Viking society – or rather Old Norse and Old Danish culture, since the ‘Vikings’ were merely the subset of that culture which went raiding – is well known for being extremely macho. A great deal of emphasis was placed on independence, toughness, and the kind of bloody-minded aggression that seems almost pathological to us in our gentler modern society. Would we, for example, praise a son who raked the equivalent of a dozen stiletto blades down his father’s back because he was tired of doing a job he thought was for milksops? Probably not. But in Grettir’s saga, this is seen as an early example of Grettir’s indomitable spirit, very suitable for a hero.

A man’s reputation was worth more to him than his life. I’m trying to remember the name of the saga, but hopefully better informed readers can tell me the one I’m thinking of; the hero has been captured and held as a servant by a strong household. Eventually, he contrives to escape without anyone in the household knowing about it. He’s on the brink of getting entirely away when he thinks to himself ‘what am I doing, sneaking out like a slave or a woman?!’ Horrified at the thought that everyone will know he behaved like a coward, he turns back, kills everyone, and then escapes, happy that this time he has dealt with the matter like a man.

This was a culture which valued men for their hardness, and where reputation was all. As a result, there could be no worse thing that your enemies could do to you than to publically insult you and call you soft. In fact, the Vikings were extremely touchy about the whole subject of insults.

To quote from Gunnora Hallakarva, whose essay is the best treatment I’ve seen on the subject:

The Old Norse word used in the law code and literature for an insult was níð , which may be defined as “libel, insult, scorn, lawlessness, cowardice, sexual perversion, homosexuality” (Markey 75). From níð are derived such words as níðvisur (“insulting verses”), níðskald (“insult-poet”), níðingr (“coward, outlaw”), griðníðingr (“truce-breaker”), níðstöng (“scorn-pole”) (Markey 75, 79 & 80; Sørenson 29), also níða (“to perform níð poetry”), tunguníð (“verbal níð”), tréníð (“timber níð”, carved or sculpted representations of men involved in a homosexual act, related to niíðstöng, above) (Sørenson 28-29). Níð was part of a family of concepts which all have connotations of passive male homosexuality, such as: ergi or regi (nouns) and argr or ragr (the adjective form of ergi) (“willing or inclined to play or interested in playing the female part in sexual relations with another man, unmanly, effeminate, cowardly”); ergjask (“to become argr”); rassragr (“arse-ragr”); stroðinn and sorðinn (“sexually used by a man”) and sansorðinn (“demonstrably sexually used by another man”) (Sørenson 17-18, 80). A man who is a seiðmaðr (one who practices women’s magic) who is argr is called seiðskratti (Sørenson 63).

Calling a man by any term which suggested he played the ‘passive’ or ‘feminine’ part in homosexual sex was considered an insult so severe that the person who had been insulted had the right to avenge it in combat. Just the insult itself might be enough to get a man outlawed.

There is no apparent equivalent derogatory term for a man who played the ‘active’ part in homosexual sex. Indeed in ‘Guðmundar saga dýra’ Guðmundar plans to rape a male captive in order to break his spirit. This reflects badly on the slave, but not on the rapist, who is merely demonstrating his manliness.

Both castration and rape of defeated foes was seen as a good way of making them more effeminate, and therefore easier to control.

In this context – where the penetrator is regarded as perfectly normal and admirable, but to be the one being penetrated is to be shamed, broken, treated as a slave and ridiculed thenceforth as unmanly – it’s hard to imagine many m/m relationships existing as between equals.

There certainly seem to have been the Viking equivalent of call-boys, but they were cheap and low status, and regarded as essentially slaves. In this the Vikings were very similar to the Romans – it didn’t matter who you fucked, but if you were to be regarded as a real man it mattered very much that nobody fucked you.

Despite this attitude, some ‘passive’ homosexual men may have gained a certain amount of power by practicing seiðr magic. This was a traditional form of women’s magic that seems to have involved ritual sex. No doubt the seiðmaðr were ridiculed as other ‘soft’ men were, but this may have been counterbalanced by a fear of their uncanny powers.

Aside from being ridiculed, insulted and regarded as being on a par with slaves, I’m not aware that ‘argr’ men were punished for it before the introduction of Christianity. Toleration with contempt seems to have been the order of the day.

To sum up, it’s a perfect society for a master/slave, BSDM sort of relationship, but there are big psychological and cultural problems for any couple who want to think of themselves as equals.

For a much fuller treatment of the subject, I highly recommend

Gunnora Hallakarva:
The Vikings and Homosexuality:

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