Central to making a good impression on a potential or actual partner was good personal hygiene and pride in one’s appearance. This practice applied to both men and women. Norse graves are packed with grooming essentials for the afterlife- regardless of whether they belonged to a man or a woman. Combs, toothpicks, tweezers and ear spoons were all familiar, demonstrating the Norse liked to be neat and tidy and clean. The Arab, Ibn Fadlan may have felt horror at the Viking practice of sharing a communal washbowl, but at least his Norse acquaintances washed their face and combed their hair daily.
In fact, the Norse were probably the cleanest people in the Dark Ages. According to the Saxon cleric, John of Wallingford, they bathed weekly, on a Saturday. Wallingford complained that this, and their habit of changing their clothes regularly, was to “ undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.” However, the Norse were not content merely to be neat and tidy. Ibn Fadlan also noted the Rus- Viking traders who occupied what is now modern Russia-favored bleaching their beards to a saffron yellow, using a strong lye soap.
This method was probably also used on the hair of men and women. Norse women would have been particularly keen on achieving the long, fair, shiny hair that was the feminine ideal, although the white skin that men also coveted was probably only managed by the wealthy. Men also favored long hair, as only slaves wore their hair close-cropped. However, this did not mean they were unkept. Figurines show Viking men wearing their hair trimmed and their beards well groomed- either styled to a point or shaped as a goatee.
Finally, there was the question of clothing. When it came to making an impact, the Norse liked to dress to impress. As well as being clean, garments were brightly colored and adorned with the most costly array of jewelry you could afford. Cloak pins and arm rings all showed off status, impressing the object of your desire not only with your appearance but your wealth and prospects in life.
It wasn’t always possible to marry the one you loved- or lusted after. The sagas make constant reference to “the illicit love visit.” In such cases, a young couple, forbidden from marrying would meet in secret. The sagas never mention sex occurring. However, it is highly unlikely the young man would risk a secret tryst simply to âtalk’ to the object of his affections. The lovers, however, were said to âenjoy’ each other. A document detailing a wife’s dissatisfaction with her impotent husband because she couldn’t âenjoy‘ him suggests this is a term linked to sexual fulfillment.
Indeed, although female virginity was ideal, it was just about acceptable for a woman to have had sexual relationships before her marriage-with certain provisos. First, she needed to have been discrete and not too prolific in her pre-martial encounters. However, most importantly, she should not have had any children out of wedlock. This restriction was not for moral reasons. Illegitimate sons could become their father’s heirs- if he recognized them. Rather, society censured Illegitimacy because of the burden it placed on the maternal family, not because it was deemed wrong or shameful.
Illegitimate children were the responsibility of the mother’s family- and so a burden to it. It was they who ultimately supported the child. Even if the father acknowledged his child, he and his family were only obliged to provide two-thirds of its support. Worse yet, the mother probably lost all hope of marriage, as few men would want to take on the responsibility and expense of another man’s child. Thus her family would lose out further as she would gain no bride price and no family alliance. Thus chastity was often the safest bet.
For men, sex outside marriage posed no such strictures. They were free to indulge themselves however they pleased-as long as they submitted to marriage in the end. For to remain unmarried in Norse society was unacceptable. A man accused of shunning wedlock was said to be âfleeing from the vagina.’ Women who did the same were “fleeing from the penis.’ Such people risked becoming social outcasts because they were not fulfilling their ultimate role: the procreation of children for the survival of their families and society.
Pre-Christian Norse views on homosexuality weren’t simple. On the face of it, Norse society accepted sexual relationships between men. However, there were restrictions. Firstly, such relationships could not interfere with any future or current marriage. So the man still had to marry- whatever his views on the opposite sex- and his wife and her family had to be prepared to ignore her husband’s male lover or lovers. It was most important that the man did not neglect his conjugal duties. He still needed to have sex with his wife.
