LGBT+ (SAGA) Representation in Norse Mythology

NERD ALERT 😄

Hi all! I wrote a term paper (very short-only 5 pages) for my Norse Mythology class, over gender roles and orientation. I focused specifically on a couple instances, but also mainly on intersex/two-spirit representation. I’d loved to have done more with it, but there was a page limit-so it’s all pretty vague. However, I’m going to copy/paste it here because I’d love to spark a conversation. Now, I know, the citation method is vague-we were only allowed to use sources we broke down for the class, so we didn’t need to be ultra specific. Anyway, I thought it might be interesting.

I kept the Scandinavian words, so I thought perhaps a little “translation” would be useful. Some words I used I explain in the paper, so I’ll leave those out.

Njörðr=Njord, Oðin=Odin, Þórr=Thor, jötun=”giants”, Æsir=gods, Vanir=other gods, Skaði=Skadi the “giantess”, Balðr=Baldr/Balder

Gender roles have been prescribed ubiquitously throughout time and space, as a cultural norm. Gender, being the ascribed and associated expectations, previously linked with biological sex, for many cultures remained a bilateral (masculine and feminine) issue. Norse culture is a prime example of this two gender focus, however, within the mythology which predates the Christian conversion, there are also examples of individuals (Njörðr and Loki) who cross the divide and end up somewhere in the middle. These individuals are not necessarily ostracized from their communities, but they are not regarded as favorably either (as opposed to Oðin and Þórr, for example).

Þórr, as an archetypical thunder god (Gylfaginning), displays the masculine qualities of strength, courage and his status as a male in society is reinforced by several choices seen in the mythology. Married to a woman whose name means “kinship” (Hárbarðsljóð), Þórr raises several children and is frequently traveling to contests of strength in the land of the giants (Hárbarðsljóð). When Freyja comes into danger of being taken by the jötun, it is Þórr who is called to save her (Þrymskviða). Although the method used calls into question his masculinity, the actions done to fix the situation-using his hammer to kill the groom (Þrymskviða) remain, on the whole, masculine.

Oðin on the other hand, regularly engages in seiðr, a type of magic reserved for specifically women, and is regarded as a wise, older man (Hárbarðsljóð). When accused of ergi (extreme unmanliness), rather than defending himself, Oðin acknowledges the charges and uses his wit to remove the focus from himself, as shown in Hárbarðsljóð. Oðin is held in high regard wherever he goes, causing havoc and mayhem as he travels to ascertain wisdom (Völuspá). His choices of behavior are, albeit destructive, things which cause his children to claim relationship to him and other people respect the lineage (Þórsdrápa) and use relation to him to gain access to things previously unavailable, such as entry into a house from which he’d previously been banished (Lokasenna).

Njörðr enters Norse mythology as a member of the Vanir, a separate lineage of beings who, post-war, join the Æsir (Skáldskaparmál).Njörðr’s name itself presents the earliest evidence that perhaps he belonged to the select group of individuals who crossed the boundary (liminals) between masculine and feminine-but were not able to escape it. Njörðr seems to have been an individual who, at one point either had a sister or a wife with a similar name (lecture) who was also worshipped-as a mother goddess (Germania). This divided name is seen in Njörðr’s children: Freyja and Freyr as well (Skáldskaparmál). Although there are no records stating the existence of a female version of Njörðr, there is evidence that someone of similar name received cult in a female form (lecture).

Njörðr sustains his role in the mythology as being the hostage in treaty events (Skáldskaparmál). When Skaði, a jötun woman came to avenge her father’s death, she was offered a husband and entertainment (Skáldskaparmál). By visual trickery (having to pick out her intended by looking for his feet), Skaði ended up picking Njörðr (who had nice feet) (Skáldskaparmál). This marriage was not one which mirrored that of Þórr and “Kinship”, but was rather dysfunctional. Half of the year was spent living in Njörðr’s home and the other half was spent living in Skaði’s deceased father’s home (Gylfaginning). This shows the incompatibility and lessened masculinity because this was a patrilocal society (lecture), meaning the married couple would live exclusively with the male half, in his home. Skaði being the mother of Freyja and Freyr is also debatable, as the Vanir were known to practice incestuous relationships (lecture). This further lends the way for a feminine Njörðr.

Njörðr is mentioned one more time in the remains of the mythology. As Loki enters a feast after being thrown out, he insults everyone who takes the time to speak-including Njörðr (Lokasenna). Njörðr is called the “pisspot of giantesses” (Lokasenna). While this act in-and-of itself is not masculine, the interpretation varies as well. Þórr once dams up a giantess who is making a river swell-either by urinating in the river or menstruating in it (Skáldskaparmál). If the giantesses were not urinating so much as menstruating into Njörðr, this would demonstrate something which he cannot do being a man, but also de-masculinizes him by being a receptacle for such.

