Dec 082010

I was reading a post today in PoliticusUSA about the legal battle over Proposition 8. The author, a fellow writer of mine there, takes the position that Christian bigotry is behind opposition to same-sex marriage and I have no argument with that; I think it is self-evident. There is no reason beyond religious objections – nor were lawyers for Proposition 8’s supporters able to muster any – when the case went to court. The battle lines are clear. Opposition to same-sex marriage is based on Christian biases (real or imagined) originating in their holy scriptures, the Bible.

There is no cogent reason to object to total equality in the marriage sphere. All other objections that have been raised have been proven myths, as I argued the other day at A Heathen’s Day, where I named Bryan Fischer a nithing for misrepresenting research to make these myths look like truths.

These myths dismissed, we are left with religious bigotry as the cause, and that is what I wish to address here.

It must be understood by those of us who are endeavoring to revive or reconstruct ancient forms of religion that our polytheistic ancestors did not have the most enlightened view of the matter either, with the proviso that their views were informed by cultural prejudices and not religious. To that extent, arguing over whether our polytheistic ancestors were tolerant or intolerant of homosexuality is problematic.

It is rendered meaningless once we understand that we can’t even talk about homosexuality in an ancient context, because the ancients did not have the same attitudes we have today, either of homosexual acts or of gender. I say this, and I believe it is an important point, because there are Pagan groups today that object to LGBT equality. Such objections, I argue, are misplaced.
Homosexuality has not been universally seen as immoral; it has not even always been seen as homosexuality. As often happens, the truth is much more complex than the simple black and white model offered modern Western audiences.

We claim to live in an enlightened age yet we are trapped by our own understanding of gender roles and categories. We are brought up to believe that there are boys and there are girls. Boys have penises and girls have vaginas. This is known as dimorphism (the belief that anatomy defines women and men). According to this view there is nothing in between and it is obvious how the pieces are supposed to go together. And no surprise: we are brought up to see the world in this way. But is this an accurate reflection of how things are? Is gender to be understood as biological or as a social construct?

Archaeologist Joan Breton-Connelly speaks of “presentist” assumptions – arguments based on or colored by “late twentieth -century political sensibilities.”[1] With regard to genders as “fixed” categories Breton-Connelly appeals to Judith Butler’s questioning of “woman” as a fixed category in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) in which she “exposes the ways in which traditional feminist constructs decontextualize individuals from their historical, political, and cultural settings and identities.”[2] The same can be said of homosexuals as a fixed category.

Few people realize that homosexuality is a modern concept. The pathology of the 19th century created the category from the male/female conceptualized as abnormal.[3] Ancient ideas about sex and sexuality are far more ambiguous.[4]

To claim therefore that modern distinctions and prejudices are simply continuances of ancient Pagan feeling on the subject is to misstate the case. As Marilyn Katz puts it, “the nineteenth-century notion of sexual pathology was unknown to antiquity.” As she goes on to say, “[T]here is a radical discontinuity between the ancient and modern discourses on sexuality.”[5]
But what if gender was based on gender roles and not strictly on plumbing?

Take for example my own Norse ancestors. While a boy might be born with male sex organs, that simple fact did not in itself make him a man. Gender categories were not fixed and manhood was something that had to be earned – and maintained – through the activities normally associated with that gender category. This meant that while a boy and his penis could aspire to manhood, so could a woman. By laying aside one set of gender roles and embracing another, a woman could “become” a man. Conversely, a man could “become” a woman.

“This is a world in which ‘masculinity’ always has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman,” writes one scholar.[6] It was “a society in which being born male precisely did not confer automatic superiority, a society in which distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others.” Because women had no theoretical ceiling and men no theoretical floor, gender categories were flexible and movable.[7]

Like the Norse, the Romans and Greeks lacked a modern understanding of “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” Once again, it was not what a Roman “was” but what a Roman “did” that determined things. A Roman male was supposed to be a penetrator, the “active” partner in sexual activity. It was manly to penetrate; it was feminine to be penetrated.

For example, a man would brag about penetrating another man, like Sinfjötl in the First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbani:[8]

On Sága’s Ness full nine wolves we
Had together – I gat them all.

He is reminding Gudmund of how often he has “had” him sexually. One attempt to convert Iceland floundered on such accusations made against the Saxon bishop who had been penetrated by Thorvald, and Icelandic Christian working for him.

The bishop gave birth to nine children,
Thorvald was father to them all.

