The Kingdom of Dasak – History and Politics

The challenge for Day Two of the Worldbuilding Blogfest is to describe the history and politics of your world. So lets begin with the map again:

Dasak_color_map_2

Three thousand years ago, this kingdom was home to humans who worshiped the Taaweh. I’ll be giving more information about the Taaweh tomorrow, but for now let’s just say that they were the original gods. Then a rival tribe of gods called the Stronni moved into the valley from the northeast and declared war. After two thousand years of fighting, much of the valley had been laid waste and the human civilization had been reduced to small bands struggling for survival.

Then the Taaweh disappeared and the Stronni declared victory.  The humans were allowed to rebuild their civilization under the guidance of the Stronni, who taught some of their magic to their new charges, in exchange for obedience and worship.  (More on religion and magic tomorrow.)

The ruins of the ancient keeps were rebuilt and walled cities grew up around them.  These were ruled over by warlords known as dekan.  The dekan vied for power for several centuries, until the warrior king Khemed united what would later be called the West Kingdom, from the Great Chasm to the ocean, and forced the most powerful dekan in the east to pay him tribute.  He proclaimed himself emperor and the Old Empire was born (though of course, it was merely “the Empire” at the time).

Several generations of emperors followed after Emperor Khemed.  The empire expanded to include the East Kingdom, roads were built to connect the city-keeps, and the Emperor Salekh Bridge was built to span the chasm.  This both facilitated trade throughout the empire and strengthened the emperor’s hold on the East Kingdom.  It was the great achievement of the empire, along with the great temples built to honor the Stronni.

About a hundred and fifty years after the death of Emperor Khemed, Emperor Agrehn foolishly attempted to imprison the ömem—women dedicated to the Stronni goddess, Imen.  These women possessed the ability to see through the Eye of Atnu by day and the Eye of Druma by night, and they provided their services to the emperor and the rulers of the city-keeps for extravagant fees.  Agrehn thought that he could force them to serve only him, but the ömem retaliated against him.  They chose the best of his guards and promised them great power, if they would swear to serve the ömem and betray the emperor.  In one bloody night, Emperor Agrehn and all of his most loyal nobles were slain, and the samöt came into being—a deadly brotherhood of assassins magically linked to the Sight of the ömem.

For centuries, the empire was subject to internal conflict as emperors rose to the throne, only to quickly fall to coups or assassination.  Then in the eighth century after the Great War, the Salekh Bridge collapsed under disrepair and effectively cut off the East Kingdom from the capital, gü-Khemed, on the western shore.

The emperor was forced to appoint a regent in the east.  The vek, as the regent was called, soon became immensely powerful in his own right. Though the dekan have diminished in power over the centuries, they still rule their respective city-keeps (known as tondekan), paying tribute to the emperor in the west, or the vek in the east.  The Kingdom of Dasak is now effectively two kingdoms and civil war is threatening, as tension mounts between the emperor and the vek.

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The Kingdom of Dasak – geography and climate

This week, I’m participating in a fun idea for a bloghop that Sharon Bayliss came up with: to blog every day about a different aspect of the worldbuilding you’ve done for a novel (or series of novels)!

The challenge for Day 1 is to describe the geography and climate of your world.  The world I’ve chosen to describe is the Kingdom of Dasak from my Dreams of Fire and Gods trilogy.

The Kingdom of Dasak is much like medieval Europe in terms of climate and the types of vegetation and animals one might find, though it is just a bit different, inhabited by creatures like the ghusat and the ten’nak (described below).  The trilogy takes place in late summer and early fall, so the nights are growing chilly, but it is still possible to camp outdoors without much hardship.  Winters in Dasak are moderate, but they do have snow.  The kingdom occupies the basin of a large valley, bordered by mountains to the north and uncharted forests to the south.  The capital is on the southwestern shore, beyond which lies a vast ocean.  To the extreme northeast of the valley lies a trade route to other kingdoms that few in Dasak have ever seen.

First, let’s take a look at the map:

Dasak_color_map_2

The entire kingdom was united at one time, when the roads built by the Old Empire still provided relatively easy passage from east to west.  But two hundred years ago, the enormous bridge that spanned the chasm between Mat’zovya (a city founded upon the fishing industry of Lake Zovya) and the Dead Forest (the brownish area in the middle of the map) collapsed.  Now the East Kingdom is ruled by the emperor’s regent, known as the vek, while the emperor resides in zü-Khemed in the West Kingdom.  (More on the political structure tomorrow.)

