The Northern Barbarians
Roman relief from about 180 AD showing battle between Roman and German warriors.
“…who would leave Asia, Africa or Italy to visit Germany, with its unlovely scenery, its bitter climate, its general dreariness to sense and eye, unless it were his home?”
Tacitus, Germania, 2
Let us look back almost two thousand years. It is around the year 80 AD. The Roman Empire stretches from Persia in the East to the British Isles in the West. Roman troops are on perpetual patrol around the borders of the civilized world, frequently interacting with the barbarian tribes of the forest-clad Northern Europe. Romans know these tribes by one name – “the Germans”.
For many centuries, the Germans were nothing but hearsay to the Romans. Up until the age of Caesar, a century or so before, Celtic people had constituted the image of barbarian tribes harassing the Northwestern borders of Empire. As Gaul and Britain were finally conquered, the Empire grew and the borders were pushed further to the North, and a new group of barbarians appeared, even more primitive to Roman eyes than the Celts.
According to their own legends, many German tribes regarded Scandinavia the birthplace of their people. It is impossible to prove if this is correct, but if it is so, several waves of Scandinavian emigrants moved across the ocean and into the continent during some five centuries BC and settled Northeastern Europe, wherever they could squeeze in among tribes of Slavs and Celts, slowly moving westwards. It was perhaps during this first period of migrations that the tribes developed the extremely warlike cultures they were to become famous for, possibly because the said Slavs and Celts – as well as other German tribes – didn’t care to share territories with whole tribes of immigrants.
These were the Iron Ages, and for almost a millennia, the peoples of Northern Europe, whether they be Slavs, Celts or Germans, knew of frequent migration, upheavals, and warfare. War became a way of life, and the religion reflected a need to come to terms with frequent death, terror and violence. By the time that Romans became acquainted with Celts and Germans, these barbarians had made a religious ritual out of battle itself. They fought not to conquer, but to display their – often individual – courage and strength before the gods, and before their women, who attended the battlefield as onlookers, cheering on their men. They rarely took prisoners, but rather let their priestesses sacrifice those enemy warriors that were captured, as a way of honoring their enemies, since being sacrificed led to favor with the gods. It would seem that they did not even fight for riches, because the spoils of war were often sacrificed to their goddesses. Archaeology has shown that incredible riches just went straight into the bogs, sacred to their Great Goddess. To these people, war was a spectacle for the gods.
One may wonder how warriors could find it in them to bring women and children to a battlefield. There are several possible reasons for this. Women were considered magical and crafty by nature, connected to the sphere of the fates, and were expected to protect and guide their men with spells. Impressing women was also a very important matter to the men – the literature shows that women´s praise of a man´s courage was a central concern of theirs. Women would show their praise in painting and tapestries. If they did not attend the battlefield, they would not really be able to tell how gloriously their menfolk fought and died, would they? Women of this time were also usually expert doctors who would attend the wounded afterwards, another good reason to keep them around.
A third reason could be that bringing women to watch a battle among the Germans and the Celts was usually quite safe for the women. There existed among these people a strict code of honor never to harm a woman physically. Numerous sources of the Viking Age, at least, suggest that a man would lose his honor if he used violence against those who were considered blautr – that is, “soft”. Women were by definition “soft” and thus not to be harmed. Not that women were in reality always that soft. We have several literary Viking Age examples of female warriors, but all of these examples strongly suggest that even if a woman could fight, and even kill and injure men, the men who fought them tried hard to just parry their blows. It is remarkable how all the fighting women come out of the battle unscathed while their male companions are killed or injured. In a time when boys were taught to be warriors from the moment they could stand on two feet, it would hardly be because the women were better warriors. Their male opponents must have been expected, at least ideally (and thus in the literature), to not harm the woman even if she tried to harm him.
All this battling aside, this intense and long-term interaction between peoples was not always ridden by aggression. Trade, intermarriage, other peaceful interactions as well as military alliances between tribes meant that a great degree of cultural exchange took place, and although it is difficult to say exactly where a particular cultural or religious streak originates, it is generally thought that Celtic religious traditions wielded great influence on the Germanic ones.
