Art and popular culture have been unkind to Vikings. Misconceptions about Viking sexuality abound in the popular consciousness thanks to centuries of art, literature, film, and other media depicting the Scandinavian warriors as horn helmet-wearing, battle ax-wielding rapists who fornicated with their kin and treated women like animated sex toys. What is the real history behind the misconception? What were gender roles in Viking society? How does the reality of Viking sex lives clash with the images you're used to?
Results of DNA analysis from the UK, continental Europe, and Scandinavia published in 2015 reveal relatively few surviving Viking lines, despite generations of Viking occupation in those areas. These findings suggest the image of Vikings as sex-crazed rapists is wrong; they apparently weren't having much sex at all. If they were, their ancestors would be more bountiful. Yet many Viking histories were written by Christian priests and monks, whose job it was to make Vikings (and all non-Christians) seem as barbaric as possible.
Read on to uncover the real history behind a handful of common misconceptions about Viking sexuality and gender roles.
Vikings have been made out to be uncontrollable deviants in art and literature through the ages. Forced intercourse was committed during raids and battles in the Viking age (and in almost every other time period, by nearly every culture) but it certainly wasn’t the norm, or even acceptable. Many historians dispute whether such mass crimes ever actually occurred at the hands of Viking men.
In Norse society, it was forbidden to give unwanted attention to a woman. Sagas have told of men battling and slaying other men for making unwanted advances towards women. One saga even told of a man being fined two ounces of gold for kissing a woman four times against her will.
An article in the Daily Mail, published in 2014, highlights evidence suggesting not only that the image of pillaging and plundering is wrong, but that Viking men brought their wives and families with them when conquering, and settling, new territory. As per this narrative, Vikings didn't seek out new places to destroy and plunder them, but rather to settle and build new communities.
Viking men are often depicted, contradictorily, as both homoerotic and prejudiced against gay people. The hair, the muscles, the hammers, the revealing costumes... come to daddy. But the posturing, the clipped phrases, and the aggression are more in line with contemporary ideas about hyper-masculinity.
Truth and misconception exist in such depictions, on account of the understanding of homosexual behavior in Viking culture. Before the arrival of Christianity, Norse people didn't view homosexuality as opposed to laws of nature, man, or gods. However, as a patriarchal, pride-based culture, Vikings saw any act of submitting to the will of another person as humiliating and base. Because of this, any man who was penetrated lost all esteem and dignity. There was nothing wrong, however, with men who penetrated men.
Norse men forced themselves on other men during raids to show dominance and emasculate their opponents. They also sometimes castrated enemies. However, as Gunnora Hallakarva wrote for Fordham University, all evidence of reprisal from such humiliation comes from Viking sagas, which conflate legend and history. As such, it's unclear how often this actually happened, and whether it happened at all before the arrival of Christianity.
Homosexual relationships between friends - or, at least, penetrative anal sex between male friends - was considered betrayal, because it consisted of one friend emasculating the other. However, it's possible homosexuality became less stigmatized for men who were married and had children, because they were finished with their duty to propagate their bloodline. It's also possible receiving anal sex was okay for infertile men, because what else were they gonna do? Certainly not have kids.
Hallakarva further points out there's no mention of oral sex in Viking literature, making it entirely possible it was socially acceptable for men to perform fellatio on one another.
Viking women are often depicted as sex objects in fantasy art, comic books, and video games. But like all fantasy, these images gives a false impression of Viking women. Sure, they were strong and sexy, but they weren't half-naked, oversexed seductresses. And neither were Norse women quiet domestic servants, performing no other role than pumping out kids and tending to their husbands, as they're sometimes depicted.
Viking women had a lot more power and status than women of other cultures in the Middle Ages, according to Jenny Jochens who wrote a book on gender in Old Norse society. They weren't just sex objects to men, but rather strong mothers, warriors, and heads of household who often traveled with seafaring husbands. They owned land and were allowed to divorce and remarry - keeping all of their assets in the process - if a husband violated laws or the terms of the marriage contract.
According to Marianne Moen, an expert on gender roles in Viking society:
Since the Viking era became an important part of building Norwegian national identity in the 19th century, early archaeology was influenced by Victorian ideals. The contemporary ideals of women belonging to the home and men being out in the public was imposed on Viking society.
Viking women have been depicted as masculine lesbians when not shown as oversexed or subservient. As you many know by now, Norse women had more social and political influence than women in other European cultures during the Middle Ages. Somehow this translated into Viking women being masculine and/or lesbians.
Lesbians are hardly present in writings from the Vikings, and often, women really were confined to the domestic sphere. So, the likelihood that butch lesbian warriors were prevalent is unlikely. Some historians have suggested, though, that lesbian activity was practiced widely among married women.