More important was that no free Norse man was the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. Vikings would rape males and females when on raiding trips to shame, degrade and weaken them. To be penetrated was to be submissive. It was acceptable to gain pleasure from penetrating someone- but not from being penetrated yourself. One of the worst insults an enemy could hurl at a Norse man was “sordinn” (penetrated). Any man branded as such would fight to the death to defend his honor. These conflicts led to Scandinavian law codes making such types of insult illegal because of the bloodshed, with the slanderer often outlawed- if the injured party didn’t kill him first!
However, if such abuse was believed or proven, it had grave consequences for the man in question. Although Norse myths tell of gods such as Loki and even Odin taking on a submissive role in sex, Norse mortal society did not tolerate passivity in men. The man in question would become a social outcast, branded âergi”-or unmanly.’ Such men were believed to lack the ability to be vital and virile members of society. They were deemed liable to be ineffectual as fathers and fighters- and as such of no use. Dominant homosexuals were quite another matter.
There is no mention of lesbianism in the tales. Nor are there any references in other Old Norse texts to female homosexual relationships, so we cannot gauge pre-Christian attitudes to female homosexuality. However, Icelandic Christian law suggests lesbianism did occur in Norse society. In the 12th century, Bishop Porlakr Porhallson decreed “if women satisfy each other they shall be ordered the same penance as men who perform the most hideous adultery between them or with a quadruped.”
The Norse held their weddings on a Friday, the day of Frigg, the goddess of marriage and fertility. The time of the year was also crucial. Late summer or autumn were the preferred times. This period of the year was harvest time, a time of abundance and plenty. A good supply of meat, fruit, and grain was essential to ensure an amply provisioned wedding feast.
One beverage was of particular importance. The âbridal ale’ was first consumed in a loving cup by the bride and groom at the marriage feast. The couple would use the mead-like brew to seal their union with a toast to Odin and Freya. The bridal ale was brewed with a good deal of honey, to ensure the fertility of the newlyweds. Their families gifted the couple with enough of this sweet beer to last them a month- a custom that gives us the modern term âhoneymoon.’
Before the wedding, both bride and groom took a ritual steam bath. Although they did not wear special clothes for the wedding, both wore specific tokens on their special day. For the bride, this was a floral wreath upon her head. For the groom, it was a sword, purposely robbed from one of his family’s burial mounds (or an old family sword buried in a fake mound that he ritually disinterred.) This sword was presented to the bride at the exchange of vows, as a way of making her a custodian of his family line.
As is common today, the bride and groom exchanged rings- both finger rings and arm rings as they spoke their vows. Once the ceremony was complete, the “brud hlaup” occurred. This was a race run by both wedding parties to the feasting hall. Whoever arrived last served the ale. But before the bride could enter, she had to be escorted over the threshold by the groom. The Norse, like many pagan peoples, believed thresholds were dangerous places for in transition to a new stage in their life.
The groom would then thrust a new sword, a gift from his bride, into the central pillar of the house. The depth of the resulting cut was used to determine the success of their union. Then, after the feast, eight witnesses lighted the bridal couple to bed. The groom then removed the bridal wreath from the bride- a ritual deflowering before the real event.
The Vikings could be quite âdirect’ about certain matters. However, they could also be rather coy about sex – or at least, so their stories suggest. The sagas had various ways to refer to sex that describe it in a rather round about way. A man about to have sex with a woman was said to âturn towards’ her, “laying his hand/arm/thigh ” on her. The rest was up to the audience’s imagination. However, what was clear was the man was in charge. He took the lead. His partner followed.
Once the action warmed up, the sagas implied the increased activity in similarly guarded terms. A couple in the throes of passion would âcrowd together in bed” (hviluthrong) and ‘enjoy each other. ‘ If things were particularly raunchy, the tales would describe the man as enjoying a good old brolta a maga or âromp on her belly’ or describe the couple as âtraveling together.” Once they had exhausted themselves, the couple spent the aftermath at âhvila meth henna ” (rest with her), or he would âamuse one’s self.’ This activity referred to him enjoying a quiet conversation or game of cards with his partner.
