The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast – Episode 41d with Heather Rose Jones
An episode by request about research into women’s same-sex relations in early medieval Norse culture, and f/f fiction inspired by it.
Listen to this episode here.
In this episode we talk about:
- What do we mean by “Viking”?
- Homosexuality in Norse culture
- Lesbian-relevant themes in Norse culture
- Stories of women warriors and gender-crossing
- Warrior women and the archaeology of gender
- Other contexts
- Research References
- The Viking Answer Lady
- Guldgubber: Sharon Ratke’s catalog site
- Clover, Carol J. 1995. “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons” in Robert R. Edwards & Vickie Ziegler (eds). Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
- Tolkien, Christopher tran. 1960. Saga Heidreks Kunungs ins Vitra. Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, London.
- There are many other sources of information on both Norse history and on queer themes or warrior women in early Norse culture. Check out the Viking Answer Lady’s site, or the research blog https://kyngervi.wordpress.com for more leads.
- Books mentioned
- “Peace-weaver” by Jennifer Nestoiko. The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast 2018 fiction series
- Thyra’s Promise by Natalie Debrabandere
- Taken By the Shield Maiden: A “Bawdy” Tale of Lust by Echo Stardust
- Raw: Dein Leben vor Meinem or “Your Life Before Mine” by Jolene Walker
- Vikings (tv series)
- The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember
- The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember
- Wolf and Raven by Dallas Jessica Owen
- The Last Shaman by Dallas Jessica Owen
- Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory by Barbara Ann Wright
- The Amber Necklace by Alex Pyott
- Heathen by Natasha Alterici (graphic novel)
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Transcript for Today’s Show
Please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect.
I love it when people ask me to research a specific topic. But sometimes the short answer to their question is “We know next to nothing about this topic.” That doesn’t mean that that the long answer isn’t interesting. Someone once asked me what I could tell them about Pictish personal names and I spent fifty pages explaining that we know almost nothing about Pictish personal names, and presenting that “almost nothing” in great detail.
So when a friend on Twitter asked me if I could do a show about lesbian Vikings, I didn’t let the knowledge that we have almost no information about non-normative sexuality in the Viking era stop me from putting a show together. I have a somewhat personal stake in the topic because one of my writing project files is for a story I short-hand as “Viking girl kidnaps Welsh princess.” So I’ve done a fair amount of background reading on relevant subjects.
But perhaps the best summary on the topic of homosexuality in the Viking era and culture has been put together by Christie Ward-Wieland who has a research blog aimed at historic re-enactment under the name “The Viking Answer Lady”. She has a very detailed analysis of the available data and interpretation, though most of it is concerned with men rather than women. I’ll be summarizing her work and then moving on to discussing various themes and tropes of interest to writing historical fiction. Then I’ll finish the show with a survey of Viking-themed f/f historical fiction that I’ve been able to find, although I’ll note in advance that most of them are much more on the fantasy side than the historical side.
What do we mean by “Viking”?
To start out with, what exactly do we mean by “Viking”? As pedants will cheerfully point out, Viking isn’t an ethnicity, it’s a job description. Loosely speaking, the Vikings were early medieval Scandinavians who supplemented their agricultural and merchant activities by using maritime superiority to plunder coastal communities (and some not so coastal) around northern Europe.
The Viking era is generally considered to run from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries. Although the core base of operations for the Vikings began in Scandinavia, their explorations, settlements, and cultural interactions spread into Russia in the east, Byzantium and northern Africa in the south, and in the west, on past the British Isles to settle Iceland, claim Greenland, and even try some unsuccessful settlements in North America.
The modern image of the Vikings as uncouth barbarians is hard to shake, but the truths of early medieval Scandinavian culture is much more complex and fascinating. I wish I had time to go into more detail, but let’s just say that while Hollywood Vikings make a big splash in the historical fiction field, there are even more fascinating stories to be told.
