðflogi (“he who flees the vagina”). No laws were enacted against homosexual relations except the one that prohibited them from refusing heterosexual marriage because of a homosexual relationship.
However, many laws were passed against the offense of calling other men by terms that indicated “passive homosexuality” (to be the penetrated part in the relation). These terms were negative and were all directed at the “shameful unmanliness” of men who allowed other men to penetrate them. No shame whatsoever was attached to being the active part, so dominating gay men could freely engage in all the activities they wanted provided they found another male who was willing to risk his reputation, or who, as we shall see, belonged to the “sacred queer” category (more on that later). To tease someone about this was, after the introduction of Christianity, penalised by law.
We could stop here and wonder if these laws were actual laws against harassment of feminine gay men! But this is probably inaccurate. These laws were passed from within a Medieval Christian context trying to deal with the Scandinavian culture of the time. The Church introduced several laws that were designed to avoid the blood feuds that had ridden the Pagan era like a plague. Blood feuds often began with insults. It is thus very probable that the insinuation of passive homosexuality in a man was considered a great insult also during the Pagan Viking Age.
That unmanliness was attached to being the passive part in a homosexual relation was thus probably also true of the Pagan era that preceded these laws. The average Viking Age warrior would be very conscious about preserving his masculinity and would feel uncomfortable and insulted if he was teased about “unmanliness”, which would include cowardice, fearfulness, physically harming women, or being the passive part during homosexual intercourse. Before laws were enacted against such teasing, he would likely resort to violence and manslaughter if he became the object of such teasing from someone he could reach, and/or a blood feud could have begun as a result.
When I first mentioned this subject in one of my videos (where I talked about the myth of crossdressing Thor), someone objected, saying that it was impossible to imagine the fierce, manly, warrior Vikings having homosexual relations. Apart from the obvious fact that the total absense of homosexuality in any society is an impossibility, seeing as it naturally occurs everywhere, homosexuals making up a considerable minority of the population in all cultures whether the culture approve of them or not, the statement shows a lack of historical insight. I would like to use the movie “300″ about the last stand of king Leonidas the Spartan king and his 300 fierce Spartan warriors to illustrate my point. I was very amused when I watched this entertaining movie and king Leonidas jokingly accuses the Athenians of being soft boy lovers.
The Athenians certainly idealized the sexual relationship between grown men and young boys in their puberty, but what the movie completely failed to add is the fact that the fierce warlike Spartans not only idealized it, but actually institutionalized it. A young Spartan warrior-to-be would be taken as an apprentice to an older warrior in order to learn the arts of being a man, which included warriorship but also sex – with the older man. The manliness, warlikeness and the fierceness of these people was in their eyes completely compatible with homosexual relations, although to be the passive partner was not suitable for a grown man.
In warlike, conquering Rome, homosexuality was likewise completely accepted, although a grown Roman male should not submit to being penetrated. He could, however, freely and without shame penetrate foreigners, young boys, and slaves. I use these examples to demonstrate that modern views on homosexuality were different in ancient times, and that the Old Norse attitudes may be remnants of a largely common attitude in European cultures in ancient times that were only eradicated and outlawed by the Church. Female homosexuality in these cultures was also completely unproblematic as such, or to be more exact, it was ignored. The only restrictions placed on homosexuals in these cultures were the fact that they would have to agree to heterosexual marriage and that males could be ridiculed if they were known to be passive partners.
The written material and the archaeological records shows us that then, as now, there were people who defied the ordinary gender stereotypes of their time. In short, during the Viking Age, there were men who did not mind being called “unmanly”, and who would not even be teased about it, because although they might have been considered “queer” (unusual), they belonged to a sacred category, what I would call a “sacred queer” category. Ragnvald Rettilbeini, the son of Harald Hárfagri, was a seiðmaðr– a sorcerer, and although no record of “unmanly” behavior are known to us, his nickname rettilbeini could actually mean “feminine legs” or “welcoming legs” (in a passive, sexual way). Another word for a male sorcerer was seiðberenðr, which literally translates as “magical womb”.
