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Sex and the single Viking

February 17, 2010
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So; this is the promised post that was in the works from the Viking Society Student Conference, and which particularly came out of the paper given by Prof. Ashurst, of Durham. The man clearly knows how to work an auditorium, and it’s definitely the first time I’ve heard the phrases ‘gimme a coconut’, ‘screw the Pope’ and ‘Viking circle-jerk’ in an academic session . . .

Anyway. The title of Ashurst’s paper was “Verse as sex act; chiefly in Kórmaks Saga” and I’ll come back to it in a moment – but first, I want to set up a point from which to analyse the things that came out of the lecture. Establish a baseline, if you will. So.

The meme is still hugely present in modern western culture that romantic attachment, and/or the company of women, are not manly things to want. Witness the old and not particularly funny joke about how women have sex with men to get to talk to them and men talk to women to get to have sex with them. It positions the physical desire for sex as masculine, the desire for romantic companionship as feminine, and defines them as explicitly opposed.

The sex=masculine, romance=feminine stereotype remains pretty common, despite its being a pile of (hetero-, cis-)sexist nonsense, and I’m sure that pretty much anyone reading can reel off their own list of examples of it coming into play. I don’t want to look at it in detail right now; rather, I just want to establish it as something that is often cited as The Way Things Are (quite often complete with dreadful armchair evo-psych), as a baseline from which to compare the attitudes to sex and gender found in skaldic poetry.

And are they surprising. Ashurst cited examples from Kórmaks Saga, and a number of others, of assorted Viking protagonists being told off for spending too much time having sex. Kórmak goes so far as to say he would rather be screwing his lover Steingerðr than chasing sheep (?) and is promptly declared an effeminate failure.

These are the Vikings. Okay, so most of them were mostly peaceful farmers who rarely drew a sword, but their cultural reputation as hard-as-nails raiders and pillagers didn’t come out of nowhere. And it’s crystal clear in the skaldic poetry interspersed through the sagas that, at least amongst that section of the Viking community who went out killing people, sex was considered insufficiently macho, being a distraction from the serious business of breaking heads.

Now we’re all familiar with examples of How Things Are shifting, even inverting, over the course of history. The classic example is the boys in blue, girls in pink thing, which was the exact opposite way round as recently as the Victorian era.

But the “sex = effeminate” inversion is an order of magnitude more alien than that. It’s really quite weird just thinking about it. But it made me wonder – when did going out and having sex become a testament rather than a detriment to one’s masculinity?

It’s a weird concept, made more so by other, somewhat contradictory attitudes that also pop up in skaldic poetry – chiefly that virility seems to get lauded whilst actually going out and using it doesn’t. There’s a boasting-poem about the legendary hero Grettir (of Grettirs Saga) which declares that “he would have thought it an honour to screw the Pope”. Indeed.

And there’s a medieval Norwegian law, which may or may not also have applied in Iceland (source of the sagas), which says that any man not turning up to his own wedding – as Kórmak fails to do – would be a) outlawed, amounting to a death sentence, and b) declared officially, er, vagina-shy. (This was not the exact phrase Ashurst used.) Never go near a woman? Not a man. Prefer sex to fighting? Not a man.

Another place where a lot of weird attitudes to sex and gender come out is in Lokasenna, an eddaic poem where Loki basically goes to a banquet of the Aesir and starts insulting people. (Precisely why he does so has been much discussed. This being Loki, I personally would say that he doesn’t really need one, but.) All of the lurid accusations he throws out are true, so far as they can be checked against other versions of the mythos, and they throw up some interesting questions about gender roles/assumptions in Icelandic culture.

Someone pointed out in seminar today that the Aesir in Lokasenna are not treated by the poem as gods. From a viewpoint external to the story, of course Freyja’s promiscuous: she’s the goddess of sex. In-universe, that defence doesn’t seem to stand. It implies that the gods in the poem are being held to the same sort of standards that ordinary mortals would have been – which lets us examine the poem for evidence of those standards.

Loki himself does get insulted back a great deal, mostly directed at his shape-shifting habits and the fact that he’s borne (as well as fathered) children. What distinguishes him from the others is that the slurs slide off him – his attitude is pretty much ‘So what?’ It’s tempting to read the gender-bender shapeshifter as personifying the destruction or trangression of stability, especially here, where he comes into a social situation and starts energetically airing dirty laundry, letting cats out of the bag and skeletons out of the closet.

He lays into Freyja for sleeping around on an epic scale (‘every Aes and elf in this hall’ is approximately the phrase) and for bedding her brother Freyr. His accusation to Sif, Skadi and Frigg is adultery, and to Idunn that she slept with (?married) the man who killed her brother. So we immediately have a) excessive promiscuity, b) incest, c) adultery, and d) violation of the blood-feud down as no-nos. And to be fair two of them are still pretty bad today, and a) is fading only slowly.

Njord, a sea god, stands up for the right of the goddesses to have ‘a man or boy on the side’ – but it’s worth noting that this defence is put into the mouth of one of the Vanir, all three of whom (Njord, Freyja and Freyr) are labelled as incestuous by Loki, and are therefore presumably not the best authority on permissible sexuality.

His accusations to the male gods, by contrast, outline a different set of norms: Njord he taunts about having been held captive by women; Odin, about having spent time as a woman, a shamaness, debasing himself for the sake of more magic; Freyr, that he bedded his sister; Bragi, that he talks a bigger fight than he ever gets into; Heimdall that he’s been sleeping on the job, and Tyr that he’s useless at duels.

Incest, as today, is clearly one of those prohibitions that holds equally for all sexes. But the nature of the other accusations is markedly different: being woman-like or (worse) weaker than women; being a coward; and, notably, failing at your job.

Heimdall is the watchman of the gods, Tyr the patron of battle. Loki throws the accusation in their faces that both have failed in their respective roles – something that chimes intriguingly with the perspectives offered by Kórmaks Saga. Could it be that, in that saga, it’s not specifically sex that’s being denigrated? The insults offered to Kórmak et al. still hold if you read the behaviour they’re condemning as Not Doing Your Job, rather than specifically Having Sex.

One of the critics of Lokasenna (McKinnell, ?1994) points out that, of all the Aesir present in the poem, the only one who can truly be said to be absolutely and exemplarily fulfilling their ordained role – ironically – is Loki himself, who plays the part of trickster-troublemaker to perfection. Which would tie neatly back into the various gendered insults thrown at Loki by the other gods: he, nominally male, has to have his masculinity called into question on strictly physical grounds, because his competence (the trait he lambasts other Aesir for lacking) is unquestionable.

Does that all hold up? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting to speculate on Viking attitudes to sex (well, it’s interesting to speculate about anyone’s attitudes to sex, really) and the concept that competence, Getting It Done, might have been privileged over more sexualised forms of masculinity is an exceedingly interesting one.

Pending further investigations, I think I’ll leave it there.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    February 19, 2010 5:23 pm

    Interesting points. The fact that Loki insults the men on their incompetence, and the women on their love of sex, is a little more familiar than most Norse attitudes.

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