On Beauty, Sex, Sexuality, and Romance in Old Norse society

I was digging through some old files the other day and came across a presentation I had created for a Runes ‘n Lore class my old kindred used to run. I had chosen Sex, Beauty, and Romance because, well, I’m a Freyaswoman and it seemed the kind of thing that I should be know about. I’ve revised it and added more information. Most of the material here is drawn from  Women in Old Norse Society, by Jenny Jochens. Dr. Jochens draws her data from the Eddas, the Sagas, and contemporary laws. She takes an interdisciplinary approach and processes this information through the lens of linguistics, history, and modern gender analysis. Together with her book Old Norse Images of Women, and Women in the Viking Age, by Judith Jesch, we now know quite a bit about what it was like to be a woman in the Viking Age. I highly recommend all three books.

The article also contains all of the euphemisms you could ever want to know for sex and otherwise getting it on in Old Norse. 😉

on-beauty-sex-sexuality-and-romance-in-old-norse-society

6 thoughts on “On Beauty, Sex, Sexuality, and Romance in Old Norse society

  1. Thanks for this. Some interesting observations here. I’ll tell you another thing I notice. I have been reading Ovid, the Roman poet, and it calls to mind that in classical mythology, whenever a god wanted a woman, or nymph or goddess, he raped her. There is an almost mind-numbing succession of rapes in Greek and Roman mythology. But in Norse myth, when, for instance, Freyr fell for Gerd, he had to court her. And even when she gave in she set the time and place for their assignation. So it seems that at least some gender equality is enforced in their ancient stories.

    • Yes, compared to Greek or Roman mythology, rape is pretty much non-existent in Norse mythology. It’s made me working with the Greek deities a big challenge, though, because the sheer amount of rape, especially initiated by Zeus, is overwhelming; and it’s kind of demoralizing being a modern woman working with him, much less that culture as a whole. The role and rights of women in Greek society, in general, were significantly less than they had in the Viking Age, so I guess this is really just a reflection of their culture’s attitude toward women as a whole. Certainly Norse women had a lot more access to divorce and control over their dowry; and prior to the Christian conversion, the culture was both matrilineal *and* patrilineal–apparently descent really depended on which of the parents in the marriage came from a richer or more respected family. (Also, the Norse legal and judicial process was actually pretty similar to our own; the “Allthing”–a large (yearly? I don’t recall) public meeting which hosted a comparatively egalitarian democratic voting system, which was also one of the models for our own democracy. (Sorry, I can geek out about old Norse culture for hours. 🙂 )

      The marriage of Freyr and Gerd still doesn’t sit entirely well with me, because when it comes down to it , she was forced to marry him; but yes, she was not outright raped. Rape wasn’t attempted, or even discussed as an possible option—and I can’t see any of the Norse deities ever resorting to rape. Even the jotuns (the “barbaric” enemies of the Gods) would abduct, rather than randomly rape, women. As for humans, though, I’m not sure how much rape shows up in the sagas; but given that they were humans and they warred with other groups, they likely killed the men and raped the women, like everybody else in much of history. They definitely took slaves (thralls), who did not have any rights; but like in Roman times, it was possible for male and female slaves to earn their freedom.

      • There ARE stories that can be interpreted as rape, and I frankly think that, given what Marriage entails, forcing Gerd to marry Freyr *does* constitute a form of rape. Consent under duress is dubious at best.

        But they’re a lot more subtle, and mitigated, than the countless obvious, violent examples in Classical mythology.
        -E-

      • After spending a fair amount of time reading and meditating Skirnismal, I just can’t read it as rape. Gerda has the upper hand through the entire thing – sure, Skirnir has yonder magick sword and wand, but he’s in her hall surrounded by her father’s wealth and the power of his kingdom. I took her three refusals as a test of Skirnir, and thus Freyr’s sincerity in his plea. There’s nothing to keep her from making the arrangement to meet him in Barri and then sitting comfortably in her hall while Freyr pines alone. He asks, he offers, he cajoles, he threatens, and she finally capitulates and offers him hospitality and sets Freyr to a further test of patience and devotion.

        I may be seeing what I want to see in it, as it’s not the common interpretation of the story. Honestly, though, most of those interpretations have been made by men, and moreover men who often had very limited views of the culture that they were expounding on.

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