Loki is often seen as a liminal of gender as well. Loki aids Þórr in saving Freyja, by dressing up as Þórr’s handmaiden (Þrymskviða). As their journey starts out, Loki makes a comment about traveling as women, although he leaves out the subject (giving him a way to remove ergi from Þórr) (lecture). Loki is also clean-shaven, something which would not have happened in that culture at that time, as evidenced by the story of two sons who grew beards when their father could not and were accused of smearing their faces with feces (lecture).

Loki too was married, although his marriage seemed to have been much more functional than Njörðr’s. Loki’s wife, Sigyn, had children by him and was beside him each time he was tied up with a poisonous snake over top of him (Gylfaginning). What is important to mention about Loki, however, is not that his marriage was functional, but that he was capable of birthing children as well-and did so. Loki turned into a mare and became the mother of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Oðin (Hyndluljóð). This pregnancy comes up again when Loki insults the other beings, as Oðin claims Loki spent eight winters milking cows under the earth (Lokasenna). Since milking cows was considered women’s work by that culture, this further illustrates the crossover from masculine to feminine behavior.

Throughout the insults of Loki, those which were returned to him were accusations of ergi (unrivaled unmanliness). It is Oðin that mentions milking cows (Lokasenna) but Njörðr also speaks up, and so does Þórr (Lokasenna). This does not stop Loki from continuing his insults, but forces him to direct his words to the sins of the others, such as Þórr hiding in a glove from a giant (Lokasenna). The names used to refer to Loki by others include “womanish god”, “unmanly one” and names which are directly linked to his children, such as “wolf’s father” (Lokasenna). This is in sharp contrast with Þórr, who self-refers by his kinship ties (Hárbarðsljóð) and is not thought of an unmanly in the slightest.

In the marriage arrangement of Skaði and Njörðr, Loki is part of the arrangement. Skaði, in exchange for blood vengeance, is promised a husband (making her part of the Æsir potentially) and entertainment (Skáldskaparmál). Although Njörðr supplies the husband aspect, it is up to Loki to fill in the rest. Loki ties his testicles to the beard of a nanny goat and they have a tug-of-war until Loki falls over (Skáldskaparmál). This story is important when the goat is examined. A nanny goat is a female goat, but it possesses two very male traits: a beard and horns (lecture). The act of tying a very male part of his anatomy to a male part of a female goat’s anatomy is representative of Loki’s identity. Although male by biology, Loki makes behavioral choices which are not always indicative of his masculinity, up to and including becoming pregnant.

Members of Norse culture would have heard these tales before the conversion, and perhaps even after Snorri recorded them. As a euhemeristic version of a pagan religion, the core group of individuals (Þórr, Oðin, Freyja and the like) were linked to Troy (Gylfaginning) as being the key figures, the ancestral line which led to the Norse peoples and therefore represented the ideal gender roles: men being strong, witty, fit for battle and women being mothers, dealing with cows and marriageable. Although flawed, members of this core group (the Æsir) could “toe the line” between gender roles without suffering socially. Members of outside groups, such as the Vanir-like Njörðr or the jötun-like Loki, were looked at differently from the get go.

Members of the outside groups like the Vanir and the jötun were not seen as equal in the hierarchy of gods, unless they married one of the Æsir. This hierarchy extended further to rank the individuals by how closely they fit the socially acceptable gender roles. Individuals like Njörðr and Loki crossed the boundary in ways which were necessary and beneficial to the entire group and were therefore allowed to do so, but were not able to reach their hierarchical potential-even with blood-brother status.

The usefulness of liminals like Njörðr came down to protecting the “purity” of the Æsir. Njörðr took the place of Balðr in the marriage of Skaði, a jötun. This marriage allowed for the Æsir to avoid bloodshed, but also did not allow a pureblood jötun individual to reach a rank equal to a member of the Æsir. Njörðr also played the role of hostage, a way to get the Æsir-Vanir war to end. His transfer from Vanir to Æsir allowed him to move up in rank from his people, but never allowed him to fully integrate into Æsir status. Loki proved useful in situations which required diplomacy and wit. When Freyja was demanded as a bride (and thereby an attack on the hierarchy) it was Loki who came up with a solution-one which relied on his unmanliness. Loki’s horse-child Sleipnir became the greatest horse, which then belonged to Oðin, increasing the prestige of the Æsir.

While Loki and Njörðr were not specifically described as being gender fluid, intersex (formerly hermaphrodite) or two-spirit, there is evidence to suggest that their behavior was not only an aversion to the gender roles of the time, but useful. Their usefulness was dependent on them being able to use ascribed feminine traits (crossdressing, hairless face, marriageability, and children) to influence masculine behaviors.

****This is what I live for-it’s what I love doing. Seriously. Looking at mythologies and picking out the bits of it which apply to today, which explain how people thought. I could have written so much more about this. Because there is nothing in this great wide world that makes me more intrigued than spirituality and the occult and mythologies. This is my very favorite thing to discuss. Honestly. I can’t stress enough how much I love this.

And as a side note, if anyone is interested, I can absolutely post more things like this, including but not limited to other papers/essays I’ve written. I can also post the “actual” bibliography for this, if anyone would like it as well!

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