Uncovering Scandinavia’s LGBT Viking history at Stockholm Pride

Uncovering Scandinavia's LGBT Viking history at Stockholm Pride
LGBT people have existed in all societies, including the Vikings. Photo: Pixabay/Pexels
As Stockholm Pride kicks off this week, you might be wondering whether Sweden's status as a centre for gay culture is a recent phenomenon. Alex Volk, a Stockholm tour guide and researcher, is showing that this is far from the case, with a tour that highlights LGBT history dating back to the Viking Age.

The Local caught up with Alex to learn more about this side of Sweden’s past.

Were there really LGBT Vikings?

Yes. Most definitely. There is quite a bit of published research and historical evidence. And it has been repeatedly proven that there have always been LGBT people in all societies throughout history.

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Where do researchers find this evidence?

One important source are Viking laws such as Grey Goose Laws Grágás in Iceland, Gulating Law in Norway and Western Gothic Law in Sweden. There was a term called ergi which denoted perversity, cowardice, effeminacy and being penetrated sexually by another man, something that was taboo.

The most serious offence in Viking law was accusing someone of being penetrated anally. This required a duel to defend one’s character called holmgång. The loser got the harshest punishment (worse than murder) of being declared an outlaw, fredlös, and banishment.

The Vikings also had very poetic and creative ways of insulting each other in poems and in different mediums. At one point, a Viking chief outlawed all poetry to prevent the resulting duels.

Alex Volk poses with the Jarlabanka Stone in Täby on the outskirts of Stockholm. Photo: Private

Were there specific LGBT people we know of historically?

There are references in the Icelandic Sagas to seiðmen who were magicians and “gay”. Magic was a female characteristic and taboo for men. Tacitus, the historian, refers to something similar with dancing effeminate men in Germanic tribes.

And what about women?

Shield Maidens were women who lived as warriors. There is some quite sexist debate about these women, but graves have been found, and recently, in England a mass grave was discovered with Viking warriors and a significant portion were women with battle injuries and weapons. There is a strong possibility these women wanted to live as men, were what we might call transgender or maybe lesbian. Unfortunately, the historical evidence from this period is almost exclusively about men and the upper classes.

Old Norse mythology has several stories involving gender-bending for gods like Thor, Loke and Oden. Oden was particularly kinky. This can be compared to Zeus in Greek Mythology, who was truly bisexual, pursuing sex with both young men and women.

What about myths and historical evidence of same-sex relations?

This is where we run into a problem with the lack of written accounts of events from the Vikings.

Some Icelandic Sagas are historical accounts, and then we have the rune inscriptions in stone, wood, bone and metal. These inscriptions are usually relatively short and memorial stones for almost exclusively dead men, pieces of wood and bone are sometimes gripes about daily life or events and on medallions called bracteate which seem to be magic incantations.

What sparked your interest in this subject?

I started researching LGBT History in Sweden to offer tours on the subject. This part of history has often been neglected, especially when it comes to tourism. In Sweden, equal rights for sexual minorities is a cornerstone of our society. I lived in the US when my civil rights were taken away through a referendum in Colorado.

My colleague Veerle Schrovens was doing the tours with me, and she pointed out that as ambassadors for the City of Stockholm, it is incumbent upon us as tour guides to represent the whole of Swedish history and society. This was a wake-up call and I realised that I often have shied away from talking about any LGBT History during “regular” tours.

I know many other guides who point out that we have equal rights and mention things like Stockholm’s former lesbian bishop.

Now I try to cover a bit of everything to represent the entirety of Swedish society and history. The Viking Museum invited me to be a guest guide during Stockholm Pride in 2018.

What has been the public reaction to your tours?

Well, first of all, I have found it very rewarding doing these tours. LGBT guests are delighted and gratified to hear their history represented. And many straight people find it fascinating.

The Viking tour is also quite relevant to straight guests since we examine in the tour the expectations in society about masculinity and femininity. Many straight men don’t realise how trapped they are in gender roles and expectations, especially when it comes to their “feminine side”. I have encountered some resistance or glares from onlookers a couple of times, especially when it comes to touchy subjects such as the gay kings in Sweden.

What other kinds of research do you do on LGBT history?

I just finished a paper in Onomastics, the study of names, about the nicknames the Stockholm constabulary used in the late 1800s for homosexuality, specifically in a police action in Berzelii Park in 1883.

Volk, a qualified Stockholm tour guide, will be holding the Norse Nancyboys and Macho Vikings tour at The Viking Museum this week during Stockholm Pride on August 5th and 6th, between 11am and 1pm. 


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