Archaeology has shown that biological males were sometimes buried with typical female gear and female dress in Scandinavia. Some biological females, likewise, were buried with masculine gear. These “queer” burials always belong to people who were obviously associated with magic. They were also buried with all honours. We are getting a glimpse of a society that, despite a strong male-female polarity, actually accepted and even honoured gender-benders of both sexes, and that they associated them with magic and sorcery, which were sacred arts during the Pagan era.
The “Likes of Bitches““I despise the gods and Freya is a bitch For Odin and Freya, both the likes of bitches I hold” .
Thus spoke the poet Hialti Skeggjason at the Icelandic assembly in the year 999 A.D. The young poet had been abroad and returned to Iceland a Christian. Hialti was exiled from Iceland for his blasphemy, but only the year after, in 1000 A.D the same assembly that exiled him voted for Christianity to be the new official One Faith of all Icelanders. From then on it was allowed to openly despise the old gods, although for this to sink in took some time.
Some 220 years after the Conversion, the scholar Snorri Sturluson realized that the old mythology was finally about to fade in the memories of people, the gradual cessation of mythic knowledge rendering the proud metaphoric traditions of Norse poetry meaningless. Snorri´s scholarly love of the past made him spend five years trying to save some of the Norse Pagan worldview for the future, gathering his knowledge from families that “still remembered” the customs of old and from poets who created such works as the Hávamál, the Völuspá and some other poems later found in the Elder, Poetic Edda.
Pagan beliefs and practices of the home and hearth were still notable in remote places of Scandinavia until at least the sixteenth century, indeed, Snorri in the thirteenth century conspicuously states that Freya is the one deity of all the Norse pantheon that still lives and performs her functions as a blotgydja – a sacrificial priestess. Rests of pagan folk belief lingered on into modern times, shown in for example the tradition of serving porridge to the tusser as well as in the contents of some fairy tales.
It has always confused me a bit why Hialti Skeggjason chose to offend exactly Odin and Freya in his speech at the assembly in 999 A.D. These deities were not the major deities in Iceland: The cult of Thor the thunder god was definitely the most popular in both Iceland and Norway, Freyr holding a good second position. In Sweden, Freyr´s was apparently the most important cult.
Odin and Freya were gods of the aristocracy that did not exist in Iceland, as well as of the marginal, initiated people like poets, witches and sorcerers (völur and seidmennir ) as well as berserk warriors. Apparently, Freya also had some importance in the home-cults of women, sided with Frigg. If Hialti really wanted to rock the world of Icelandic male peasants, he would have chosen to offend Thor and Freyr, whose cults were certainly strong and popular enough to compete with the new Faith.
Yet it would be no good to liken these two gods with bitches. The axe-wielding, thunderous Thor and the phallic Freyr were gods with whom a Norse peasant and warrior could identify; masculine, strong, protective and honest gods married to beautiful and honorable goddesses, they were the rulers of weather, fertility and good sea-faring. Thor´s function was the dynamic and war-like defense against destructive forces, Freyr´s was to rule agriculture and livestock – both deities were concerned with rain, sunshine and weather in general.
Thor´s popularity in Iceland becomes very clear in Snorri´s Edda, where Thor-mythology seems to dominate the picture completely. Going to the older source, the Poetic Edda, however, Thor has become less important, and in many of the poems in which he features, he is being made fun of! His male pride, his brute strength and his aggressive fear of the giants become the object of ridicule both in the Trymskvida and in the Hárbardsljod. The characters who tell him off in each of the poems are Freya, who forces the god to dress up as a woman, and Odin, who refuses to Thor the entrance into his divine spheres, telling him to seek his mother Earth, for she will show him the way.
Even Snorri reveals a myth in which Thor is being humiliated for his masculine pride and belief in his own strength – being taken down by an old woman and made a fool of in the presence of grander cosmic beings. Yet Snorri is quick to tell of Thor´s “revenge”, hoping to reestablish the honor of a favorite god.
What the myths of Thor seem to reveal is a certain ambivalence in the relations between the popular cults of Thor, attended to by the common folk – and the marginal cults of Odin and Freya, which seemed to have been ecstatic cults of initiation for the specially interested.
