Self-Making – Queerness in Scottish Culture. Norse Myth: Queer Magic, Queer Deities, Gay Priest Cults and Cross-Dressing

by Scott

I am delighted to be able to host a guest writer exploring the subject of Queerness – queer magci and Queer deities in Norse Myth. Please forgive my touch of nepotism as I asked Nate (my other half) to write about queerness and Queer magic as part of the self-making series exploring marginalised identities in folk magic and myth. Nate is a specialist on these subjects and is currently exploring them in depth through a PhD in Scandinavian Studies at Aberdeen University. They have also has appeared in interviews in Huck magazine and others. Nate will also be presenting on this subject on Friday the 26th,March at AARHUS Symposium if you get a chance to check it out!

Nate explores Queerness and queer deities through the lens of Norse myth. Why Norse myth when this is a Scottish focussed website? Well, Scotland is deeply affected by Viking, Norse and Scandinavian culture throughout our shared history. You can see its weft and weave throughout our culture. From land names to folk magic approaches. The idea of liminality and transgressing for instance (Scotland is a melting pot after all). I have always been engrossed in how marginalised identities are side lined in current discourse in culture and history. You can read more about disability in folk magic in the article gods in wheelchairs. The representation of the marginalised in cultural studies need re-examining in light of our long standing plural society.  Nates article is an insight into discourse and understanding of queer experience through the lens of the queering of myth. I hope it will encourage you and others interested in these ideas to explore the themes further in terms of Scottish Myth and lore. Anyways, enough about my thoughts over to Nates wonderful article.

Introduction

Whenever we talk about Old Norse myth and, in turn, their culture or religious practices I think it important to preface discussions with the fact that there is a lot we don’t know. 

Old Norse mythology is my focus, in particular the (very clear to me) queer elements of it, but all of what we know about it comes from text sources that appeared very much after the Viking Age (almost 300 years after it) written by a number of medieval Christian monks and scholars. There is, of course, archaeological data to provide a lot of information about how people in the Viking Age lived, died and what they ate (I am paraphrasing, there is more than that obviously!) but there isn’t much to tell us definitively about religion, gender or sexuality amongst these bones and iron staves. If we look at text sources like the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda or Gesta Danorum (The Book of the Danes), these are written by people of the 12th and 13th centuries with a particular viewpoint and expectation of their audience (also in languages that have since changed in terms of meaning and connotation). This casts some doubt of the veracity of these sources, as much as they are the primary source of what we know about Old Norse myths, because they present a particular way of interpreting the belief and ritual practices they describe. Archaeology adds a little information about these myths and religions, what we know is inferred from tools uncovered that are thought to have religious or ritual uses at burial sites. This gap makes it difficult to really understand how Old Norse cultures viewed things like gender and sexuality. We do know from 13th century law texts that sexual relations between men were felt to be more severe than bestiality, which gives us an indication on the medieval Church’s feeling on the matter, and some of these law texts specific to areas such as Iceland dictate the considerable shame afforded a man being penetrated by another man. There were obviously no women having sex with each other during this period. 

Old Norse texts describe ergi and argr as terms for homosexuality, deviance, weakness and effeminacy. The translation varies depending on the scholar, again adding a further lens through which to look at these myths over and above that of the medieval authors. What this does tell us is that sexual deviance, according to these monks and scholars, did exist and had to be legislated against. Notwithstanding there were no laws covering lesbians, they apparently could quite happily go about their big gay lives without worry of exile or worse. These specific terms were most often used in an accusatory fashion in the sagas, where being accused of ergi was one of the worst things one could say to a man of the Viking Age and if you were wrong then you suffered severe consequences. Add into the mix that it was only ever the man being penetrated that was perceived as ‘wrong’ in these sagas not the one penetrating, whether the act had occurred or not (this is, as my colleague Amy* has pointed out, bottom shaming). There is a lot to unpack here. Firstly, the assumption of gender all through the sagas and our interpretations of it is rooted in scholarship of the 18th and 19th centuries which later evolved into support for Nazi ideaologies throughout the First and Second World Wars. There is the complete lack of acknowledgement that lesbians existed, was this because they didn’t in the Viking Age? Or because the Church didn’t account for them given their clear attitudes towards women? This feeds into the inherent misogyny of ergi and its associations with effeminacy and weakness, as well as stating that only the penetrated could be at fault rather than the penetrating. This last part opens up whole worlds of interpretation as we, as modern thinkers, know how variable gender and sexuality is and that it has nothing to do with this binary of penetration.

