Bums in Brigantia: Sacred Gender-Variance in Ancient Germanic & Celtic Cultures
by Phil Hine
The relationship between gender-variance, homeroticism, magic and mystery traditions has been, until fairly recently, a taboo subject for both occultists and academics alike. Over the last decade or so, interest in both the Northern and Celtic traditions has grown apace, and the latter, in particular, has been romanticised to the point where some people are somewhat dismayed if you point out that the Celts kept slaves, ate meat, and indulged in head-hunting. Admittedly, it was my revulsion to this kind of romanticism which first spurred me into investigating some of the aspects of Celtic culture which had been omitted by the revisionists. Another impulse for writing this article is as a counter to what James Martin referred to in Chaos International No.16 as "the dispossession of gay and bisexual archetypes." This is not merely (as some might imagine) an exercise in selectively sweeping through history in search of justification for a modern phenomena, but a desire to demonstrate that gender-variant roles are as much a part of pagan cultural heritage as anything else.
THE GERMANIC PEOPLES
- Call me varg
- and I'll be arg
- call me golden
- and I'll be beholden.
(Wolf-charm, transl. by M.R Gerstein)
The suggestion that gender-variant rites and roles played any part in the Northern Tradition is tantamount to heresy amongst some modern exponents of this current, yet much evidence can be found, if one merely lifts the blinkers of Christian influence.
It is generally considered that expression of same-sex relationships was frowned upon amongst the Germanic peoples. Surface evidence for this comes via Tacitus, the ambiguity of Loki, and the incident between Sinfjotli and his foe Gundmundr in the Eddas when the former accuses the latter, of being a 'puff.'
The most 'obvious' figure of gender-variant magic and mystery is that of Loki.
The complex figure of Loki encapsulates both animal transformation & gender variance. In the Lokasenna tale, Odinn verbally abuses Loki for allowing himself to be impregnated, calling him argr - a crude form of abuse inferring that one takes the passive role in intercourse with another man. The noun is ergi - and there is the suggestion that anyone repeatedly & willingly doing so is regarded differently from other males. However, the Germanic historian Folke Strom says that ergi refers to male practitioner of seidr - that it was both the passive role in sodomy & the receptive relationship to the gods was what caused a man to be looked upon, or identify himself as ergi. Morever, in the case of Loki, it is this 'impregnation' which has given birth to Sleipnir, Odinn's eight-legged steed. Loki is interesting in this respect, as the ambiguous relationship between male-oriented and female-oriented magics are most obvious in him. Loki often uses Freyja's feathered cloak to aid his schemes, and it may also be significant that it is only when Loki & Thor submit to feminization that they are able to conquer the giants. Certainly the motif of the bird-feather cloak is a recurring symbol for both shape-shifting and gender-variance in European traditions.
Odinn too, has a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the provenance of female-based magics. All of his major acts of power seem to depend from a Goddess. Odinn is said to have worn female clothes on Several occasions. One of his titles is 'Jalkr' 'Gelding' and Kveldulf Gundarsson (author of Teutonic Magic) suggests that this title relates to Odinn's initiation into the mysteries of Seidr Magic - with the implication that Odinn gave himself up to the female principle, becoming a gender-variant shaman. Indeed, in the Lokasenna cycle, Loki does respond to Odinn's flyting by drawing attention to Odinn's practice of seidr, the ways of which he was instructed by Freyja:
- But thou, say they, on Sām's Isle once wovest spells like a
- witch: in warlock's shape through the world didst fare:
- were these womanish ways, I ween.
There is more to the Lokasenna episode than is at first immediately apparent. Both Loki and Odinn are complex figures, and it should not be forgotten that they are blood-brothers.
