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 âtravelling 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.