Through my years as a practicing Heathen in the Northern Tradition, there are certain subjects that invariably crop up when I’m interacting with the more general pagan crowd. One of these subjects is the perceived misogyny of the Northern Tradition.Yet, not only does our tradition have great respect and honor for the Goddesses, and a special cultus to the disir/matrons, but the human women also held a great deal of power as well.
The source of this misperception is rooted in a few different things. Even though we know that our tradition had specialized forms of Goddess and disir worship, most of the tales that have survived are about Gods, not Goddesses. So when you intermingle with members of the Northern Tradition we see them wearing the symbolism of Odin or Thor, or hear them hailing those Gods in ritual on an average far more than the Goddesses. This isn’t in slight to the Goddesses, but is based more in the fact thatthe evidence that has survived to us in the present day from manuscripts and archaeological records doesn’t have as much information on the Goddesses. While I know there’s a statue to Freyja found int he archaeological record, I don’t think Frigga who is a major Goddess has one, nor can I think of any other Goddess that does. Yet we have multiple examples of statues to Odin, Freyr, Thor, etc. For whatever reason the Christian scholars who first penned much of the old tales to paper didn’t really write much about the Goddesses. Even in the epic battle of Ragnarok the Goddesses (with the exception of one of them grieving, and another dying) aren’t really mentioned at all. Yes we have our stories about Them, but we have so many more involved stories about Odin and Thor than we do the Goddesses.
One of the other major reasons, comes from a section of the Havamal, which is a collection of poems presented now as one vast poem in the Poetic Edda. For many newcomers to this path, the Havamal is one of the bits of lore people delve into first. In part because it represents some of the words of wisdom or moralistic values that modern Heathenry in turn based their Nine Noble Virtues from. The Havamal covers several different topics: magical charms, Odin hanging on Yggdrasil to learn the runes, a section about the conquests of love, even more words of wisdom directed to how guests and travelers should behave. That’s a pretty varied grouping of subjects!
The misogynistic stanza of concern comes from a section of the Havamal where Odin as the narrator is speaking about the conquests of love.
“No man should trust a maiden’s words,
Nor what a woman speaks:
Spun on a wheel were women’s hearts,
In their breasts was implanted caprice”
This certainly isn’t a flattering stanza, but if you look at the context you’ll see that these lines appear in close proximity to lines that also speak disparagingly of men:
Since both of these stanzas come from a section of the Havamal that’s all about love and the conquests thereof, the ‘commentary’ really only applies as it pertains to seductions. And therefore is not something you should be using to apply to women outside of this context (i.e. women in general). If you look to our narrator’s perspective (Odin) in the tale, he’d been made a fool of by a woman in one of his attempts at seduction. Of course, there’s also a successful seduction story told as well. This leaves me with the impression of that wise knowing man of the world saying you better be careful, but sometimes its fun when you take the risk too. Let’s face it, most of us know that at certain phases of a man’s life they’re thinking about sex.
“Now plainly I speak, since both I have seen;
unfaithful is man to maid;
we speak them fairest when thoughts are falsest
and wile the wisest of hearts. “
One could argue, the inclusion of this stanza at all is a cautionary tale and in its own way represents some words of wisdom to instruct men that they should be careful in their seductions and courtship of women, which in itself isn’t really a bad thing. In fact, certain forms of erotic poetry, and so called love charm magic were outlawed in the legal codes because of the concerns the ancient culture had concerning the subject of seductions. If you delve through the Icelandic sources, a surprising trend becomes evident… that one of the most dangerous things that a man could do (perhaps even more so than going to war or to sea), was to go courting a woman.At the merest whisper of anything out-of-bounds occurring with the woman during the courtship her entire familial clan could go after the man with murder in their hearts. Even if the man had kept his fingers to himself (if you will), he still could be killed if the family thought he was taking too long in the courtship as well.
As far as using this as social commentary or context, think of it along the lines of Men are from Mars and Women from Venus. We as a culture have a perceived notion that men just don’t understand the actions of women and vice versa. As these stanzas appear in the Havamal I think it’s more along these lines, then trying to use it as some sort of social commentary and proof that the religion was misogynistic. If you look at the cultural power structure of antiquity women actually wielded power (and control over the wealth).
Also remember that this text was penned by a Christian scribe centuries AFTER conversion, The Havamal comes to us from the Codex Regius, which is a 13th Century text. So it’s possible this represents Christian attitudes (of Eve as the source of original sin) than it does the pre-Christian attitudes.
Just to be clear, we are a polytheistic tradition that honors the Gods, AND the Goddesses. While some of us may have personal affinities to one deity over another, as a group we respect both.