From Saxo Grammaticus, a 12th Century Christian chronicler, comes the information that the god Freyr was served by gender-variant male priests who displayed feminized behaviour and employed bells, which were considered 'unmanly.' They apparently enacted a symbolic sacred marriage in order to "ensure the divine fruitfulness of the season." A ritual which took place every nine years, and consisted of the sacrifice of nine males of every species (including humans) to Freyr, who was worshipped as an erect phallus. The Priests of Freyr also performed shape shifting rites with boar masks.The ergi priests who practiced seidr also performed tasks usually associated with women, such as weaving and childrearing. The quality of their voices was was referred to as seid laeti, possibly indicating that some of them were castrati. Seidrmen were clearly differentiated from men who might occasionally indulge in same-sex relations & take the active role.The key theme here is that in surrendering themselves to passive intercourse, the ergi became a channel for the divine.
Some ergi men were thought to undergo gender transformation every ninth night, and go out hunting other men in the same manner that a werewolf might hunt victims. The ergi-werewolf link appears elswhere in Germanic, and other European traditions.
Ergi priests would perform shamanic journeys (often in the form of a falcon) in search of divinatory gnosis and their chief function was working magic. They were considered able to bestow fame and wealth or take them away, heal and curse, bring lovers together or drive them apart, raise storms and dull the swords of enemies. Perhaps their reputed power for good or ill, goes some way to explaining their rather ambiguous status in Germanic culture, particularly as Christian incursions began to paint sorcery and wonder-working in quite a different light entirely.
According to Tacitus, ergi males were drowned in mudholes and marshes - this has been popularly misinterpreted as the fate of anyone who was 'queer' in Germanic culture. Folke Strom however, points out that the male corpses found in peat bogs appear to have been hanged first. A theory suggested by P.V Glob suggests that the bog corpses are possibly sacrificial deposits, made by worshippers of an early Earth Mother. Glob gives the example of the 'Tollund Man' found with a skillfully plaited noose about his neck, which Glob says indicates to be a replicate of a twisted neck ring, an mark of honour of the goddess. There is no complete answer to this problem. Within the worship of Freyja, ergi priests appear to have been respected rather than considered criminals. Ergi males found in bogs may well have been considered fitting sacrifices to their goddess. However, ergi males were being drowned, burned and tortured by the 10th Century.A.D due to the incursion of Christianity. A practitioner of seidr, Eyvinder Kelda was drowned along with other seidrmen on the orders of King Olaf Tryggvason, a christian fanatic, in 998 CE.
During the persecution of seidrmen by the Christians, they became labelled as 'heathens'. This is an interesting choice of word, as 'heathen' is etymologically linked to Heidr or Heidi, one of the titles of Freya. Heidr is linked to Germanic word heide or 'heath'. According to Diana L. Paxon, the 'heath' is the wilderness outside the Garth, into which the seidr practitioners retired to work their magic. Gundarsson describes the utangards (wilderness) as "the realm of disorder, ...the uncanny and unknown." A wilderness populated by not only outlaws, but also ghosts, trolls and elves.
Margaret C. Ross notes that the Jardarmen rite of blood brotherhood had as its prime symbol the Brisingamen torque of Freyja. It has been suggested that torques were used to strangle male sacrifices to the goddess. The torque came to symbolise argr behaviour - the gesture of forming the hands into a ring suggested one had the power to cause another male to submit to intercourse. Ross says that Odin once directed this gesture at Thor, boasting that he could have him whenever he liked. Ross concludes that the Jardarmen rite, as a ceremony of blood brotherhood, may have involved ritualised intercourse between young males and elders to mark entry into a adult male society.
This latter point is interesting in the light of the ergi-werewolf link, and the existence of warrior-bands such as the Vargr, or wolf-warrior. Some Germanic scholars think it highly probable that initiation into wolf-warrior bands involved initiatory homosexuality. The image of the werewolf has many resonances with initiatory homosexuality - such as the Wolf (Erastes) - Lamb (Eromenes) initiatory relationship in some areas of Greece; the initiatory trial of "living like a werewolf" in ancient Sparta, and the unrestrained sexual behaviour of the lupari - the wolf priests of the Roman Lupercalia. There may be a hidden hint regarding this in the tale of Sinfjotli and Gundmundr. Sinfjotli. is known to have been a member of a wolf warrior band, whilst Gundmundr is portrayed as a 'female' wolf who has given birth to nine children, of which Sinfjotli is the father. It is possible, even, as Randy Conner (author of Blossom of Bone) points out, that Gundmundr was a practitioner of Seidr.
