OF MONSTERS AND THEMS: NON-BINARY FIGURES IN OLD NORSE MYTHOLOGY

“[I]t may be helpful to regard the mythological material as a place where one might more easily explore alternatives to the two genders delineated in a masculine/feminine binary.”

Kathleen M. Self  | (p.146)

We have long used tales of monsters and heroes to explore the impossible – or what we perceive to be the impossible, at least. Monsters and heroes are believed to be the antithesis of one another, but delving into monster theory and concepts of the ‘Other’ reveals more similarities between the two than we may at first like to admit. Those who know me even a little bit will be aware of my love for monsters, and I don’t think that this love came out of nowhere. In many ways the societal narrative in which I live has cast me in the role of monster; I am a queer, transgender non-binary individual, and I’m here to eat your children in the middle of the night. I am also here to introduce you to other non-binary individuals I have found in Old Norse literature: namely Loki and the valkyries. 

We mostly think of Loki as a man, and popular depictions reinforce this; Tom Hiddleston, a cisgender man, portrays the god in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let me problematise this for you: throughout the course of the Norse myth cycle, Loki gives birth, more than once. 

Odin said:

‘[…] eight winters you were, beneath the earth,

a milchow and a woman,

and there you bore children,

and that I thought the hallmark of a pervert.’”

Lokasenna | translated by Carolyne Larrington | (p.84)

This particular episode is unfortunately otherwise unknown, however in the Master Builder narrative, we do see Loki transform into a mare and seduce the stallion Svadilfari. This results in the birth of the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Now, I’m no expert (just kidding, yes I am) but that doesn’t sound very cisgender to me. If you look at Larrington’s translation, you can see that Odin explicitly calls Loki a woman. In the words of Richard E. Zeikowitz: “Traditional readings of these characters have obscured or ignored their disruptive queerness” (67). While Lees is referring to Old English figures like Grendel, this is absolutely applicable to Old Norse figures as well. 

The Children of Loki |Willy Pogany | 1920 | Taken from Wikipedia.

Why would I bother to point this out? Why should anyone care? Well, Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger assert that a queer approach to medieval studies “promises the recovery of cultural meanings that are lost, obscured or distorted in work that either ignores questions of sexuality or attends only to hegemonic or heteronormative understandings of it” (67). As someone who identifies as queer, I have become aware of these paper-thin structures that rule our lives; the notion of a binary gender system is one such structure. It permeates everything we do, thus influencing our study of these texts and characters. Non-binary genders are not a new concept, and toying with gender fluidity is a human preoccupation that crops up again and again. Take an Old English example; Grendel’s Mother is one of the three traditional monsters of Beowulf. She is generally considered to be a woman, although critics such as Acker do not categorise her as particularly feminine, and her pronouns switch between being masculine and feminine throughout the text. So what is it exactly that makes her a woman, and not non-binary? The fact that she is the mother of Grendel? Why, then, do we consider Loki to be a man, since he, too, gives birth? What is the difference between a mother and a father here? The only thing that appears to differentiate them is the labels we ourselves have prescribed them. Even if we were to say, ‘a woman is anyone who gives birth’, that too is insufficient. Not only does it exclude transgender women, it ignores women who have had hysterectomies, who cannot have children, who do not want to have children. Are these people not women, then? In Acker’s essay on horror and the maternal, he states that a mother is “expected to be empowered chiefly through her son” (707). Are you not a mother until or unless you have a son? 

My point here, to put it bluntly, is that our current conceptions of what constitutes a woman or a man are not infallible, but rather the opposite. Trying to place Loki or Grendel’s Mother neatly into the gender binary simply does not work; they are comfortable in their dislocation. They are non-binary.

“[I]nsert them into a binary of masculine and feminine, wherein they sit somewhat uneasily in the feminine category.”

Kathleen M. Self | (p. 144)

Self proposes that the valkyries, too, fall into the category of some third gender outside of the traditional binary. This quote specifically struck a chord with me, as it describes astutely what I felt before coming to the realisation that I was non-binary. Valkyries are hardly examples of the ideal feminine; they take part in battle, have control over the fates of the warriors, and dress in armour. Clothing was especially important for differentiating gender through what Self calls “body codes”: “clothing, cosmetics, behaviours, miens, affective and sexual object choices” (144). That is to say, masculinity and femininity are codified, making the fact that valkyries wear warrior’s armour considerably more significant. There were strict laws in medieval Scandinavia against dressing out of accordance to your gender; you can find similar instances of members of the LGBTQ+ community being arrested for not dressing in accordance with their gender in the States in decades as recently as the sixties. Valkyries mix body codes and thus problematise their gender. 

