Gender and sexuality in the Viking Age
What did it mean to be male or female in the Viking Age, and how strict where the gender norms by which people were meant to abide? Should we envisage a time when men and women fulfilled strictly segregated roles and lived according to a gendered division of labour? The following takes a look at prevalent understandings of gender and sexuality in the Viking Age.
By Marianne Moen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Museum of Cultural History, UiO
Gender roles in the Viking Age are often presented as a neatly segregated affair, wherein men and women inhabit different social roles and even spheres. New research however, indicates that things are likely to have been rather more complex.
Active men and invisible women
In keeping with how gender is often presented in past societies, many representations of the Viking Age show an image of active men and far less visible women. Whilst men are shown as warriors, farmers, traders, crafters and travellers, women are most often shown without any particular role other than generic ‘women’, or at best as housewives. This particular view rests on an idea of a gendered division of labour, wherein men were envisaged as responsible for utanstokks, meaning everything that took place outside of the farm, as well as the main body of outdoors farm work. Women meanwhile, were granted innanstokks, literally translating as within the threshold, and neatly delimiting women’s role to the hearth and home. And yet, it is necessary to ask whether or not this division actually applies to the Viking Age: such a division must in part rest on a binary divide between women and men, and there is ample evidence to indicate that the Viking Age may have had a different understanding of gender altogether. The idea that gender is a dividing category, and that people belong on one side of an absolute divide or another is more a remnant of 19th century values than a reflection either of modern research or potential social frameworks in the Viking Age. A closer look at what the archaeology tells us, shows instead the likelihood of a more fluid reality.
Difference or similarity
It is worth remembering that the archaeological material does show what we can perceive as gender-based differences in dress, accoutrements and certain tasks and employments. Several forms of personal ornamentation, such as the famous oval brooches, are strongly associated with women for example. Textile working tools are also mainly associated with female activity, as indicated both in archaeology and in written sources. Conversely, weapons are found mainly in male burials, which again corresponds with the tale told by written sources. These manifested differences tell us that dress and other trappings were used to signal certain gendered aspects of identity.
However, alongside these marked differences, there is also plentiful evidence of a number of similarities. Burial material shows that both men and women were buried with cooking and serving implements, with locks, keys and chests, with common tools such as knives and hones, with companion animals including horses and dogs, and with sacrificed domestic animals. Both men and women were buried in boats and chambers, both of which are considered high status forms of burials. And both men and women are found under mounds, which are usually interpreted as a sign of ownership and status.
So what conclusions can we draw from this? One viable interpretation is that gender was recognized as socially significant, but not necessarily as a divide between fundamentally different personal characteristics and abilities, meaning we need to nuance the perception of Viking Age gender norm.
Social status over gender
The Viking Age is often described as a strictly class segregated society, where social status was of the utmost importance. The divisions between social classes can in many cases be seen as more important than gender in determining a person’s options and agency. In the higher echelons, we find wealthy and powerful men and women, often with the same responsibilities, roles and expectations placed on them. Unfortunately, we know less about the lower classes, but we can surmise from various sources that once again social class was more defining than gender. This forms rather a contrast to modern society, where gender is largely considered a universal, delineating category.
A different world view
Numerous sources indicate that Viking Age society had a completely different relationship to the body and to bodily functions than what eventually became the ruling norm through the Christian Middle Ages and more recent history. Sexual acts were not something to be hidden for example, nor were they shameful or polluted in any way. Similarly, other bodily functions were much more open, and not surrounded by secrecy and shame such as they are today.
A fascinating source, with the potential of opening understandings into a different world view, is witnessed in a story known as Volsa þattr, where we encounter a cult centred on a horse phallus. In the story, we meet a family group who worship this mighty member, in a ritual where they pass it from hand to hand, saying verses over it. There are sexualized overtones, especially when the phallus reaches a slave girl, who describes how she would like to lie with such a powerful specimen, and it is clear that much of the object’s power comes from sexual symbolism.
Nevertheless, there were certain strict norms to adhere to in terms of what was accepted sexual behaviour. Whilst extramarital affairs were socially acceptable in many ways, heteronormative ideas are apparent in that the greatest shame imaginable was for a man to be called ergi, meaning one who allowed himself to be used as a woman. To our knowledge, both men and women could conduct extramarital affairs without it incurring shame, but it remained important to conduct these affairs with the right kind of person.
A less binary gendered ideology?
A glimpse of fluidity in gender can also be seen in mythology, were several gods cross gendered norms, even to the extent of changing gender, and displaying behaviour which seems at odds with the norms we often envisage for the Viking Age. Loki is rather an extreme example here, as demonstrated by the story where he transforms into a mare to lure away the horse of a giant who was about to best the gods in a contest. As a result, he became pregnant and subsequently gave birth to Odinn’s famous horse, Sleipnir. But Odinn too shows traits which do not fit comfortably within a binary gendered divide. Known as the greatest seidmann, meaning one who had command over the art of Seid, or magic, this is not necessarily a straightforward adage. Written sources tell us that knowledge of this art was shameful for men, in fact so shameful that it was cause for accusations of ergi, as was mentioned above.
There are in other words several hints towards a less binary reality in terms of gender than what we are used to imaging. Perhaps we need to divide between ideology and reality, or perhaps we simply need to envisage a different world where gender did not split the population neatly into two camps?
Few answers, but many theories
The question of what we actually know of gender roles in the Viking Age may seem apt here. We do know that both men and women could hold high social status. We also know that both men and women could be farmers, traders and crafters, but at the same time we know that certain types of craftwork was more aligned with male or female roles. We also know that for the wealthiest it was usual, though not obligatory, to signal social gender through dress. Moreover, we can see indications of an ideological adherence to heterosexual relations, whilst at the same time there are hints at a more composite reality. Many believe that the Viking Age was dominated by men and that they held a stronger social position with more freedom, whilst women were at their mercy in terms of their agency and choice. At the same time, we have several sources which indicate that this may have been more a theoretical ideal than reality, and that instead we should expect a complex reality, where the boundaries between accepted gendered behaviour could be fluid.
Read the PhD dissertation Challenging Gender: a reconsideration of gender in the Viking Age using the mortuary landscape. Read also the MA-thesis The gendered landscape: A discussion on gender, status and power expressed in the Viking Age mortuary landscape.