(I’m breaking my hiatus one last time because this is IMPORTANT)
Guys. Old Norse insults are dangerous things. They might look really fun for those who do not know the language, but most of them carry sexual implications that are extremely misogynist and queerphobic.
For example, in the last twenty four hours many heathen groups have started throwing around níðingr (“nithing”) and threats of níðstang in their discussions about Frazier Glenn Cross. This terminology is inherently queerphobic, and all associated words and practices likely carry similar implications.
Preben Meulengracht Sørensen describes níðingr as such:
"We must assume that the action and labeling of a man as níðingr suggested a full range of morally reprehensible attributes with ergi at its symbolic center" (Norrønt Nid 38: Translation mine)
That is to say that níð and its associated words and actions carry the connotation of passive homosexual behavior and the so-called “related” attributes (cowardice, underhanded behavior, trickery, and magic work) and, while less severe than argr/ergi, still suggest essentially the same thing.
Examples of níð insults in the Eddas and sagas jive with this interpretation. For example, we see níð insults occurring in two basic forms:
- tunguníð, or spoken níð, including níð poetry about another person, insulting suggestions of unmanliness/passive behavior made during senna, hvöt episodes, or during other conflicts, and usually containing explicit or implicit suggestions of ergi. Words and phrases such as níðingr and hvers manns níðingr are often used.
- tréníð: “Carved níð.” The most common example are the carvings of “one man standing behind the other” found in Gísla saga ch. 2 and Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa ch. 17. This also includes the níðstang carved by Egill Skallagrímsson in ch. 60 of his saga.
The heathen community seems especially fond of the latter example of níð, I imagine because it is one of the few “magic spells” that is described step-by-step in the sagas. However, although not explicitly stated during the crafting of this particular pole, the name links it to níð insult and thus the practice likely carried queerphobic connotations. Some have argued that the placement of the mare corpse with a pole penetrating its flesh suggests passive sexuality, whereas others have suggested that the runes carved thereon must have contained insinuations of “unmanliness.” I do not think we can know for sure where the níð accusation rested with this act, but through its name and link to the níð insult category we have to acknowledge that it was present there in some way, as Sørensen and other “post-Ström” scholars have asserted.
Some of you may be thinking, ‘But surely some of these words were divorced from their inherently queerphobic meaning, and were not always used to suggest passive homosexual behavior.’ I disagree, but, as a researcher of queer issues in Old Norse literature, I may be a bit biased in these matters. But even if we assume that níð did not imply (at least through association) passive homosexual behavior every time it was used to describe a man, it still strikes me as a problematic word to throw around.
If we compare it to modern queerphobic slurs like “faggot” or “homo” (which strikes me as a fair comparison, even though níð was much less colloquial), it may help us to understand this issue. Now, not everyone who throws around these slurs is directly suggesting homosexual activity. On 4chan, for example, “newfag” is used to talk about new users. Additionally, many people use these slurs to imply other “negative” behaviors (being afraid, effeminate, uncool, or weak) without directly meaning to invoke the gay sexual aspect. But that doesn’t make these words any less harmful: they are still slurs that, at their root, condemn a particular group of people (GSM individuals) and, in doing so, both link them to and condemn particular traits and behaviors. So it is with níð.
This is not to say queer heathens cannot attempt to reclaim these words by applying them to themselves. I know a lot of queer heathens, Lokeans in particular, who use ergi/argr as a descriptor. That is fine, because it is a member of that group who would have been slandered with these terms embracing them and casting them in a positive light. But when the broader heathen community, particularly cis-hetero members of that community, suggest using these terms as insults, it is in no way acceptable. One cannot reclaim a word when it is still being used for slander or is being utilized by the cis-hetero majority. That is not how reclamation works.
The sheer amount of heathen resources suggesting níð and related words/practices as an effective way to condemn someone (here, here, and here, just to name a few) sickens me. I want to believe it is all an honest mistake, and people are unaware of the queerphobic connotations, but I simply cannot be sure.
Before using any of these words or practices, please, PLEASE educate yourself. Do not fight bigotry with more bigotry. Do not use slurs against other minority groups just to make a point.