Sons of Frey

(Translated from the original Danish article by Björg Freja Lund.)

Ritual gender-crossing has been a widespread practice in many pre-Christian cultures around the world. It has been practiced both as an isolated ritual element by a single person (such as transgressing the daily dress in the garb usual for their biological gender), and also by members of a religious subculture, such as a special caste or consecrated order who dress and live every day, as much as possible, as the opposite gender of their biological sex.

There is not much in the sources of Norse mythology and pre-Christian Nordic religion that describes such a function from the Nordic region. (On the other hand, there is not much more to be found on the entirety of those religious practices.) However, there are so many gender-transgressing elements of Norse mythology that it would not be inconceivable or unnatural that this was also part of cultic practices. There are even a few cases where this might have left traces in the sources.


In his Denmark Chronicle, Saxo Grammaticus lets its somewhat masochistic hero Stærkodder/Starkadd talk about the cult of Freyr in Uppsala. He says that Starkad went to Sweden, where he stayed for seven years with the Sons of Frey at the Temple in Uppsala before withdrawing from them to stay with Hakon, the proconsul in Denmark.  While living in Uppsala he was disgusted by the Temple sacrifices that took place there, because the priests of Frey performed effeminate dances and mimes to applause, accompanied by the unmanly clatter of bells.

Although Saxo’s works must be taken with some caution, this description may be a reminder that gender-transgressive rituals were part of the cult of the Vanir. The French religious sociologist Georges Dumézil had a theory that there was a special priesthood for Frey and Njord, characterized by a female hairstyle. These priests would have been called haddingjar, a word that comes from haddr, meaning “women’s hair”. As a name, Haddingjar appears several times in the name lists in various sagas, and Saxo also has a Haddingus among the Danish legendary kings .

Dumézil links these haddingjar with Tacitus’ report from the first century regarding the Germanic tribe of the Nahanarvali where male priests in women’s garb worshiped a god-pair – the “Alcis” – corresponding to the Greek twin gods Castor and Pollux . According to Dumézil, both Frey and Njord as well as Castor and Pollux hold similar functions – i.e. agriculture and fertility. The whole premise is based on Dumézil’s overall theory of the Indo-European community’s tripartite division of social functions – rulers,  warriors,  fertility.

Tambourines , Cymbals and Effeminate Dancing

Dumézil is not the only one who has a theory about the gender-crossing priesthood. The Austrian scholar of Germanic folklore Rudolf Much drew a parallel between Freyja and the Phrygian goddess Cybele . Both goddesses rode in a chariot pulled by cats; similarly, both were shown mourning their lost loves. Rudolf Much notes the phonetic similarity between these two lost lovers – Cybele’s Attis and Freyja’s Odd/Odr. The Phrygian Cybele had a following of special priestesses called Gallae, who were castrated during their initiation ceremony, put on women’s clothes, and dressed so for life. The cultic worship of Cybele was spread by the Gallae, who danced while they beat on tambourines and cymbals. These Cybelline Gallae (i.e. biological men buried as women) have been found in archaeological excavations as far north as England and Belgium.

Seið and the Sami

These scientific theories may seem somewhat speculative and difficult to prove , but there may well be something to them. A more concrete theory, however, is comparing Nordic mythology to Sami shamanism. In pre-Christian times , there was extensive contact between the Sami peoples and the Norse population. In what is today northern Norway, the Norse population lived in coastal areas and islands off the coast, while the Sami peoples lived in the fjords . In the south, the Sami settlement stretched across areas as far south as Värmland in east and southern Hedemark in the west; the Norse population tended to live in the valleys and the Sami in the mountains . Although there was clearly a language barrier between them, the biggest difference between the Sami and the Norse was commercial. The Norse population were peasant farmers; the Sami were hunters and herders. Archaeologists have noted that differences in the material culture between Sami and Norse peoples in pre-Christian times was minimal. They have also noted a significant degree of intermarriage between the two groups, particularly in mid-Scandinavia and along the coast of Northern Norway and the Gulf of Bothnia.

Today we have a picture of the Sami peoples as poor and underprivileged, but it was not like that in pre-Christian times. The Sami were rich and respected, and it was not uncommon for them to be buried with the same rich grave goods as the Norse population. Their wealth was primarily due to fur trade and iron extraction .