Modern Stereotypes: The Patriarch and the Beauty
Freya is often identified with Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty. Much emphasis has been put on her sexual character – an emphasis that has little foundation in the actual texts. There are three stories that serve to “establish” Freya´s role as ruling the sphere of sex and love: Snorri states that Freya “liked romantic poems” and was good to pray to in such cases. In the Poetics Edda, there is a passage in the poem Lokasenna where Loki accuses Freya of having slept with all the elves and Aesir in the hall of Aegir. Another text describes how Freya granted a night each to the four dwarfs who made the Fiery Jewel for her.
The image of Freya as the goddess of love is so deeply rooted in the popular mind that other passages are also taken for granted as proof of her role as a love goddess. When she refuses to marry a giant, exclaiming that she is not crazy for men, this is understood as irony, since the goddess of love certainly must be quite eager. When the giantess Hyndla accuses her of running about like the goat Heidrún with the bucks, and having men flying about her skirts, this is understood as another proof. In the 19th century, freethinking poets in Scandinavia spoke of Freya as the protectress of prostitutes, and modern theatre makes Freya appear like a punk hooker. This line of thought goes all the way back to Hialti Skeggjason who in 999 A.D gave Freya the name of bitch.
In fact, that Freya likes romantic poems is not the only feature Snorri relates. He also relates that she is the greatest among goddesses, that she owns her own splendid halls and rules her own lands, that she is her own boss in every situation, and that she moves through the world wearing many names in the search of her husband Odr – the poetry, weeping tears of red gold as she goes. As head valkyrie, she rules over and chooses the slain for Valhalla, and only after she has chosen does Odin receive his half of the warriors – that she sends to him – and she keeps the other half to herself.
In the Lokasenna poem, Freya is not the only goddess accused of promiscuity: Absolutely all the other goddesses are accused by Loki of just the same “immoral” behavior. The poem concludes with the downfall of Loki for misunderstanding the gods.
The four dwarfs who forged the Fiery Jewel were the four directions, and if we consider Freya´s origin as a sun-goddess , it sort of gives the four nights a new meaning. It could be that Freya really means no when she says so, and is not so crazy for men that she would marry an ogre, and it is certain that the comparison with the goat Heidrún is a piece of esoteric knowledge. Heidrún means “Bright Runes” and is the source of the Precious Drink of Memory, Poetry and Wisdom. Her admirers are her worshippers, the initiates to seek to become worthy of her drink and her sacred embrace.
What Freya and all her hypostases actually do in the Poetic Edda does not limit her to the sexual sphere at all. She stands out as a witch, a teacher, an initiator, a guide in the Underworld, a ruler of an alternative Afterlife. In countless hypostases, she enters Sacred Marriage with countless heroes: These countless “marriages” have to do with initiation and the union of the individual soul with the divine All-Soul. She is the Great Goddess, the one being behind every other dís. She is the receiver of the dead, taking the souls of the dead into her divine embrace – how could she be anything else but the lover of all gods, the lover of all elves – elves representing the immortal souls?
Now as to Odin, his name of “bitch” and “castrate” has been happily ignored by most popular presentations. He is supposedly the All-Father, the patriarch and king of a hierarchic pantheon, the god of war and human sacrifice, the ruler of Valhalla and an infamous lover.
His role as a sexually ambivalent witch-god is less prominent in the popular image. His ecstatic character, his shaman behavior and his intimate association with the Great Goddess and the magical sphere of women are rarely explored any further, although some scholars certainly have shown that Odin was transcending boundaries to the extreme, also those of gender.
Transcending Gender in the Edda” Then Splendid World said, the brightest of gods prophetic he was like all Vanir gods: “Let us cover Thor with the bridal veil let us give him the broad Jewel of Fire [Freyias necklace 2] Let the keys jingle from his belt let women´s clothing fall down to his knees Let gems be fastened on his breast let us arrange the bridal veil on his head” Then said Thor, the manly god: “The Aesir will mock me and call me unmanly if I let the bridal linen cover me.” Then said Loki, son of Leaf Island: ”Quet, Thor, with that kind of speech! Soon the giants will live in Ásgarðr, if you don’t retrieve your hammer.” Trymskvida, st.15-18, Poetic Edda .
