Please note: This article is sexually explicit in ways some readers may find offensive or distasteful. It presents disturbing mental images, which parallel events in the show, and contains mild sexually graphic artifacts.
Balon Greyjoy and his daughter Yara (Asha in the books) receive a parcel, a “special gift,” and a mysterious letter, sealed by what looks like piece of skin and House Bolton’s flayed man sigil.1 The message informs Balon that Ramsay Snow is holding Theon hostage. Ramsay warns Balon to withdraw his troops from the North — or else “more boxes will follow with more Theon.”
Yara opens the box and looks quietly stunned. Balon peers in the box and has to steady himself very slightly against the chair. Inside is Theon’s severed penis, which Ramsay described as “Theon’s favorite toy.”
Nonetheless, Balon will not submit to Ramsay’s request. Theon is on his own. Balon tells Yara: “Theon disobeyed my orders. The boy’s a fool. He cannot further the Greyjoy line. I will not give up the lands I have seized, the strongholds I have taken.”
When Yara protests that Theon is Balon’s son, he scoffs, “Son? He’s not a man anymore.”
And, this line sums up the Viking-esque Ironborn culture perfectly. The Vikings and the Norse, which George RR Martin has acknowledged he drew upon when creating the Ironborn, fiercely guarded their virility, which was intertwined with their freedom and military prowess, and likely saw castration as the ultimate emasculation. To them, men who weren’t fully masculine were not equals.
A Phallus Dominated Culture
To put it bluntly, the Norse were obsessed with the penis and male sexuality. Statues of the god Frey depict him with an exaggerated phallus. Stories from the Norse sagas often refer to penises. And, the Norse had many cultural assumptions or values that linked the penis to virility. For the Norse, the penis represented more than just masculine sexuality. As a symbol, it embodied their very values: the penis represented independence, power, and the ability to dominate.
Subtle and not-so-subtle references to penis size speckle the Norse’s recorded stories. In the eleventh-century Grettis saga, two women, a servant girl and a farmer’s daughter, see a Norse man named Grettir sleeping naked and comment that its surprising such a big well-built man has such a little penis. The saga implies Grettir got his revenge by raping the servant and showing her he was, to put it in colloquial terms, “a grower and not a shower.”2 Presumably, some of Grettir’s contemporaries found this odious tale amusing. In either case, the story reveals an earthy attitude towards sex and is just one cultural reference of many to penises.
The Norse viewed people as falling into two camps: the able-bodied (typically men, but also the odd exceptional woman) and everyone else, including most women, children, and slaves. Men who could not maintain an erection, however, could easily fall from the “able-bodied” camp.
Maintaining an erection, and not merely having a penis, is what defined somebody as a man. According to medieval historian, Carl Phelpstead, “A penile problem such as erectile dysfunction compromised the ability of a man to assert or maintain this dominant position.”3 Power and respect in medieval Icelandic society did not stem so much from being male or female as being physically adequate or inadequate.
Although exceptional women could and did hold power, as discussed in the Yara article, the Norse required men to have fully functioning penises for them to be seen as powerful and capable. Consequently, Balon Greyjoy’s reaction to his son’s castration is true to the Norse ethos. Likewise, Theon’s flagrant sexuality, which he can’t help but ensure everyone knows about, is what makes his castration even more devastating for him.
It’s worth noting that it is probably no coincidence that Game of Thrones repeatedly highlights Theon’s sexuality, which ultimately proves his undoing. George RR Martin is not only implicitly acknowledging this aspect of Viking culture he is also reinforcing why Theon, as the Viking-esque prince and heir, would find the loss of his penis particularly devastating.
Theon’s sexuality is sort of subtle, so it is worth taking a moment to recap it. In Westeros, he romps with the prostitute Ros. En route to the Iron Islands, he dismissively cavorts with the captain’s daughter, who wants to become his “salt wife.” When he arrives in Lordsport en route to his father’s seat, he can’t resist fondling a woman – one he arrogantly assumes is a nobody, but turns out to be his higher-status sister. He loses the Stark boys when Asha seduces him.
After Ramsay captures Theon, sex with two women tempts Theon enough to ignore any warning bells that might have gone off in his head, so he is vulnerable when Ramsay appears with the knife. For Theon, his sexuality is linked with his identity as Ironborn: his penis is his “favorite toy.” So, it is ironic that his sexuality and his Ironborn heritage are what ultimately proves his undoing.
