When I started writing The Goddess of Nothing At All, it was clear to me that it would be a queer book. From my perspective, Loki was a queer being and I was disappointed that so many people had just skirted around that. I spent a lot of time looking for the evidence to back up this deep feeling I had, and now it’s time to bring you along for the ride.
Disclaimers: I’ll be using the word queer as a catch-all term for LGBTQA+ peoples because the language we use today does not represent the experiences of people who lived centuries ago. I’m also not a scholar, just...a tour guide. I’ll show you the basics of what I’ve found in my research and at the bottom I’ve linked a variety of sources for you to explore, including fiction and non-fiction books, and research papers. I only hope to hold open the door for you, and let you discover things for yourself.
We’ve Always Been Here
The first thing to understand about history is that it is full of bias. People will argue that queer people never used to exist, but you can find them across the world and throughout history. However, because there are no ancient people left to speak for themselves, people from the modern world were left to interpret what was left behind.
When an archaeologist explores a dig site, human fallibility enters the picture. Historically, the field hasn’t been known for its sensitivities, often stealing and exporting artefacts to white countries to lock them in museums. The same insensitivity occurs when the archaeologist looks at an object that doesn’t fit their worldview and thus must force it to fit. So it’s to be expected that when a Christian, white, cis, straight man from the year 1800 picks up an urn with two female lovers depicted on it, his brain shortcircuits and he classifies them as roommates.
Roommates who are very, very close.
Roommates who are kissing.
Yes, this is deep, passionate sisterly love.
But this isn’t the point of this article. If you’d like a primer on this idea, please check out Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology by Rosemary A. Joyce. It’s a quick, easy read, and is essential for understanding how we view the past.
So What Did Gay Scandinavia Look Like?
The information we have is far from perfect, because the written word became popular after the Christianization of Scandinavia. During that process, many pieces of pre-Christian society were stamped out or lost. But some pieces of literature do leave us crumbs. My particular interest lies within the realm of mythology, but we’ll need to set up the cultural landscape before you can appreciate that properly.
If you’ve been hanging out in Viking age history for a while, you probably know about the Holmgang, aka duelling. A duel could be invoked to protect your honour over plenty of disagreements, including when someone else insults you. One particular insult was to call someone argr/ragr/ergi. These all translate roughly to denote someone who is cowardly or unmanly, and was a grave insult. In fact, they could kill you over it in order to prove you wrong.
Tough break eh?
It’s important to understand that while Viking age society wasn’t as strict with women’s freedoms as Christianity was, it still wasn’t specifically a good thing to be a woman. Many women were in charge of the home, the children, and even the money, but those responsibilities were “womanly” ones. Men were expected to labour, fight, go viking, and even partake in sex in manly ways.
When it comes to a sexual relationship between two men, it wasn’t the relationship that reportedly made you womanly, it was how you participated. You would be deemed womanly if you were the one catching or bottoming, if you catch my drift. By that logic, a Real Man™ was someone who swung the bat. This was certainly not the only way to be deemed a coward, but being called ergi was an easy way to imply that you were “the woman in the relationship.”
(This is also a good time to interject that we don’t know much about women loving women. However there were a lot of men who were often at sea or in other lands viking, so it’s not hard to imagine what went on in their absence. I’ve seen it said that because of the trying climate and harsh living conditions of the north, most women were expected to wed and have children, but the rest didn’t really matter. If you could find a guy to marry and have kids with who didn’t mind you taking on a side-lady, theoretically, who can argue with that? This was pre-Christianity and polygamy was still on the table, after all. Now, back to the flow of the article, please.)
Being ergi could also be about your relationship to magic.
Seidr (Seiðr) is one piece of Scandinavian magic. The topic of magic is vast, partially unknowable, and a tangle of ancient and modern practices. I’m only going to skim the surface, so please check out the Further Reading section below if you want more info. But for our purposes, here’s what you need to know.
Magic in the north wasn’t about creating fireballs; it was about changing fate and altering outcomes. If you check out the Havamal, there’s a section where Odin talks about the spells that he knows. These spells can blunt swords, heal the sick, reduce hate, soothe the sea, and other performatively passive ideas. One example of how Scandinavian magic users might invoke their magic would be to sew a spell into a piece of fabric that will change a battle in your side’s favour.
What is sewing, of course, but women’s work.
Many stories mention the völur. Völur were magic users who often lived removed from communities because of their odd lives, but were sought out in times of need. They might be asked to look into the future and predict a person or a community’s fate, to heal someone, or to do any number of other witchy things. They also tended to be women. Aside from the connection magic had with women’s activities, it is also theorized that they might use their wands to perform a sexual component to the magic that, if performed by a man, might make him quite womanly.
You can think about that as long as you want,
So a very good way to make everyone think you’re not very manly would be to practice magic.
QUICKLY, TO THE EDDAS
One of the things that scholars looking from a queer lens will refer to is Lokasenna, the story in which Loki insults a room full of gods for what we can presume is like, a full hour. Here’s one translation of the passage.
"Knowest thou that I gave
to those I ought not -
victory to cowards?
Thou was eight winters
on the earth below,
milked cow as a woman,
and didst there bear children.
Now that, methinks, betokens a base nature."
"But, it is said, thou wentest
with tottering steps in Samsö,