There are many more cities and villages than those labeled on the map.  Those are simply the ones Sael, Koreh and Geilin come across in their travels.

A place best avoided:

Old Mat’zovya used to be Mat’zovya several centuries before the bridge collapsed.  But the accumulation of silt over time caused the lake to retreat from its boundaries, causing bogs to form on both the eastern and western sides.  In the east, the bogs are still there, causing the route from the lake to the forest to be treacherous.  A path through the bogs is marked by small stone obelisks, but they can be difficult to see in the mist that tends to settle there.  On the western side, the bogs eventually dried up and became fields.  So the city was relocated to remain near the shore of the lake.  The old town was allowed to fall into ruin and is now the home of wayfarers, thieves and cutthroats.

Harleh Plain:

The circular walled city of Harleh, which can be seen in the northeast, lies in the middle of a large flat plain called Harleh Plain.  This was once a great forest, but the Great War of the gods, a thousand years ago, laid waste to it and the ground was so tainted by foul magic that nothing would grow there for centuries.  Now it is miles of gently sloping hills covered in grass and shrubbery.  However, at the end of Dreams (the first book of the trilogy) this all changes, and the ancient forest returns once again, springing up almost in an instant and surrounding Harleh.

The Mountains:

The mountains are home to the gods known as the Stronni.  These are forbidden to humans and no one who wanders into them is ever heard from again.  It is best to avoid even straying into the foothills.

Some of the local flora and fauna:

In addition to harmless gamebirds, such as the speckled kikid, and pack animals such as the ghet and the donegh, there are more dangerous creatures one might encounter in Dasak, the result of magics unleashed by the gods thousands of years ago that poisoned the land and the waters:

The Dead Forest is a place entirely held together by magic.  Nothing lives there.  The trees are dead, the water is rank and stagnant, and there are no insects.  The only “animals” there are the wretched demen — walking corpses comprised of parts of animals that wandered into the forest and died there.  Occasionally one might kill a human and the next time someone reports seeing it, it may have a human arm or head attached.

Lake Zovya is home to a species of enormous aquatic serpent with a head bristling with horns, known to the locals as a ghusat.  They keep to the deep waters, so fishermen prefer to keep close to shore, unless it is necessary to cross the lake.  Fisherman will charge a considerable sum to transport someone across, because ghusats are known to destroy boats.

In the bogs on the eastern side of Lake Zovya, one might come across a ten’nak.  These are a species of plant which feed off the life force of passing animals or humans that drown in the bogs.  What makes them dangerous is their ability to affect the mind and make a man think he hears a voice calling from a certain direction, or that he sees a friend waiting for him.  Before he realizes, he may find that he’s strayed out onto the shifting “ground” of the bog, where he soon falls through to drown in the underlying muck.

The Eyes:

Dasak is looked over — literally — by the sun and its single moon.  According to legend, the Stronni goddess, Imen, plucked out the eye of her husband’s faithful manservant, Atnu, and threw it into the sky, where it became a ball of blazing light, watching over the land by day and reporting everything it sees to the gods.  It is called the Eye of Atnu.  She then plucked out the eye of her own servant, Druma, and this became a light in the night sky, spying on the land during the night.  But Druma is elderly and unable to keep her eyelid from drooping.  So once a month the Eye of Druma is fully open and once a month it is fully closed.  Anything touched by the light of the Eyes can be seen by Imen, so those who wish to remain hidden must keep to the shadows.

I hope that was an interesting look at the geography and environment of the kingdom.  Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at its history and political system!

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How would Kol and Thorbrand celebrate Yule?

yule

Gleðileg Jól

Though the earliest recorded feast celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th dates back to the fourth century A.D., the celebration of Christmas didn’t really take hold until the Middle Ages, after the end of the Viking Age in Europe.  However, at the time Seidman takes place (995 A.D. – 1000 A.D.), Viking Age Iceland had been celebrating the tradition of Yule or Jól for several centuries.  Nobody knows how far back the tradition goes, but certainly it dates back to before the 6th century.  (Not in Iceland specifically — Iceland wasn’t settled until 870 A.D — but it was brought there by settlers.)  Also, there are various speculations about the meaning of the word Jól (and it’s variants), but nobody really knows what it meant.  Some people say it’s derived from a word meaning “wheel,” as in the “wheel of the year,” though I don’t think there’s any real proof of that.