Given all this, could there have been queer identities and people in Old Norse myth? Did they exist in the Viking Age? 

Queer Deities and Identities in Old Norse Myth

My short answer is: Yes, of course! Don’t be a fool, never question me about this again.

My longer answer tends to begin: Yee-eeesss but it is a bit complicated…

I’ll go through a few examples from medieval textual sources to demonstrate what I mean. Another caveat to add in here is that in my research and writing, I have my own bias. I am actively looking for queerness in these mythic cycles, partly because I know they are there but also with my own lens for queerness. Whilst other scholars may not agree (they are, naturally, incorrect) with my interpretations as I disagree with theirs, my approach opens us up to at the possibility of queerness existing in this period. This means we don’t need to default on the assumption that everyone prior to modern times assumed gender was binary and the majority sexuality was heterosexual.

Loki

The trickster and shapeshifter, everyone knows about Loki. The sagas portray Loki as a deity who created many problems for the Æsir and then generally attempted to be part of the solution. Loki appears in many guises throughout the stories but the one I am most interested in is featured in Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda where the Æsir commission a giant to build a wall around Ásgardr to fortify their home. The giant is promised the hand of Freya in marriage and possession of the sun and moon as payment for this piece of construction, which strikes me as a littlesteep. Loki encourages the Æsir to agree, much to Freya’s displeasure (there is something to unpack here about how women are commodified in the sagas), however assures all that this will never come to pass. The wall nears completion thanks to Svaðilfari, the giant’s powerful stallion who hauls the materials needed for the wall. The Æsir get a little ansty, Freya gets a little angrier (understandable) and by now Loki is nowhere to be found (expected). Before the last bricks can be laid and the mortar finished (I’m paraphrasing, I know nothing about building walls) a beguiling mare appears and, for lack of a better term, flirts with Svaðilfari and thus draws the stallion away from the work of building the wall. The two horses run off into the sunset together, never to be seen again. 

The giant is incensed. The wall cannot be finished without Svaðilfari and therefore, the giant cannot be paid the promised sum because the contract remains unfulfilled. Obviously annoyed, the giant stalks off grumbling about the dealing with deities and, I believe, it falls to Þorr to finish the giant’s work. Loki returns some time later with an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir in tow and presents this as a gift to Óðinn, presumably to make amends for involvement in the Ásgardr Wall-gate scandal. We find out later in Gylfaginning that Sleipnir is in fact Loki’s child, whom the deity gave birth to whilst enjoying a dalliance with Svaðilfari in the shape of a mare. It was in fact Loki who tempted Svaðilfari away from the giant and their project, thus enabling the Æsir to refuse the giant’s payment. 

What I see here is a demonstration of Loki’s queer nature through transformation of self to occupy another role entirely (which in this case is that of a parent who can give birth to a child), Loki changes their gender and sexuality through shapeshifting. 

Óðinn 

To my mind Óðinn is an uncomfortable example of queerness and one I grapple with. On one hand Óðinn occupies a queer space where the role of the stereotypical warrior, leader of the slain and bringer of death is in harmony with Óðinn’s propensity for “deviant” acts of seiðr (a form of magic the myths consign to women because it is so shameful, more on that in a moment). Óðinn leads a cohort of valkyries, a group of women, and is more often associated with them than roving bands of men in the sagas. But on the other hand, there is the role of Óðinn as deceitful deity using disguise to portray a woman and physician in order to bed a princess (with very clear issues around consent) in the tale of Óðinn and Rindr in the third volume of Gesta Danorum

Odinn’s use of the “shameful” seiðr is called out by Loki in Lokasenna, where the deities exchange a number of insults (known as ‘flyting’) which to me mirrors ‘reading’ as popularised by the documentary Paris is Burning and queer ballroom culture of the 20th century.

To paraphrase the relevant parts of Lokasenna (my own translation):

Loki: Óðinn, you do that gay-sex-magic that only women should do

Óðinn: Yeah well, you turned into a horse and got pregnant so who’s the weird one here?

