Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Odin's Wife

In his Edda, the 13th-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson presents Norse mythology through a wisdom match between the clever King Gylfi and three gods--High, Just-as-High, and Third--who sit on thrones in Valhalla.

Asked "Who is the highest and most ancient of all gods?" High responds with a list of twelve names, beginning with All-father. Later he applies the name All-father to Odin--along with 52 more names.

"What a terrible lot of names you have given him!" objects King Gylfi in Anthony Faulkes’ 1987 translation. "One would need a great deal of learning to be able to give details and explanations of what events have given rise to each of these names."

Responds High, "You cannot claim to be a wise man if you are unable to tell of these important happenings."

Snorri Sturluson considered himself a wise man. In his Edda and in Heimskringla, his collection of sagas about Norway's kings, Snorri quotes apt lines from nearly a thousand poems, most of which had not been written down before.

But because he wrote for an audience of one--young King Hakon of Norway, brought to the throne at age 14--Snorri's tales in these two books skew toward the interests of a boy. As I pointed out in my 2013 biography of him, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Snorri wasted few words on women, human or divine. It's no surprise that he fails to tell us the many names of Odin's wife, or to relate the events that gave rise to them.

In Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology, William P. Reaves attempts to fill in the gaps in Snorri's Edda--proving himself a wise man by High's definition. Reaves is webmaster of the site germanicmythology.com, which aims to compile everything of interest to students of Norse mythology that exists in the public domain. It shouldn't surprise you that Odin's Wife is similarly comprehensive.

Snorri tells us that Frigg is Odin's wife and the mother of his son Baldur, while the Earth, or Jörd, is the mother of Odin's son Thor. According to the Edda, these are two separate goddesses. But as Reaves points out, "while evidence for Odin's wife Frigg and his wife the Earth are contemporary and congruous--occurring at the same time in the same places and genres--they are never shown together. Like Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, we apparently never see Frigg and Jörd side by side." Both goddesses are also called by several other names; one they hold in common is Hlin, which means "protector."

As Reaves lays out his "preponderance of evidence," the goddess Frigg leaps out of the shadows in which Snorri wrapped her. She convincingly becomes the powerful Earth-Mother and Mother of Gods, including not only Baldur and Thor, but also Freyr and Freyja, whom she had with her brother, Njörd. As Reaves concludes, "She is Odin’s equal in all respects, surpassing him in practical power."

That Frigg sits beside Odin on his throne, watching (and meddling in) all the Nine Worlds, "should not come as a surprise," he adds: "The sons of Borr bestowed senses, wit, and spirit on Ask and Embla alike. Women are not subordinate to men. The sources, both religious and historical, are rife with strong, independent women. Both men and women appear on the battlefield, as mythological, historical, and archaeological evidence affirms. Equality of the sexes was a Germanic reality, long before modern times."

See my complete review of Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology by William P. Reaves at The Midgardian.

For more about the powerful women of the Viking Age, see my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, or read the related posts on this blog (click here).

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Viking Creation Story

The Viking Age, I was taught, was an era of strict gender roles. The woman ruled the household. The man was the trader, the traveler, the warrior.

This interpretation—as I've noted previously on this blog—has been taught since the 1800s, the Victorian Age, when elite women were told to concern themselves only with church, children, and kitchen.

But it’s not the only way to read the sources.

In my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, I argue that roles in Viking society were decided—not by these Victorian ideas of men’s work vs. women’s work—but based on factors much harder to see.

I was convinced this was true by studying Norse mythology.

Our best sources on Norse mythology were written by the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson. But Snorri is not trustworthy. In 2012, I wrote a biography of him (Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths) and showed that, not only did he put a Christian slant on the myths he told, he was a terrible misogynist.

In writing down the Norse myths, Snorri wasted few words on females, human or divine. They did not fit his audience or his purpose.

He began writing the Prose Edda in about 1220 for the 16-year-old Norwegian king to teach the young king to appreciate the poetry of the ancient North, with its many allusions to mythology; Snorri’s real goal was to gain an influential position at court.