Old Norse society nurtured, as most tribal cultures (as well as most parts of modern society) rather clear-cut gender roles. Burial contents and imagery show that gender roles were clear: Yet there were exceptions – and these exceptions were not only accepted, but even so honored that the proof followed the “queer” individuals to their graves.
Modern knowledge of DNA has enabled archaeologists to decide gender in ancient burials, and the puzzlement has been great upon discovering that burials assumed to be masculine or feminine sometimes turn out to be the very opposite. Women were sometimes buried with full hunting gear as far back as the Stone Age, and from the Viking Age there are graves in which men have been buried in full female adornment and traditional women´s equipment. The same men appear to have had a cultic function.
As to famous ship burial at Oseberg, the splendid remains of which is on permanent display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway – two elderly women of equally high rank were buried aboard a beautiful ship some time in the early 10th century A.D. The women were probably cultic leaders, maybe priestesses or witches (völur), accompanied as they were by a wealth of obvious cult objects. Among the smaller objects was a cult staff – possibly the famous wand always carried by a völva, as well as a pouch filled with cannabis seeds. Archeologist Britt Solli has pointed out one interesting feature about the burial contents: The objects belong, in equal measure, both to the masculine and the feminine spheres, showing how these two women apparently transcended traditional gender roles in some way or other, and that they were honored as such.
Adam of Bremen, in 1071 A.D., described male Pagan priests dancing in an “effeminate manner”. Tacitus, a thousand years earlier, remarks that male German priests would wear women´s outfits. Going to other sources, Bronze Age pictograms frequently shows figures that appear androgynous – we see phallic figures wearing the emblem of the Sun goddess within their bellies.
Old Norse mythology and legends not only contain, they are in fact crammed with characters who transcend what we know to have been the common gender assignments, and these characters are always powerful ones, either magical or magically inclined in some way or other.
Among the divine pantheon and their giant counterparts, Odin and Freya both transcend gender roles. Odin learns from the witches, learns from females, how to practice seidr and galdr, magical functions that were considered the spheres of women. He never hesitates to cross-dress or even change his very shape into that of a woman´s. Freya, on her side, lives alone and unmarried, rules her own spheres independently and keeps her own court, takes all the lovers she wishes for, and travels by herself through the world. She is still honored as the “most splendid of goddesses”. She might sound like a modern, liberated woman – in her own time she more probably reflected the life of the independent völva, a witch, a woman exempt from the normal rules of female roles and power – or lack of it.
Then we have the great, ancient goddess Skadi, whose shrines and sanctuaries have left their traces in place-names all over Scandinavia, showing how she was once, before the Viking Age, a much-honored deity. In the mythical poems the poets are playing with the meaning of her name, which is “damage”, “harm”, “accident” and “death”. She is a typical ogress of death, living in the rocky wilderness accompanied by wolves and shooting with bow and arrow. She is assigned a giant status, becoming divine only through marriage to a god – a marriage that she promptly leaves when she finds the new surroundings unbearable. But she is always really on the side of the gods and has lovers among them – lovers who are as androgynous as herself, such as Njordr, Loki and Odin. Her butch image is probably a remnant of her original role as a honored deity: She is a hunter and a warrior, she rules her own lands and roams the mountains and the wilderness alone. She is the patroness of skiing and hunting with bow and arrow, and as a warrior she terrifies even the mighty Aesir. Her aggressive and “masculine” behavior is honored in the myths, as they were in her widespread cult.
Loki is another character who easily plays with shape and gender. He transforms into a mare, couples with a stallion and gives birth to the magical steed Sleipnir, the “Glider”, the eight-legged horse who can take its rider through to different worlds. He cross-dresses and changes into a woman just as Odin does, and sees no shame in it at all, although he is sometimes accused of “shameful” and “unmanly” behavior. Loki was never worshipped in any Norse cult, and seems to have been a purely poetical character, somewhat like the hero of a folktale, or rather an anti-hero, popular and infamous in his trickster role at the same time. Some scholars have compared him with the Christian Devil, but Loki is more complex than just evil – he might be devious and irresponsible, but he is still one of the gods, and the poets use his personality for what it is worth: He becomes the image of the human condition itself, both sexes, both divine and material, craving, lusting, emotional, ambitious, sulking, jealous, but even so he is vitality itself, the life fire and the passion, and the gods use him to steer and guide them through the material world.