This particular tale is really the only one where Óðinn’s use of seiðr is questioned in an attempt to shame the deity, which doesn’t stick. All other appearances of Óðinn in the mythology, where seiðr is employed in one form or another, carry none of the stigma that the tales would have us believe were applied to this practice. Óðinn also uses seiðr to achieve ill ends, using deceit and shapeshifting to trick others (often women) to steal from them or sleep with them (consent issues abound). As a form of magic, it would be incorrect to label it as “evil” magic since the intent comes from the practitioner, which in this case is Óðinn who occupies this sphere of queerness and also violence. This is the core of my discomfort with Óðinn as a queer deity, I accept the queerness of this deity, but I must also accept the violent and misogynistic position Óðinn occupies. Better queer scholars than I have talked at length about the idea of looking through history for queerness and then ignoring what we, as modern queers, think doesn’t suit our ideas of queerness and I would encourage you to read their work**.  

Þorr

Þorr as a queer deity is an idea I have encountered in the work of other scholars and is something I have begun to dance around myself, specifically looking at Þrymskviða (Þrym’s Poem) in which our hyper-masculine (or as I tend to say, toxically-masculine) hero wakes to find someone has stolen his hammer, Mjölnir! The (in)famous weapon of the thunder deity, the very name rooted in words for lightning and fire, gone from Þorr’s hands while he slept. What does this mean for Þorr? Is he even still Þorr? Is this – and I think you will reach the same conclusion – another word or symbol for Þorr’s masculinity? And as every masc surely must, Þorr must go to great lengths in order to retrieve it. And what are those lengths? Well Loki, ever the helpful one, see’s Þorr’s distress at his loss (men are so emotional) and declares some knowledge of the incident. It would appear that the giant Þrymr has stolen Mjölnir and his demand is that in order to return it he takes Freya’s hand in marriage (insert eyeroll here). Loki, continuing this theme of being the supportive and helpful friend, suggests they BOTH dress-up as Freya and a bridesmaid then go to Þrymr and retrieve the hammer. Although reluctant at first Þorr grudgingly agrees, not too quickly mind we wouldn’t want people thinking he was keen on the idea. Loki is quick to offer services as an accompanying bridesmaid clearly more comfortable with the idea that Þorr which makes sense when we think about Loki’s general fluid approach to gender seen elsewhere in the mythology. 

This is a poem I enjoy for what I feel is its theme of queer tragedy. Þorr, finding himself in a new identity (lacking Mjölnir to mark him out as who he is) takes up a new one by dressing as a bride whilst Loki is supportive of this. Þorr’s exploration of this is clumsy as the tale goes to great lengths to make it seem comically obvious that this is Þorr dressed up and not Freya but all through way through this, Þrymr’s desire for Freya-Þorr remains unchanged. The tale also lays out very clear expectations of what ‘lady-like’ behaviour should be, which Þorr struggles to emulate. For me this story shows the tension of exploring a new identity, a common story for queer people. Struggling to fit in expectations of what that identity should be and ultimately being unable to reconcile that, failing to feel free in exploring it as well as being desired. All the signifiers of expected ‘normative’ behaviour at there, Þorr should not feel comfort in this new identity and in being desired by Þrymr as the tale makes a mockery of this. 

At the end of this tale Þorr retrieves his hammer reclaiming that marker of his masculinity and killing all those present save Loki. Þrymr is killed for his desire for Freya-Þorr as Þorr’s shame and humiliation prevent him from remaining comfortable and free in this new identity. Once again Þorr is Þorr again with his hammer and remains so for the rest of his myth, which I cannot help but find incredibly sad and such a parallel to the stories of queer people who have ultimately not survived and flourished. 

Queer Magic, Gay Priest Cults and Cross-Dressers

In all honesty, this is a working theory of mine. I am going with it and I hope that one day I will make it stick in my research. I mentioned earlier Gesta Danorum or the Book of the Danes, this was written by Saxo Grammaticus who was a Danish historian and religious scholar in the 12th century. Gesta Danorum is thought to be one of the earliest written works of Danish history and is similar to other medieval texts relating to Old Norse mythology in that it was written through a lens of medieval Christianity. Saxo was a religious scholar and is believed to have worked for the Archbishop of Lund whilst he was alive, his writings bear clear markers of his beliefs. 

