Queer Identity in Norse Myth: Fact or Fanfic?

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.

Maybe sisters?

Yes, this is deep, passionate sisterly love.


Not Lovers At All

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?


Completely Rational Reactions

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.)


Magical Gays


True Canon: Loki Owns a Full Set of These

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.


Do Not Touch: Will Destroy All Masculinity

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,


I’ll wait.


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.


Odin:

"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."


Loki:

"But, it is said, thou wentest

with tottering steps in Samsö,

and knocked at houses as a Vala. (Vala: seeress)

In likeness of a fortune teller,

thou wentest among people;

Now that, methinks, betokens a base nature."


TL;DR, Odin is accusing Loki of having given birth to a bunch of monster children that Loki then breastfed, which is a pretty genderqueer idea. Then Loki accuses Odin of going around dressed as a seeress and doing magic among the people.


If you think about the start of this article in comparison to these two things, you can easily see that they’re both sitting at a table calling each other queer. And that’s not even scratching the surface of what could be said about Odin, keeper of the runes, user of magic, god of making sure you die when he wants you to. So even if he’s running around doing all these unmanly things, no one can say a word anyways.


I searched "Gay Odin" and this came up, it's yours now

But Odin isn’t my speciality. Loki is.


It’s not hard to read Loki as queer. He’s constantly using magic to benefit himself or the gods, and he either dressed as a woman or changed his shape to become a woman at least once. None of these things really sound like the typical masculine ideals we’ve discussed, which has led me in the direction that Loki, as trickster archetype, is also the queer butt of the joke in Norse myth.


Not everyone will love that statement. It’s entirely possible that Loki was beloved by pre-Christian Scandinavia and that queerness didn’t bother anyone. I hope that’s true. But the existing reading of Sleipnir’s origin reads like a comedy in much the same way that Thor dressing as Freya did. If we understand that magic makes a man ergi, turning yourself into a mare in order to lure away a stallion with your horsey-hotness and then give birth to an eight-legged foal that Odin will later mount and ride through the realms...that’s a really unmanly sentence.


Makes you think a little harder about this myth too, doesn't it? Also, please behold Loki's amusement on the right.

In the earlier stories, Loki comes off more like a court jester, especially since jesters were often not just the comedic relief, but the only person who could criticize the king without being murdered. It isn’t until people start killing and abducting his very queer-origin family that he starts his downhill spiral into destroying the realms.


In a modern context, in a world where being queer is still illegal and punishable by death in many countries, and where there is an astoundingly high number of scared queer homeless youth, it’s no wonder that Loki and his family serve have taken a front seat as modern-day patrons to LGBTQA+ peoples.


(If you're enjoying this Loki stuff, stay tuned for another Norsevember article from Lyra and me that's all about Loki!)


Wrapping It Up


If you’re sceptical about this, you should be. The truth is, we may never truly know how people of that time and region truly understood queer relationships. It’s entirely possible that what we do know is so clouded by Christian influence that we’ve entirely misunderstood the history of their queer culture. We arrive at these things with our biases intact, and it’s hard to view them in any other way. What I do hope you’ve gotten out of this is the desire to learn more, and the understanding that with so many things in life, mostly we know nothing.


I also hope that in the future, you’ll look at things from a less straightforward perspective.


Further Reading



Non-fiction


Academia.edu Articles:


This website is a recent discovery of mine. It provides access to academic papers of all kinds, and there’s a nice little subset of Norse myth and queer interpretation. Here are a few to get you started, but keep searching the site for more! (Note: anyone can upload a paper onto this site, so don’t take everything you read as definitive truth.)


Loki: Thoughts on the Nature of the God, a Queer Reading


Óðinn: A Queer tyr? A Study of Óðinn's Function in Iron Age Scandinavia. MA thesis


Non-fiction Books:


The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia - Neil Price


This is an enormous collection of information about Scandinavian magical practices that sources archaeology, anthropology, and literature. The book is nearly 400 enormous pages with information on magic workers, their tools of choice, shamanism, sexual activities linked to magic, and even a list of Odin’s names that’s 4.5 pages long. It’s THE book on the subject. This book also contains a list of other books and papers for further reading.


Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archeaology - Rosemary A. Joyce.


The previously referred-to book which teaches you about bringing bias into archaeology.


God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch


This book or any similar book that breaks down the history of Christianity snuffing out polytheism around the world is important to the interpretation of what happened in Scandinavia. While many other societies preserved their stories through art and the written word, the north did not, and this switching of religious life contributed to our lack of understanding today.


Trickster Makes This World - Lewis Hyde


A book that discusses the archetype of trickster from cultures around the world. While Loki isn’t the prime focus, it’s a great resource for readers hoping to understand the archetype.


Bisexuality in the Ancient World - Eva Cantarella


While this is specific to Greek and Roman culture, it should still help new readers of queer history understand that it’s more prominent than we were led to believe.



Articles:


A Finnish person with XXY chromosomes (most likely) is found in a grave with valuable grave goods.


Fiction Books


The Goddess of Nothing At All - Cat Rector (yes me)


A deeply queer dark fantasy retelling of the myths through the eyes of Sigyn, Loki’s wife. But I’m biased, so check the reviews before you decide if it’s right for you.


Seidman - James Erich


A young man in Iceland discovers he’s a seer, as well as his feelings for another young man. The book is out of print, but if you can find a copy for yourself somewhere on the internet, pick it up before it disappears.


The Witch’s Heart - Genevieve Gornichec

Norse mythology from the perspective of Angrboda, exploring her life and the lives of her family. Includes a queer perspective on Loki, Angrboda, and Skadi.


Truth and Other Lies - Lyra Wolf


A loose myth retelling from Loki’s perspective that blesses us with snark, grief, and an exploration of queer Odin.


The Sword of Summer - Rick Riordan


A lovely middle-grade read for the young people in your life that features a diverse cast, including LGBTQA+ characters.


The Wolf in the Whale - Jordanna Max Brodsky


A Norse-adjacent story that focuses on a young queer Inuit shaman and their encounter with Norse Vikings during the expansion towards North America. While focused more on Inuit culture, it explores the ideas of magic as inherently queer.


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