The Norse understood things in the same terms. “Anal penetration constructed the man who experienced it as whore, bride, mare, bitch, and the like – in whatever guise a female creature.”[9]

The evidence suggests that for the Norseman’s “character was not either male or female, but lay on a spectrum ranging from strong to week, aggressive to passive, powerful to powerless, winner to loser.”[10]

To be called a man was the highest compliment a man could pay a “woman,” as we see in Laxdaela Saga when Snorri of Helgafell says of Gudrun the Fair, “Now you can see what a man Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us.”

To be a man was to be hvatur – bold, active, and vigorous – and this was to be admired, whatever sort of plumbing you had. Likewise, to be blauður – soft and weak – was to be despised, whatever sort of plumbing you had.[11]

We who seek to revive the religions of the past should not bring into the present the attitudes of our ancestors towards gender and especially not something as historically nebulous and indefinable as “homosexuality.” We do not share cultures with our ancestors even if we seek to share their religions. And we certainly cannot base our objections on religious grounds; the Christians can claim their god told them homosexuality is wrong (debatable) but our gods have told us no such thing. There is no real reason not to be open-minded and tolerant about gender and sexuality because there are no real arguments to be made against doing so.

[1] Joan Breton-Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton University Press, 2007), 19-20.
[2] Breton-Connelly (2007), 22. See also Cynthia Eller, Am I a Woman?: A Skeptic’s Guide to Gender (Beacon Press, 2004).
[3] Marilyn Katz, “Ideology and ‘The Status of Women’ in Ancient Greece,” History and Theory 31 (1992), 92. With regard to “homosexual” or “gay/lesbian,” and the effect of using one term over another see Steve Williams, “Gay and Lesbian or Homosexual? What’s in a Word?”
[4] See Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (Continuum, 2009), 84-86 for a discussion of views of “homosexuality”in the Roman world.
[5] Katz (1992), 92.
[6] Carol Clover, “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe,” Speculum 68 (1993), 372.
[7] Clover (1993), 380.
[8] Robert Ferguson, The Vikings: A History (Viking Penguin, 2009), 234.
[9] Clover (1993), 375.
[10] Nancy Marie Brown, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007), 74.
[11] Brown (2007), 74.

  33 Responses to “Paganism and Opposition to LGBT Rights”

  1. This is a well-written piece, Hrafnkell…exactly like what I was thinking lately. Keep up your good work in polytheists’ sphere :)

  2. During the Renaissance, “sodomy” was closely associated with the revival of Greco-Roman Paganism. While the Medici ruled Florence, sodomy was a minor infraction punishable by paying a fine. When Savonarola rose to power the previous practice of capital punishment for sodomy was reinstated. (source:

    Such reports cannot be taken too seriously, but one account has it that at Savonarola’s execution, one of those present exclaimed, “thanks be to God, now we can practice sodomy!” While other stories circulated that following Savonarola’s downfall “the populace indulged in orgies lewd and obscene.” (source:

    When Humanists in the Roman Academy were suspected, in 1468, of plotting a revolution to overthrow the Pope and reinstate the Roman Republic, they were charged with “republicanism, irrelegion, heresy, neopaganism, and sodomy”! (source:

    It’s difficult to say with any certainty to what extent the Christian fears of Plotting Pagan Sodomites were more than lurid projections of their own furtive imaginings, although there enough homo-erotic love poetry from the period to suggest that where there was smoke there was also fire.

    • Good links, Apuleius. Thanks for sharing those.

      • Your welcome, and thanks very much for your provocative post which prodded me to go back and look these up.

        I don’t at all pretend to actually understand exactly (or even approximately) who was doing what with whom back in the Renaissance. But ideologically we see lines being drawn that look very familiar to us today!

  3. I strongly agree that we should not project our own modern conceptions about sexuality (homo, hetero, othero) onto other places and times. On the other hand, if we read ancient love poetry or how people described their ideas on friendship, or read about ancient sex-scandals, etc, we can see that, well, to a very great extent people are people. And the, uh, plumbing has not changed with time, either!

  4. Can we qualify this some? Only Right wing conservative evangelical Christians oppose same-sex marriage.

    I’m Christian and perfectly fine with it.

    Actually, I think marriage should be a civil matter, licensed by the government and religion kept out of it.

    If one wishes their marriage sanctified by their god(s), then they can have an additional religious ceremony.

    I like the rest of the article. Gender is indeed a cultural concept, not biological.

    • I apologize Linda. I should have been more specific. It was Christian fundamentalists I was thinking about as I wrote but the title of the article that started me thinking about it used simply the word “Christian”

    • Actually, I think it would be better if marriage was a personal matter between individuals, and keep both religion and government out of it.

  5. I would also note that amongst the pre-Christian Celtic tribes, both mainland and insular, there is a demonstrated thread of recognition that same-sex coupling happens and isn’t something to condemn.

