Homosexuality did not exist until 1869, when the German Austrian-born novelist, Karl-Maria Kertbeny, used the term in a pamphlet against Prussian anti-sodomy laws. It did go into popular use until almost twenty years later, when Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, and it did not lead to the creation of a distinct sub-culture until even later.
Before this time, homosexuality was neither a culture nor a description; instead, people were more concerned with physical activities. Therefore, a common description of what we now call a homosexual was sodomite, which referred of course to sodomy—defined as man on man sex—which was decried by a church which was concerned with any sexual activity that did not lead to procreation.
And that brings us to the whole question of homosexuality in the Viking Age. By this time, the Anglo-Saxons had been converted for several centuries, so they probably followed the Church’s prejudices fairly well, at least in public. However, the Norse converted toward the end of the era, and we already know of the various ways in which the Norse went their own way in cases of activities, beliefs and practices. Let us look for a moment at the manner in which the Norse approached sodomy and same-gender affection.
Let’s face it, the Church little cared about same-gender affection; it was the act of sodomy to which they objected. If you look at correspondence and actions later in time, such intimate friendships were criticized only when they involved people of different classes. Norse laws, poetry and folklore were not written down in general until after the Viking Age, when Christianity was already deeply rooted, and much of what is generally thought of as indicative of Norse culture was invented by Christians from Christian viewpoints.
As Christine Ward-Wiedland motes, “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.” The fact that during the Christian era that laws had to be drafted which dealt with and had injunctions against homosexuality is of the same cloth as etiquette rules: Their very existence indicate that people performed these activities.
Wolf notes that “Heterosexuality was the norm in Viking-age Scandinavia, but that homosexual relations between men were recognized as social phenomena were clear from Old Norse-Icelandic literature, especially the sagas.” While on the one hand, there was a general Norse dislike of effeminate men as well as non-effeminate women, this apparently had nothing to do with private sexual practices but instead with public behavior. In fact, the only offense noted in the secular law only prohibited the actions of the passive male.
However, it is interesting to note that “The secular laws of Viking Age Iceland do not mention homosexuality. The only place where homosexuality is documentably prohibited is by the Christian Church.”
From all this, a single decision is inevitable, that the Norse allowed homosexuality so long as the homosexual was not betraying gender stereotypes. Literary evidence is unavailable except when seeing what the Church warns against—suggesting that such activities were being practiced—and since any literary accounts were written down by Christians, and of course adhered to the Christian mythos.
It is interesting to note that lesbianism was not mentioned, but it was pretty well standard. After all, “according to the church sexual desires were evil and sinful…therefore women were not to orgasm or enjoy sex. Many times sex with men was not gentle because it was not meant to please the woman. It seems likely to me that since there were often more men than women in a stead, that they might have turned to each other, like cowboys on the range in a later time, for sexual release. The men did not apparently object to this and, in that manner, they might have been behaving in ways very close to conventional sexist ways seen today!
It seems obvious from these and other references that the Norse were very likely to behave in a manner that was convenient and pleasurable, a freedom that is duplicated in the modern time!
Christine Ward-Wieland’s take on the subject may be found at The Viking Answer Lady.