It is from the Norse cultures that we get the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Yule lasted from the winter solstice (roughly the 21st of December) through the beginning of January.  In modern Iceland, it goes from Christmas to January 6th, but I believe that’s more modern.*

During this time, the Icelanders feasted and drank — a lot.  In the Sagas, there are several mentions of “drinking Yule.”  And yes, Kol and Thorbrand would have been able to drink alcohol.  In a country and time when it wasn’t uncommon to be married by 15 or 16, nobody stopped a teenager from quaffing ale along with the rest of the family.  Bees are not native to Iceland, so honey would have been imported.  Likewise, the honey-based mead popular in other Norse regions (though generally among the wealthy) would have been imported, so the most common alcoholic beverage would have been ale, made from fermented grain.

The most common meats would have been mutton and pork, with a bit of beef thrown in.  During Yule, a boar would be sacrificed to the god, Freyr, for prosperity over the coming year.  Norsemen would place their hands on the boar before the sacrifice and make solemn pledges about what they intended to accomplish over the next year, so that the animal’s spirit could take their promises up to the god when it was slain.  These were very serious oaths and to break them would offend the god.  The animal would then have its head carried into the hall ceremoniously, and the rest of it would be carved up or stewed for the feast.

There would of course also be plenty of singing.  The Icelanders cherished good singers and good storytellers, who made those long, dark winter nights more bearable.  At this time of year, the sun rises around 11:30 a.m. and sets just a few hours later.

The tradition of wassailing — going door-to-door and singing for free food and drink — began at least a few hundred years before Kol’s time, but it probably wouldn’t have been popular in a country where the farmsteads were fairly isolated in the winter.  I grew up in New England and we had cars, but we were still disinclined to travel very far in midwinter.  People did visit, of course (we’re back in Iceland now), and when they did they probably stayed a few days.  Another tradition that may have been around in Kol’s time would have been that of the Yule Goat, a straw figure of a goat made from the last sheaves of the harvest and possibly derived from Thor’s goats, Tanngrisnir (“Teeth-barer”) and Tanngnjóstr (“Teeth-grinder”).  It was brought from house to house to bless the people who lived there.  But as with wassailing, I’m skeptical about this “house to house” thing in the dead of winter.

Thorbrand’s family might very well have had a Yule Log, though.  Trees didn’t grow very tall in Iceland, but there certainly were trees.  So the custom of bringing one into the longhouse, more or less whole, to keep feeding into the hearth fire for as long as it would burn may have been part of the Yule celebration.

One Icelandic Yule tradition that was most likely not part of Kol and Thorbrand’s Yule, because it doesn’t date back before the 17th century, is that of the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinar).  I mention them because they’re such an interesting Icelandic tradition.  The Yuletide Lads are the sons of two ogres, Grýla and Leppalúði, who appear in folklore as far back as the 13th century.  These two ogres devoured bad children, so Icelandic parents used them to frighten their kids into behaving.  The Yuletide Lads were similarly used to frighten children in the old days, but by now they’ve come to be known as fairly harmless pranksters, causing mischief but not doing any real harm.

They each arrive on a different day of the Yule season and hang around the household for about twelve days.  They are often accompanied by the Yuletide Cat, a large beast who has the odd habit of devouring children and servants who haven’t received a new set of clothes for Yule — because if they were good, they would have gotten a present of new clothes from their parents or masters.

