hi! I'm a follower of the asatro and I identify as genderqueer. I wondered if you know anything about a third gender/transgender/intersex in old norse/asatro/norse paganism or the like? I'm desperately trying to find something I can relate to and thought I'd ask you. thanks!
Velkomin(n), vinur minn,
(Welcome, my friend,)
There are several examples in Norse mythology in which gender boundaries are disregarded; the gods were often quite fluid about their genders, both literally and ‘socially’ (assuming the gods had their own social norms to live by). It all depended on the situation, really. Loki is arguably the most famous for this. In fact, Odin’s steed, Sleipnir, was Loki’s child — but he wasn’t the father, he was the mother. To summarize that story briefly (before directly quoting the relevant part), there was a builder from Giantland who came, and Loki made a deal with him that the gods did not like. To make things right, he had to make the builder forfeit the payment for succeeding in his task. And so it goes:
“And the same evening, when the builder drove out for stone with his stallion Svadilfæri, there ran out of a certain wood a mare up to the stallion and neighed at it (such a flirt). And when the stallion realized what kind of horse it was, it went frantic and tore apart the tackle and ran towards the mare, and she went away to the wood and the builder after them, trying to catch the stallion, and these horses ran around all night and the building work was held up for that night. […] But Loki had had such dealings with Svadilfæri (Snorri is being polite — they had sex) that somewhat later he (Loki) gave birth to a foal. It was grey and had eight legs, and this is the best horse among gods and men.”(1)
Yet, it is not just Loki who disregards gender boundaries. Odin himself disregards them, but more so in the sense of socially constructed gender expectations (at least from my knowledge and experience). There is a form of magic known as seiðr, but it was regarded as a feminine practice. So much so that any man practicing it was charged with ergi (another similar term is argr), which was usually considered a very serious insult (for a man). More on that another time, perhaps (this post has already gotten very long, so a separate ask about the attitudes of ‘actual’ society may be more wise than cramming it all here). Even in the realm of the gods, though, this term still weighed against men who took part in feminine activities. Odin, regarded as a male figure, was no exception to this. This is mentioned in Ynglinga saga, from Heimskringla:
“Óðinn knew, and practised himself, the art which is accompanied by greatest power, called seiðr, and from it he could predict the fates of men and things that had not yet happened, and also cause men death or disaster or disease, and also take wit or strength from some and give it to others. But this magic, when it is practised, is accompanied by such great perversion that it was not considered without shame for a man to perform it, and the skill was taught to the goddesses.”(2)
I actually stumbled upon an article about Valkyries and Shield-maidens as a third gender while looking for resources to answer your question with. Here are a few excerpts from it, though please do bear with me, for I am going to include quite a bit of direct quotes (I think that you, and others, will find them to be very fascinating). Besides, I cannot be sure how many of you have access to these academic articles, let alone have the resources to locate them, so I want to make sure I can give you all a good taste of the work:
“Most scholarship on valkyries and shield-maidens categorizes them as women, as kinds of warrior women who are connected to other, rare warrior women, such as the maiden king (meykongr) and to other women who, in exceptional circumstances, take up arms to fight (Andersson 1980; Damico 1984; Jesch  2010; Larrington 1992b; Præstergaard Andersen 2002; Quinn 2006, 2007). These discussions of valkyries and shield-maidens tend to insert them into a binary of masculine and feminine, wherein they sit somewhat uneasily in the feminine category. Yet, as other scholarship on Old Norse gender and sex has shown, the situation for all persons, not just valkyries, is much more complicated. The boundaries between masculine and feminine are not always rigid, at least insofar as women can take on masculine characteristics and receive approval, even if that approval was limited. Valkyries and shield-maidens, like the strong women of the sagas, are met with admiration, though not as paragons of femininity. As this article argues, these figures are best understood as a third gender—a hybrid of masculine and feminine characteristics that were dominant during the time period explored.”(3)
“In eddic poetry, shield-maidens are similarly denizens of battle. Whereas valkyries seem divine or, at the very least, semi-divine, the shield-maidens are human and have human parents and human lineages. However, they also have supernatural abilities, such as being able to ride over the sea and through the air. These beings take a special interest in human men—the heroes of the narrative—for whom, like the valkyries, they intercede in battle, but only to protect their heroes and aid them. Shield-maidens engage in sexual relationships with their heroes and most marry them; after that, they cease to be shield-maidens and become only feminine. The description here derives from the scant information available in the sources; there are not many examples of shield-maidens in the literature. One example is Sváva, who, like the other shield-maidens of the heroic poems of the Edda, is armored and carries weapons. Her helmet dominates the description of her as she rides among an accompanying troop of shield-maidens: “a white maiden under a helmet” (Helgakviða Hjǫrvarðssonar [hereafter HHv], stanza 28, in Neckel 1983). Another example is Sigrún, a major character in two Helgi poems. Also described as helmeted, she and her band carry spears and wear blood-spattered byrnies, which are a sort of mail coat (Helgakviða Hundingsbana [hereafter HH] 1, stanza 15, in Neckel 1983). Valkyries and shield-maidens are similar in that both wear armor and carry weapons, act in battle to determine the fate of men, and are unmarried women. Shield- maidens are different in that they marry human men, which results in a change of status.”(4)
Valkyries and Shield-maidens as feminine:
