When you think of gender-bending in Norse myth, the trickster-god Loki springs to mind. Would you be surprised to know that Odin and Thor have also dragged up, albeit not very successfully in Thor’s case? (One of the areas they did not compete in during the flyting in Hárbarðsljóð; imagine how that would have gone.) Going in the other direction, we have Skaði in male armour, and other maiden warriors such as Brynhild and Hervör.
Disregarding Loki’s accusation that Odin “dressed as a woman” and practiced magic on Samséy, which may or may not be true, we know from Saxo that Odin had to resort to disguising himself as one of the princess Rind’s maids in order to get close enough to impregnate her with Vali. (Vali will avenge Baldr’s death.)
Thor in (unconvincing) drag
As for Thor, he had to endure the double humiliation of dressing up as Freyja after his hammer was stolen by stealth. The giant Þrym had the hammer, both figuratively and literally; his condition for returning it was marriage to Freyja.
When she refused, Heimdall suggested dressing Thor as the goddess. Thor demurred, moaning that he would be mocked as the most agr of gods, but he and Loki set out in dresses to Jotunheimar, where Thor gets his hammer back. (In between, Loki as Freyja’s maid had a lot of fast talking to do as Thor’s fierce eyes and huge appetite threaten to give him away.)
McKinnell detects a pattern here, which Þrymskviða follows in a burlesque form, of what could be called “Achilles among the women”, a heroic male figure who needs to hide, dons women’s clothing, and is either given away by his own qualities, or else another person, usually a woman, helps him hide despite these qualities. (Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, Hrómundar saga Gripssonar, and Gesta Danorum VII.vii)
Odin and Loki as old women
With Odin, there is some ambiguity, because while seiðr was thought to be a dangerously feminine activity, and both Sigurdsdrapa and Ynglinga saga say that he practiced it, they don’t say that he was cross-dressed to do it. The Saxo Grammaticus version of Odin’s rape of Rind, however, tells us that he was twice unsuccessful in his attempts, while disguised as a soldier and a smith. Only when disguised as an old woman was he able to get close to her.
McKinnell suggests that the madness that Odin afflicted Rind with (so that he could “cure” her) was the same as Skirnir threatened Gerd with, a form of nymphomania. (McKinnell feels this justifies Frigga’s protest to Loki in Lokasenna; if Odin was driven to such disgraceful actions to get Baldr’s avenger, then fate pushed him into it.) Other versions of the story of Rind do not mention any disguise.
Loki, on the other hand, not only disguises himself but actually becomes a woman, and a servile one at that. He goes along with Thor as his maidservant, and rubs it in by using the neuter plural form tvau for “the two of us”, which is usually applied to a mixed-sex group. He may well be mocking Thor, or referring to his own shape-shifted form, while Thor, following the laws of comedy, is obviously and lumpishly male in his women’s dress.
In Lokasenna, Odin retorts to Loki’s accusation by saying that Loki served nine winters as a dairymaid under the earth. (This may mean he served his daughter, Hel, which would be a major demotion.) At any rate, he presumably took a hit in both status and gender, and there are instances in the sagas of similar insults being met with violence.
Dressing as an old woman to do discreditable things must have been de rigueur in Old Norse society; Loki disguises himself as one to wheedle Baldr’s fatal weakness out of Frigga, and again to refuse to weep Baldr out of Hel. But while Odin disguises himself only to be more himself; i.e. crafty, magical and bent on achieving a goal, Loki seems to have aligned himself with all hags and outcasts, including the giants. Still, it is interesting that Loki’s retort to Odin is that if he was a dairymaid, Odin was a witch, someone of even lower status.
Skadi in armour
As for Skaði, we know that dressing as a man could get you a sentence of lesser outlawry, according to the Grágás law-code, but she suffers no sanctions. Carol Clover has pointed out the “honorary son” clause in Grágás that could cover Skaði’s actions, and the fact that she was bent on avenging her father probably gives her something of a pass, since that would be considered an honourable thing to do.
Still, while a woman dressing as a man (Hervör, for example) was aspiring to a power and status to which she was not entitled, and as such was socially disruptive. That may explain why Skaði’s story is not told “straight” but as a burlesque, since the presence of an armed, angry giantess would normally be read as a threat. Making it into a joke defuses the situation. Loki (again) probably chose a nanny-goat exactly for that reason.
The provision in Grágás might apply to Hervör, who dressed in men’s clothes and had her hair cut like a man’s. She went off adventuring with some Vikings, and later became their leader. Oddly, however, her femininity saved her, when a man unsheathed her sword while she was playing chess. She killed him, and only the fact that she was a woman kept his friends from killing her. Afterwards she continued in her Viking ways until she had a change of heart, took up embroidery and finally married.
Another woman who donned men’s clothes and went to sea was Alfhild in Saxo, who became famed as a dangerous pirate. (Book Seven, Gesta Danorum) It has a very Saxo-like ending, however, since Alfhild went to sea after her mother disapproved of her suitor, Alf. The two met at sea, and Alf defeated her, of course.
His comrade Borgar struck off Alfhild’s helmet, and, seeing the smoothness of her chin, saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings. So Alf rejoiced that the woman whom he had sought over land and sea in the face of so many dangers was now beyond all expectation in his power; whereupon he took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man’s apparel for a woman’s…
While women’s dressing as men was in theory as illegal as men dressing as women, there’s no record in sagas or law of a woman being punished for it. The exchange between Odin and Loki in Lokasenna, or Thor’s moaning in Þrymskviða, suggests that for men this issue was a lot more fraught.
There may well have been certain nervousness behind the laughter in Skaði’s visit to Asgard, but women’s sexuality was not called into question in the same way when they cross-dressed. The stories of Hervör and Alfhild are painfully reminiscent of that cliché scene where the racecar driver or motorcyclist pulls off their helmet and – gasp! – it’s a woman. So there may be some element of titillation involved, but it is unlikely that Thor, Odin or Loki provoked a similar frisson (for most of the listeners, anyway).
Clover, Carol 1993: ” Regardless of sex: men, women, and power in early Northern Europe”, Speculum 68: 2: 363-87.
McKinnell, John. 1986-9: “Motivation in Lokasenna’, Saga-Book XXII: 234 – 262. (pdf here)
McKinnell 2010: “Seeming or Becoming? Male to Female Transvestism as a Test of Liminality in Old Norse Mythology” presented at the Conference On Old Nordic Religions and Mythology in 2010, unpublished.