An Examination of Gender In Viking Age Scandinavia

Loki Laufeyjarson, referred to as male in the texts but Credits: Finnguala

Loki Laufeyjarson, referred to as male in the texts but had conceived children and seduced a horse by turning himself into a mare. Credits: Saskia de Korte

Implicit in a lot of discussion about trans people (which, of course, rarely overlaps with discussion including trans people) is this idea that trans people, especially non-binary people, are some kind of peculiar modern fad. As though gender dysphoria magically appeared some time in the 20th century and we’ve all leapt on the bandwagon.

The thing is, people who can be read as trans appear in a whole heap of literature stretching back centuries. Probably millennia. My area of specialism is Viking Age Scandinavia (8th – 14th century), and even in what’s generally viewed as a hyper-masculine, rigidly binarist society, we see individuals appearing to quite gleefully flout the conventions of gender. Said conventions of gender can best be summed up by imagining your stereotypical Viking: Are you big, strong and beardy? Are your favourite things fighting, drinking, fighting, having procreative heterosexual sex within marriage, and fighting? If so (regardless of gender), you’re doing great! If not (equally regardless of gender), you’re not quite as good as the people who do possess those qualities.

Probably the most notorious example of failing to live up to these conventions is the god/demi-god/who even knows, Loki Laufeyjarson.[1] Loki is fantastic. I’m going to use male pronouns because that’s how he’s consistently referred to in every text concerning him, but he’s a shapeshifter extraordinaire. He’s been a fly, he’s been a falcon, he’s accidentally conceived children by eating a burnt giantess’ heart. In a particularly memorable incident, he turns himself into a mare in order to seduce a horse and save the rest of the gods (long story). There’s also a bit in ‘Thrym’s Poem’ in which Thor refuses to disguise himself as Freyja because everyone will think he’s unmanly and that would be Terrible, and Loki replies with, essentially, ‘You’d rather the giants invade Asgard than have to wear a dress? Seriously?’ Loki is magnificently unfazed by people being jerks about his performance of gender, which of course the other gods are – the Norse may be self-aware enough to acknowledge that gender variant people exist, but that doesn’t mean they like it, unfortunately.

What’s really weird though, is that top-god Odin does some very similar things to Loki (OK, not the horse thing) and gets away scot-free. There’s a poem called ‘Loki’s Quarrel’ in which Loki shows up at Asgard and starts insulting all of the gods at a feast he hasn’t been invited to. One of the charges he levels at Odin is that Odin has taken on the form of a witch[2] and performed seiðr, which is ‘unmanly’ magic, a topic on which I could (and have in the past) spend many thousands of words on.[3] Crucially, Odin doesn’t bother to deny this at all – just retorts that Loki has done the same, so there. (Norse gods: not known for their maturity.) This isn’t the only time Odin is presented as a practitioner of seiðr – ‘The Saga of the Ynglings’, the ‘history’ of the Swedish royal dynasty, says that he was responsible for teaching the practice to priestesses, because men found it too perverse.

Those are the two big examples in mythology. The legendary sagas, which are generally thought to be a late saga development, are also a pretty good source of people who can be read as trans, thanks to the ‘maiden king’ trope – the idea that if a woman is unmarried, she can be (almost) as good as a man, and capable of ruling her own kingdom. A lot of the time, these characters are most plausibly read as cis women who’ve got tired with bullshit patriarchal gender norms, but there’s one in particular who I am pretty much convinced has to be read as a trans man.

Thorberg is a character in ‘The Saga of Hrolf Gautreksson’ who a) insists that everyone call him Thorberg, a masculine name; b) gives ‘hard punishment’ (unspecified) to anyone who dares to call him a woman; and c) is referred to with male pronouns and in terms befitting any other king for the entirety of the time he spends as king. The English translators ignore this last part, of course, but I give you my word as an ASNaC that it’s there in the Norse. You really have to be trying hard to read someone who explicitly demands to be treated as a man as anything other than, well, a man.

The mythological and legendary material contains most of the really undeniable examples of people who can be read as trans. It’s not entirely clear why this is – perhaps the fantastical nature of the genres let people enjoy characters transgressing gender expectations without worrying that similar scary transgressions were happening in their own society. A large part of my dissertation is devoted to trying to unravel this, which I definitely don’t have space to do here, so that’ll have to do.

I’ve mainly looked at literary examples in this article, but the great thing about literature is that it reflects what’s important to the people producing it. And the fact that there are multiple individuals – deities, even – who don’t follow the conventions of gender? That’s pretty amazing. And I haven’t even mentioned the archaeological evidence of Norse burials where the skeleton has features generally associated with female skeletons, and yet is buried with the typically male accoutrements of sword and shield, and – perhaps more interestingly, because the Norse pretty much have an attitude of ‘of course everyone wants to be a manly man, manly men are the awesomest’, so are more likely to look kindly on crossing gender boundaries in that direction – skeletons whose bone structures are more like those associated with male skeletons, but who are buried with weaving equipment.

Basically, the Norse found gender as complicated and confusing as many people today – they knew their nice neat categories weren’t nearly as workable as they’d like, and their literature has some really interesting examples of people who didn’t fit, or who refused to fit, within those categories. And I think that is pretty damn cool.

[1] Yes, Marvel’s incorrect use of the genitive really annoys me.

[2] Always female at this time in Norse society. Interestingly, though, pretty much all the witches burnt in Iceland during the great witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were men – by a margin of several hundred to, I believe, two. Apparently witch-hunters who trained on the Continent got very confused when they arrived in Iceland.

[3] Neil Price has a good introductory article on it in The Viking Way.

Lizzie Colwill (GR. Features Writer)

14 thoughts on “An Examination of Gender In Viking Age Scandinavia

  1. I also believe that Freya/Freyr originally was a “two spirit” or ambigendered god who late became split into a twin god and a goddess.

  2. To be fair, the Norse did value a few other traits, like composing poetry, inventing elaborate insults and, importantly, standing up for oneself and getting away with things. Trans people who were charismatic and bold enough to do their own thing could have won respect that way.

    Also worth noting for those unfamiliar with the story: Thor did give in and wear the dress in the end. Unfortunately, his beard gave him away.

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