“Aside from this linguistic categorization as female, valkyries and shield- maidens have a number of other attributes that are part of medieval Icelandic culture’s hegemonic constructions of femininity. Perhaps one of the most ‘traditional’ feminine activities of the valkyrie is her work in Valhǫll, serving men drinks. At the same time that Snorri describes the valkyries’ functions in battle, he writes that they “serve drink and look after the tableware and drinking vessels” (30). An example of this work is found in Snorra Edda, in which the goddess Freyja is the only one who dares to bring a drink to the giant Hrungnir, whom no other is brave enough to serve (Edda: Skáldskaparmál, in Faulkes 1998, 20). Human women similarly serve drinks to the men in the hall. As the keeper of food-stores and the manager of the household, women of the highest rank in Iceland were closely associated with food and its distribution. By serving men, they enacted that association and their subordinate position to the men they served. By depicting valkyries in this feminine role, the texts are able to have their cake and eat it too—the warrior woman is domesticated in Odin’s ‘beer-hall.’”(5)
Valkyries and Shield-maidens as masculine:
“At the same time, valkyries and shield-maidens embody masculinity: they wear men’s clothing and act in ways understood by medieval Icelandic culture to be masculine. It is significant that they clothe themselves as men not simply by wearing “the pants,” but by putting on the garb and carrying the tools that mark the most admired sort of man—the warrior. The helmets and other armor together are common elements in their appearance and important aspects of the valkyrie’s masculinity. Sigrún and her troop’s blood-spattered byrnies (noted above) are quite striking. The byrnie (or brynie) also figures importantly in the story of Brynhild, who was the most famous of all of these warrior women. The word itself is one part of her compound name: Brynie-hild (brynie-battle).
This armor-wearing valkyrie is not simply named for armor, but her armor becomes part of her. […] In sum, the removal of the byrnie is the removal of one of the valkyrie’s most important masculine attributes. In the version in Vǫlsunga saga, the removal of the mail coat marks the end of her time in the third gender. As that story progresses, and a different version of the same narrative in Snorra Edda, Brynhild soon ceases to be a valkyrie and enters the feminine gender.”(6)
And a bit of her conclusion:
“The myths and legendary sagas of medieval Iceland that are retold and recorded offer up both the possibility of the third gender, in the form of the unmarried valkyrie, and the stories of the effects of marriage on members of that gender. In the stories of Brynhild, Sváva, and Sigrún, one gets a sense of the life of any married woman of the time, though, more accurately, their stories most closely represent the life of a woman with few family members or other relationships. These myths and sagas have also provided a reservoir of depictions that have fed later cultural products up to the present day. With the exception of Wagner’s Brünnhilde—the unmarried warrior woman—the valkyries of the third gender are most influential. Though often altered through the modern retellings of Norse myth, the contemporary valkyrie is still recognizable as such.”(7)
Was this how contemporary society (Norse society) understood the valkyries and shield-maidens? Perhaps not. We must take care to not impose our hopes and experiences onto the past. Yet, it seems likely that they at least understood such concepts — at least that of homosexuality and the difficulty for humans to remain in their socially constructed gender-box for behavior. Such people have always existed; it is not some modern invention nor a fashionable modern trend. The Norse did have terms that denoted a failure to comply with their gender’s expectations, after all, such as ergi and argr.
Now, there is far more than that to explore in mythology, but I do believe that I have shared enough examples to show you that there are most definitely things that you can relate to. I would also like to recommend a few other knowledgable people who could help guide you even further on your quest (for I am far from an expert on these matters). You may already know of them, but here are my suggestions (of which there are plenty of others, by the way): @edderkopper (as well as @lokeanwelcomingcommittee), @answersfromvanaheim, @hyacinth-halcyon, and even @theasatrucommunity or the many who are listed with @valkyriesquad. Again, there are many others who can lend a hand and share information with you. They will likely stumble upon this post (or so I can hope), so be on the look out for any helpful reblogs and replies.
Regardless, there is much more that I could still ramble on about, but this post is already long enough (perhaps too long for some to bother reading). I had a lot that I wanted to say about ergi/argr, and the attitudes of gender-bending in Old Norse society (law codes, family sagas, etc. — non-mythological sources), but that would be best for a separate ask (because it would also be a fairly long post — could you imagine the length of this post with both of those discussions?! My oh my). If you would like to hear more about that (or if anyone else reading this would like to), please send me an ask about it, and I will happily respond. It may take me a bit to get around to answering it (I still have 11 other questions to answer), but I never refuse a guest to my hall, especially when they seek knowledge!
I hope my words have helped, friend.
Með vinsemd og virðingu,
(With friendliness and respect,)
1. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (repr., 1987; London: Everyman, 1995), 36. [Online Edition (Free)]
2. Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga saga, from Heimskringla, Volume I: the Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason (Second Edition), translated by Alison Finaly and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research — University College London, 2016), 11.
3. Kathleen M. Self, “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender,” Feminist Formations, Volume 26, Issue 1, Spring 2014, 144.
4. Ibid., 148.
5. Ibid., 150.
6. Ibid., 152.
7. Ibid., 167.
NOTE: Here is a read you may be interested in. It is about homosexuality in the Viking Age, but it still has some relatable elements. The source seems credible enough, so I do recommend it if you are interested: Gunnora Hallakarva:
The Vikings and Homosexuality.