Some essential background will be useful. One of the big reasons for Viking expansion and raiding comes from the realities of an agricultural economy in the far north of Europe. The growing season is short, the land is often poor, and the opportunities for an expanding population are mostly elsewhere. Ship voyages–whether for trade or for pillaging–took place in the summer which was also prime growing season. The most common pattern was gendered, with men traveling away with the intent of bringing back portable wealth, and women running the economy at home, including looking after the crops and livestock, producing food and clothing. Women did sometimes travel with the ships, and Norse settlements in Iceland and Greenland certainly depended on entire families going on the voyage. But it is both inescapable and relevant that early medieval Norse society was organized along gendered lines. Those lines were crossed–both historically and in literature–and the ways the culture reacted to those crossings tells us much about the possibilities for variant sexuality.
Homosexuality in Viking Culture
In Ward-Wieland’s article on how Viking-era Norse societies viewed homosexuality, the vast majority of her discussion concerns men. And, as with most historic societies, we can’t assume that attitudes toward male and female homosexuality were parallel. A great deal of the Norse data we have regarding men focuses around anxieties about being seen as a passive participant in anal sex within the context of a society deeply concerned with reputation and manly honor.
As these concerns were strongly gendered and did not apply to women, there’s no reason to extrapolate and conclude that Norse society felt that a woman participating in same-sex activity in any role would necessarily be shamed by it. But that isn’t the same thing as having positive evidence for women’s same-sex relations. (The historic evidence shows that women did have concerns about honor and reputation, but they didn’t involve having sex with other women.)
In terms of direct, overt references to women’s homosexuality, we’re pretty much limited to a late 12th century Icelandic penitential manual, which included a penance for “women [who] satisfy each other [sexually]” which is assigned the same penance as adultery or bestiality. This handbook of penances, written by the Icelandic bishop Thorlak Thorhallson of Skaholt, is not necessarily a reflection of the specific concerns of Icelandic society. Penitential manuals were based on common shared models, not drawn up in response to local custom and practice, and the passage about female homosexuality is closely parallel to material found throughout Europe. It’s also worth noting that, having been written in the late 12th century, the reference falls outside the Viking era proper. And since significant parts of Viking culture were before the spread of Christianity, it would be a mistake to assume that some of the specifically Christian attitudes toward homosexuality must have been present earlier.
So if we know of negative words for male homosexuality, are there parallels that apply to women? Yes, and no. There’s a word “argr” that means “effeminate” or “unmanly” when applied to men. But the feminine form of the word “org”, applied to women, means something like “lecherous” or “immodest” but without indicating a desire for women. This is a pattern seen elsewhere in Europe, where being “unmanly” means allowing yourself to be perceived as a woman, while being “unfeminine” means having an assertive sexuality associated with men.
There’s another bit of vocabulary that is somewhat more suggestive, though it points up the default societal expectation that everyone will participate in heterosexual marriage. A man who avoided marriage was called “fuðflogi”, roughly “flee-cunt”, while a woman who avoided marriage was called “flannfluga”, or equivalently “flee-prick”. While one might see this as simply having the sex act stand in for the state of marriage, one might also interpret it as recognizing that there were people who were strongly disinterested in heterosexual sex.
The only other potential concrete evidence for women in same-sex relationships comes from a type of decorative metalwork called “guldgubber” from the very beginning of the Viking era. These are small gold foil plaques with embossed decorations of human figures. About 3000 of them have been found in archaeological contexts throughout Scandinavia, though most from Denmark. The majority of these images show a man and woman embracing, a few show a single human figure or an animal. The purpose of these ornaments is unclear, but archaeologists and historians originally interpreted them as representing the mythological couple Frey and Gerdh the giant-maiden, and that they served some symbolic purpose at weddings or as a fertility symbol. (If you know archaeologist-speak, you’ll interpret this as, “We actually have no idea but if you have male-female couples, it must have to do with sex in some fashion.)
