Genderfluidity and The Importance of Magic in the Viking Age: 750-1050 BCE
Written by Han Slater
Jacob Bell offers a different approach to interpreting the past as he begins with an introduction of the storming of Capitol Hill in the U.S.A on January 6th, 2021. A strange event to consider when approaching the subject of queer Vikings and women from 750-1050 CE. Nevertheless, Bell explains how symbols, iconography, and religious aspects of practitioners of Heathenism and Ásatrú (“belief in the Æsir”); are abused by the alt-right. With any radical group that twists religion comes anxiety for those who worship and practice Ásatrú, who do not share these alt-right views and are lumped together with neo-Nazis and fascist groups. Bell’s paper seeks to decenter socially constructed categories of gender and sexuality encouraged by post-modern European ideas by subverting them through the Viking-Age understanding of magic and sorcery. Bell uses insights provided by recent scholarship to denounce the white supremacist and authoritarianism beliefs by demonstrating that originally these symbols were subversive and queer to the Viking Age.
Understanding gender and how people determined gender roles in the Viking era are vastly different from modern interpretations; therefore, we must tread with caution when considering the concept of gender and the past. Thankfully, Bell provides two definitions for the terms hvatr and blauðr, used in the Viking Age. First, hvatr and blauðr once expressed how bold, vigorous, and masculine were versus how soft, weak, and feminine, respectively. These were characteristics and traits that anyone could harbor rather than a firm gender binary. Gender was viewed as a scale based on life stages or actions: cowardice versus bravery in battle, youth versus old age, health versus infirmity, freedom versus slavery. The spectrum that is gender seems to be thoroughly understood in Bell’s article when applied to the Viking Age, especially in the discussion of grave goods from Marianne Moen’s analysis of grave goods surrounding funerary landscapes in Scandinavia and Moen’s exploration of samples from graves in Norway.
Bell’s article demonstrates how scholars discuss archeological evidence and literary texts provide insight into how queer and genderless Old Norse society was but is being misrepresented by the alt-right today. A critical choice of knowledge that Bell uses is from Ing-Marie Back Danielsson, who suggests that Viking‐Age burials are impossible to “sex” or “gender.” Viking Age graves are hard to gender because the concept of a binary system based on the presence of specific genitalia was an invention of the 18th century and thus not applicable to a society that may have articulated gender or sex through any other number of somatic markers. As mentioned previously, the language of hvatr and blauðr defines individuals with feminine or masculine characteristics. However, another word that Bell says is ergi (adj. argr or ragr), which seemingly has multiple meanings surrounding sexual acts. One interpretation is that it describes a man who willingly or unwillingly performs the passive/submissive role in same-sex acts, or it could encapsulate the ceremonial practice of nið (“nith”), which is to insult one’s opponent on the battlefield.
Bell discusses how Old Norse symbolism is used to justify alt-right groups and how these homophobic and racist groups misrepresent them. Bell’s sources provide a queer context to the Scandinavian cultures and how gender binaries were a fluid spectrum and not rigid social boundaries. Instead, gender is classified as a fluid spectrum because the descriptive word choices used in Old Norse society led to this confusion surrounding the women and men that lived in the Viking age. Bell’s sources agree that sexual regimes were prioritized over biological or cultural impositions. As a result, Viking men and women understood that men, women, and non-binary individuals could embody all these characteristics during the Viking Age.
Bell concluded that magic in the Viking Age held the potential and represented one possible way for people to defy social norms, cross boundaries, and ultimately negotiate their socio‐sexual identity in an epoch marked by fluidity and exchange. Queerness in the Viking Age, when considering same-sex relationships, was potentially condemned, as mentioned with the argr system, but still embodied and subverted itself within the hvtar system.
Still, there is some ambiguity between queer Vikings and the argr system because of its multiple word associations. It is also essential to understand the origins of magic and spirituality when considering social roles within the Viking Age, which Bell provides enough foundational research to explore further. Bell delivers a sharp and well-rounded insight into the topic of queerness, women, and gendered history when considering Vikings. Perhaps, this will be a topic of further exploration for you, dear reader, as it was for me.
Bell, Jacob. (2021). “Magic, Genderfluidity, and Queer Vikings, ca. 750‐1050.” History Compass 19, no. 5.: 1–9. doi:10.1111/hic3.12657.