So, let’s begin with dismantling a thing that I wish I could say I can’t believe I’ve seen- yet, I have seen it time and time again. No, it really doesn’t strike me as unbelievable. Unbelievably stupid, yes- but, you have to bear in mind that much of what you see is this dumb hybridization. Essentially, Neo Pagans caught a little whiff of more intelligent, scholastic Heathenry and tried to add it to their potluck.
Your online shaming, your flame wars, and running your mouth does not mean shit. It isn’t “cultural” and it isn’t your religion, unless your religion is being a total asshole. Which, frankly, is a high probability. Yes, reputation matters. However, WHO you got the information about said reputation also matters- obviously. Calling someone out online, even if you are absolutely correct- is not flyting.
What is flyting?
Flyting is actually an interesting concept which really, transcends a few cultures. A few weeks ago, I was watching a Ken Burns documentary on Amazon Prime and they were discussing certain Native American cultures in the Old West. One quote that made me cackle was, the narrator reading from this young man’s journal- and he mentions that you didn’t want to return from a hunt empty handed- or the women would give you hell. In kinship systems- you really don’t want to be shamed in the eyes of women: because, well, you do that, you’re not passing your line down. (Though, if memory serves, many Native American tribes were actually matrilineal rather than patrilineal but this is a totally different rant.) In Scandinavian and Germanic cultures, it was not matrilineal- but, the role of women is important: and frequently in the texts we do see women adopting the role of flyting- which is essentially a very public shaming intended to elicit change. Though you do see this concept in a number of cultures- we’re going to take a look at it in the Heathen context.
Side note: again, trying to avoid the ranting- much of what you see about the role of women in “ancient heathen” societies is wishful thinking. While women were quite powerful, it was a more subtle power and there were still a lot of issues. It wasn’t the “equal and progressive” society many people would like to believe. The thing is- in trying to push this commentary: well meaning people are actually very much downplaying the actual power women did in fact hold and how they got it, as well as managed it.
Flyting wasn’t reserved for the women against the men: but there are a number of reasons why having a woman call you out like this was a very shameful thing: starting with the fact that women were not seen as equal. Though they did often handle the resources and their allocation, though they typically ran things on the ground so to speak: the attitudes weren’t nearly as liberal about these things as many people seem to believe. Though we do in fact see a handful of instances where a woman is in fact, flyting a man- it typically was seen man to man, for a number of reasons.
Ergi and Argr
I bring these issues with gender up because one of the most frequent- and most dire insults you’d find, is either ergi or argr. If you’re going to lob one of these in those cultures- you should be prepared: because a blood feud would likely ensue. This is how seriously these insults were taken. But what do they mean?
Ergi is the noun. Argr, on the other hand is an adjective- but essentially, they both mean the same thing: you’re not a man. You have no balls. You’re feminine.
It might also have meant you were gay or that you had been engaging in homosexual activities- but only if you were the bottom. It could also mean you screwed animals, or any number of gnarly insults and accusations. One, in particular, related to powerful women in particular and the fear that you might be seidr, a type of sorceress or witch: and if you practiced this they feared you might poison someone or you could bewitch them to a level that even being rumored of this was akin to murder, but it was a cowardly form of murder- not face to face. If you were a woman and you got called this, it was because you were rumored to or were actually sleeping around: which was also frowned upon.
Another way you might wind up a nithing- you might be disabled.
And, if you called someone this, they had every right to kill you to prove that was not true. If they succeeded in thwarting your accusation but didn’t kill you- you would then have to pay for falsely accusing them in some way.
This is, however, not flyting- nidding is a much, much more serious thing, clearly. Best case outcome of this particular shaming, if “proven” true: you were killed. Worst? You were outlawed, cast out of society- and nobody was allowed to help you in any way. To say your reputation was shit, is a bit of an understatement. Underneath all of these accusations, whichever it happened to be was the underlying insult: they were meaning to indicate you were in some way weak or cowardly. Scholars argue this a lot- but, the point here is: it wasn’t something you wanted to be called. Whether it was quite specific to sexual perversions or in making those accusations you meant it in a broader sense: yeah, you just didn’t want this to happen to you. If you did decide to get into it with someone in this way: it was a lot more serious than some low level shit talking.
Whatever the case: it does provide some understanding of how women were actually viewed in those societies. But, beyond that, if you look into it further, you’ll find that both the accuser and the accused faced serious consequence under the law, depending on the outcome. (Gulathing Law/Frostathing Law) Further, if you were to insult a man by way of calling him a female animal- say, bitch, you could be punished severely. If you simply called him a dog, for instance, you’d pay a lesser penalty and god fucking help you if you insulted a man by stating he’d given birth. You were just screwed.
Even if you get into nobility, later on: they were not immune to this and to be successfully accused meant you were in deep shit. To accuse without merit meant you were in deep shit.
My point here, however, is to establish the fact that though loads of people would love to believe contrarily: no, no, you really didn’t want a woman riding your ass, even in jest- because clearly: these cultures did not believe women were equal. Rather fortunately, though: we don’t live in those eras and, more than that: we’re not re-enacting, but re-constructing. So, you know, there are certain societal norms we can acknowledge and not continue the shitbaggery. Racism, ableism, and sexism are great examples of this. However, as I have said before: you cannot pretend those things did not occur. This is like saying you’re sorry somebody’s feelings got hurt, but you’re not sorry about what happened: acknowledging the frickin’ problem is the first step in resolving it, particularly when we are referring to those generational concerns.
But also important is in understanding this- reputation mattered and so, too, did the way that you talked about people or were talked about. Neither were without consequence.
Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!
Flyting on the other hand, is more or less ballbusting. In many cases, it was a competition to see who could talk the best shit while drinking. Like the above: the insults were often sexual in nature but not accusations. In Scotland, it was often literally “shit” because the insults often involved mention of fecal matter in some way. If we look at Beowulf- you’ll see what flyting is and it isn’t always shits and giggles: sometimes, it is the battle itself whereas other times, it’s used to get warriors good and riled up for it.
If a woman was in fact, doing this to you- she wasn’t really flyting you, but whetting: and, getting down to the nuts and bolts of what whetting is: to incite. I will probably write more on this and what it actually meant later.
The thing is, though: it wasn’t really pointless ballbusting and it tied into the reputation of those involved.
Going into Gisla-
So, what we see in the Gisla Saga, the example that springs to mind first- is not flyting. If you’ll go to about page five of the Gisla Saga– you’ll see the set up, essentially. I’m not sure what’s going on with DaSent’s translation in some places, here: but, you’ll get the idea. (I’m using the names used in this translation for clarity in this writing, though I think they’re mixed up.) In fact, as you scroll, you’ll note Daddy Dearest there hits Gisli with the insult on page six, stating he feels he has a daughter in him and not a son.
So, our protagonist in the Gisla Saga is Gisli. He is one of three sons of Thorbjorn- Ari and Thorkel being the other two. They’ve got this sister who is not only known for being a really smart cookie but she’s gorgeous. Well, a friend of Thorkel comes sniffing around- and, the rumors fly that Thordis, this sister, may be screwing the friend- this friend being Kolbein in the text here.
Gisli and his father are both very much, “Okay, so this shit will not fly because people think Thordis is a ho- and this looks bad on us, too” and he just kills him. His brother is decidedly upset about this. When Gisli’s dad asks what happened, ultimately, he says, “I killed him and he won’t be sniffing around anymore” to which, Dad responds “Cool. So, I do have sons after all.” Thorkel’s kind of calmed down because Gisli gave him his sword, but…
He moves out of the family home but also, he talks to Skeggi- another man, and he tells him, if he avenges Kolein, who happens to be related to Skeggi- he can have Thordis. Skeggi’s pretty excited about this prospect so he brings a party to Thordis’s father and promptly requests that he be allowed to bang her. Thorbjorn is less than thrilled with this, and anyway, Thordis is like “Uh, let’s not, I want this other guy, Bard.”
Skeggi is now pretty pissed about this, and so, he calls for a blood feud against Bard. He accepts, saying he wouldn’t deserve Thordis if he refused: except, then he chickens out, recognizing that Skeggi is going to fuck him up.
This is not good. Gisli, though, to a certain degree feels like he should take responsibility- so, he says he will undergo the duel for him- which is still not exactly a proud, shining moment for him: but, in backing out, Bard has shamed all of them- not just himself. So, Skeggi shows up for the duel, realizes what’s going on and is again, pretty pissed. So, what does he do?
Before I get into this, bear in mind I am interpreting the material, these are definitely not ideals I hold with. This is just what it was, and needs to be emphasized in terms of the seriousness of the offenses along the lines of those societal norms at that time.
Has a friend create statues of both Bard and Gisli- he’s setting up a nid, here. Though you tend to see this more with nidpoles- that is, a curse involving a large pole with an animal (A horse, often) head on top: these are very serious, very public declarations. So, he is telling this man, Refr that he wants them snuggled up close, one behind the other: essentially, he’s commissioning a statue of the two engaged in what appears to be butt sex. Gisli hears these things and gets pissed- so, he jumps out of where he was listening, challenging Skeggi to combat: and hacks his leg off, thus refuting the allegation Skeggi was about to make and redeeming himself.
The thing of it is, though- for Skeggi to commission statues went a bit above and beyond simply accusing: he’s engaging in something called “wood shame” or use of a carved nid which, essentially, is a very clearly documented shaming. More than that: while he’s mostly insulting Bard here- on the bottom, he is also insulting Gisli and he wants it very clear they’re both to be humiliated.
The thing is, if you get into other texts, stories and sagas, you find that being the top in a homosexual scenario wasn’t an insult to the person on top: no, more often than not this was used as a grievous insult all on its own: whoever was doing it, was thereby, making a woman of you, in the most literal sense they could. There are also many, many examples of this used in flyting- wherein, one guy insults another by intimating that he has in fact, mounted him. Apparently- to be the one mounting is not insulting, but being mounted is the worst. Gisli hadn’t originally wanted to fight, either- and at the point of the commissioning, Skeggi is unaware he’s even there. I’m not entirely sure, then, given the other references why this would be humiliating to Gisli- but, it was.
In writing about this, Tacitus also tells us of his observations that in Germanic culture- to be seen as unmanly would warrant being drowned in the bog- but, when he does so, he fleshes this out a bit. It’s less about sexuality and more about what that sexuality means about the morality of the person being punished.
Not the Only Moral Code Here
As we go on into the Gisla Saga, you’re going to find that this wasn’t the only way you’d be outlawed or lose your honor. I’m not illustrating these things to somehow condone this mentality at all- what I am illustrating, however, is the basis here of how important both reputation and shame were in these cultures: but also, why. We will also get into whose opinions were taken seriously- and whose were not and why. Before we do that, however, I think in my next post on this- we need to talk about another very common misconception amongst neo-pagans:
If you truly think there is no concept of sin in heathenry: this is a big, stupid lie you tell yourself to escape accountability- and how ironic that is, given, accountability is pretty much at the heart of it all.