LGBT+ (SAGA) Representation in Norse Mythology

NERD ALERT XD

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!

A Book Suggestion

I wanted to do something a little different, a little the same. First though, I am beyond honored to say I’ve crossed the 150 mark for followers and I am so very humbled by you all. Thank you for hearing what I have to say and being around to have some excellent conversations!

Alright. I’m all for reading-especially for being informed, but also just for the sake of reading. And I have a book suggestion that is both an excellent piece of work, but also incredibly well-written and vital to this day and age. I’m pasting my GoodReads review, because I think I said it best there, and you’ll get the gist. The book I’m recommending is Being Emily by Rachel Gold.

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Here’s my GR review:

**Slight spoiler alert** Having known a few people who made this transition story personal for my own read, I can honestly say I am completely impressed.
First, let me just say that although this book is rather short, it is packed to the brim with information-some of which you won’t process until after you’ve slept on it! There are no facts or figures in this book, but your brain will process the new characters in such a way that you’re going to make some sums. With that being said, there are some things I want to review as a bystander to this situation.
The chapters with Claire are my favorite. Claire asks the questions that a bystander is curious about but doesn’t want to seem rude over. And she slips up with her gender pronouns-just like most of us do. It’s a process and Claire is the closest thing to an ally that I could relate to. Natalie is seen as the pinnacle of success, as is Elizabeth-for having been able to completely “integrate”, but I would personally have like to have seen them more developed as characters. Maybe this could be done in a spin off or something-because an older “T-girl”, who say, started her transition in the 80s or 90s would also be a great read-especially from RG.
As you follow Emily, you really start to ask yourself questions about where you stand, who you are and the books requires you to see things from a perspective that may not be your own. And that’s the best part. Because at the end of the day, there needs to be a main character that people of any form of minorities relate to be it a gender minority, a sexuality one or an ethnic one.
I think the reason I found so much truth in this book is that I, like so many others, have grown up in a very conservative Christian area, where the questions raised are incredibly similar to the ones I’ve heard about Other gender and sexuality issues. The arguments are similar, the frustrations an punishments are similar and I think that that’s what draws people in-especially young people. But to have the one family member who backs her first be her own brother, is very telling. Children do not come born with hate and fear of differences, they are taught these prejudices. And then to have her father bring about the ultimatum about HRT was just great. I think a lot of people expect mothers to love their kids more unconditionally and to have that story line altered was superb.
I gave this book five stars because although as I said it is a quick read, I finished it in about 3 hours total, there is so much information to be gleaned from it that it carries the emotional baggage of a novel twice the length. You come away from it every bit as aware of your surroundings and biases as though you were actually a side character, stumbling through the fog yourself.
I’ve already begun recommending this book to others, for the pure and simple fact that although it may not be your preferred genre, it is a story that needs told and RG was the one to do it with love and grace. More people need to understand the pain and hardships of other individuals and open their minds to the possibility that there may be a different view point than the one they’ve been indoctrinated into.
This book was recommended to me by the alpha reader for RG. I will be heavily recommending this book as a read for several psych courses, as well as some human growth and development ones. (Obviously, I will be recommending this to other readers as well.)

 

Seriously. This book is an excellent place to start for people who are just getting introduced to the topic of transgender, as well as for parents who have questions (especially in a religious capacity). Anyway, I definitely recommend this book, it’s fantastic.

And a quick PSA: If you do read, leave her a review-that’ll help her get recognized, and allow for more books about these issues!