However, the everyday terms used by the Vikings were probably not quite so reserved, judging by sexual words they have bequeathed to modern times. The Old Norse âthviet’ for a cut or slit began life as a sexual euphemism for a particular part of the female anatomy. Gradually it evolved into the old English âthwat’ and later into the more familiar tw*t which is used today as a term of abuse. The same occurred with another Old Norse word for the female genitals “Kunta’.
However, not all euphemisms were this crude. In contrast to these rather basic sexual terms, the Old Norse for sexual desire was “munuth.” This word derives from the root word for love “mun‘ and that of thought or memory âhugr,’ making the sexual impulse a âlove thought.’ So perhaps the Vikings could be romantic souls after all.
Adultery was acceptable for Viking men, but not their wives
Many Norse men adored their wives, judging by the last words of one man just before he was hung:
” Happy am I to have won the joy of such a consort; ” said the condemned man of his wife. “I shall not go down basely in loneliness to the gods of Tartarus. So let the encircling bonds grip my throat in the midst; the final anguish shall bring with it pleasure only, since the certain hope remains of renewed love, and death shall prove to have its own delights. Each world holds joy, and in the twin regions shall the repose of our united souls win fame, our equal faithfulness in love “(Saxo Grammaticus)
Sadly, however, not everyone practiced “faithfulness in love” The basic requirement of a Norse man was to produce children with his wife. He was not, however, obliged to be faithful. Norse men could keep concubines known as frilles– lower status women who they did not marry and who lived with the man and his wife. According to Adam of Breman, a man could keep as many frilles as he could afford. Society regarded any children from these liaisons as legitimate.
Norse men also kept bed slaves. These unfortunate women had little choice in whether or not they lay with their master. Nor was it a great advantage to be the master’s favorite. Ibn Fadlan described witnessing a Viking funeral where the favored bed slave of the deceased man was killed to accompany him to the afterlife. However, the one taboo liaison for a Norseman was to lie with another man’s wife. For this, he could be fined or killed.
Wives, however, were expected to remain faithful, probably because of the possibility of falling pregnant with a child that was not her husband’s. It’s unlikely that every wife did remain constant. However, if anyone caught a woman being unfaithful, the penalties varied. At best, her hair would be cut off. At worst, she could be divorced or fined- or killed. Adam of Breman even states that she could be enslaved.
Viking women may have had to put up with their spouse’s affairs. However, they didn’t have to put up with their husbands ‘until death‘. Although a Norse wife could not divorce her husband for being unfaithful, there were other circumstances where it was perfectly acceptable. If her husband hit her, a woman could fine him. If he abused her in front of witnesses, not only did the fine apply, but his wife could divorce him after the third blow.
There were also various sexual reasons why a wife could divorce a husband. Men who dressed in feminine clothing such as low-cut shirts, for instance, could be cast off, as could those who were homosexual- even if they were the dominant partner. A wife could object to the lack of discretion in homosexual liaisons – or the attention they distracted from her relationship with her spouse. In each case, the now ex-wife could claim back her original dowry and any inheritances she received during the marriage.
Another, perhaps surprising reason for divorce was if a man did not satisfy his wife sexually. A man who had refused to have sex with his wife for three years could be set aside. Likewise, if he could not perform or was leaving his wife sexually unfulfilled, he was at risk of being divorced. For if a couple wasn’t having sex, they weren’t producing children. Also, an unhappy marriage bred bitterness and resentment that could boil over into violence and family feuds. So it was better for a sexually unsatisfied woman to look elsewhere for a partner.
Judging by the sagas, it was the women who generally instigated divorce. All that was required was for them to assemble witnesses, cite their reasons and declare themselves divorced. This had to occur three times: in their bedroom, in front of the house and before a public assembly. It was Norse women’s one significant freedom. For if they were to remain tied to one man, run his home and land and put up with his lovers, the least they could expect was satisfying sex life.