Snorri wrote Heimskringla, his history of the kings of Norway, during the same king’s reign, again to impress the younger man.

Women in both books are honored mothers or objects of lust, Mary or Eve, as they were in Snorri’s own lifetime. It was the orthodox view of women in medieval Christian society, where even marriage and childbirth were considered matters for churchmen to control.

But Snorri gives us glimpses of the myths he left out—ancient stories that reflect the values of the pre-Christian Vikings. One of these is the Norse creation myth.

Here's how it goes: In the beginning two driftwood logs, one elm and one ash, are found on the seashore by three wandering gods. These gods give the wood human shape and bring it to life with blood, breath, and curious minds.

Unlike the Christian creation myth, where Eve is an afterthought, fashioned out of Adam’s rib, in the Norse myth Embla (the female) and Ask (the male) are equal:

They are made at the same time out of nearly the same stuff. As different as an ash tree and an elm, they make a good team.

Ash wood was used for spear shafts and oars. A good rower was sometimes called an “ash-person.”

Elm was used for wagon wheels. It was also the preferred wood for short, powerful bows: One archer is nicknamed “elm-twig.”

Both woods had roles in peace and war, for transportation and for killing. Their uses were determined by their size and strength, their resistance to rot or tensile stress, the denseness of their grain, and where they grew.

I think the same was likely true for the men and women of the Viking Age. They were equals, their roles in society being decided—not by gender—but based on ambition, ability, family ties, and wealth.

For more on my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Words of Wisdom

A year or two ago, a friend compiled a book of advice for his son's 18th birthday and asked me to contribute. Here is what I wrote:

When I was young, I was given three pieces of economic advice that gave me the freedom to live the life I wanted, as a writer.

1. Never pay interest.

That means paying off the credit card every month. That means buying a car with cash. That means no mortgage and no student loans. Is it possible? Not always, but it's worth striving for. If you can't afford it, you probably don't need it. There is no such thing as "shopping therapy." Buying things only makes you a slave to things.

In the Old Norse literature I study, there's a set of maxims called Havamál, or "Words of the High One," supposedly spoken by Odin himself more than a thousand years ago. It says (in the translation by Paul Taylor and W.H. Auden):

A kind word need not cost much,
The price of praise can be cheap:
With half a loaf and an empty cup
I found myself a friend.


2. Never have monthly bills that must be paid.

Again, pay cash or don't buy it. But some things are unavoidable: the phone bill, the electric bill, the internet, and you have to live somewhere, so there will be either rent or a mortgage payment. My husband and I were lucky enough to be able to build a house out in the countryside (where the rules are more lax) and pay for it as we went. It was small and, at first, quite rustic (no electricity!). But as Havamál says,

A small hut of one's own is better,
A man is master at home:
A couple of goats and a corded roof
Still are better than begging.


We passed on the goats and got Icelandic horses—which is quite an unnecessary expense, but at least not one we need to pay monthly, and they make us happy.

3. Keep enough cash in the bank to cover one year’s necessary expenses.

That includes food, taxes, utilities, a mortgage if you have one (we didn't), insurance of various kinds and, for us, hay and shoeing and vet bills for the horses. It also means making up a yearly budget and sticking to it.

If you follow these three precepts, and have a little luck, you are free. If you have a job, you know they need you more than you need them. You can quit at any time and take a whole year to find a new job without ending up on the street.

If you don’t have a job and don’t want one (both my husband and I have been freelance writers now for over 15 years), you know how much money you need to make each year to replenish the bank account.

Once you've done that, you can relax—travel, ride the horses, write something that won't sell. It's up to you.

Too many people get caught up in the money economy. They buy things they can't afford and then are stuck working in a job they hate in order to pay for them—and they usually end up paying twice as much, in the end, counting the interest and loan fees.

Money is not nearly as valuable as your time and your freedom. Says Havamál,

Once he has won wealth enough,
A man should not crave for more…


And:

The generous and bold have the best lives.

For more on my latest book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Illustrations by Gerhard Munthe from an 1899 edition of Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Dangerous Women of Oseberg

"What makes a woman dangerous 1000 years after her death?"

