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.
Not only have Vikings been depicted as oversexed heathens, but many have accused them of being disloyal. History Channel’s Vikings, for example, has shown Ragnar and his wife invite Brother Athelstan to join them in bed in a brazen display of libertinism. More generally, Viking men have been depicted as insatiable sex junkies, taking mistresses and sex slaves on their pillaging missions.
In reality, Norse people were getting down and dirty pretty frequently, and some men had mistresses, but it wasn't like every Viking settlement was a sordid bacchanal of partner swapping, cheating, and lechery. Viking men - high-ranking men, in particular - took concubines in addition to wives, and laws existed governing such relationships and the status of children born of concubines.
However, these relationships were not predicated solely on sexual depravity; if a chieftain or other powerful Viking had multiple houses, he might choose to leave a different woman in charge of each one, as Norse women typically ran households. In such instances, concubines could be afforded the same status and financial independence as wives, even in the event of the man's death, in which case concubines were placed in charge of arranging politically advantageous marriages for their children.
Adultery beyond the pale of concubine relationships is a bit of mixed bag. Men were permitted to divorce women if they committed adultery, and women faced very harsh penalties for doing so, including death if caught in the act by husbands. But women also possessed the right to divorce their husbands, giving them considerably more leverage than other European women during the period.
Modern takes on Norse religion are dominated by male deities like Thor and Odin, and women who appear in depictions of religion in the Middle Ages usually do so as witches or other socially ostracized mystics (all thanks to Christian takes on paganism). While old Norse religion and Germanic paganism involved ritual sacrifices led by male priests, women played a large role in religious practices.
Norse women served as prophetesses, a vital role in pagan religion. Such women were thought to have direct contact with the world of gods and spirits. They were highly respected in Norse society, and traveled throughout Viking territories offering predictions on everything from personal fate to the timing of crop seasons. They were believed to receive information directly from gods such as Freya, Thor, and Odin. Freya, goddess of love, fertility, and household prosperity, was extremely important in the Norse pantheon.
The real misconception here is the notion of witches. There's obviously overlap in the idea of a prophetess and that of a witch. Yet, while Christian depictions of paganism paint priestesses and prophetesses as evil, devious, self-serving beings (i.e., witches), in historical fact they fulfilled roles similar to Catholic priests, as direct conduits between humans and gods.
Much of the bad reputation Vikings ended up with is the fault of raging shaman warriors known as berserkers. Berserkers isolated themselves in the wild, tripped on mushrooms, got drunk, drank the blood of animals, and whipped themselves into a psychotic frenzy. Then, wearing nothing but animal hides, they charged into battle. Berserkers took on the traits of wolves and bears, and ripped people to shreds. They pillaged, slaughtered, and took what they wanted. By 1015, Norway banned them. Iceland declared berserkers outlaws, and by the 12th century, these crazed maniacs phased out of existence.
Average Viking men (and women) led civilized lives. They were family-oriented farmers, religious people who were big on hygiene. They lived by complex social and political codes, entered into contracts with one another, carefully arranged their daily affairs, and provided a number of legal protections to women not afforded by most contemporary northern European societies. Viking men filled relatively traditional, gender normative rolls as fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, warriors, and political leaders. Yet it seems berserkers became the de facto archetype for Vikings in the modern imagination.