This interpretation began to be questioned when a new very large find of the ornaments turned out to be primarily single figures and two examples turned up with same-sex pairs embracing, one a male pair and one a female pair. Of course, embraces occur in many cultures representing other types of interactions than romantic or sexual attraction. And archaeologists are quick to re-examine their conclusions when the data starts contradicting traditional stereotypes of gender and sexuality. But whatever it is that they do represent, the statistical distribution indicates that it’s something most commonly envisioned as involving a man and a woman, but in rare cases involving two men or two women. Take that for what it’s worth.
So if we can’t find clear and solid documentation of women in same-sex relationships in Viking-era Norse culture, what can we find in the way of tropes and motifs that are beloved of writers of lesbian historical fiction? I want to be clear here that the following discussion isn’t in any way evidence of lesbian relationships, it’s examples of story building blocks that one might use to construct a story about lesbian Vikings that integrates with historical fact.
One aspect I’ve already mentioned is that Viking-era Scandinavian society drew strict gender lines in work and socializing. In addition to the seasonal departure of men on sailing voyages, women of all social classes in the household gathered in the “kvenna hús”, the women’s quarters, and textile production was so strongly associated with women, that a man who so much as entered the weaving room could lose reputation. In any society where women’s time and activities are primarily spent in the company of other women, emotional and social bonds between women have great significance.
The social status of women in Viking society is an interesting puzzle. Of course, in this era the primary aspect of status was whether one was free or unfree, whether one belonged to a powerful family or one with fewer resources, whether one was the mistress of a household or a servant in it. But women were simultaneously considered of low value–when infants were abandoned to die to preserve resources, it was far more often girls than boys–but had social and familial power far about the norms for Europe in that era. Married women could gain divorces on a variety of pretexts, had significant legal rights, and could be in complete charge of the household if the men were away. But this leverage centered entirely around their roles in heterosexual marriage. There were few options for an unmarried woman, and significant pressure to marry due to skewed gender ratios, especially during the settlements of Iceland and Greenland. The flip side of this is that if a married woman did also have sexual relations with women, it’s likely that there wasn’t much a husband could do to object if he wanted her to stick around. (The reverse wasn’t true, and one ground for easy divorce was a woman presenting evidence that her husband was “unmanly.”)
Stories of Women Warriors and Cross-Gender Performance
Ah, but what about all those stories of Valkyries and women warriors in Viking culture? Well, let’s examine those motifs a bit more closely. The Valkyries were, of course, fictional characters, part of the non-Christian mythos of northern Europe. Perhaps more interesting is the genre of cross-gender saga characters that Carol Clover discusses in her article “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons”. These are stories in which female characters take up arms, and sometimes a complete male identity, in order to carry out a quest or take vengeance on an enemy.
We need to keep in mind that fictional depictions aren’t necessarily a useful guide to actual historic behavior. Since we’ve already moved into the “imagining fictional stories” part of this podcast, I won’t harp on that too much, except to note that one collection of medieval Icelandic laws, whose earliest texts date to the 10th century, specifically prohibit a woman from wearing male clothing, from cutting her hair like a man, from bearing arms, or in general behaving “like a man”, although sexual behavior is not specifically mentioned. There are references in the sagas to types of garments that were considered effeminate enough to bring shame on a man if he wore them, though this seems to be a matter of style rather than of entire female-coded garments. And, as I’ve noted previously, the misogynistic nature of early Norse society means that male and female experiences aren’t comparable. But conversely, if a society sets up laws that are that specifically explicit, it means, firstly, that they could imagine women wearing male clothing, cutting her hair like a man, bearing arms, and in general “behaving like a man,” and secondly, that this idea made them anxious enough to have laws against it. It isn’t actual proof that women were actually doing those things, but it’s proof that they could imagine doing so.
The cross-gender stories that Clover talks about set up a context that may well reflect a real-life exception to these prohibitions that she calls the “maiden warrior” motif, as exemplified by the character of Hervör in Hervarar saga ok Heidhreks which lays out the characteristic context for this particular version of the warrior woman motif.