The integration between the Sami and Norse peoples in pre-Christian times was also reflected in religion, to such an extent that it can be difficult to distinguish which of the partial elements originally belonged respectively to the Sami and Norse people . This is probably due to an interaction that occurred over a several thousand-year period, at least since the Bronze Age, and mutually shaped the religious traditions of the two communities . Examples of the relationship between the Norse and Sami religion is the Sami cult of the hammer-wielding god of thunder Horagalles, whose name is a Sami adaptation of the Norse Thor; and the Norse tale of the giant Thjassi, a Norse adaptation of the Sami word Thjathje which means “water”.

One important interface between Norse and Sami religion is the practice of sorcery. Snorri Sturlusson describes how the Norse chiefs sent their daughters to Finnmark ( Lapland ) to be trained in Sami sorcery. In the Icelandic medieval literature there are several reports of Sami “troll men” (noiade or shamans) and their interaction with the Norse chiefs.

This cultural coexistence ended abruptly by the introduction of Christianity . The reason for this break was clearly religious; it was simply forbidden for the Norse people to seek out the Sami people. In the Norwegian landscape laws were introduced that no Christian could “go to the Finns” for fortune-telling and to make use of their “sorcery”. A deeply tragic consequence of the introduction of Christianity as the state religion was that the Sami people and their religion was demonized. and as a result they were marginalized economically and culturally.


Most scientists agree that the Norse sorcery is a kind of shamanism , parallel to the Sami noiade-arts. A remarkable difference appears to be that Sami shamanism was usually performed by men, where seið was usually performed by women. It was a gender distribution that can also be traced through witch trials of the time. Among the Norse people convicted of witchcraft, there was a preponderance of women, where the reverse was true for the Sami people. Yet these are only statistics; there were also female noiade among the Sami and there are also reports of Norse seiðmenn. There may have existed three categories of Norse seið practitioners, as the Eddakvadet Hyndluljod (the “small Völuspá”) includes Volvas (seið-women), Vitkis (seið-men), and a third category of “seið-berendr”, a strange little word that literally means “sorcery-pregnant”. The Norwegian researcher Britt Solli believes that seið-berendr can be the name of a “third sex”, all of whom were transgendered people. Another possibility is that it may be a common term that covers both Vølver and Vitki . If the latter is the case , it will say that also Vitkis can be designated as berendr, – i.e. pregnant – something that in the Icelandic medieval literature would have given seiðmenn a reputation as unmanly , but compared to the Norse myths put seiðmenn in the same category as Loki. In both cases, it is something that makes the seið-berendr into a liminal figure. Similar to the role of Loki in the myths as a provider of contact between gods and giants, the seið-berendr is someone who is both man and woman , neither and/or in-between , mediator of contact between this world and the hereafter. It is the traditional description of the shaman’s role, and many shamanic traditions have ritualistic sex changes where the male shaman dons women’s clothes as part of the cult.

From Siberian shamanism, which is better described , it appears that there are three stages of ritual gender-crossing. In the first, the shaman dons a female hairstyle. In the second stage, the male shaman dons a woman’s suit, possibly with breast “implants”, and imitates women's movements and voice. In the third stage, the male shaman takes the gender-crossing social role of a woman and possibly marries a man . Such gender-crossing men are called “soft men” or “womanly men”. It is not quite as explicitly described in the sources of Sami religion, but according to a late Swedish tradition, the Sami noiade dressed in women's clothes. Whether this custom was in force for all Sami noiade is doubtful , but the custom has been identified archaeologically .

Noiade from Vivallen

In the West Heron Valley at a site named Vivallen, a Sami grave was found in a cemetery associated with a local settlement. The deceased were of Sami, Norse and mixed ancestry, but buried by the Sami practice. One of the deceased (burial 9) was a biological man in his 50s, buried in an outfit that could have been worn by a Norse noblewoman . The tomb is dated to the latter half of the 1100s. Due to the grave site's ethnically mixed nature, we can assume that those who laid the man into Grave No. 9 could not have been unaware of the status that effeminate men, according to the Icelandic medieval literature, had in Norse society in the Middle Ages . It does not seem that the deceased had been despised; on the contrary, it was the cemetery’s richest grave. The man from Grave No. 9 was also interpreted as a Sami noiade.

