(This is the script notes I used for a 30 minute introductory lecture to modern queer heathenry from the Conference of Heathen Women 2018. I had a short amount of time to introduce the audience to an infinitely diverse subject, so by nature I wasn’t able to fully go into anything in detail)
Before we start, I have half an hour. That means to say the things that I want to, I’m going to have to focus on some things at the expense of others. This is going to be the short, short version of what is a hugely complex subject. I’m going to be talking about gender, and sexual orientation, and looking at queer heathenry among modern Asatruar. The sagas and the myth cycle do hold traditional gender roles, but also give plenty of examples of queering those roles, such as Thor’s wearing of a wedding dress. I hope that I will be able to explore some of those examples with you and look at the development and recognition of queer heathenry alongside the emergence and acceptance of queer identities.
Let me just step aside for a moment: when I say queer I mean all self-defined expressions of gender and sexual orientation that exist in infinite combinations. For me this includes, but is not limited to: ace, aro, bi, pan, lesbian, queer, gay, trans, demi, intersex, butch, gender neutral, third gender, gender fluid, homoflexible, heteroflexible, or any other self-identified expression of gender and sexual orientation. In any combination.
I could take all my time on defining the phrase, but for this, and for today, I define queer as encompassing all the identities above. It is a term which disregards binary thinking, it is words, actions and expressions which fall between defined and accepted binary categories.
I’m going to start with a little history, you might know that for LGBT+ rights 1969 was an important year, the year that the Stonewall riots happened in America, and the active fight for equality started. 1969 wasn’t the year LGBT+ people suddenly started existing. 1969 was the year we got pissed off. Just before this increasing public awareness, the UK’s Sexual Offences Act in 1967 introduced the first age of consent for same sex relationships, although it took a long while, 2001, before the age of consent was equal to that of straight couples. The armed forces removed their ban on gays and lesbians serving in 2000, Civil Partnerships were introduced in 2004, and Trans people had the right to legally change their gender from 2005. Equal marriage for same sex couples followed in 2013, with Scotland applying theirs in 2014.
Similarly modern heathen groups and organisations began independently forming across the world in the 1960’s-70’s, further groups emerged in the 1990’s and 2000’s shifting the balance from original overtly political agendas, to focussing on historical accuracy.
In much the same way, queer heathenry can be seen as developing quickly in the last few decades, I understand the emergence of queer heathenry as following on from the recognition of individual intersectionality. In short, someone can be more than one thing at once.
I’d like to look at some of the expressions of gender and interpretations of sexuality in the myth cycle, sagas and heathen focussed popular culture, to look at the emergence of queer heathenry and the growing acceptance of queer heathens.
The records that we know of which detail the practices of our faith are viewed and interpreted through a modern lens – as modern heathens we choose which parts of the past to emphasise and which to discard. Much has been recently noted of this faith being used as an excuse for white supremacy and anti-queer sentiment. As a queer heathen, I define my own faith as a phenomenological experience. Faith is as unique as those who experience it. For a heathen who defines themselves as queer, trying to find ways to spiritually connect can be doubly marginalising. Not only as a member of a minority faith, but also as a self-identified queer individual. Some choose to emphasise one over the other, finding it challenging to develop all facets of themselves, openly acknowledging their queerness, without finding positive support for their faith, or finding a faith group that actively discriminates against queer people.
Recent years have seen a polarisation in modern heathenry, with individuals and organisations having to create statements to reinforce their inclusivity. Much of the anti-queer sentiment is closely tied to racism and Asatru as an exclusionary faith: In recent years there have been campaigns to highlight inclusive groups such as Heathen Women United, Heathens Against Hate, Heathens United Against Racism, The Troth, Hugin’s Heathen Hoff, and Asatru UK. All these organisations alongside others affirm, support and are inclusive of queer heathens.
Here and now; whether strict reconstructionist or accepting of a healthy dollop of Unverified Personal Gnosis we’re reconstructing and researching a set of beliefs and practices that on one notable occasion led to prayers to a giantess at dinnertime whilst holding a mummified horse penis. – Why has no-one reconstructed Volsi Cultus?! (Volsa Thattr, Olafs Saga Helga from the Flatyarbok)
Asatru faith comes from a society preoccupied with honour and the heroic ethic, subverting tradition gender roles is often used as dark humour. But I would argue that there is more at work here than a dry joke.
This is a faith that has Thor – who epitomises masculinity – put on a wedding dress to pretend to be Freya.
We have Skathi, Lady of the Mountains, pick up weapons, dress for war, march into Asgard up to the High Seat and demand recompense for her father’s murder from Odin.
If we take a brief step sideways into popular culture, in 2014 it was announced that Thor from the Marvel comics would be a woman: A cancer-ridden Jane Foster had to balance her terminal illness with the desire to be a Friend of the People.
Queer heathens feature in the comic series aptly named Heathen, from Vault Comics, following the story of a young woman banished for the crime of kissing another woman.