The outline of Hervör’s story (which is complex and part of a much longer “family saga”) identifies her as the only and posthumous child of the warrior Angantyr. Raised by her mother’s family, she gravitates toward weapons rather than women’s work. She is “as strong as a man” and “trained herself more with bow and shield and sword than with needlework and embroidery”. In other words, a classic case of “not like other girls!” But it isn’t until she is taunted with her father’s identity and the facts of his death that she puts on male garments and sets off to avenge him, taking up the profession of robber as a first step. The text has her say:
“I will swiftly take linen headgear from off my hair, before I hasten away–much rests on it. When morning comes let cloak and kirtle be cut for me.” She tells her mother, “As quick as you can, equip me in all ways as you would your son, taking the gear and weapons of a man.”
She both does and does not pass as male. For the most part, she is accepted as a man. But there is one episode where she’s involved in an altercation with a comrade that comes close to a duel when their host takes the other man aside and tells him that he wouldn’t get any glory if he defeated his opponent because he suspected Hervör was actually a woman.
As a fictional motif, this tells us several different things. That a woman was expected to be able to pass as male successfully for the most part. And that someone in authority might be willing to accept that passing even if he suspected the truth.
Eventually Hervör decides to seek out her father’s grave to retrieve his sword. Because it’s important to avenge one’s father with the ancestral sword. In her travels she joins and becomes leader of a band of Vikings, eventually accomplishing her quest, during which she debates her father’s ghost (in verse, no less) for the right to claim the sword. After this, she continues having masculine-style adventures until eventually settling down to marriage and motherhood.
This is a key point in all the Norse cross-gender sagas. They are, above all, family sagas–the story of a lineage, often being told by people who claimed descent from the characters. This means that the literary genre has little place for a central female character who does not, eventually, marry a man and produce children.
Clover situates this story as part of a tradition involving women who are the sole representative of a lineage–Hervör was an only child and her father’s brothers all perished with him–and who therefore are expected to play a son’s part, whether to avenge a father or simply to continue that lineage, with the “son’s role” exemplified by characteristically masculine activities, especially martial ones.
It’s worth reviewing a catalog of other examples of this motif to see some of the variations.
Skadhi (in the legendary Eddas) takes up armor and weapons to go to Asgard to avenge her father.
Thornbjörg (in The Saga of Hrólf Gautreksson) is the only child of a king of Sweden who takes up martial activities in childhood (defending the choice as justified because due to the lack of siblings). When Thornbjörg’s father provides lands and followers Thornbjörg takes on a male name and dress to reign as a king. Thornbjörg’s very deliberate and insistent masculine performance strongly suggests interpretation as transgender rather than as a temporary gender disguise. This is emphasized by the central theme of the story where Hrolf, after whom the saga is named, is challenged to prove his manhood by forcibly marrying Thornbjörg.
Ladgerda appears in the legendary histories of Saxo Grammaticus as the sole surviving child of the dead king of Norway. Ladgerda and a group of female companions all put on male dress and take up weapons for protection. In the context of the story, Ladgerda is not depicted as trying to disguise her gender, although people who saw her in battle assumed she was male until they saw her long flowing hair. She was wooed by a man who was required to prove his dedication in battle, but he later divorced her when angry about how Ladgerda had initially resisted him. Nevertheless, later when he was hard pressed in battle, Ladgerda showed up at the head of an army and rescued him. It didn’t last. They quarrelled again, she killed him, and took over his lands. Go Ladgerda! She is, at least to some extent, the inspiration for the character of Ladgertha in the Vikings tv series, who does end up in a same-sex relationship at one point.
Another character from the legendary histories of Saxo Grammaticus is Alfhild, who takes up male dress and weapons to escape an unwanted suitor. Breaking the pattern somewhat, she has living brothers at the time, however attrition due to warfare eventually leaves her daughter Gyrid as the sole survivor of her line. Gyrid later takes up arms in male clothing to do battle alongside her son. So, something of a family tradition there.
The valkyrie Brynhildr may fit the pattern of “maiden warrior” to some degree as well, but the many versions of her story that have come down to us have muddled whatever may have been her thematic origins.