Both Skadi and Loki are more associated with the magical arts and the “other side”, just as Odin and Freya are. Skadi belongs to the wilderness, associated with rocks, wolves, winter and hunting, symbols of the Underworld. Loki, her lover, is the one traveling between the worlds, changing shape and gender at will, and the only one who knows how to apiece her, the giantess of death and destruction, when her anger threatens to destroy the gods. He does so by playing on her sense of humor. As they appear, the pair is the more barbaric counterparts of Odin and Freya, their mirror images in rougher outfits.
Just as Skadi is a mistress of the Underworld, so is Freya, although her realm is described as beautiful and shining. The two, Skadi and Freya, appear as the two sides of the face of Hel, Mistress of the Dead: The one face is grim and dark, the face of death, the other side is young and bright, the face of new life. Yet, both are the same.
And just as the two might be called sisters, so Odin and Loki are brothers, at least foster brothers and blood brothers, friends and perhaps even lovers some time in the past, both pursuing the same arts, that of magic, of shape-changing, divination and the altering of fate, even the ultimate fate of death. But Loki is doomed to love the wrong side of death, the one that only means “destruction”. In the Lokasenna, the old friends, now turned enemies, recall their past in mocking words:
23. Odin spoke:“If I gave to those that did not deserve it, to small men, the victory Then you spent eight winters below the ground you were a woman and a milking cow you gave birth there: I call that unmanly behavior.” 24. Loki spoke: ”You performed seidr, they said, You were at Sami-Island, beating drums in the manner of witch-women: You traveled the world in the shape of a sorceress I call that unmanly behavior.” 25.Frigg spoke: ”The stories of what you two did in the past you ought not to speak of to anyone What these two gods did together in the time of origin is better forgotten.” .
Self-counsciously, the poet of the Lokasenna does not deny the mythical facts: Loki has been a woman, Loki has given birth like a woman and nursed babies. Odin has been acting like a sorcerer within the spheres of women, of witches and apparently cross-dressed or moved in the world as a female. Something more might have happened between the two, something that the poet, with the words of Frigg, finds too shameful to say out loud. We must remember that the poem was written down and probably also created during the new era, when the new faith and a new world-view was influencing and changing, finally to overthrow, the old.
A clue to what happened is actually to be found in two different poems, where the bickering between old friends seems to reflect the actions of Odin and Loki.
It is a duel of words between the sorcerer Sinfiötli, who represents Odin, and his old friend, now foe, Gudmundr, who represents Loki, in the poem of Helgi Hundingsbani:37. Sinfiötli spoke: “You were a witch-woman at the Island of Being you loath wench, you came with lies you would not own no other man, you said then, – than Sinfiötli. 38. You caused harm, troll-valkyrie you were indecent and horny at All-Father´s place All the one-harriers at Odin´s fought to have you, you false woman. 39. We two together at the Peak of History had nine wolves (as children) and I was the father.” .
The revelation of Sinfiötli´s sexual and procreative relation to the giant Gudmundr in the past is remarkable, for Sinfiötli very clearly speaks of Gudmundr as a female, as a wench, a völva, as a false valkyrie who gives birth to nine wolves that he himself fatheres. But Gudmundr is, in the text, neverthless very clearly a male. Gudmundr does not reply be defending himself against the accusations of having been a woman, only states that Sinfiötli is not so very manly himself:40. Gudmundr spoke: “You did not father the wolves of Greed even if you are older than all of them: You were castrated by the Grove of Gnipa By troll-maidens at the Peak of Thor.” .
