This is an edited version of the paper I gave at the Midlands Viking Symposium on 27th April 2019. The Midlands Viking Symposium is a regional public engagement event that was started by Dr Christina Lee in 2005 to showcase the latest research into the Vikings.
I have removed direct references to the website I used as a case study from my paper, because I do not wish to raise its profile. I have also removed some of the more extreme examples used to illustrate my points, although the examples I cited are not the worst of the discourse found on this and related sites.
What does it mean to be a man in the Viking Age? I addressed this issue in a previous lecture as part of our series of public engagement lectures for the Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands project. Sadly, the recording gear was not working that day, although you can watch other lectures in the series on our East Midlands Vikings website. That lecture focused on the gnomic wisdom of Hávamál (the Sayings of the High One) to show that the ideal man in Viking Age Scandinavia was not the hairy, individualistic barbarian of popular culture, but that moderation and self-control as well as courage and a sense of civic spirit were idealised traits. These verses from Hávamál illustrate that point well and steer us away from the more usual excessive focus on reputation.
Whether people truly lived up to these ideals is a different question for another day. This post contrasts what we can learn from Old Norse literature about male archetypes with a particularly egregious example of modern use of the Vikings that supports unhealthy stereotypes about what it means to be a man.
The website I used for my case study offers training courses in being a ‘real’ man, with the opportunity to rise through the ranks and become a berserkr or ulfheðinn. Implicit in the training schedule is the idea that the organisation functions as a private military contractor and that reaching the top grade means you are now qualified as a special forces mercenary. It has been suggested that the services offered are a scam, and the site goes to great lengths to refute this accusation. However, it is the rhetoric surrounding the site that is striking, and also the discussion and rhetoric of those who are attracted to it. The focus is on the warrior elite of the Viking Age and specifically the Jomsvikings, on promoting militaristic ideals as the perfect version of masculinity. It’s very much a narrative about how men are alpha-type hunters and warriors. All this sits alongside extreme misogyny and a disdain for men who do not conform to their macho stereotype that relegates those outside their group to non-person status. So, how do the ideals of the site match up with Norse or Viking ideals as depicted in Old Norse literature? After all they claim that their praxis is rooted in genuine pre-Christian Viking ideology and practice, so it should be simple to cross match the two.
The site is broadly representative of a much louder current in popular consumption of the Vikings as becomes evident when we consider its approach to the Birka articles of recent years. When Hedenstierna-Jonson and Price first released their article about Birka Bj581, the internet exploded like a flaming dumpster fire of commentary that included many treatises on why women could never be warriors. I do not intend to discuss the rights and wrongs of Birka Bj581 because others have done that elsewhere, but I do want to briefly mention the commentary here. Sites like this picked up on it and produced essays declaring that a woman’s place was in the home not on the battlefield, using a mix of the academic discussion and spurious argument to make their case. What is evident in the violence of this response is that the presence of a potential female warrior was seen as a threat to their own masculine identity. The essay on the site about it uses ‘revisionist’ as a four-letter word throughout, decrying this research as yet another manifestation of the domination of women and the Marxist emasculation of men in modern society.
The fact that the site claims identification with the Jomsvikings is telling too. It indicates a desire to withdraw into a homosocial community where no women are allowed. The Jomsvikings of legend, for there is no certainty that they existed, were a warrior brotherhood whose base is supposed to have been at Wolin in Poland. Their rules permitted no women. These were manly men doing manly things. Perhaps, then, those most interested in this type of Viking masculinity aspire to live and die like Atli in Grettis saga, not screaming about going to Valhalla as many do in the movies, but rather with a grim jest on their lips.
Like Atli, the Jomsvikings faced death with equanimity, some making jests or statements that underscored their courage. Jómsvikinga saga tells us that they trained for war and were prepared to die. It is not surprising that such groups are popular with sites like this. The site sets its own people up as the true descendants of the Vikings and defines its members in opposition to modern ideals, claiming that proper manliness has been forgotten and that it was only ever owned by white people from the north. However, the Jomsvikings are an anomaly in Old Norse literature and there is no certainty that they actually existed. Jómsvikinga saga describes them as living on the edge of society and separated from it. As such, they were not typical of Scandinavian society in the Viking Age, and they were not even typical of Scandinavian men.
One of the things I love about Old Norse literature is that it presents us with a broad and recognisable range of real personalities that go beyond the heroic model and many can be masculine in different ways. This is not to say that the archetypes most admired by sites like this do not exist. Beyond the Jomsvikings, we need only look to Grettir Ásmundarsson for an example of the type of man that they seem to admire most. Grettir’s arrogant masculinity may well be deemed toxic because it leads to him being outlawed and ultimately to his death. He refuses to compromise, is willing to kill as a first resort and rapes a serving woman. By all accounts, he is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work who does try to do some good, as when he kills a troop of berserkir, but in the end he dies because he does not understand, or is not willing to adhere to, the social contract.
In contrast, here are two more positive examples. Njáll Þorgeirsson from Njáls saga was a cerebral man renowned for his wisdom and was supposed to be kindly and non-violent. He is not the warrior archetype that the site says is the only valid Viking masculinity, and yet he was greatly respected according to the account of his saga. Also in Njáls saga, we meet Gunnar Hámundarson, who was renowned for being good in a fight and was a great friend of Njál’s. Gunnar is described as intelligent and mild. Despite their wives feuding, the two men sought compromise at every turn to prevent bloodshed. Gunnar even wonders if he is less manly than other men, despite his courage being evident at every turn, thus demonstrating a more thoughtful side to his character.
In many respects, Gunnar is the antithesis of Grettir. He understands the social contract that is necessary to keep the peace and is willing to work to maintain that peace. His is a character that is praised and thus we may look to him and those like him as archetypes of accepted masculinity in Old Norse literature.
In conclusion, the website privileges the warrior elite over others, creating a small band of like-minded brothers following a very narrow definition of masculinity that is rooted solely in the physical attributes of the aggressive male. It situates those who adhere to its strictures outside mainstream society. Like the Jomsvikings, they seek to occupy a liminal space and define themselves in opposition to and outside society. Their interpretation reduces to servants, to slaves, or to irrelevancy the majority of people in Viking Age Scandinavia who tended the land and livestock, made clothes, cooked food, managed farms and created the resources needed to survive. In this, the website has much company in popular culture, not least in depictions of the Vikings in movies or in House Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. Their house motto ‘We do not sow’ shows that they are rooted in an ideology of theft rather than one of constructive activity. These are simplistic, modern conceptions of what it means to be a man in the Viking Age. They demonstrate the modern privileging of the individual over society and the modern infatuation with the outlaw, bad boy. The strong individual who can stand and win against society does not exist in Old Norse literature. Even Grettir, despite being phenomenally strong, did not survive his outlawry. Where people survive their troubles, it is generally because they bend before the wind rather than standing against it, although even that is no guarantee of survival. Masculinity in Old Norse literature is complex and people are shown to have many different traits from cerebral to physical, from stupid to sly.
What Old Norse literature shows us is that these modern takes on Viking masculinity are wholly wrong. This was not an age for heroic individuals standing alone. Instead, the will and identity of the individual were subjugated to the needs of the family in the first instance and society more widely in the second. To be a real man in the Viking Age, as depicted in Old Norse literature, was to fulfil the social contract, to take one’s place in society and to perform that role as expected. Conformity and cooperation were needed to ensure peace and survival. Willingness to compromise was part of that. Those that deviated from this norm found themselves outside society without the help that they needed to survive, at which point the only question that remained was how long it would be before they died, because aggression and courage were not enough of themselves.