Monday 18 August 2014

Gender transgression, magic and warfare in Norse society

We're seem to be having a binge on Norse mythology in our household. After seeing the Thor movies, we couldn't resist picking up Joanne Harris' The Gospel of Loki and after that I had to get something less well-known: Midnight and Moonshine by Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter.

In the process I've learned more about a topic I touched on a few days ago: gender in traditional Norse culture. In that post, I said I thought Norse cultures might be fairly inflexible in their approach to gender. Completely by accident, I discovered the ancient Norse term of abuse for effeminate men: ergi. Ergi is what one man called another when he wanted to challenge him to a duel. More specifically, it implied homosexuality in the (allegedly) feminine passive role but not the active one and also, to my surprise, the practice of magic. Loki is the ultimate ergi, untrustworthy, canny, given to sexual liaisons with both males and females and practically magic incarnate.

Faroe stamp 428 The Prophet.jpg
"Faroe stamp 428 The Prophet".
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons.
Magic was unmanly, and while female völva were respected, male practitioners were regarded with suspicion and persecuted. Völva were often older women who had already raised families before taking on the role. They were skilled in prophecy, performed sacrifices and seductions, went into trances using drugs, music and dance. They performed war magic, either at home or on the field of battle. They used staffs or wands, symbolically linked to the distaff used in weaving which was another female province, and also to the phallus. In the hands of the völva, spells could also be woven during the acts of spinning and weaving themselves.

Norse sorcery was eventually persecuted into extinction by the Roman Catholic church. The skeptic in me notes that while women's role as sorceress involved doing nothing dramatically (except exerting power and influencing events due to be respect accorded them), the intervention of Christianity left them without much of a role at all (except spinning and weaving clothes and sheets of course). Unfortunately, the conjoined aspects of this pattern of cultural takeover are quite common.

Norse legends and mythology also feature women taking on the more masculine role of warrior. They don't seem to be disrespected but there's debate over the extent to which such women existed historically. There is certainly far more archaeological evidence for völva than shieldmaidens. Reading between the lines I suspect women often fought when their communities were under attack and a handful may have joined war parties as active fighting members (as they always have, everywhere). Norse groups might have male or female leaders, but it looks like those people often found it effective to stick to traditional gender roles. Male leaders were warriors, ideally with a magically competent spouse, female leaders were sorceresses, ideally with a son or other subordinate male in the warrior role.

You might also be interested in:

Thor and Gender
We have Always Reclaimed our Stories, about Kameron Hurley's Hugo Award winning essay. It links to a bunch of other posts on gender and women warriors.
One Who Walks with the Stars, a Lakota woman warrior

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