I’ve taken the liberty of swiping this handy table from a Wikipedia article with only slight modifications.  It lists the most common names of the Yuletide Lads (taken from a popular poem called Jólasveinarnir, written in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum):

Icelandic Name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjastaur Sheep-Cote Clod Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. December 12 December 25
Giljagaur Gully Gawk Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. December 13 December 26
Stúfur Stubby Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them. December 14 December 27
Þvörusleikir Spoon-Licker Steals Þvörur (wooden spoons with long handles) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition. December 15 December 28
Pottaskefill Pot-Scraper Steals leftovers from pots. December 16 December 29
Askasleikir Bowl-Licker Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their askur (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals. December 17 December 30
Hurðaskellir Door-Slammer Likes to slam doors, especially during the night. December 18 December 31
Skyrgámur Skyr-Gobbler A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr (an Icelandic food similar to yogurt.  I wrote more about it here). December 19 January 1
Bjúgnakrækir Sausage-Swiper Would hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked. December 20 January 2
Gluggagægir Window-Peeper A voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal. December 21 January 3
Gáttaþefur Doorway-Sniffer Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (“leaf bread”). December 22 January 4
Ketkrókur Meat-Hook Uses a hook to steal meat. December 23 January 5
Kertasníkir Candle-Stealer Follows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days was made of tallow and thus edible). December 24 January 6

So, as they say in Iceland:  Gleðileg Jól (“Happy Yule!”)

*NOTE:  If you’re getting the impression that I’m winging it…well, let’s just say I didn’t have time to dig up too many sources, so this article is mostly from memory, with tidbits from a few easily accessible websites thrown in.  If you find any inaccuracies, feel free to send me a note.  🙂

Some interesting links:

An Icelandic article about the Yuletide Lads

A nice informal Icelandic website about Yule

Recipes for Icelandic Yule foods from the site above

A more detailed recipe for laufabrauð

“Seidman” has received two honorary mentions at the Rainbow Awards!

rainbowawards_hon_mention3

So yesterday the winners of the Rainbow Awards were announced.  The Rainbow Awards are given out by a panel of judges (quite a large panel, in fact) on the popular Elisa Rolle review site.  I don’t know how many years they’ve been going on for now, but they’re pretty big, with a huge list of books in the competition, so it’s really an honor to win.

Seidman didn’t win, but it did get an honorable mention in two categories:

BEST LGBT YOUNG ADULT / COMING OF AGE

and

BEST GAY DEBUT NOVEL/BOOK!

In honor of this, my publisher has discounted Seidman by 25% for the entire week at All Romance eBooks!

In other news, Dreams of Fire and Gods: Dreams has gone into galley proof, which means that it’s mostly done — we’re just checking over the formatted novel for typos and other errors.  It will be available on December 15th!

Coinciding with the release, I (James Erich, in case you’ve forgotten who I am) will be doing my first online chat!    It will be on the Harmony Ink Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/HarmonyInkPress

So come and say hello!  And win free stuff!  We’ll be giving away a free eBook copy of Dreams of Fire and Gods: Dreams, as well as some original sketches of the main characters, Sael and Koreh, by Beau Shemery!  I think it’s from 1pm EST to 6pm EST, but I’ll double check that and post the hours here again, when I’m more certain.  The first Harmony Ink chat was yesterday, featuring Beau Shemery (in his author guise, but with plenty of giveaways of his sketches), discussing his steampunk novel, The Seventh of London, and it went pretty well.

Lastly, I’ve submitted Seidman for consideration in the Lambda Literary Awards.  As they say, you can’t win, if you don’t enter.  The competition is steep, but the award is prestigious.  Even being a finalist would be amazing!

Great review for “Seidman”!

Jessica Chambers over at Rainbow Book Reviews has written a wonderful review for Seidman!

The thing that struck me as particularly good about this novel was how we get to see Kol and Thorbrand grow up, following their progress from carefree boys interested only in each other, to mature young men with their own responsibilities. Though the story does have a strong fantasy element, the developing relationship between the heroes is incredibly realistic, taking into account the attitudes towards homosexuality at the time, and is in fact one of the most poignant I’ve come across in a while.

Read the whole review here!

National Coming Out Day!

In honor of National Coming Out Day, I’ll be giving away a free eBook copy of my historical gay Viking novel, Seidman!  Just post a comment here between now and Sunday night and I’ll pick a winner at random!

In Viking Age Iceland, where boys are expected to grow into strong farmers and skilled warriors, there is little place for a sickly twelve-year-old boy like Kol until he catches the eye of a seið-woman—a sorceress—and becomes her apprentice. Kol travels to the sorceress’s home, where her grandson, Thorbrand, takes Kol under his wing. Before long Kol discovers something else about himself that is different—something else that sets him apart as unmanly: Kol has fallen in love with another boy.