Note that many of these “substitute son” characters, although they not only take up martial activities but also often wear male clothing or even take on a male name, are not necessarily trying to pass as men, but rather perform masculinity as a visual symbol of their status and social role. Their stories generally conclude with marriage to a man and the begetting of children. In fact, Clover asserts that it is precisely the provision of a genealogical link between generations that gives them the license to take on a masculine role.
Although these examples are all literary, there is a passage in early Icelandic law that treats a brotherless woman as if she were a son, in the context of the paying and receiving of wergild (the payment for a death) but only if she is unmarried. Similar clauses can be found in early Norwegian law.
Although very different in era and location, one can compare these “avenging maiden warrior” motifs to the phenomenon of gender-crossing “sworn virgins” in Albania, who had social license to take up a male social role (including male dress) under certain specific circumstances, including the need to pursue a feud in the absence of male relatives. In the Albanian custom, this role-change was expected to be for life.
It’s worth emphasizing that what we don’t see in any of these sagas or legendary accounts is examples of women warriors having romantic relationships with women. In case it needs saying, gender performance does not automatically determine sexual orientation. This contrasts with one genre of female warrior stories in later medieval Europe where gender disguise did sometimes lead to same-sex relationships, at least on a temporary basis. One can’t untangle the Norse female warriors from the context that these are sagas of lineage and are primarily focused around men’s exploits and fame. Warrior women existed in these stories either to substitute for missing male relatives in the maintenance or transmission of family lines, or they existed as a prize for men to defeat and win. This doesn’t mean that the woman warrior motif can’t be re-purposed in f/f historical fiction, but the same-sex aspect simply isn’t there in the source material.
Warrior Women and the Archaeology of Gender
I’ve made something of a point of the preceding examples being fictional creations, but is there any more concrete evidence for women taking a martial role or even for cross-gender performance or transgender identity in Viking-era Scandinavia? Funny you should ask.
It’s something of a standing joke, even among archaeologists, that interpretations of archaeological finds are shaped by what people expect to find. Random objects are identified as having a “ritual purpose”. Existing theories about history are used to interpret finds that then are used as evidence for those theories. If you ever want to see some good poking fun at this tendency, read Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.
For most of the history of archaeology as a profession, the ability to identify the physiological sex of people in burials has relied on certain statistical distributions of bone size and shape, and stereotyped assumptions about the gendering of grave goods. It’s true that there are statistical patterns in skeletal remains that correspond to physiological sex. But it’s also true that there’s a significant overlap in the middle where the sex of a specific skeleton can’t be determined with certainty. And that’s without considering the potential presence of intersex people in the population.
So, traditionally, when a Viking-era burial has been found with socially-gendered artifacts like weapons, clothing, and specific types of jewelry and other artifacts considered to be masculine, the body in that burial has been assumed to be male. And traditionally when a Viking-era burial has been found with socially-gendered artifacts like weaving or cooking equipment and paired brooches and other things considered to be feminine, the body in that burial has been assumed to be female.
So, for example, chamber grave number 581 at the Swedish Viking settlement of Birka has long been considered to belong to a male warrior. And not just any warrior, but a high-status warrior of some importance. The grave included two horses with riding equipment, a large number of weapons including spear, sword, axe, arrows, and shield, a game board with a full set of gaming tokens. Clothing fragments included silver ornaments for a tasseled cap associated with other male burials. There was no jewelry, no beads, no craft or domestic implements. It was an absolutely certain and uncontroversial opinion–ever since the burial was first explored in 1878–that the body found in that grave belonged to a man.
But archaeologists have new tools at their disposal, thanks to advances in molecular biology and genetics. Old bones are being given new scrutiny to learn things about diet, age, geographic origin and other attributes that previously could only be guessed at. Among the attributes that can now be studied scientifically, is DNA. And the DNA of the body in that high-status warrior grave at Birka indicates that the person was physiologically female.