The accusations of unmanliness continue further in the poem:42. Sinfiötli spoke: “You were the bride of Grani at the Shining Fields with a golden brithle you were forced to trot You were often tired like the reindeer doe on many a pathway with me at your back.” (This is a way of saying that Sinfiötli had Gudmundr sexually) 43. Gudmundr spoke: “You were a poor working woman, milking the goats of Golden you were, another time you were the daughter of Imdr(…)” .
The theme of homosexuality, transsexuality and gender-bending behavior is very strong in this poem. This is also very clearly in connection with magical arts and with esoteric revelations. In fact, the other poem of Helgi Hundingsbani (the second one), describes Helgi as starting out his career as initiate dressing up as a woman: A male, royal prince taking the role of a slave woman:
…Helgi could not save himself in any other way than to take the clothes of a servant-maid and sit down to grind. They searched, but could not find Helgi. Then spoke Blind the Soul-Evil:2. “Sharp eyes has the maid by the mill of Hagal She is not of peasant stock the millstone breaks , the grinding bench explodes.” 3. A harsh fate has a chief received when relatives must grind the grains She would be better suited with her hand, to grasp around the sword handle than around the mill-turning handle.” 5.Hagal answered and spoke: “I do not wonder if that mill makes sounds when here a royal maiden is turning the handle She used to float freely above the skies in a Viking manner she dared to go forth (as a warrior) Before Helgi took her…” .
These verses not only bend the male role, making a point out of how heroes don female and even subservient roles: They also speak of women that ought to clasp the sword handles rather than grind flour, who dare to act like Vikings and who are free to soar the air. Yet again, the theme of transcending both social status and gender is very much in connection to esoteric revelations.
In each case, both Sinfiötli´s, and Helgi´s, the heroes are facing the giant stock: The representatives of Fear, Greed and Death. They are also repeating the divine struggle between gods and giants. There is a remarkable similarity between the word-duel of Sinfiötli and Gudmundr, and the word-duel of Odin and Loki.
Yes, what did these two gods do together in the past? Did they create the Wolves of Greed together when they mixed their blood? For certain, Loki does not hesitate to take the shape of a woman, and Snorri relates how he, in the shape of a mare, conceives and gives birth to Sleipnir, the horse that takes Odin through the worlds and that will jump unharmed across the fence of Hel. It is tempting to guess that the dialogue between Sinfiötli and Gudmundr actually tries to say out loud that which “ought to be forgotten” about the relation between the god Odin and the giant Loki. Loki is the spokesman of the giants, just as Gudmundr is, and although he is of giant stock, he has a partly divine status. The name of Gudmundr actually means “Source of Divinity”.
“Odin knew that art which brings the most power, and he practiced it himself, it is called seidr, and from it he could know all the fates of human beings and all things that were to happen, and he could give death and bad health to people, who could take the wit of some people and give it to others. But this sorcery led to much unmanliness for those who practice it, so that menfolk could not practice it without shame, and so they taught it to the priestesses.”
The poem of the previous section revealed that Sinfiótli, a powerful sorcerer, the son of a king, a mentor of princes, was castrated in the past. He shares this feature with another such mentor, the kingly advisor and sorcerer Atli of another poem. Both are figures reminiscent of shamans or sorcerers, who guide their initiates through their trials.
This is when one of Odin´s most “disturbing” names ought to be mentioned: Neither Snorri nor the Poetic Edda hide the fact that the great god´s twelfth name is Ialk – the Castrate.
Seidr was a kind of divinatory magic and was of central importance to the Old Norse cult. It involved the art of not only seeing, but also altering, fate. It was an art led by much respected women called the völur (völva, sg.), or witches, and by the more dubious seidmennir – the seidr-men, the male practitioners, the sorcerers. In the sagas, such men are described in negative terms, and were seemingly only feared, not respected. There are several accounts where male sorcerers are being prosecuted. The negative attitude is, however, probably a result of the time in which the sagas were written: The thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. Not only was seidr an art of magic: Worse, if we should trust the saga writers, it involved “unmanliness”.
Scholars endlessly debate whether this “unmanliness” meant that the male practitioners actually performed transgender or homosexual acts, or whether it just meant that they performed an art that traditionally belonged to the spheres of women. All women, to some extent, might have learned some level of seidr, as some of the sagas suggest. During séances of seidr, all women present take a central and active role while the men keep to the periphery, only to observe and receive divination.