But the world is changing in ways that threaten those who practice the ancient arts. As Kol’s new life takes him across the Norse lands, he finds that a new religion is sweeping through them, and King Olaf Tryggvason is hunting down and executing sorcerers. When a decades-old feud forces Thorbrand to choose between Kol and his duty to his kinsman, Kol finds himself cast adrift with only the cryptic messages of an ancient goddess to guide him to his destiny—and possibly to his death.

How to Insult Your Friends Like a Viking!

One of the criticisms I’ve received about Seidman is that the dialog between Kol and Thorbrand felt a little too “modern.”  This is a perfectly valid criticism, if it brings the reader out of the story.  But it was a deliberate artistic choice on my part, so I’d like to explain my reasoning.

I’ve read a bunch of books on Vikings, in which everyone speaks like Conan the Barbarian or a character from The Lord of the Rings — rather stilted and formal, and using the exclamation “Fool!” quite a bit.  Now, I’m a big fan of Conan and LOTR, but I don’t think people ever really talked that way.  Like the fact that all films about Vikings are scored with heavy kettle drums, low brass that didn’t even exist before the Renaissance and chorsuses of men shouting, “Huh!”, this is simply a modern shorthand for historical dialog.

I suspect the thing that seems the most jarring to some readers are the insults Kol and Thorbrand toss around.  In several places, they use the word, “dummy” or “stupid” and these can break the illusion of the book being a historical novel.  Perhaps words like “dullard” or “fool” or “simpleton” would be more in keeping with the tone of a historical.  (And in fact the adult characters in Seidman do tend to talk a bit more like that.)

But in reality, Kol would not say “dullard” or “fool” or “dummy” in any context.  He doesn’t speak English.  He would say fífl, which translates to…wait for it…”dullard” or “simpleton” or “dummy”.  Maybe “idiot.”  But to Kol and Thorbrand, the way they speak to one another would be perfectly natural and easy to their ears.  Teenagers, no matter what the time period, don’t speak formally to one another.  (Well, unless they’re raised in high society, perhaps.)  So why translate it formally?  Why not just make it colloquial and informal, as it would sound to them?  That was my reasoning for making Kol and Thorbrand talk the way they do in the novel.

But at this point you may be wondering, just how did the Norse insult each other?  This is important to know, if you ever find yourself sucked back through a time portal.  So, leaving out some inappropriately vulgar ones, here are a few common insults in Old Icelandic:

dunga (DOON-gah) — a useless fellow
eldhúsfífl (EHLD-hoos-feef-uhl) — “hearthfire idiot”, an idiot who sits by the fire all day, a good-for-nothing
fífl (FEEF-uhl) — fool, idiot
gløggvingr (GLOHG-ving-uhr) — stingy person
hraumi (HROWM-ee) — braggart
níðingr (NEETH-ing-uhr) — villain, vile person
slápr (SLAHP-uhr) — a good-for-nothing, lazy person
vámr (VAHM-uhr) — loathsome person
vargdropi (VAHRG-drohp-ee) — son of an outlaw* 
veslingr (VEHS-ling-uhr) — puny wretch

*NOTE: vagr (“outlaw”) also means “wolf”.  The Norse weren’t fond of wolves.

It was also popular to call people after various animals, such as dogs or sows, or to say that they were the sons or daughters of these animals.

But beware!  If you start throwing these insults around in Viking Age Scandinavia, you’d better hope the button on your time portal wristband isn’t broken!

(My gratitude to the members of the Old Norse Yahoo! group norse_course for their posts on this subject.)

What Was It Like to be a Gay Viking?

I’ve been posting a lot about being gay in a Christian world lately, because it is after all what most young people in this country have to deal with as they’re coming to terms with their sexuality.  But as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am no longer Christian.  Furthermore, religion in general isn’t the main thrust of this blog or of my YA novels.  No doubt relgion will come up again, but for now I thought I’d cover a topic that readers of Seidman might find interesting:

What Was It Like to be Gay in Viking Age Iceland and Scandinavia?

WARNING:  Though I’ve attempted to keep this discussion from becoming too graphic, it does contain some referrences to sexual practices.  It really couldn’t be avoided.  Anyone old enough to read Seidman (recommended 14+) should be old enough to read this post.