The film Thor: Ragnarok had its first canonically queer character in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie – but with the only explicit nod to her sexuality being cut from the film, her bi-queerness is now entirely sub-textual. However Hela, as played by Cate Blanchett can also be read as queer. The character is exquisitely campy, confident and powerful, undeniably feminine whilst simultaneously performing high end drag to create a lethally garish individual embodying death and war, focussing on the singular bitter purpose of revenge against her own family.
Heading back to the myth cycle, Odin learns Seidr from Freya, leading to him being accused of learning ‘women’s magic’ and being called a ‘witch’ in the flyting. Brit Solli’s work in 2004 on Odin as queer, focuses on his mastering of Seith, using the skill to cross borders and reach ecstasy, not only in the sense of the border around the lands of the dead, but also the binary borders of gender and sexuality.
“Óðinn had the skill which gives great power and which he practiced himself. It is called seiðr, and by means of it he could know the fate of men and predict events that had not yet come to pass; and by it he could also inflict death or misfortunes or sickness, or also deprive people of their wits or strength, and give them to others.” (Ynglingasaga 7).
He is the War General of Asgard, the leader of the Einherjar, The God of War, and yet his associations are also with feminine magic, witchcraft and the reverse or behind. He’s able to hold both associations without any sense of ergi or shame. His journeys of self-discovery mean that some Trans people feel connected to him, especially when they begin their gender journeys.
And let’s not forget what the Trickster gets up to: changing gender and species as regularly as we change clothes. Their fluidity in more ways than one, can appeal to those who are genderfluid themselves, or those who identify as bi, pan or Trans. If we look at Frey and Freya, I see Freya as an unashamedly sex positive feminist icon, she is wise, a healer, a user of feminine magics, and a warrior. It is suggested that Frey was worshipped by effeminate men by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum. I’m aware that heathens who are gay men are drawn to learn about him in the modern day. Because…. Reasons….
If we head to the sagas, there are plenty of examples of individuals who queer their actions and expressions. If we look at the group of Sagas known as the Maiden Kings – women who spoke and acted in decidedly masculine ways to keep their power and independence – we find Thorberg from Hrolfs Saga Gautrekksonnar. She was a woman who played men’s sports and became very good at them. When her father objected, she demanded part of the country to rule over herself, and that all her suitors should be sent directly to her, rather than be chosen by her father or male relatives. She becomes a king “both in name (Thorbegr) and deed, since she forbids people to refer to her as maiden or woman.” (Jochens: 101). So: Thorberg insists that everyone call him Thorberg, a masculine name; b) gives ‘hard punishment’ to anyone who dares to call him a woman; and c) is referred to with male pronouns and in terms befitting any other king for the entirety of the time he spends as king. When Thorberg finally does marry King Hrolf (after killing or maiming several suitors beforehand..) Hrolf is taken prisoner and the castle is attacked, Thorberg puts on armour and rally’s an army to defend it.
The Maiden Kings are not the only women to transcend the gender roles and take up arms to fight and kill. Freydis Erikksdottir was heavily pregnant as her husband Thorvard and boat crew ran from an oncoming force and left her behind – you can imagine that conversation – (Thorvard: I can’t help thinking that I’ve left something important behind. Crewman: Oh Thorvard, you’ve got to be more careful with your stuff, we’ll pick it up next time we go back.)
Freydis picked up a sword and charged the oncoming force scaring them away. She was collected after giving birth, and went on a second and third voyage. In both of those, she killed people when her husband and crew refused. On the third voyage, she was in command of her own ship, and certainly wasn’t reluctant when it came to taking up arms.
There are challenges with this approach: Many of the accounts we have written in 1200-1300 were also written by educated Christian men, using the Christian technology of writing, and whose worldview would have roundly condemned homosexuality. There is also the more oppressive side to the historical accounts, which were written long after the Viking Age ended, but, according to the Viking Answer Lady “The myths and legends show that honored gods and heroes were believed to have taken part in homosexual acts, which may indicate that pre-Christian Viking Scandinavia was more tolerant of homosexuality.” There’s an attached concept of shame and insult in the historical records, which applies to some individuals, but not to others. I would argue that those concepts of being the receiving partner in a homosexual relationship or encounter, are firmly attached to the records of that culture and society. What we have now is an entirely different one, in which the gods have evolved to call to us from our world. They call into societies which have increasing queer awareness, they call queer heathens to serve, they call to them to be proud of their whole selves, rather than shun parts in favour of others.
In conclusion: the emergence of queer support groups and activism occurred around the same historical time that heathen groups began independently forming. Both strands of identity evolved, new laws and legal protections from queer activism, later heathen groups shifting from the overtly political activism to focussing on reconstructing beliefs and practices. There are several examples of queer practice, actions and speech, not only from the sagas but also from the myth cycle and popular culture, which combine elements of queerness and heathen beliefs.
So, from the increasing awareness, self-identification and diversity now seen in the queer communities, coupled with the inclusivity of some modern heathen groups and organisations, I would say that we are now seeing a strong presence of diverse queer heathens, as they come out with the confidence that they can be fully accepted as an individual in their gender identity, faith and sexual orientation.