Witches and Warriors – Gender Roles among the Germanic Peoples
“…they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and prophecy, and so they do not scorn to ask their advice or lightly disregard their replies. In the reign of the deified Vespasian we saw Veleda long honoured by many Germans as a divinity, whilst even earlier they showed a similar reverence for Aurinia and others…”
Tacitus, Germania, 8
“Not chance or the accident of mustering makes the troop or wedge, but family and friendship, and this is a very powerful incitement to valour. A man’s dearest possessions are at hand; he can hear close to him the laments of his women and the wailing of his children. These are the witnesses that a man reverences most, to them he looks for his highest praise. The men take their wounds to their mothers and wives, and the latter are not afraid of counting and examining the blows, and bring food and encouragement to the fighting men.”
Tacitus, Germania, 7
The German tribes, as well as the people of the Viking Age, seem to have known quite strict gender roles and were for the most part patriarchal. Historical patriarchy does not necessarily mean that women were oppressed, it only means that certain modes of behavior were expected for both sexes and that the head of a clan, who represented the large family, was usually a male, and that possession and status was inherited primarily from the father. There are some indications that this was not always the case with all tribes and that there were memories of matriarchal structures. I personally consider the legend of Gudrun in the Poetic Edda as an echo of the transition phase between matriarchy and patriarchy among a German tribe, the Burgunds. However, patriarchy was the general rule in historical times. Archaeology has shown, however, that the prehistoric Megalithic culture that preceded the later Bronze Age one in Scandinavia, was matrilocal and thus may have also been more matriarchal. The large, communal burials of this time show not only a large degree of equality between all people (no one was given more or less attention in death), but also that the female skeletons were all related to each others while male skeletons had come in from outside. This means that the husband was the one that moved into his wife´s family, where she would have the support of her clan.
When we use the word patriarchy today, we generally associate it with the oppression and devaluing of women. However, there is very little evidence that women were less valued and less powerful than men to any considerable degree. In many societies, gender division only means that men and women have different areas of expertise and power. Among the ancient pagan Scandinavians and Germans, free men were primarily warriors, although they would also be traders, craftsmen, bards, priests, sailors, fishermen, hunters and farmers at the same time. Free men gathered around one powerful chief to whom they swore allegiance, chiefs gathered around little kings and so forth. Heads of households and clans would come together in assemblies in which they decided on laws and other settlements. The heads of households were expected to represent his people, men and women, at the Assembly, and legal cases could be brought up to him by any free man or woman in his jurisdiction. It is important to note that not all men were patriarchs and that the status of one´s clan was more important to the hierarchy than gender. Obviously, a male slave had to obey a free woman, and sons were expected to obey their mothers.
The head of household, that is, the patriarch, did not have total authority over his wife and children, as numerous sources show. Wives could own property of their own and take out divorce if they so wished. Sagas show that women would not accept punishment from their husbands. She would regard physical violence as a great dishonor that had to be avenged. A man who beat his wife could expect violent, even deadly, retaliation from her clan, who saw the respect paid to their kinswoman as equal to the respect paid to the whole clan. Any individual, regardless of gender, was first and foremost a representative for the clan they were born into, even after marriage, which was considered a truce between two clans.
The woman who was married to a patriarch could easily be called a matriarch at his side, because she had total authority when it came to the practical and economical aspect of running a property – an authority symbolized in the dangling set of keys in her belt. She, not her husband, chose which doors to open and how to run the veritable business that was an Iron Age property. The man´s wealth was very much in the hands of his wife. She would be seated right next to her husband in the high seat of their property, a strong symbol of equality, and she would be addressed and referred to as the “house-Freya”, the Lady of the House, after the great Goddess herself.
Sexually, very little importance was placed in chastity and virginity. Married women were expected to stay faithful to their husbands, not because of morals but because of the practical results of patriarchy – a man needed to know who his children were, since they would inherit him. Unmarried girls, widows and divorcees could do pretty much whatever they liked, and there was no dishonor to a woman who had children outside of marriage, although it would be more practical to identify a willing father. If she could boast that the child was the result of an affair with a powerful male, she would actually gain status, and if she claimed her son was the illicit child of a king, that son could through proving his worth assume the role of prince. The sagas show that visitors to a household could expect nightly “sports” with one of the girls of a household, and also make it very clear that it was the girl who chose and who approached the man. .