    Brehon law in Ireland recorded only mixed-gender marriage laws, but purely because marriage was based on childbearing and paternity with property tied closely to same. Divorce was permitted under brehon law if your spouse rejected you and your gender entirely for his or her own. There is also a tale of King Cormac where a woman who hasn’t had sex with a man in a few years presents her newborn child to Cormac and asks his wisdom to determine how she got pregnant since she had no idea. His answer was that she had sex with a woman who’d just slept with a man and the semen wound up transferred between them. Said answer also saved a passing soul from being trapped between worlds, so lesbian sex saved a life. (jk)

    As for the continental Celts, a Greek writer observing Gaulish soldiers was a bit shocked to see men of the same social rank sporting together on the furs. He was used to boys pairing with adult men.

  6. This is a great piece! I’ve been seeing a lot of talk floating around in the community regarding opposition to homosexuality being religiously justified. Thank you for pointing out this position is based on so much left-over baggage from a life of living in a majority Christian nation and the influence of the Fundangelicals leading the charge against gay rights.

    I’ve found far more supporting accepting a person on their merit and deeds in the Norse, Gaelic, Roman, and Greek sources than there is criticism on acts behind closed doors. If anything those matters tend to be brought up as gossip or as part of a much larger politically-motivated slander. For two examples from Roman sources sexual acts didn’t reach anything approaching what modern minds would call deviancy in the eyes of the authors and society until they reached REALLY radical levels like Caligula’s alleged incestuous affair with his sister or Tiberius floating like a great whale while naked boys swam in the pool eating little bits of food.

    Yeah Suetonious had a pretty fertile imagination but the context in which these acts are presented was part of a much larger screed of the evils of those particular Caesars and not as anything close to the main charge like we would see today. The ancients if anything had a much more relaxed attitude regarding what you did in the privacy of your bedroom than moderns do.

    • Thanks, Ryan. I just see no reason at all any Pagan could try to make a legitimate claim on ancient religion to support their opposition to same-sex anything. And most of the time when they talk about whether or not their ancestors were gay-friendly or -hostile it’s a moot point since homosexuality wasn’t understood in the same way we understand it today. So I hope getting the subject out in the open and discussed helps moves things along.

      I agree with regards to Suetonius. I’ve always thought trusting him on everything would be like a future historian having only copies of National Enquirer with which to understand the 20th century.

  7. A good article, and excellent follow-up comments, as well. The history of cultural sexuality isn’t something I’ve studied in any depth, so thank you for opening up the discussion.

  8. Well said, well said!

    Blessings and peace,


  9. Honestly, wouldn’t it be so much simpler if marriage was just an agreement between individuals though? I get that there’s all manner of “benefits” to being “legally” married, but to me and my simple mind, it seems that as long as two or more individuals of whichever gender they wish to be, come together and basically say “Thus we live together and in our love are oath bound in marriage” should be good enough for everyone. If you need Gods of Governments to a firm your love and binding to each other, can you really say you’re in love with that person? Shouldn’t it really just be between those involved, rather than about what a Religion or Government give you for it?

  10. Honestly, while this article is well written and researched, if this was an essay of persuasion, I’d find myself unmoved.

    I support Prop 8. That’s right, I do. I hold what I consider a very “old school” view of marriage, and it’s not really religious at all. I feel marriage is a civil contract between two families for the purpose of sanctioning and legitimizing the creation of children. In simpler terms, marriage is, and really always was, about one thing- making babies.

    I’m not against homosexuality in and of itself. What you do behind closed doors is your business. But I have to ask myself two questions: first, is marriage a right at all, and second, would a repeal of Prop 8 provide any benefit to society beyond that to it’s primary interest group?

    My answer to the first question is a resounding no. Not for heterosexuals, homosexuals, white, black, or green people. There’s a tradition rarely followed today in which a bridegroom would require the permission of the family to marry his bride. Often, he would also discuss this decision with his own family. I don’t know why this tradition is on it’s deathbed (in my experience that is). Oh right, that insubstantial, unquantifiable, intangible but omnipotent force called “love”. Love certainly makes people do very stupid things. Remember when the power of love (and one very unlucky day) caused a young Trojan prince to carry off another man’s wife and cause the (almost completely legendary) greatest war story written in Classical Europe? Or when it caused Henry to bounce from woman to woman, breaking England’s ties to the Roman Church, and thus deepening it’s rifts with the continent for hundreds of years? I would postulate, based on my own experience and research into modern sociological patterns (loved my sociology class), that people who marry for love alone, without regard to everything else, are why we see a divorce rate creeping over 50%.

