Equality and Gender in Heathenry
A while back, John T Mainer wrote a great piece called “Women in Heathenry”, which nicely summarized some of the common shortcomings of the Heathen community regarding gender equality. The responses were both passionate and widely varied, but one incredibly common reply really baffled me. I saw countless fellow Heathens leaving comments like: “I’m not a feminist! I believe men and women are equals!”. At first, I assumed that this was either a non-native English speaker or just some fluke who, strangely, did not understand that he had just contradicted himself. However, as more and more comments like this rolled in, I began to realize that (for some reason I cannot fathom) these people really didn’t have any idea what the word “Feminism” ACTUALLY MEANS. So today I’m going to go into the definition of the term, and how it does and does not apply to modern Heathenry.
Now, to be perfectly clear: I am not going to try and tell you that the ancient Norse/Germanic Heathens were Feminists. The ancient followers of the old ways had a very different concept of gender than most modern westerners, (particularly Americans) so to try and apply our modern understanding of gender roles and stereotypes to their mindset would be inaccurate. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t compare and contrast two cultures and note the commonalities, which is exactly what I’m going to do here, in order to help explain this term that so many Heathens seem to misunderstand for some reason.
Skaði as a Feminist Role Model
The Lore has a lot of great role models, but if you want to see what (modern) Feminism really looks like, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than the goddess Skaði. Skaði is a giantess who eventually becomes a member of the Aesir. She is unconcerned with gender roles or expectations and doesn’t allow others to define her. Despite the brevity of her story and relatively minor roll in the whole of the Eddas, she comes across as a fully developed and powerful person.
She’s a Warrior and a Hunter
Skaði is most often revered as a goddess of the hunt, winter, and vengeance. After the Aesir killed her father Þjazi for his gold, she decided to seek a wergild*. So the Lore says that Skaði donned a helmet, some chain mail, and took up “all the weapons of war” and MARCHED ON ASGARD. She didn’t take a Jötunn army, she didn’t sneak in the back, she took up her weapons and marched on the front gate by herself. This is the citadel of the Aesir! Home to Óðinn the Allfather, Tyr the god of war, as well as Þórr the ‘Giant Slayer’; and this one lone giantess decided to take them all on. The Aesir were so intimidated by her that they offered to give her whatever she wanted as restitution. One lone giantess against all the forces of Asgard and Asgard surrendered.
She’s Unrestricted in her Sexuality
Skaði has a number of lovers over the course of various legends. She was briefly married to Njörðr, god of the sea, but divorced him when she discovered that they could not live together happily. She then has a number of flings with other Aesir including Ullr, Óðinn, and possibly even Loki. At no point is this ever questioned or denounced in the Lore. Skaði belongs to no one and sleeps with whom she chooses, just as any of the men among the Aesir are known to do. In fact, the only person to ever call her sexual relations into question was Loki, who ended up bound in his son’s entrails and tormented by the dripping venom of a serpent for the offense!
She’s a Mother
Skaði has a number of children with various gods among the Aesir. Most of these are never named, but we know she ends up with a sizable family. This does nothing to hamper her free spirit or her notoriety as a fierce fighter. No one ever questions how she can be both of these things at once, it’s simply accepted that she can be both a devoted mother AND a still perform her duties as a warrior for the Aesir. On top of that, her role as a mother is never used to put an end to her love life. Even after having several children with Odin, she still has a number of other relationships despite being a full-time mother and a warrior.
So what does this have to do with Feminism?
She is treated as an equal by the men of the Aesir. No one ever questions her role or her place as a woman. She’s never hounded by questions of how she manages to juggle her family life and her work life. She’s never shamed for having multiple sexual partners, or for being unwilling to ‘settle down’ after her divorce. She has depth and is accepted as she is. She is both beautiful and fierce, intelligent and caring, free-spirited and loyal. She’s a fully developed person who can’t be fit neatly into some standardized little box of femininity.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of her story is that her gender isn’t ignored, repressed, or replaced. She’s never made out to be a man, or ‘manly’. Her gender is never belittled or diminished in little caveats like: she’s strong ‘for a woman’ or fierce ‘despite being a woman’. She’s recognized as a woman, but given the same freedoms and treatment as her male counterparts. In short, she is treated as a person.
THIS IS FEMINISM
It’s not the belief that women are better than men, it’s got nothing to do with being ‘PC’, it’s got nothing to do with political leanings, and it’s not a plea for special treatment. It is a demand for equality. Feminism is the right to be viewed as a human being rather than a representation of your gender. When people argue against Feminism, what they are actually saying is that they are opposed to treating women as people. As I said before, it would be inaccurate to say that the ancient Heathens were Feminists, however, Skaði is just one of many examples in which we can see that the concept of equality between men and women was a significant part of the culture. Our traditions, Lore, and gods all support the idea that men and women are equally competent and capable people. If that’s what you believe, then congratulations, you’re a Feminist, regardless of whether or not you’d ever refer to yourself as such or identify with any modern political parties.
*Wergild- An applicable Saxon term meaning “restitution via blood or gold, usually in response to the death of a family member.” While the word itself is not Norse in origin, the Norse did often apply the same concept.
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