Archaeologist Marianne Moen asked that question in 2016 on a blog called "The Dangerous Women Project."

She wrote, "How much of a threat can a dead and decayed body of a nameless woman really pose? Judging from the academic treatment of the Viking Age female double burial found at Oseberg in Norway, the answer seems to be quite a substantial one. Enough, at least, that in the 100 years since the burial was excavated, academic debate regarding it has centred on finding explanations and interpretations that nearly all share a common purpose of removing the two women from any position of politcal power..."

Marianne's forthright and honest approach in this essay impressed me. I found and read her 2010 master's thesis from the University of Oslo, The Gendered Landscape: A discussion on gender, status, and power expressed in the Viking Age mortuary landscape, and was even more impressed. There, Marianne outlines the history of how archaeologists have gendered graves--based on very outdated ideas of what men and women are like. She then presents a new interpretation of Oseberg, comparing it to the other famous ship burial from Vestfold in southern Norway, at Gokstad.

When I went to Norway in 2018 to complete the research for my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, meeting Marianne was tops on my list. We managed to connect over lunch soon after I had visited the Oseberg and Gokstad mounds. What follows are some highlights of our chat which, of course, began with a discussion of the Oseberg grave.

"Every time I give a presentation," Marianne said, "I end up talking about Oseberg. It's fascinating if you look at how it's been treated academically--and then you look at Gokstad. Basically, they are identical mounds. They're placed in comparable locations. They've got very comparable grave goods. They're buried within 70 years of each other. Everything pretty much checks out: It's like tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The only difference is that Oseberg is the burial of two women and Gokstad has one man.

Captions: The Oseberg mound today. Above, the Oseberg ship in the (old) Viking Ship Museum in Norway. Below, the Gokstad mound today.

"Then you read about them in academic treatments," she continued. "Here, you've got the Gokstad chieftain--it's always the Gokstad chieftain, you know--and there, you have the Oseberg women. Oh, who were they? We just don't know. They're ladies. How come? That's very strange! Were they religious spies? Or was there originally a man there in the grave and he's disappeared?"

Her comic portrayal of the baffled academics made me laugh--but it wasn't truly funny. Working on my history of warrior women in the Viking Age, I saw too many instances of such gender bias in Viking Studies. The "invisible man" theory came up again and again.

As Marianne explained, "A lot of researchers have problems with something that doesn't fit with what we think we know. We think we know the Viking Age so well. In Norway it's a sort of cultural ancestor to our own times. We talk about the Vikings as if we know how they lived--and we don't really.

"There is so much that we've just assumed. Two hundred years ago, a bunch of researchers read the old texts and said, 'Aha, it’s like this.' You look at the gender roles they assigned to the Viking Age--and they are the gender roles of the Victorian Age." They mimic the values of the 19th century, when elite women were confined to church, children, and kitchen. When wife, mother, and housewife were women's only proper roles.

"We don't know it was like that in the Viking Age," Marianne continued. "But somebody said so 200 years ago, and we've referred to them for years and years."

Between the time Marianne wrote about the two Oseberg queens as "dangerous women" in 2016 and we met in 2018, the ultimate Viking warrior burial--the weapon-filled grave known as Bj581 in the town of Birka--was reanalyzed. Ancient DNA was successfully extracted from the bones and--to the shock of many scholars--this ultimate Viking was proved to be a woman.

The backlash was fierce. Even scholars who had, in the past, collaborated with the DNA-testing team, accused them of having tested the wrong bones, or of polluting the DNA, or of having made some other crucial mistake. These critics were not ready to accept that their picture of gender roles in the Viking Age was wrong. They were not ready to accept that something they thought was a fact was, in reality, only an assumption.

"What's been so interesting about the Birka Warrior," Marianne said to me, "is that it's really just made this very obvious. If you read between the lines of so many of the blogs and the statements that came out in response to the Birka Warrior, what the critics are saying is: This can't be right because it doesn't fit with what we think we know. Accepting that what we think we know is potentially not correct seems to be pretty difficult."

