Approaching Queerness In The Viking World
Amy Jefford Franks | 17 May 2021
◇ Europe / Gender / LGBT History / LGBTQ+ / LGBTQ+ History / Medieval / Queer History Vikings
What do you see when you picture a Viking? Probably a warrior, fairly hairy, a number of tattoos, very strong, something you’d consider to be the epitome of masculinity, right? What if I told you that this idea is probably wrong? What if I told you that queer Vikings existed?
The Viking world was huge and varied. We’re talking about a few hundred years and people in Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden) as well as the diaspora: places such as Iceland, the north of England, Ireland, Normandy, the Volga river, and plenty other places. It’s impossible for this world to have existed without queer people.
But what’s more exciting is that we can spot queer Vikings in the historical record.
The first approach I use to search for queer Vikings is by using terms from within Viking culture. This requires us to understand what Viking gender and society looked like: gender was important in determining roles, and honour was very important. There were clear social expectations on how you should behave, and what retaliation could happen if someone broke laws: think outlawry and revenge killings.
The Viking world had a word in Old Norse that makes it very easy to look for queerness: ergi. This word has a pretty debated meaning, but seems to have the overarching meaning of ‘doing gender wrong’, and more specific meanings including ‘unmanliness,’ ‘female lust’, and ‘cowardice.’ I tend to translate the word to be ‘queer’, because that ultimately seems to be the meaning.
Being called ergi was a big deal. If someone was accused of being ergi, they could challenge the accuser to a dual called a holmgang. In the case of Iceland, the thirteenth century ‘Grey Goose’ laws said that a man had the right to kill in retaliation for being called ergi. This was the same response that was allowed if someone murdered your relative: it was a serious allegation!
Surprisingly, the god of war, poetry, and death, Odin himself, is accused of being ergi a number of times in Norse mythology. In one mythological poem called Loki’s Quarrel from the Poetic Edda, we see the being Aegir hosting a feast for the gods, when Loki storms in, very upset that he hasn’t been invited. He starts insulting the gods one by one, drawing on stories we see from other parts of mythology. When Loki turns to Odin, he says:
‘And you practiced magic
And you struck on a drum like a sorceress;
In a wizard’s form you travelled over mankind,
And I thought that was ergi (queer) in nature’.
This isn’t the only time this accusation comes up. In the poem Harbard’s Song, also from the Poetic Edda, Odin is disguised as a ferryman called Harbard and is refusing to help Thor cross the river. Eventually, Thor shouts ‘Harbard you queer’ as an insult. This seems to be in reference to Odin earlier bragging about practicing magic and having sex with a number of women.
By practicing magic, Odin is failing to be a man: only women can practice the form of magic known in Old Norse as seiðr. But having sex with lots of women doesn’t seem to be a failing as a man, but it is a failing as a woman. It seems that Odin’s gender is very queer through just these two examples alone!
My second approach uses modern understandings of queerness to explore how these identities could have looked in the past. While queer people have always existed, the way that queerness looked is not static, and we have to be very careful with our language. I would never say that someone from the past is [insert identity here], but I would say that ‘x reflects what we could now understand to be [insert identity here].’
One clear example of this is by looking at the burial known to archaeologists as ‘Bj. 518.’ This burial was found in the Viking Age site of Birka, on the island of Björkö in Sweden. When this burial was first excavated in the 1870s it was immediately assumed to be that of a great warrior: they had been buried with a full set of weapons, two horses, and a full set of gaming pieces, suggesting they were high ranking.
In 2017, our understanding of this individual became a lot more complicated when it was found that the genomic sex, based on DNA, was female. The researchers who made this discovery announced that therefore this was the first confirmed high ranking Viking warrior woman, to huge media uproar.
The thing is, we don’t know that women were ever actually warriors in the Viking Age. It’s possible that this individual is what we would understand now to be a transgender man.
Analysis of grave goods alone lead to circular arguments: it’s why we didn’t know this individual could be a woman for over 100 years. But at the same time, grave goods are also an important construction of perceived identity by the surviving community. There are no items in this grave to suggest that this individual took on a role understood to make them a woman within their community. Instead, it may be that by becoming a warrior, they also became a man, and were understood to be a man by their community.
We can never know this individual’s identity for sure, but it is the job of scholars to question every possibility.
The Viking world is so much more expansive than we have given it credit for. By thinking about how queerness can show up in the mythological and physical worlds, we can honour our queer past and gain a better understanding of the Viking Age.
Maybe it’s time to hang up that tired image of the hairy, hypermasculine Viking and embrace the queer magic of the Viking world.
Amy Jefford Franks holds an MA in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland, and is a specialist in Viking religion and queerness. They host the podcast Vikings Are Gay, and spoke about their work to Sheffield History students in March 2021. They can be found on Twitter @queertyyr