All women were expected to be professional surgeons, pharmacists and nurses. While boys were taught to fight, girls were taught to know their herbal lore and how to patch up the wounded. Women were also expected to have some knowledge of magic. Magic was associated with female arts such as spinning, weaving and churning butter – all arts that require intense focus and endless repetition. Apart from the obvious, that these activities transformed things and thus in themselves had a creative, magical power, I believe that modern science fails to realize the actual hypnotic and meditative effect of repetitive movement and intense focus. Accompanied by chanting these activities could easily create a state of altered consciousness, inducing visions and prophecies. No matter what modern people think about magic, the women themselves may very well have perceived that magic was taking place.
Women were thought to be close to the realms of the fates and have the power to alter destiny through spells. Their counsel was important to men, and the strongest compliment a woman could receive was to be “wise” and “cunning”, true feminine virtues. High-born women were also expected to know their rune lore, and the Poetic Edda have examples on how the wives actually get the task of interpreting rune codes. Like the male head of household, the house-Freya needed to know how to lead rituals of the traditional homebound cult.
All women were expected to be versed in magic, but some women more so than others. All the Germanic tribes, as well as the Vikings, nurtured groups of wise women, witches or priestesses who lived unmarried (though not necessarily in celibacy) and who could travel alone wherever they liked without fear. A woman who carried the wand of the witch would never be harmed. They were allied with the fate goddesses and thus wielded the greatest of powers. In the Viking Age Norse context, these women were called the völur, singular völva. The literal translation of this title is “Wand-Wed” or “Staff-Carrier”. In this book I will often refer to them as just “witches”, since that is in my opinion the best description. This was a time and age when witches were honored and revered and sought as wise women, healers, prophets, oracles, shamans and priestesses. Sagas show that if a witch came to visit, the lord and lady of the house would give up the high seat to her, a very powerful way of indicating that the witch had higher authority. The sources also make a point out of how the witch can talk or not talk to anybody at whim, regardless of their status – which means that she was outside and above the normal hierarchy of society. The primeval witch was the goddess Freya, who introduced the art of seidr [fate-magic, shamanism] and the art of conquering death to men and women, and in the first instance even to the gods.
I choose not to refer to the völva as “priestess” because that gives a different association, even if she sometimes leads ritual like a priestess. Priestesses in the old Norse settings were called blótgydiur [sacrificial priestesses] or hóvgydiur [temple priestesses]. In the cult of Freyr, a high priestess would live as a wife to the god. These women were not traveling witches but usually homebound practitioners, often of high status within the clan.
Magic and ritual was primarily the realm of women, but there were male practitioners too. Men could also be priests and lead rituals and sacrifice, and there were several rituals in connection to the male domain of warriors. Men who practiced magic and sorcery, however, were considered a bit unusual. It seems that men who were not “manly” enough for their time could resort to witchcraft, which required a certain “unmanliness”. One of the titles of a male practitioner of seidr is seidberendr, which means “magical womb”. This gender ambiguity in connection with magic could also be present in female practitioners. Burials show that men and women who were buried with magical gear, often were buried with objects that usually belonged to the opposite sex. The wand of the witch was called völ, which actually refers to a stallion´s penis. That she wields this wand as a sign of authority points to gender ambiguity. In this way, people who did not fit into the usual hetero normative gender roles could in the realms of ritual and magic find an accepted avenue within the otherwise rather gender divided society. To possess the qualities of both genders could be seen as magical in itself and a sign of power. The god Óðinn and the Edda character Loki both possess such gender bending qualities – always in connection to magic.
When the sagas were written down during the 13th century AD, Christian medieval scholars may have found themselves somewhat embarrassed by this less “manly” aspect of their ancestral heritage. This embarrassment may have begun even during the late Viking Age, as the sagas point to some persecution of male practitioners on the grounds of them being ergi – shameful. The number of male practitioners and the fact that the highest god himself was one of them testifies, in my opinion, to a more accepting and respectful pagan attitude to ritual gender ambiguity.