In contrast to whore-loving yet sensual Tyrion, Theon’s sexuality carries an undertone of boasting and desperate proving of self-worth. Sex for Theon isn’t simply pleasure; it is an affirmation of his prowess and superiority. Sexual potency is enmeshed in Theon’s identity, a trait that closely parallels Norse culture – and perhaps a reason the Norse found castration so offensive.
Castration Anxiety in Viking Society
It’s likely no coincidence that George RR Martin chose to punish the Viking-esque Theon with castration. For Vikings, being either sodomized or castrated were profoundly shameful: the Vikings practiced these acts to humiliate conquered enemies. Castration was deeply rooted in the Norse consciousness: they used it as a form of forced birth control.
Some Vikings raped (forcibly sodomized) and then castrated the men they defeated. They did this to “unman” and humiliate the conquered – since, from a Viking perspective, losing masculinity and submitting were the ultimate degradation.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that the Vikings were homophobic – they were submission-a-phobic. And, according to historians, they equated being sodomized with passivity. The Norse considered passively participating in homosexual sex so shameful that insults implying a man passively received sex (“ergi” “regi” ) entitled the man to defend his honor by combat. Being the “active” participant in anal sex was acceptable. Historians such as Preben Sørenson note that there is no comparable insult for the “active” partner4 . It is also worth noting that men performing oral sex on other men may not have been shameful5 – nothing is recorded about the Norse and oral sex in general.
The Vikings may not have castrated men solely to humiliate them. The Vikings sold conquered men, women, and children at Middle Eastern slave markets. Eunuch slaves went for more money since castration was extremely risky - in some periods, historians estimate 1 in 4 died during the procedure.6 Unlike Theon’s castration, in the Middle Ages, the term castration generally only implied removal of the testes.
In fact, Vikings may have raided English churches as a means of obtaining educated men they could sell for higher prices. Archaeologist and historian Mary Valente argues Vikings deliberately targeted monasteries as a way to obtain literate young men they could castrate and then sell as valuable eunuchs in the eastern markets.7 . Byzantine people highly prized literate eunuchs as clerks, accountants, and other servants since they could be trusted around women.
The Vikings sent captured young men to Venice, where they were castrated, and then sent on to the Byzantine slave markets. Literate eunuchs often became servants to women in harems, teaching their children, including the Caliph’s harem in Baghdad. Illiterate captives may have become eunuch guards for the caliph’s harem in Baghdad.
The Norse also used castration as a form of forced birth control. Under Icelandic laws recorded between 930 and 1280, two laws in the Konungsbok allowed castration in certain circumstances. A man who fathered too many illegitimate children could be castrated so his family wouldn’t be burdened excessively with their care: “Men are not required to take over more than two third cousins who are the illegitimate children of the same man unless the father of the children is castrated.” Laws 2:508 Likewise, vagrants could be castrated. (“It is lawful to castrate vagrants and there is no legal penalty even if they get lasting injury or death from it.” Laws, 2:2199 ) These laws didn’t force men to be castrated: rather, they permitted it.
At the heart of these two laws is the burden of caring for unwanted children. Some historians theorize that Viking raids stemmed from food shortages in Scandinavia. Perhaps the laws that so aggressively prevented illegitimate children by forcibly controlling sexuality are a direct result of food shortages and desperate, near starvation type conditions.
Regardless, castration cut to the root of the Viking psyche. George RR Martin constructs Westeros so it doles out “karmic punishments” for those who break promises. Theon is punished not because he betrayed Robb Stark but because he broke his oath of fealty to Robb. As a result, “Westerosi karma” struck back by attacking something at the core of Theon’s cultural identity: his penis.
By Jamie Adair
- Season 3, Episode 10 ~25:00 [↩]
- See Phelpstead p. 428 [↩]
- “Endowments below the belt defined Viking culture” in The Guardian article based on Carl Phelpstead’s paper “Size Matters: Penile Problems in Sagas of Icelanders” [↩]
- Sorensen is quoted in Gunnora Hallakarva’s “The Vikings and Homosexuality” on Fordham University’s website [↩]
- See Gunnora Hallakarva’s “The Vikings and Homosexuality” [↩]
- This stat is just given for a rough example – see http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=367003 [↩]
- See Mary Valente’s article ‘Castrating Monks: Vikings, Slave Trade, and the Value of Eunuchs’ in the book Castration and Culture ed. Larissa Tracy and also “Vikings raided monasteries to feed demand for eunuchs in the east, historian finds” on Medievalists.net [↩]
- C. Phelpstead p.422 [↩]
- Phelpstead p.422 [↩]