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.