This archaeological finding may shed new light on a point Adam of Bremen wrote in his chronicles about 100 years before the noiade from Grave No. 9 was buried. Adam explained how the Sami peoples were practicing witchcraft, and he continues with the remark: “Among the wildest mountain travelers on the streets were women; from what I’ve heard, bearded.” It is not inconceivable that the “bearded  women” Adam of Bremen had heard of were similar to the noiade from Grave No. 9. Adam’s informant could easily, with a little twinkle in his eye, referred to someone wearing women’s clothes but with a distinctive beard shadow. Maybe it was even a widely known phenomenon in Norway at the time.

Thordis Skeggja

Snorri Sturlusson tells of a battle in 1161 between King Inge and Haakon Herdebred where Håkon's birth mother asked his wife to go into an oracular trance to give Haakon victory. The result of the trance journey was that Haakon was to attack at night and not during the day. Haakon followed this counsel, and it was indeed the only battle he won. His wife's name was Thordis Skeggja (or “Thordis the bearded”). Here is a story of a fortune-teller – one might even speak of a seið-women or volva , but with a beard . History does not record the ethnicity of his wife, but it is curious that Thordis Skeggja is chronological with the noiade from Vivallen. It would be tempting to interpret the two as the same , but it could not be done directly as Thordis Skeggja could easily have been a fictitious person . Snorri tells the story of the women and the oracular trance as hearsay, but he does not know himself whether he believes it.

The dispute between Haakon Herdebred and King Inge was a clash between two factions of the Norwegian civil war, where King Inge’s faction was supported by the church. The following year was Haakon killed in a battle against King Inge’s commander, Erling Skakke . After the battle Erling Skakke installed his own 10-year-old son, the grandson of the pilgrimage King Sigurd Jorsalafare , as Magnus Erlingsson the king of Norway. Magnus Erlingsson introduced later an appendix to the Gulating Law banning oracular trances and sorcery. One was simply stripped of all one’s legal rights if one did something like that. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that the story of the woman who made the vision quest for Haakon Herdebred is a propaganda story used to blacken his reputation in the civil war. The fact that Haakon was to attack at night can easily play on a reference to darkness . The nickname “Skeggja” (the bearded) is a generic epithet referring to a phenomenon that was already known; namely bearded fortune tellers or noaide living as women, whether they had Sami or Norse ethnicity. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the story is true. Haakon Herdebred’s birth mother may well have been a pagan . Haakon had primary support from Trøndelag, which was the place where opposition to Christianity was greatest .

The question to ask regarding the burial box on Vivallen is what allowed Norse women in 1100 to be buried in a Sami cemetery along with a noiade, in a time when it was forbidden to seek Sami fortune tellers? The name Vivallen comes from Old Norse vévølr meaning “shrine plain”. Not far away are other locations with cultural layers from the Viking Age and early Middle Ages with names like Hedningsgärdet , Hedningsbacken and Hedningsvallen . These are similar to Vivallen in that they also had stories of the Sami living with people of Norse origin. It could hardly be said that Christianity sat very deep in the hearts of Norse people who chose to settle with Sami “troll men”. On the contrary, it might have just been natural for those Norse people who braved the wrath of Christianity, following the tradition of exchanging knowledge about sorcery with the Sami, and then seeking political asylum with them.

Of course one can ask if it was only Sami noiade that exceeded the gender boundaries, or if it also applied to their Norse colleagues? Now, it probably was not that all Sami noiade were like the noiade from Vivallen, and this has not necessarily been the case for all Norse seiðmenn either, yet some of the oldest accusations of effeminacy in the Icelandic medieval literature compare it to the Volvas. The most famous is in the Lokasenna, where Odin is accused of practicing witchcraft as a sibyl. In the poem where Helgi Hund has Sinfjotli accusing his opponent Gudmundr of being a sibyl on Varinsø, Gudmundr was a warrior and therefore could suffer from an accusation of being unmanly. A seiðmann would not be affected to the same degree, because his nature was different than that of a warrior. When Sinfjotli pictured the Volva on Varinsø , it is quite feasible that it was because in the pre-Christian Norse culture, there was a perception that some biological men acted as volvas .