    Now for me to answer the second question. Would a repeal of Prop 8, or in a larger sense, the full legalization of Gay Marriage, benefit society beyond the LGBT community? This one is harder for me to answer. I suppose in an egalitarian sense, perhaps. My mom always said, “If you can’t share, no one gets it.” Me however, I’m really a ‘greater-good’ kind of guy. I don’t believe in utilitarian and libertine approaches to ethical dilemmas. Nor do I think Hedonism (in the original sense as an ethical system) is in anyway respectable. I approach the concept of rights, and the the ethical dilemmas they entail from a deontological view-point- rights and ethics should be duty-based, and therefore community-oriented.
    I understand that married couples receive many perks an unmarried couple does not, such as tax incentives, implicit powers of attorney, etc. You have to examine what those “rights” are meant to do, and who the intended beneficiary of the end product is. The answer, of course, is ultimately children. Holding on to a little extra money for dependents claimed on your taxes, spouse or children, is money the government has expected you were using on your dependents, and therefore shouldn’t be taken from your earnings; after all, the government is assuming you didn’t get to spend that money on yourself.

    The whole topic almost becomes moot if you allow gay, married couples to adopt. I’m not entirely opposed. I have my qualms of course. Children are best raised most often if they reside in a stable, two parent home, the best-case scenario often being the child’s biological parents. Now, this is ideal, but often not the norm, nor even in some cases good at all- there will always be exceptions to every rule, ideal, or norm. The only real worry I have about LGBT couples adopting is the same I have about single parent homes, that the child won’t get as balanced an experience that comes from having a mother and a father, however you want to interpret that.

    Obviously, the issue at hand isn’t very cut-and-dry when you really bite into it, at least not for me, but then I see an abundance of liberties as a burden on society as a whole. If I didn’t state it explicitly enough before, these statements come from my own observation, and only wholesale and intense research can prove or disprove my position. I know I find myself in opposition to probably 98% of the Pagan community, but it’s worth it to me, and for the possible one to two percent of Pagans who may be in opposition to Gay Marriage to write this response. Being a minority within a minority can be especially frustrating, but that’s a topic for a different thread. I only hope you take the time to thoroughly read my post before you condemn it to being labeled bigotry or hate-speech.


    • So, in your opinion, should infertile couples be allowed to marry? What about people past their child-bearing years? Or those who do not plan or want children?

    • This post makes a very large and fallacious assumption about marriage:

      Historically speaking the purpose of marriage has never been to produce children. The first objective was always to secure economic and political alliances that were advantageous to the families and groups involved. Child-bearing was an important part of that but it wasn’t for the sake of procreation but to secure dynasties, inheritance, and secure the investment of the families involved.

      Marriage has not been about love or procreation anywhere in the world for a very long time. Procreation has been part of it but it hasn’t been the point, otherwise arrangements like multiple wives and concubinage wouldn’t have occurred on the wide scale they did.

      • Ryan, I have not, anywhere in my post, make any assumption of any kind about marriage and what purposes it has been put to historically. My sole purpose in writing this article was to demonstrate that historically, there is no reason for Pagans to be opposed to Proposition 8 and that the sole reason we are engaged in this debate at all is the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Christians. I have to question whether you read it at all before you commented.

  11. Great article! I’ve been a little nervous about entering the heathen community as a gay male. I’m not that effeminate, but I also share little interests with the majority of straight males in my community. It only takes a short, “About me,” conversation to figure out that I’m gay. I don’t flaunt my sexuality, but if someone inquires about my orientation, I’ll answer truthfully.

    It’s hard enough coming out to your family, but it’s even harder having to go back in the closet just to join a religious community that you feel drawn to. Most of the kindred groups in my area are folkish, so I don’t even bother communicating with them. I’m still searching for a group where I would feel welcomed.

    I’m hoping that has the heathen community grows, more and more people will find homosexuality to be a non issue. Until then, I’ll just keep walking my own heathen path.

    • Thank you, Erik. I can understand how “assimilating” could be tough. There are too many Heathen groups who are anti-gay on supposed historical grounds, which of course is what I hope to demolish here (not that it will likely change their thinking). I hope, like you that more people will find homosexuality a non issue. The good news is with modern methods of networking that even if you “walk your own Heathen path” you don’t have to be entirely alone.

  12. [...] this, so I thought this would be interesting to share, here because of it’s subject matter. Hrafnkell’s thoughts are here: Take for example my own Norse ancestors. While a boy might be born with male sex organs, that [...]

  13. Nice essay!

    You might want to look into something i looked up a while ago, but is still vivid in my memory: ancient slaves viewed the active partner in a sexual relation as dangerous and usually guilty of fraud. The passive ones were viewed as innocent, weak and in need of protection. I am guessing this has something to do with the view of aggression/right to go into sexual relationships etc. would be fun to look into