My favourite piece of Saxo’s writing (well, one of the two pieces I like) was when he wrote about the worship of the god Freyr at a temple near Uppsala. The priests (Saxo mentions a priesthood but is not specific on gender, perhaps assuming a default as later scholars have since done) were described as dressing themselves as women and making an “unmanly clatter” by the ringing of bells. Scholars have interpreted Saxo’s writings as describing the priests of Freyr essentially dragging-up and ‘taking on the roles of women’ in rituals. These rituals often involved sacrifice to gain Freyr’s favour (Saxo calls this the fröblót), typically of animals but human remains have been found in some of these sites linked with worship. There is a tale that describes the people of Sweden sacrificing their cattle to gain Freyr’s blessing and an end to a famine. When this fails, they then offer up their kin and when that yields nothing, they decide to offer up their king in sacrifice. The famine ends and Freyr’s blessing is granted on the Swedish people thereafter, this regular bloodletting having been carried out by these drag-priests of Freyr. 

Is this a gay priest cult? To be honest, I don’t know. This is, to me, a demonstration of the fluid nature of ritual practice that may have been observed. The sagas celebrate violence carried out in the name of war. Saxo here suggests there is an ‘effeminacy’ in the acts of these priests as they sacrifice to their god of fertility, prosperity and crops. There would appear to be something unconventional that Saxo observed (if indeed he actually did) in the worship of Freyr in Uppsala, something that was counter to his own medieval Christian sensibilities and therefore needed to be described in terms of how strange and “unmanly” it was in. 

In keeping with his distaste for the different, Saxo also wrote of the Danish princess Alvild who took her mother’s advice not to fall for any man and embarked on a life of piracy instead, for a time. Alvild dressed as a man, put together a crew of other similarly inclined women and spent her time raiding that is until, she met the right man (of course Saxo, thanks for that). In other stories, rejecting the life of marriage and hearth-tending is described in negative terms so as to prevent the spread of such salacious ideas amongst the readers but this particular tale in the Book of Danes is quite unique. Alvild is described positively by comparison, however while there are descriptions of her exploits it is over-shadowed by those of her beauty (originally said to be so captivating as to only provoke lust in others, hence her mother’s advice) and when Alvild comes face to face with her previous suitor, Alf, he elects to fight her “with kisses and not with arms”. Alvild is never treated as a warrior the way Alf is in Saxo’s telling and ultimately, Alvild decides to give up her life of piracy to marry Alf. This is perhaps why the previous imagery is more positive of this character, ultimately Alvild realises that she cannot go on being a pirate and must become a good Christian housewife to Alf. Saxo leaves Alvild’s former crew with a short shrift saying they devote themselves to fighting instead of more “womanly” things (like sewing) and they instead think of glory in battle instead of “dalliance”. We here no more of this crew after this point, after all why would we need to? Alvild is married and happy and home, what more is there to know? 

Summary

This has been a whistle-stop tour via a few of the queer elements of Old Norse myth, there are many more and I encourage you heartily to read the work others have done in this fascinating field***. There is queerness inherent in Old Norse myth, to see the symbols and meanings re-purposed towards white supremacy and fascism is heart-breaking. As a scholar of this field, I acknowledge that the much research is drawn from those who supported the nazis and endorsed an Aryan ideaology, that is why the above perspective and that of my queer scholar colleagues is so important. We must dismantle these frameworks of the far right and open up history to all of us, because we have always been part of it and it doesn’t not belong to our oppressors.  

Nate Richardson-Read // MLitt in Viking Studies // PhD candidate at Centre for Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen // @nonbinarynate & natestudiesvikings

*Amy Jefford Franks is an independent scholar who is editor-in-chief of Kyngervi, the norse-gender studies journal and produces the Vikings Are Gay podcast – please check them out!

** Stephen Guy-BrayHeather Love and Carolyn Dinshaw to name a few. Their work was recommended to me by a friend who is well-versed in reparative queer scholarship. 

***Amy Jefford FranksÁrmann JakobssonKel MentonErik WadeGareth Lloyd EvansBasil PriceJonah Comanand Britt Solli are but a FEW examples and all have produced excellent and informative work whom I reference heavily in my own research.

Queer magic and Queer Deities – Bibliography

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