It is still curious why Snorri claims that the art of seidr was left to the priestesses because the priests felt it was unmanly. Seidr was said to be the most powerful of all arts, the art “which gave the most power”, and one may wonder how come the men would disregard that!
Odin, on his side, remained the great king of the gods without feeling any shame at all for acting as an “unmanly” performer of seidr. The sagas show that until the end of the Viking Age, large numbers of men did in fact perform seidr in spite of the “unmanliness” associated with it. So it is not true that men ceased to work with seidr, only, perhaps, that they received less respect than the female practitioners, whom we have seen were highly revered. But was it really so?
There are quite a lot of indications that men who learned seidr were respected and even held high status at some time. The mighty Odin himself was their teacher, their role model, Odin whose cult was attended to by kings and high-ranking members of society, by the much appreciated professional bards, and by warrior heroes. The two examples of castrated men in the Poetic Edda, Sinfiötli and Atli, were highly respected members of the royal court, with the authority to teach princes.
In my opinion, seidr for men could involve both transsexuality and homosexuality, but it was also “unmanly” because it belonged, firstly, to the feminine sphere. In the old Norse worldview, femininity was associated with the “other” side, with the magical, with wilderness and the afterlife. Masculinity represented “this” side of existence, the world of politics and society. Each sex could move between these borders, but political action was still considered a masculine sphere, whereas magical actions were considered feminine. A woman who had no other choice than to speak for herself at the assembly (a widow with no grown man to speak her case) would assume a masculine role that was acceptable, but not preferable. A man who devoted his life to the magical art was assuming a feminine role that was acceptable, but not entirely respected by all in an otherwise rather macho society.
There were also most probably different kinds of male practitioners, some rather more gender-bending than others. While some are called seidmadr– the word definitely asserting his masculine sex, a different kind of male practitioner was called a seidberendr – literally meaning a “seidr-vagina”. That the seidr-man and the seidr-vagina are two different types of male practitioners becomes clear in the poem Hyndluljod, where the two are assigned different heritages, just as the völva has her own.
One curious observance is the fact that the male castrates – Odin, Sinfiötli and Atli – are likened unto horses. The name Ialk is not translated as eunuch, but as a gelding – a castrated horse. At the same time, the witch – the völva – is named after her wand or staff, the völ, which is also the name of the penis of a stallion. We do know from a saga of a domestic ritual involving the penis of a sacrificed horse – called “Völsi” – being offered to the giantesses. Another connection to the giantesses is made in the poem quoted earlier where Sinfiötli is said to have been gelded by giantesses.
The title völva indicates that she has been initiated to the völ, and this is what gives her the authority to wield it. The graves of völur suggest that they were related to both masculine and feminine spheres, and the wand might very well be a phallic symbol, giving her authority to transcend the boundaries of gender. In the same manner, we might imagine, did a particular kind of male sorcerers – the “seidr-vaginas” – operate with a symbolic (or self-experienced) vagina associated with the female practice of seidr to a degree or in a fashion that perhaps the “seidr-men” could not. Perhaps this experience of having a special vagina for magical purposes was a permanent condition experienced by transsexual sorcerers, or perhaps it was something experienced at particular ritual occasions. One Old Norse word for “sorcerer”, Gylfi, actually indicates “shape-changing sorcerer”, “werewolf”, and “sorcerer changing into a woman every ninth night.” [i]
Transgender behavior is not unusual in many shamanistic contexts. Castration and feminization of male practitioners or devoted worshippers is known also from Mystery cults such as that of Cybele, and in some Hindu cults even today. In Old Norse society, male practitioners of seidr were common enough, and one of their most powerful deities, Odin, practiced it without shame. The poems speak of gender bending as a quite honorable, or at least some times useful and necessary, if not a normal thing to do. In my opinion, the negative attitudes to male practitioners is a late influence, caused by the aggressive machismo of medieval and Christianized Europe reaching Scandinavia and altering the old pagan worldview.
