Ask anyone about the Vikings today, and most will instantly summon an image of longships coursing the seas, decks crowded with long-haired, muscled warriors on their way to plunder and burn, howling their allegiance to Odin and other Norse gods of blood and war. In recent years, full-body tattoos have been added to the picture, as the popular perception of the Vikings does nothing if not reflect the times. The scene is resolutely maritime, violent – and male, to the extent that the Vikings have become almost a caricature of masculinity.
Beyond the stereotype, there is a cold truth to Viking male violence. At the height of the ninth-century raids, Viking armies shattered the political structures of western Europe: the loss in blood and treasure was immense, thousands were violated and enslaved. There were parallels at home too, not just in the form of civil warfare between rival petty-kingdoms, but also in domestic violence. The Scandinavian law codes, written down in the centuries immediately after the Viking Age but incorporating much that was clearly older, include sickening details of offences against women: injuries that caused the loss of an eye, wounds that penetrated “the brain, the body cavity, or the marrow”. Today there are those who tend to glorify the Vikings in their male, militaristic incarnation, but this is a mistake; they were no heroes, at all.
One effect of the monolithic ‘Viking Man’ cliché has been that gender studies of the period have largely (and understandably) tended to focus on women. This has given us excellent surveys of the female life course, redressing imbalance and also nuancing an almost equally typecast view of Viking womanhood. What it has not done, ironically, is correct the skewed perception of Viking masculinity itself.
Yet, as in so much of Viking life, these strictures were undermined and subverted, offering a different perspective on this otherwise bleak world. Some intriguing passages in legal codes expressly forbid both men and women to wear the clothing or hairstyle of the opposite sex – clearly implying that at least some (and perhaps more than some) people were doing just that, presumably openly. In burial excavations, a small minority of male bodies have been found dressed in women’s outfits, complete with jewellery and accessories; similarly on carved ‘picture stones’, illustrated memorials to the dead, a few bearded figures are depicted wearing what appear to be women’s gowns. Again, there is nothing clandestine about such monuments, and they suggest that behind the dry legal restrictions was a much freer spectrum of lived identity.
These apparent contradictions merge in the world of sorcery, a vital aspect of Viking spiritual life, which the laws, poetry and sagas all tell us was a shameful thing for men to practice. Despite this approbation, clearly there were still plenty of men working spells and charms, even doing so at times under royal protection. Most telling of all, the supreme master of this ‘women’s sorcery’ was universally acknowledged to be the god Odin, patron of kings and of the masculine ideal that they embodied. The being whom one Norwegian scholar has called ‘Odin the Queer’ brings us to the heart of Viking-Age gender. We are only beginning to understand its contradictions and surprises, its fluidity and tensions, and the variety of Viking lives.
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Illustration: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin