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

Erotic Poetry & Art

You will find no real erotica during the Viking Age, at least in the way we perceive it in today’s sexual culture. It was not written during the time such as it was in later times. However, the poetry and riddles that were common during the time are not exactly polite, reserved and timid. “The Anglo Saxons seemed to love a riddle and, like the rest of us, couldn’t get enough of sex.” The results are winking double entendres bits of humor:

Exeter Riddle 44
A strange thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
hidden by a garment. It has a hole
in its head. It is still and strong
and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
When the man hitches his clothing high
above his knee, he wants the head
of that hanging thing to poke the old hole
(of fitting length) it has often filled before.

Exeter Riddle 54
A young man made for the corner where he knew
she was standing; this stripping youth
had whipped up her dress, and under her girdle
(as she stood there) thrust something stiff,
worked his will; they both shook.
This fellow quickened: one moment he was
forceful, a first-rate servant, so strenuous
that the next he was knocked up, quite
blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle
a thing began to grow that upstanding men
often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

Exeter Riddle 61
A lovely woman, a lady, often locked me
in a chest; at times she took me out
with her fingers, and gave me to her lord
and loyal master, just as he asked.
Then he poked his head inside me,
pushed it up until it fitted tightly.
I, adorned, was bound to be filled
with something rough if the loyal lord
could keep it up. Guess what I mean.

Speaking of Anglo-Saxon poetry, not just erotic poetry, a fan notes:

The best Anglo Saxon poetry speaks with a directness and simplicity you won’t often find in the sophisticated and cosmopolitan utterances of the Roman poets. And though stark, the Anglo Saxon temper also comes with a rugged humor and gamefulness typical of poetry in simpler and less self-conscious cultures.”

You will not find any erotic prose, though. One major reason appears to be that prose was almost never used for a creative purpose; for example, even though most translations of Beowulf are done in standard prose, the original is poetry. However, the major reason appears to be that this was not done; direct and step-by-step erotica just was an alien concept to the Anglo-Saxons!

You will not generally find erotic or even romantic poetry from Norse sources. This is not because the Nose did not have sexual or romantic desires, but because there was a “fear in pagan times of magical ensnarement of the woman so immortalized by the power of the verses.” In addition, some have observed that romantic poetry—courting a beloved—was unnecessary since”The majority of Viking marriages were prearranged.” There was no need for romantic poetry, and erotic poetry is as far as we know rather infrequent.
So-called erotic Icelandic poetry, often known as mansöngr, was a form of skaldic poetry that was written quite infrequently. The romantic or erotic poems of the Ljóðatal section of the Hávamál are less than erotic or even romantic but are the practical warning verses that might be expected from the Norse:

The love of women
who are deceitful in spirit
is like riding a smooth-shod horse
on slippery ice,
a spirited two-year-old
and one badly trained,
or on a rudderless boat
in a raging wind,
or like a lame man trying to catch
a reindeer on a thawing mountainside.
Not exactly what I would call erotic or even romantic!

In the same way that erotic poetry was well known in earlier cultures and only slyly seen during the Viking age, there is precious little erotic art during this time. Art was often zoological knotwork, and the earlier erotic depictions of Greek, Roman and neolithic art is not easily found. In fact, the earlier favorable view of the heathen and pagan toward nudity, sensuality and sexuality in art was usurped by the Christian clerical dislike of these things, and there is very little depiction in surviving art of this time of sheer nudity except in such cases as biblical appearances of Eve, of the damned in hell and of Christ (who is depicted as semi-nude but who Is certainly not at all erotic?).

This is not say that there was no erotic depictions at all, but much would not today be called or recognized as erotic. For example, the Bayeux Embroidery shows a few naked figures, but they feature rape and are more documentative than erotic; certainly, today rape is considered very non-erotic!

In Viking art, there is a statue of Freyr in which the god is stroking his beard. He was associated with virility, and he was wed to Freyja, the Norse goddess of beauty and sexuality. That beard has been associated by many critics with the penis and virility, so that stroking the beard becomes something else!

The fact that the beard is so considered indicates to me that perhaps what was considered suggestive or erotic during this time would not be so considered nowadays. One has to wonder what things considered erotic at the time might be overlooked today!

[Riddles translated by Benjamin Thorpe]

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