Contact Us

Heathen Sexuality
Jenny Jochens, "The Illicit Love Visit: An Archaeology of Old Norse Sexuality" Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jan., 1991), pp. 357-392

I have been thinking much about how women are portrayed and understood in a Judeo-Christian context and how this differs from a pagan understanding of the same subject. Being a Heathen of course, I'm interested in the Heathen perspective and so I went to Jenny Jochens, a prominent Norse scholar and obviously a woman herself.

Jochens writes (381-82) that "Old Norse pagan women are not...are normally not portrayed as the temptress Mother Eve...Pagan society had created marriage to regulate the powerful drive of human sexuality...When these rules were broken or not observed, however, men, not women, were blamed." She observes that the sagas do not portray women as having as powerful a sex drive as men and that therefore women were not blamed "when the sexual drive created havoc with the rules established to control it."

Whether the sagas are accurate or not about the strength of the female sex drive in comparison to that of men, it is a refreshing change of pace from the Judeo-Christian "woman as evil temptress" template. In a state of nature, that is, outside of the imposed template of Judeo-Christian morality, a woman is not seen as something inherently evil, or something that causes violence by leading men astray or into temptation.

The Heathen Norse, at least, understood that it was male sex drives that caused the problems, not the behavior or appearance of the woman. That, too, is a refreshing change of pace. There is no "blame the victim" thinking here, something that is still all too prevalent even in our more secularized culture.

Certainly we don't want to advocate today a return to capturing our wives through force, or taking sexual advantage of the weak. But these are cultural and not religious issues. The imposition of Judeo-Christian morality is not cultural, but religious. We are free to abandon those cultural practices that we no longer see as viable or fair, but those imposed by religion are much more difficult to reject for the simple reason that we are told that this is part of The Truth. Women, according to this narrow perspective, are seductresses and temptresses who even by possessing sexuality, whether they actively employ it, lead men astray. Female sexuality becomes inherently evil. Men are not perpetrators, but victims.

So while we can shift cultural paradigms and agree not to take wives by capture, or to sexually exploit servants, beggars and slaves, we cannot decide suddenly to stop blaming women for the sex crimes inflicted upon them, because Christianity tells us that we may not.

In some way that has never been satisfactorily explained, Christianity is supposed to have improved the lot of the woman. But rape is no less common today than in the pre-Christian era. Recently it has come to light that those most religious of people, Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, are quite capable of incest, rape, and child abuse. See that story here: Cloistered Shame in Israel . Evangelical Mega Churches are regularly rocked by sex scandals.

Christianity certainly didn't improve things for the Heathen Icelanders, as Jochens argues: "By prohibiting all sexual contacts outside marriage, by demanding clerical celibacy - a phenomenon unknown in the former pagan religion - by eventually prohibiting divorce, and by expanding the pagan restrictions against incest, churchmen vastly heightened the potential for sexual conflict in the north. Male violence is endemic to sexual encounters, but, on the whole, this problem had been reduced by pagan society at an early stage as it developed rules for establishing marriage" (389-90).

In time, she argues, by the thirteenth century, the situation for women had improved somewhat, at least in the realm of sexual violence. But Christianity brought certain new problems with it: "If women were less threatened by sexual violence...they became victims of new hostile attitudes towards sexuality emanating from Christianity. As churchmen increased restrictions on male sexuality, so did they also increasingly put the responsibility on women for the infractions" (390).

So if women became less prey in one respect, Jochens argues, they fell prey in another area, that of blame for sexual violence committed upon them. In one respect I think she is mistaken. She argues that women came to be more protected from sexual violence because of Christianity's influence, but historically, this can be seen not to be the case.

There is no evidence whatsoever that women were any safer in Christian lands during the Medieval period than in non-Christian lands. Women were as much a commodity to Christian men as to Pagan, and because they had fewer rights and less legal stature, perhaps more so. As Jochens has argued elsewhere, Norse women had rights that would have astounded their continental counterparts living in Christian lands.)1

Modern day Heathens would do well to make a conscious and determined effort to steer away from the Judeo-Christian understanding of female sexuality. While accepting that the saga writers (who were undoubtedly men) may have been wrong about the strength of the female sex drive, we must recognize that this sexuality is not evil, and that women are not to blame for leading men astray (personal responsibility was another victim of Christianity, it seems) and certainly not to blame for sex crimes committed upon them.

But this "blame the victim" attitude runs through Judeo-Christian thought (the Jews being responsible for the outrages committed upon them by their god) and particularly attaches itself to female sexuality, which is perhaps no surprise given how frightened these people are of sexuality in any form.

The Heathen Norse were at least open-minded and realistic enough to understand that men bore responsibility and that it was women who were the victims, not the men. As in so many areas, Christianity has turned the world on its head.

1 Jenny Jochens, Old Norse Images of Women (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

Sidebar Notes

Heathenism did not blame the woman, but the man, when sex-drive created havoc

In Christianity, female seuxality is inherently evil and men are its victims