The fact that Odin and Freya and their counterparts in myth and legend transcend the roles assigned for their gender, combined with the fact that they were the major deities of seidr – a kind of sorcery – would probably be have been enough to see them as “bitches” and examples of the true perversion of the old faith by those who did not wish to look any deeper.
As mentioned, the poems speak of cross-dressing and gender-bending behavior as an honorable, or at least useful, if not normal thing to do. And this is important: Although acceptable, it was not normal. Bending the boundaries of gender was not a structural thing to do – it was not something anyone could just do at whim. Transcending gender boundaries was an important and powerful act, and it meant something to the practitioners and to the observers – it was part of a cultic or magical experience.
The stanzas quoted above about Gudmundr and Sinfiötli shows that the hero or his opponent frequently is compared not to just any kind of woman, but to a witch or a valkyrie. Gudmundr is not only taking the role of a woman, he is also taking the role of a völva and a valkyrie, magical and powerful creatures. As such he dwells with the one-harriers – Odin´s chosen warriors in Valhalla. Yet, because of his giant destructive nature he leads his companions them astray and births the wolves of Greed. In other sources, Loki is the father or parent of those wolves, so we may safely say that Gudmundr is a facet of Loki.
In the case of Helgi, his opponents realize that the flour-grinding servant girl, the one who draws the mill-stone, is no ordinary maid. But instead of recognizing the male Helgi, they believe that he is the valkyrie who rides air and sea, the great Valkyrie who was “taken” by the former Helgi Hjörvardsson, who soared freely as a viking goddess, but was now reduced to turning a mill-stone.
Now what does the mill-stone actually mean? Another poem identifies the mill-stone – it is very clearly the Mill of Destiny, drawn by two captured giantesses who used to be valkyries. This is, of course, what the men in the poem are referring to: The valkyrie who used to be free has been reduced to a slave drawing the mill of destiny in order to serve a greedy king.
The theme of a valkyrie – a fate spinner – being captured, enslaved or enchanted into sleep, made to shape destiny at the whim of a greedy king – is a very common one that constantly repeats itself throughout the Poetic Edda. It always ends with the valkyrie rebelling and avenging herself, and with fatal results for the greedy king. The valkyrie is a kind of norn, a mythical creature or goddess who rules the destiny of her chosen individual, whom she chooses at birth. The relation between the valkyrie and the individual soul seems to be close to the point of identification. For now it is enough to say that the relationship between a person and his valkyrie is very intimate – the two are parts of each other, and she represents, if nothing more, the destiny of her chosen person, the secret workings of fate beneath the surface.
Now Helgi “becoming” the woman who draws the mill of destiny – in fact becoming a norn – is obviously meant to symbolize something deeper than just a strategic means to hide. He becomes not only a slave girl, he becomes his own enslaved fate, drawing the mill of destiny while a captive of his enemies. As he becomes his own fate-spinner, and draws his own fate, he escapes slavery, only to meet his once again free-soaring valkyrie who guides him towards final freedom.
Perhaps this is a hint to what the puzzling gender-bending is most likely really about: The merging between a man and his female soul, his divine destiny?
All popular imagery of the fierce, brutish Viking berserk aside, there was an aspect to Norse Pagan manhood, more or less liminal, that was not quite as macho as national romanticism would have preferred.
Article by Maria Kvilhaug
“Sejd – och andra studier i nordisk själsuppfattning” – Dag Strömbäck (2000)
“Seid – myter, sjamanisme og kjønn i Vikingenes tid” – Brit Solli (2002)
The Poetic Edda
 Heimdallr- Shining World, Splendid World, the guardian of the bridge between worlds
 Brisinga Mén – Fiery Jewel, Freya´s necklace
 Britt Solli, 2002, Seid – Kjønn, sjamanisme og seid
 völur, plural of völva, (“staff-carrier”) a witch or seeress, priestess of divination and magic
 Whether one should translate to sorcerer or sorceress here is uncertain.
 Grani is the horse that carried Sigurdr and his divine gold alive through the fatal fire.
 The Grottasongr – the Song of the Mill
[i] Fritzner, Johan, Ordbog over det gamle norske sprog, 1886