I’ve had people try to tell me that there were no gay people in the Viking Age.  This is flatly ridiculous.  First of all, there have always been people with same-sex attractions, throughout history, all over the world.  Always.  Anyone who thinks homosexuality suddenly appeared out of nothing in the past century simply hasn’t bothered to crack a book on the subject.

Secondly, we know that people experienced same-sex attraction in Viking Age cultures, because they had words to describe it and laws to regulate it.  You don’t make something illegal, if it doesn’t exist to begin with.

So how did the Norse actually feel about homosexuality?  Well, the answer is a bit complex.  In general, they didn’t approve of it, which isn’t much of a surprise.  But like many cultures, they mistakenly equated homosexuality with a lack of masculinity, as if being attracted to men (if you’re a man) somehow makes you behave in a “womanly” manner, and likewise being attracted to women (if you’re a woman) somehow makes you “mannish.”  (Obviously, this attitude is still with us in modern western culture.)

But this is where it got a little weird.

The key to understanding the Norse attitude towards same-sex attraction lies in their concept of “manliness.”  We don’t have much evidence one way or another that the Norse gave much thought to same-sex attraction or other forms of sexual contact besides anal intercourse between two people of the same gender.  But we do know that they were obsessed with manliness.

Men had to behave in a masculine fashion (and conversely, women had to behave in a feminine fashion).  Men who acted effeminitely really upset people and in some cases were put to death.  A similar fate awaited women who wore men’s clothing!  And for a man to be accused of being effeminite was a horrible insult — so horrible that the accuser could be challenged to a duel to the death, if he couldn’t prove his accusation, and the law would not protect him.

Two of the words commonly used to describe “effeminite” men in the Sagas are ergi (a noun) and argr (the adjectival form of ergi).  The definition of these words is uncertain, because they are used in so many contexts.  In general, it appeared to refer to a man allowing himself to be used sexually by another man.  (In other words, a man who took the passive role in anal intercourse.)  We might translate ergi as “effeminacy” and argr as “effeminate.”

But there were other usages that suggested somewhat different meanings.  For instance, when used to describe a woman, it meant that she was lecherous or immodest — in other words, too masculine.  It was also said that old age made a man argr and the god, Oðinn, was said to become argr after practicing seiðr.  (Technically, the phrasing was that the practice of seiðr was accompanied by a great degree of ergi.)  However, I seriously doubt that this meant old men suddenly turned gay or Oðinn became effeminite after performing trance magic.

What does make sense is that being old might make a man frail and performing trance magic might make a man feel temporarily weak.  As with the case of women who were called ergi or argr, the main implication appears to have been that a person was violating gender taboos.  The terms were also sometimes applied to men who were incapable of fathering children — another “failure” to be masculine — and argr was also synonymous with cowardice.

So the next question might be, did this association of ergi and argr with masculinity provide a loophole of sorts?  Did it mean that a man might have sex with other men, as long as he was still verifiably masculine?

It might have.

We know that Norsemen often violated male prisoners or slaves, and there did not appear to be a stigma associated with doing this.  (Yet it was still one more reason that being on the “bottom” had such a horrible stigma attached to it — because it was allowing another man to treat you like a slave or a defeated prisoner.)  We also know that there were male prostitutes who served men, and they seemed to have been regarded with contempt.  Yet men did avail themselves of their services.  And in Snorri Sturlusson’s Edda, a man named Sinfjotli boasts that he impregnated another man (as an insult to the second man), which might not be something he would boast about, if being a “top” had any great stigma attached to it.

So it may be that there were certain contexts in which sex between people of the same gender was considered acceptable or at least ignored.  Keep in mind that the only references we have to homosexuality concern accusations of anal intercourse.  We have no record at all of how the Norse felt about mutual masturbation or oral sex.

It was also not unheard of for men to live together as “bachelors” once they were past the age where they were expected to marry and father children.  While these would not have been open same-sex relationships, advanced age might have made it possible for others to look the other way.

One last point to keep in mind:  all of the information we have about Norse attitudes toward homosexuality comes from Christians who wrote about the Viking Age centuries after the events they were describing, and by this point homosexuality was widely condemned by the Christian Church.  It’s difficult to know how much the writers’ personal religious beliefs may have colored their accounts of their ancestors.