One approach by the naysayers is to argue that having weapons in her grave is not enough to prove that Bj581 actually fought. They point out that there are no marks of battle trauma on her bones, for instance.

I asked Marianne how she would respond to that criticism.

"There’s this big argument in archaeology today," she explained, "that, obviously, just because you're buried with weapons it doesn't make you a warrior. Fair enough. There's this famous study of Anglo-Saxon graves, where they demonstrated that a lot of the so-called warrior graves were actually young boys or the skeleton had severe physical impairments. So I’m not saying that every weapons grave is necessarily a warrior grave.

"What I am saying," she continued, "is that, just because the grave happens to contain a woman doesn’t mean we should treat it any differently. So if a weapons grave isn't a warrior grave, that means we need to go through 200 years of scholarship and reassess how we talk about all the male graves with weapons. That’s all I'm asking. You can't talk about weapons graves differently just because of the gender of the person buried in one. Because then what we think we know is not based on the actual evidence."

Even scholars who accept that Bj581 was indeed a warrior woman argue that she was very unusual for her time. Finding a single warrior woman doesn't change the conversation about women's roles in the Viking Age.

Again, Marianne disagrees.

"I'm not arguing for the number of female warriors being on the same level as men," Marianne replied, "because we know from the burial evidence that we do have that it's not that often you find women with weapons. But it's often enough."

But Viking men are not often found buried with weapons either, I pointed out. Not every man was a warrior.

"Exactly," said Marianne. "It was only really exceptional men."

When I first began talking about writing my book The Real Valkyrie, I heard that complaint from some of my scholarly friends: But you’re only talking about exceptional women, they said.

I thought about that, and I realized that if I had said I was going to write a book about a Viking king, like Olaf Tryggvason or Eirik Bloodaxe, he would be an exceptional man, and it would be perfectly acceptible to write a book about him. No one would complain about that. Why is it not equally acceptible to write about an exceptional warrior woman?

"This is the problem," said Marianne. "All of the archaeology and all of the history of the Vikings is written about the exceptions. That's the people we write about. We write about the 15-20% who were the elite. We don't know anything about the rest. They leave no trace in the archaeological record. We need to accept that. Yes, the Birka Warrior was probably an exceptional women, but all the stories we tell are about the exceptional people."

And even among these exceptional, elite Vikings, our 200-year-old assumptions about gender roles do not hold true, as Marianne's 2019 Ph.D. thesis from the University of Oslo proves. When we spoke, she was hard at work writing Challenging Gender: A reconsideration of gender in the Viking Age using the mortuary landscape.

I asked her to tell me a little about it.

"My central proposition is that we shouldn't apply our understanding of gender to the past. I'm basically going back to Carol Clover's 1993 article [“Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.”]. I think we should stop thinking about the two-sex model, with binary men and women as complete opposites."

Instead, we should think of Viking people inhabiting a spectrum of gender roles, she argues, based on her reanalysis of several Viking Age graveyards in Norway.

"What I've done," she explained, "is to analyze grave assemblages and also the position of the grave in the landscape, in some selected cemeteries in Vestfold, to try and see if there's any grounds from the burial evidence to assume that men and women fulfilled such different categories.

"What I found in the assemblages of grave goods, is that they share more traits than they actually differentiate. Interestingly, about a third of the graves I analyzed aren't gender-specific at all. They have horses, cooking vessels, common tools, less common tools like trading equipment, things like knives and combs, etc. Nothing particularly spectacular, usually, but a few of them are very wealthy indeed.

"That's where I think it becomes particularly problematic that we talk about the Vikings as if they had this very clearcut binary gender pattern, when actually so many graves are not able to be gendered at all," Marianne concluded.

"So here's my question: If so many of these graves are not communicating gender, then should we not perhaps reconsider our thought that gender was an either/or in the Viking Age? And that there were different ways of living that were accepted?"

I look forward to learning more from Marianne Moen's research in the future, and wish her the best of luck in her scholarly career. You can read more about her work on her Academia.edu page and at Science Norway.

For more on my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.