Hild, Thrud and Hløkk | 1895 | Lorenz Frølich | Taken from Wikipedia.

It is interesting, however, that they are not condemned for this; Grendel’s Mother is labelled a monster, and Loki is called a pervert by Odin, yet the valkyries are a mostly positive or revered presence in the Norse myths. I reiterate that monsters and heroes are not as different as we may like to believe. They are a binary system that similarly crumbles under scrutiny. I may be non-binary, but I won’t be gobbling up your children anytime soon. I can’t say the same for Grendel’s Mother, however. 

A Shiny New Skírnismál: #EditWikiLit Assignment

The in-class assignment for my contemporary research module was to choose a Wikipedia article and edit it, while live tweeting the process (and then, as you can see, blog about it afterwards). If you want a good chuckle, you can still see the live-tweeting event under the hashtag #EditWikiLit — though I’m sure you all follow me on Twitter already, right?

One of our wonderful lecturers enjoying our informative hilarity

I had no idea which article to edit at first, but as everyone knows, I am desperately in love with Professor Carolyne Larrington, and I thought; hey! How about I spice up the page on Skírnismál? 

It did need a bit of spicing. The original synopsis wasn’t incorrect per say, but it did portray Freyr as some sort of broody teenager instead of a powerful god, and didn’t dwell on the fact that Skírnir maliciously threatens Gerðr until she agrees to a sexual meeting with the Freyr. 

The synopsis before I got my claws on it

I am a Big Fan of Larrington’s feminist reading of the poem (she employs the “reading against the grain” approach). She notes that generally, male readers do not struggle to align themselves with Freyr/Skírnir, and thus male scholarship on the poem has also been sympathetic to the god and his servant. But for women (or, as in my case I suppose, those who have been socialised as female) it’s pretty difficult to ignore the awful way in which Gerðr is treated. 

So! When editing the synopsis, I put a little more emphasis on the fact that Gerðr has no choice but to agree to the meeting. The original synopsis also stated that there are other versions of the poem where Skírnir does not use coercion at all, but because I am not sure whether these alleged other versions are in Old Norse or are simply poor translations, I decided to leave it untouched. 

The synopsis after being subjected to my Grendel-like claws

The biggest change I made to the article was the addition of a “Curses” section. 

Skírnir’s delightful curse

Based on Larrington’s essay “What Does Woman Want? Mær und munr in Skírnismál”, I outlined the five main points of the curse that Skírnir threatens Gerðr with. I also mention briefly that real-life examples of similar curses have been found, and are thought to have been employed on actual women in medieval Scandinavia (isn’t that deliciously horrifying?).

The point of this section is to further highlight that Gerðr has her power and agency effectively ripped from her, all because Freyr thinks she’s pretty; but because it’s Wikipedia and not my own personal blog, I just presented the facts as neutrally as I was able. I think.

There was a touch-and-go moment where I hit a button and all of my edits VANISHED. Freyr was not pleased with my work, I suppose. I said a quick prayer to Loki and rewrote everything in double time — when you write for a living, you get used to computers betraying you like this, and start storing all the good parts in your head. 

Finally, I made it to the “Sources” section!  

The sources section, pre-Kel

I added a few more translations (because the more perspectives/interpretations you have, the better!) and, of course, added Larrington’s essay to the recommended scholarship.

The sources section, post-Kel

I added Neil Gaiman’s book, Norse Mythology, though his portrayal of the story is a little less “the male gaze is going to gobble you up” and a little more “isn’t this all very romantic”. Still, for anyone interested in the Norse myth cycle, but not in the world of academia, it’s an accessible way to dive in. 

I also added UCC’s own Tom Birkett’s recent book, The Norse Myths, as it is not only incredibly detailed and full of beautiful illustration and art, but uses straightforward language anyone can understand. 

Am I owed any dividends for this?

Thus, the class came to its epic conclusion, and a shiny new Skírnismál article was born. So far, no one has come storming in to undo my work, but you never know. Should it happen, you will be the first to know. 

(I also discovered Carolyne Larrington has her own wordpress blog, which I will link here — I absolutely recommend following her!)

UPDATE: 17 March 2020

Find my post detailing an update here!