This isn’t the only example of DNA analysis upending assumptions about the people in archaeological finds. It isn’t even the only Viking-era example. It also doesn’t tell us anything definitive about how that person understood themself in relation to the gendered structure of society. There are even foot-dragging traditional archaeologists who are now arguing that maybe grave goods don’t tell us definitive things about the people buried with them, and maybe being buried with a sword could mean lots of other things and not that the person buried there had used a sword during their life. In the realm of “usable history” there’s a lot of enthusiasm from the transgender community to identify with a figure out of the past who certainly fits the general definitions of transgender, in the sense of moving through the world performing a different gender than the one society would assign based on physiology. So was Birka 581 a Thornbjörg who was willing to fight to the death to avoid being forced back into a conventional female role? Or were they a Hervör who slipped into the social role of masculinity because there was no one else in their family to assume it? It isn’t important to try to come to a definitive answer–indeed, I think it’s better to allow as many people as possible to imagine how Birka 581 expands their identification with the past. The point is that maybe those sagas and legends weren’t entirely as fictional as they seem.
I’ve put something of an undue emphasis on the idea of gender-crossing and women warriors, simply because the evidence is fascinating and it makes for good click-bait. But I don’t want to suggest that the only possible way to imagine a f/f Viking-era story is to have one of the characters take on a transmasculine role. If you’re flexible about your characters being situationally bisexual, then there’s a lot of scope of relationships between women during the sailing season when many men are away. I haven’t specifically gone looking for discussions of singlewomen during the Viking era, though I suspect the concrete evidence is scanty.
There were types of magic practiced in pre-Christian Norse society that were specific to women–specific enough that it was shameful for men to practice them, while other types of magic were more associated with men. While the topic is too complex to get into here, this gender-segregation of magical practices offers the same opportunities for framing a story within a women-only space that the textile crafts do on a more everyday basis.
And given the significance and amount of labor women spent on textile production, as well as the necessary teamwork for many aspects of it, that’s another activity that provides an excellent context for developing women’s relationships for a story. The point is that it’s quite possible to construct stories about women’s relationships in early Norse society that aren’t driven by transgressing gender roles.
It is true, however, that the majority of Norse themed f/f stories that I was able to find do set up one character as taking on a male social role in some way. So let’s move on to considering some of those stories. I crowd-sourced suggestions on Twitter and various facebook groups and divvied the results up into four general categories: stories presented as being set in ordinary history, historical settings with fantasy elements, Norse elements appearing in what is essentially a secondary-world setting, and mythological stories. I did filter out a few where there didn’t seem to be any actual Norse elements in the story except for a character being presented as a Viking. I haven’t actually read the vast majority of the stories listed here, but I have looked at the available previews to get a sense of the content and style.
F/F Fiction with Viking Themes
One of the few exceptions to the use of a Viking butch-femme scenario is a short story that I chose for the podcast’s fiction series back in 2018: “Peace-weaver” by Jennifer Nestoiko. The story explores a “second chance romance” between two women who have outlived family responsibilities and are reunited after being pulled apart by duty. It’s loosely inspired by some of the characters in Beowulf.
The rest of the stories in the “ordinary history” group all involve at least one warrior woman.
Natalie Debrabandere’s Thyra’s Promise involves a rather ahistorical lack of gendered expectations for occupations. In a 9th century Norse settlement in Scotland, Thyra has been raised as a Viking warrior. Frustrated by her brother’s refusal to take her seriously, she becomes the student and lover of Kari, the woman who leads a neighboring clan. But their two families have a bitter history and there is conflict in their future. The writing is basically competent, though the prose style is weak. The available excerpt gets us to the first sex scene so it’s hard to evaluate what the plot-to-erotics ratio is going to be.
That ratio doesn’t seem to be in doubt for Taken By the Shield Maiden by Echo Stardust, which is subtitled “A bawdy tale of lust.” This book seems to take the closest parallel to the usual plot of straight Viking romances, with the beautiful Viking raider Gunhilde kidnapping an innocent young nun from a convent who, of course, reluctantly succumbs to her captor’s charms. It’s pretty clear from the available excerpt that this is a bare minimum of story to set up a lot of sex scenes. The writing is fairly awkward and needs some basic editing. But if that’s what you’re here for, it’s here for you.