"Although they have good-looking women, they pay very little attention to them, but are really crazy about having sex with men. They are accustomed to sleep on the ground on animal skins and roll around with male bed-mates on both sides. Heedless of their own dignity, they abandon without qualm the bloom of their bodies to others. And the most incredible thing is that they don’t think this is shameful. But when they proposition someone, they consider it dishonourable if he doesn’t accept the offer!"
Diodorus Siculus (1.BCE)
There is little information extant about gender variance amongst the Celts, but from what we do know, it seems that same sex relations between warriors were not unknown - there is evidence of homosexuality in Celtic warrior bands which were known as 'Bleiden' or 'Wolf'. What is significant is that, despite similar motifs (such as shape-shifting & the wilderness initiation) there was a marked difference between Greek and Celtic homoeroticism in that unlike the Greeks, the Celts did not consider it shameful that males elected to take the 'passive' role. Diodorus' attitude requires a little explanation, as the ancient Greek attitude to homoeroticism was not as clear-cut as is often thought to be the case. The basic Greek homosexual relationship was between an older man and a youth. The older man admired the younger for his male qualities (beauty, strength, speed, endurence) and the younger man respected the older for his wisdom, experience and command. The older man was expected to train, educate, and protect the younger, and in due course the young man grew up and became a friend, rather than a lover-pupil. Both males were expected in due course to marry and father children. These relationships were not deemed to be privately erotic, but were regarded of as great importance to the state, and so supervised by its authorities.
However, some Greek societies strongly disapproved of sexual relationships between men of the same age. Male prostitution was permitted but its practitioners were prohibited from holding office. Sexual relationships between men of the same age (and status) was deemed unnatural because it meant one of the men adopting a passive role, and thereby betraying his masculinity. So long as a man retained the 'active' role and his partner was a woman (seen as naturally inferior), a slave (unfree) or a youth (not yet a fully grown man), then his masculinity was preserved. According to Plutarch, men who did not marry were scorned, ridiculed and punished by the Spartan authorities.
Three areas where we can find evidence for gender-variance and homoeroticism include; hints on same-sex relationships in the life of Cuchullain, the story of the Men of Ulster, and the myth of Gwydion and Gilvaethy.
Doctor Sandy MacLennan, writing in Azoth No.17 (1983) suggests that the Celtic hero Cuchullain's initiation from Cullan the smith may have had a sexual component. The name Cuchullain means 'Cullan's Hound', and the dog can appear as a symbol of homosexual intercourse. He also notes that in some Irish traditions the Picts came from the region of Scythia and, as Herodotus describes, the Scythians had a cult of shamans called the Enariae, who celebrated the dog days (rising of Sirius) with 'sodomitical orgies'.
In another instance, Cuchulain & Ferdia were both given warrior training by a legendary female warrior (possibly a goddess) Scathach (Shade). Later, they found themselves on opposite sides of a battle over the brown bull of Cailnge. Ferdia says of Cuchullain:
- 'Fast Friend, forest companions,
- we made one bed and slept one sleep
- In foreign lands after the fray.
- Scathach's pupils, two together,
- We'd set forth to comb the forest.'
Cuchullain slew Ferdia in the battle (there is a possibility that it was an accidental slaying), but took his dying friend in his arms and lamented. This has been compared to Achilles' lamentation over Hector and may represent a paradigmic example for displaying the ideals of close friendship between warriors.
The tale of the Sickness of the Men of Ulster features the gynandrous horse goddess Macha who is associated with shape shifting. The story is that Macha took for a lover a peasant named Crunnuic, who rashly told the King of the Ulaidh that his 'wife' could run faster than any horse. Macha (disguised) though pregnant, is consequently forced to race against horses. During the race, she suffers great agony and gives birth to children on the track. She reveals her true nature and curses the Men of Ulster so that during moments of crisis, they will become feminized and experience the pangs of childbirth. This curse was effective for nine generations. Jean Markale, author of Women of the Celts links this myth to gender transformed shamans, but the aspect of the 'blessing' of such metamorphosis has been lost, she feels, due to the erosion of matrifocal myth.
