I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for June, 2015


Christian fundamentalists might deny it, but the Norse culture was not monogamous, and neither was the Anglo Saxon culture. In fact, most early cultures were not monogamous. The Norse cultures spelled things out a lot more than the Christian Saxon culture did, even after it was Christianized.

The terms of “polygamy” and “polyandry” are terms often seen in an historical context. Polygamy refers to a man having multiple relationships at the same time, while polyandry refers to a woman having similar multiple relationships. For the purposes of this book, I use the more modern term of “polyamory,” which refers to different love—often sexual—relationships enjoyed by a single person at the same time.

The polygamous aspects of the Norse culture are fairly well known. After all, the Sturlunga saga indicates that “almost universally, men indulged in extramarital affairs with numbers of women before, during, and after marriage” Besides brief temporary relationships—seductions and rape—the men could have a wife, concubines and, apparently. multiple wives (often in different lands).

Although concubines have often been referred to as “sex slave,” the use of the term is in general a bit of an overstatement. To be sure, there were probably men who raped and dominated unfairly, but for most people, the process of choosing a frilla is not so simply summed up. Although some have stated that concubines were all of an inferior status, in Iceland at least this not always true:

Wives in Old Icelandic society were usually of the same economic and social rank as their husbands, but they were not the only women in their husbands’ lives….In the earliest period after the settlement, many married men, whether farmers or chieftains, kept slave women as concubines. These women were called frillur (sing. frilla). As slavery died out in the eleventh century, men continued to maintain frillur. No longer slaves, these women came from families of equal status as well as form, more commonly, from families of lower station than those of the men with whom they lived. Becoming a concubine of a prominent man often increased a woman’s status and influenced between her siblings and kinsmen, and chieftains often treated male kinsmen of their concubines as trusted brothers-in-law. In some instance’s concubines had wider latitude to act in their own interest than they might have had in poor marriage. An Icelandic folk saying of uncertain age goes, ‘Better a good man’s frillur than married badly.’

As often is presented in polygamist relationships, there was little conflict noted between wife and concubine. Some have theorized it was because everyone knew that the wife held an superior and unassailable position which the concubine knew she would never attain.

The laws of Iceland—the so-called Grágás or Grey Goose laws—say almost nothing about concubinage, “but the sagas…speak so frequently of them that one scholar has written, ‘It is scarcely possible for anyone who reads the Sturlunga and Bishops’ sagas not to notice that concubinage was the national custom in Iceland during the Free State period.'” (Byock)

Most ancient and medieval non-monogamy was polygamy and not polyandry. Polyandry, in fact, is seen in only as few cultures such as the Inuit. But, “This is not to say that women did not engage in extramarital sex. Women who avoided pregnancy suffered no penalty under the law” though a sexually promiscuous woman was not expected to accept an inheritance. Jesse Byock notes that “to judge from numerous saga examples, husbands were not the only men in their wives’ lives either. Given the living conditions, on separated farms, extra-marital relationships were seldom secret.”