The next title turned up when I was searching in the Amazon category “Viking Romance” and is in German. There doesn’t appear to be an English edition. This is Raw: Dein Leben vor Meinem or “Your Life Before Mine” by Jolene Walker. It’s set in the late 8th century when Juna, a princess of the Franks and war leader is sent to make a marriage of alliance with a Norse leader. Her husband provides her with a woman warrior, Skadi, as a bodyguard and the two find their hearts in conflict with their loyalties. My German isn’t up to evaluating the nuances of writing style, but the prose looks fairly solid and interesting, so if you’re interested in tackling a German text, this one might be rewarding to try.
Moving outside the realm of books, the TV series Vikings includes an f/f encounter between the main female lead, Lagertha and a woman named Astrid. Lagertha is clearly inspired by the figure of Ladgertha in historic literature. I don’t know how prominent or lasting the relationship is in the series (and Wikipedia indicates that their sex scene was censored in the US release of the series).
The next several stories have a recognizable real-world Norse setting but introduce some fantasy elements.
Julia Ember has written a pair of linked but independent books The Seafarer’s Kiss and The Navigator’s Touch. Both feature the shield-maiden Ragna who is on a quest to avenge her family’s murder. The fantasy elements come in the form of the mermaid who falls in love with her and then aids her in her quest, and the intervention of the Norse gods in human affairs. The writing is solid. The combination of the significant presence of the fantasy elements and the isolated nature of the settings pull the stories away from being deeply grounded in everyday history. The books are marketed as Young Adult and my impression is that there is romance but not significant sexual content.
Another entry in this category is The Northland Saga by Dallas Jessica Owen, featuring two books Wolf and Raven and The Last Shaman. They pair Yngrid, a woman warrior, and Kari, the village shaman, who must face and overcome magical enemies or their world will perish. The writing is competent, if not particularly compelling, but the historic grounding feels weak to me in a way that’s common to many of these books–as if the setting is based on third-hand rumors of what Viking culture was like, with a big dose of Hollywood movies.
When taking the look-and-feel of Norse culture and embedding it in a setting that is clearly not our world, there’s less expectation of more than a passing connection to history. Barbara Ann Wright’s Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory is clearly inspired by motifs from Viking and other northern European cultures, without an expectation that it will align closely. Instead it’s all about the sailing and raiding and no need to situate an f/f relationship within a specific historic context. The writing in this one is quite good.
My last category is works with a Norse mythological setting, in other words, stories about gods and heroes rather than about ordinary people.
The first example–according to report–weaves a historic mythological story in with a present-day one. This is The Amber Necklace by Alex Pyott, involving a character who appears to be an incarnation of the goddess Freya and her romance with a contemporary journalist. I’m not sure that I’d class this as a particularly historic work, even with that background, but the themes are there.
And my last example, for a shift in medium, is the graphic novel series Heathen by Natasha Alterici, which follows the adventures of a warrior woman who takes on the gods of Asgard with the help of some female pirates and a Valkyrie or two. Oh, and with various female romantic complications along the way. I really enjoyed the first volume and writing this up inspired me to go buy volume 2. The series has also been targeted for big screen treatment, which would be awesome if they keep all the queer aspects intact.
So there you have it: the closest we can come to lesbian Vikings, either in history or in historical fiction. I have to confess that I wish there were more offerings that both take a purely historical angle on setting and are solidly grounded in current research. It’s probably a lot to ask, given that straight Viking romances aren’t exactly paragons of historicity. But once you start digging into the actual culture and archaeology of the Viking era, it’s very inspiring. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, I have a lesbian Viking romance of my own that’s been percolating in my head ever since we were assigned to read Hervör’s Saga when I studied Old Norse. One of these days I’ll have the time to put it out into the world and see what people think.