Another interesting Celtic myth in this respect is the Judgement of Math upon his two nephews:
"This was the judgement of Math the King upon his nephews Gwydion and Gilvaethy who stole the pigs of Pryderi. He transformed one into a doe and the other into a stag, and sent them forth into the wilderness. They returned a year later, and brought before Math a faun. Math again transformed the nephews, the doe became a boar, and the stag became a sow, and the faun he transformed into a handsome boy, Hydwn. A year later, they returned with a young pig. This time, Math transformed the boar into a she wolf and the sow into a wolf, and the young pig into a boy with auburn hair; Hychdwn the Tall. The final time they returned with a wolf cub, whom Math transformed into Bleiddwn the Wolfling, and then he relented, and restored the nephews to their true shapes."
Paraphrased from 'The Island of the Mighty' by Evangeline Walton
There is an echo here, of the Greek wilderness initiation rite mentioned above, certainly of the relationship between animals, shape shifting, initiations, and homosexual behaviour. Christian based commentaries on this episode maintain that as the nephews had broken the law, they were sent out to live 'like animals', but I feel there is an element of an earlier myth here. It would be interesting to look further into the Celtic Mythic associations of the three animals, the Stag, the Boar, and the Wolf. The role shifts between the nephews, from male to female animals, and the birth of the 'handsome boys' which Math raised as his own, are also intriguing. This myth contains elements of shape-shifting, shamanism, and the wilderness initiation. While the experience is, on the surface, a 'punishment,' Gilvaethy is endowed with great strength as a result of the ordeal, whilst Gwydion is thereafter renown for his cunning. Math certainly plays the role of an initiator-mentor in this myth, and it is made played throughout this entire cycle that Math's power stems from the land itself, - from Nature, rather than mere human authority.
There is also the figure of the Irish 'filidh' to consider: a poet, storyteller, singer, historian and practitioner of divination. This bardic figure appears to have had many shamanic aspects, and is linked to rituals involving eating the raw flesh of a sacrificed bull, drinking it's blood & sleeping in it's hide - in order to inspire prophetic dreams. The Filidh were considered to be representatives of the Goddess, and there is some evidence that in this respect, there was a 'romantic attachment' between a King and the filidh, in which the filidh played the receptive role, although it is not clear as to whether there was an erotic dimension to this relationship. A cloak of bird-feathers is thought to be one of their symbols of office.
Transgression & Transformation
Nine, the number of the Moon, and of female mysteries in general, also appears time and time again in association with these transformations. There is a Greek legend concerning a secret ritual held yearly atop Mount Lykaion, at the conclusion of which, a man was transformed into a wolf for nine years. This legend is an extension of the original wilderness transgression of Lykaon, who was transformed by Zeus into a wolf. Nine is also a prominent number in the Celtic and Germanic mysteries - Odinn hung from the World-Tree for Nine days, for example.
A recurrent theme which has emerged from this discussion is the link between gender-variance, lycanthropy, and ‘outlaw’ status. This theme is concerned with the power of the blurred, or liminal, image. All belong to the realm of disorder which lies beyond ordered society. This is the case for the Greek lycanthropes, the Celtic Bleiden, the Germanic vargr (from which depend the words vagabond & vagrant), and the Anglo-Saxon term for outlaw: wolf's-head. The wolf-image relates to the paradoxical theme of sacred transgressors - those who are outlaws, yet also figures of myth, fear and respect. Both the skin-changer and the gender-variant male are 'sacred outlaw' figures which show a wide cross-cultural dispersal, and are two of the most ancient practices associated with shamanism.
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture Arthur Evans, Fag Rag Books, 1978
Blossom of Bone Randy P. Conner, HarperSanfransisco, 1993
Homosexuality in Greek Myth Bernard Sergent, Athlone, 1987
The Island of the Mighty Evangeline Walton, Ballantine Books, 1970
Phallos: A Symbol and its History in the Male World Thorkil Vangaard, Jonathan Cape, 1969