Resources:

Probably the best source of information on this subject is Preben M. Sørenson’s The Unmanly Man:  Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society, but that can be hard to come by and it’s somewhat dry reading.  A more accessible discussion of the subject can be found at the Viking Answer Lady site:

The Viking Answer Lady doesn’t appear to be updating her site anymore, which is sad, because she really knows her stuff.  But as long as the site is still up, it’s a fantastic reference for a lot of aspects of Norse culture.

The Research That Went Into “Seidman”

There’s very little point in challenging reader comments on your novel.  It can easily blow up into an argument and lead to not only that reader but other readers getting a bad taste in their mouth whenever they think of you.  Even if you win, you lose.

But a reader recently commented that they thought the mythological parts of Seidman were dubious and I feel I should address this, at least here on my blog.

I’ve been researching Norse mythology and Viking Age culture for over twenty-five years.  In college, I read books about the myths and began delving into it seriously a few years later.  When I ran out of books from resellers in the USA that treated the subject of ancient Norse religion in depth (as opposed to retellings of the myths or New Age books on rune magic), I found myself ordering from academic presses in Scandinavia and Iceland, as well as the UK.

I’m only able to read English fluently, but that still gave me access to books by Neil Price, Jesse Byock, Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, and Jennie Blain. I’m not claiming that reading these authors makes me or anyone else an expert, but their work is exceptional and I highly recommend their books — especially Byock’s books on life in Viking Age Iceland and Price’s hefty tome The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. 

I have also, of course, read many books that I would not recommend, which would include quite a large body of work from the 1800s, a time period which was notorious for pompous scholars who loved to inject quotes from Latin and French into their work (disdaining to translate them, because all smart people naturally know these languages), while neglecting to back up any of their outlandish claims with citations from reliable sources.  Much of the distortions of Norse mythology that have found their way into modern texts, such as the preposterous assertion that Freyja and Gullveig are one and the same goddess, have come from these books.

Throw into this mix the fact that my husband and I did at least put some effort into learning Old Icelandic and translating several chapters from some Icelandic sagas (mostly Hrafnkell’s Saga) into English.  I am now in the habit of looking up any passage I don’t fully understand in one of the sagas or Eddas in the original Old Icelandic (well, they’ve usually been normalized for spelling) in order to verify that the English translation I’m reading is truly accurate.  (Often, it proves impossible to tell exactly what the original author meant.)  The two stanzas from the Voluspa that appear in Seidman during Kol’s initiation were translated by my husband from the Old Icelandic, since I was concerned about copyright violation from any of the translations we had available.  (Of course, it comes out nearly the same as the Bellows translation.)

This does not mean I’m any kind of an expert and it doesn’t mean that anybody should take Seidman to be some kind of authoritative document on the practice of Norse religion.  However, I spent years piecing together a plausible reconstruction of Norse religious practice.  I didn’t just read a couple books and wing it.

One area in which my interpretation of Norse mythology differs from that of many others interested in this study is in the way I view the dísir and the alfar.  From everything I’ve read, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are connected to ancestral spirits — the dísir being female spirits and the alfar being male spirits.  Many might find this odd, since the idea is rarely presented in books about the Norse gods, but there are many references that support this notion, as these two Wikipedia articles can attest:

Dísir

Alfar

If those articles leave you with the impression that it’s all a confused muddle, then you’ve stumbled upon one of the Great Truths of Norse religion.  (And no, I don’t get all of my information from Wikipedia, but it often presents us with a good summation of a topic.)  The texts are not consistent; they are not universal.  The alfar were not viewed the same in Iceland as they were in Norway or Denmark, and those perceptions changed over time.

Since Alfheim was awarded to Freyr when he was a baby, I believe that he ruled over the alfar.  Freyja is frequently called Vanadis (“Lady of the Vanir” or “Dís of the Vanir”) and is often associated with the valkyries (valkyrjar), who were in turn associated with the dísir, and she is the goddess who taught Oðinn seiðr, which is associated with the spirits of the dead.  For these reasons and others, I believe her to be the ruler of the dísir.  The reasoning can be convoluted, but there is reasoning behind it.

So the entire point of this is not to demonstrate that I’m a pompous intellectual, but merely to say:  Yes, Seidman was thoroughly researched.  It’s not perfect.  But I’m quite proud of it, both as a novel and as an exploration of what it might have been like to live in that time and place and to worship as the ancient Icelanders might have done.