Hyper-Masculine behavior among Iron Age Scandinavian men

A recurring topic at TOO is what northwest Europeans were like before Christianity and before modernity. This excerpt is from Lotte Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archeology of Scandinavia, AD 400–1000 (London: Routledge, 2011), 115ff. It paints a picture of a hyper-masculine, completely militarized society in which male sexual penetration was a marker of power, while being penetrated was, for a male, the ultimate insult. Accusing a man of having been sodomized was a grievous accusation, with the same penalty as for murder. Older males lacking the power or ability to penetrate took on the status of women and were even ridiculed by slaves. Women were spoils of warfare and raiding. The implication is that the social ties within the Mannerbunde did not involve homosexual sex, but Hedeager claims that there is evidence that, in some groups at least, attraction to young boys was common.

The Power of Penetration

In the Norwegian Gulathings law, outlawry was the penalty if a man accused another of being sannsor∂enn (provably sodomised).

Also, full personal compensation must be paid if a person says to another man that he has given birth to a child. The third is if he compares him to a mare, or calls him a bitch or a harlot, or compares him with the female of any kind of animal. … Then he can also kill the man as an outlaw as a payback for those words that I have now spoken, if he takes a witness to them. (Gulathings law 196) …

 The same accusation is listed in Norwegian laws, that is, the Gulathing law.  Both stro∂inn and sor∂inn refer explicitly to the sex act in which a man played the passive role, while the other performed the action of stre∂a or ser∂a, indicating the male role in intercourse. The sexual meaning of ragr instead implied the general condition of being effeminate (Jochens 1998: 74). … Thus, concerning an accusation against somebody (implicitly a man) taking the form of sexual defamation (ní∂), the law not only prohibited it, but the maximum penalty for this crime equated with the penalty for murder. The outrage always demanded revenge and the insult might simply have been meant as a challenge to fight (Meulengracht Sørensen 1992: 199). …

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It is commonly accepted among scholars that ∂ was not a question of biological reality (after all, pregnant and childbearing men are metaphorical constructions); it was instead a sophisticated form of gendered insult, to be equated with the ‘murder’ of someone’s honour. That is why ni∂ has the secondary meaning of death. The conceptualisation of ∂ is aimed at the person who was suspected of being the object of sexual penetration, whether man, woman, or animal. The masculinity of the practitioner is not the moral problem. In Old Norse society the physical act of penetration had no moral connotations, neither if one man penetrates another, turning his anus into a vagina (and metaphorically making him pregnant), nor if he practised sodomy, called tidelag. What was deeply defamatory, however, was to accuse a man of having being subject to penetration by another man – or a male animal – or of being transformed into a female or a female animal. The ni∂ was subjected to a transformation into ‘female’, not specifically into an animal (Solli 2002: 143). In short, ∂ is an accusation of unmanliness and softness, that is, the person is argr (ergi, ergjask, ragr, etc.) (Clover 1993: 385; Meulengracht Søre (116) sexual terminology as a mark of identity, although the word may relate to a practice within a fl uid sexual system.  …

There was nothing in Greek culture – whether in art, law, or cult – which suggested that heterosexuality was natural and homosexuality unnatural. The Greeks regarded male homosexual desire as a natural part of life, and it was solely the differentiation between the active and the passive role in same-sex relations which was of profound importance (Dover 1989). The Gothic people, the Heruli, and the Scythians are all said to have practised pederasty between warriors and boys. However, by slaying a bear or a wild boar as part of an initiation ritual, boys achieved manhood and were no longer the target of male desire (Wolfram 1990: 107f.). The moral distinction that mattered was that between male prostitution and a homosexual ethos – the first prohibited by law (to Athenian citizens), the second regarded as part of nature (Dover 1989). …

Old men became females because they no longer penetrated others:

As an old man living ‘innan stokks’ (the women’s domain), Egill was no longer part of the public world of his youth and manhood, and even the thrall [slave] women treated him with no respect, laughed at him, teased him, etc. Egill ends his life not only surrounded by women, but in a sense as one of them. In Sonatorrek (1) Egill himself complains about his weakness and the softness of his ‘bore (drill bit) of the foot/leg of taste/pleasure’. In Clover’s explanation the bore becomes a metaphor for the tongue, sword and penis — all three have softened and for that reason Egill ends far down the gender scale —  as a powerless, effeminate geriatric. ‘Sooner or later, all of us end up alike in our softness – regardless of our past and regardless of our sex’ (Clover 1993: 385). Thus, sex changed progressively through life and was not a generalised category related to gender. To become argr was to become soft, impotent and powerless – including a man on whom a sexual act was performed.

In the extremely competitive and aggressive Scandinavian society in which blood feuds were taking place everywhere, often lasting for many years and several generations (e.g. Byock 1982; Miller 1990), the concept of honour evolved around reputation, respect and prestige. Social life and reputation were hierarchically organised and arranged according to dominance and submission, powerful and powerless. At the bottom of the social scale, female thralls [slaves] were routinely subjected to rape and traded as sexual subjects. In the account of a Viking market at Volga in 922, the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan describes how the Vikings (the Scandinavian Rus) regularly had sex with their slaves, often in public, and in groups of both sexes. This activity took place both in front of potential buyers and their own formal partners, whether wives or girlfriends, who seemed unaffected (Sørensen 1973: 70; Price 2005). Rape of a free woman, however, was a serious matter. The Icelandic law code Grágás compares it with murder (of a free woman’s honour), and it was enough to ruin her reputation for the rest of her life. A male relative of the woman had the right to kill the perpetrator of even an attempted rape (Price 2005).37

Within this social hierarchy, power was explicitly connected with metaphors for penetration – by the sword, penis, or tongue. Those who penetrated – with words, with weapons, or with the phallus – were the powerful (‘males’); those who became penetrated were the powerless (‘females’). In a social setting, sexuality provided a symbolic code for dominance and submission, throwing light on power and thus status differences, and the penis therefore became a symbol of power rather than a sign of real sex (Laqueur 2003: 134). The most severe accusations in the Old Norse society evolved around ‘effeminacy’ and penetration, implying that sexuality and hostility were two sides of the same coin. (117-118). While a woman who acted like a man was admirable, a man who acted like a woman was despicable. The normative was masculinity, regardless of biological sex. The fear of losing masculinity, which cross-cut all the way through the world of the Old Norse, had nothing to do with the female sex per se, but with the condition of powerlessness and the lack of will (Clover 1993: 379).

It is well attested that strangers, newcomers and trespassers in many societies and at many times have been subjected to homosexual anal violation as a way of reminding them of their subordinate status (Dover 1989: 105). The phallus was the most powerful weapon because it killed a man’s honour, that is, he became socially killed, and it was the medium through which the practitioner (man or woman) was penetrated during the seir performance.

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