Theon, the Castrated Viking

theon-cross-xframe

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

©HBO promotional images via Wikia.

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.

frey-statue

On the right, a phallic statue of the Norse god Freyr, dated around the 11th century. The phallic aspect is hard to see without zooming in. (Sorry I couldn’t find a better picture.) Image: mariare from Flickr licensed via Creative Commons

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 show-er.”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.

Bildstein-Bunge_1

The phallus-shaped Stora Hammars I stone, which links sex and the Norse afterlife.

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 Osha 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 prove his undoing.

Theon-fondles-his-sister

Theon attempts to seduce his sister. Yuck. ©HBO linked via Wikia.

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

theon-on-cross

I wish I’d never seen this. (c) HBO

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.

painting-lindisfarne-priory

Painting of Lindisfarne Priory, the site of the first recorded Viking raid on an English monastery in 793 AD. Painting by Thomas Girtin, 1798.

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

  1. Season 3, Episode 10 ~25:00 []
  2. See Phelpstead p. 428 []
  3. “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” []
  4. Sorensen is quoted in Gunnora Hallakarva’s “The Vikings and Homosexuality” on Fordham University’s website []
  5. See Gunnora Hallakarva’s “The Vikings and Homosexuality” []
  6. This stat is just given for a rough example – see  http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=367003 []
  7. 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  []
  8. C. Phelpstead p.422 []
  9. Phelpstead p.422 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

8 Comments

  • […] בספרים שלאחר מכן, דבר שלא הורגש בעונות עצמן, אנחנו לא שומעים דבר על ת'יאון. הוא נחשב למת, והעדות היחידה להיותו בשבי היא חבילה מיוחדת שנשלחת לבאלון גרייג'וי ע"י רמזי בולטון, שמכילה את איבר מינו של ת'יאון. באלון ויארה לא מתרגשים מהחבילה ומוותרים על ת'יאון. לא אתעסק בכך כאן, כי הפוסט מספיק ארוך, אבל אפשר לקרוא ניתוח מרתק על הסירוס והחשיבות של פאלוסים בתרבות הנורבגית כפי שהיא משתקפת בבית גרייג'וי בבלוג המעניין הזה. […]

    • Reply December 16, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      תודה לך על המילים הטובות על הבלוג שלי. (English translation: Thank you for the kind words about this blog.)

  • Reply January 6, 2014

    Criss

    “Unlike Theon’s castration, in the Middle Ages, the term castration generally only implied removal of the testes.” Castration IS the removal of the testicles only!
    Removing of a penis like in case of Theon is medically called a penectomy, or in this case just an emasculation. In the middle ages, and before and even after that period if they wanted to keep emasculated man alive was to remove the testes as it was more likely they’d not bleed out as oppose of removing a penis, which is far more comlicated procedure in those terms. The chinese specialised in removing all the genitals, as such eunuchs were very beneficient for the emperor’s court. But ofcourse fatal cases were much much higher than in case of castration. In case of Theon I actually leave it to Ramsay’s experience in depravation, that he managed to keep Theon alive, not only not letting him bleed to death, but also keep him infection free, which might appear not only from the bad conditions of the dungeons, but also of not properly fixed urethra. Despite the fact those areas heal surprisingly fast, Theon was in astonishingly good shape in the pork sausage scene. After all it’s a fantasy fiction.

    • Reply January 15, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Ha. You’re right. It is fantasy fiction, so people heal faster than they might otherwise.

      This is a great comment. Thank you for sharing it. It is interesting that you bring up the issue of terminology. I hesitated over what to call Theon’s “operation”. I’ve never heard the term penectomy before.
      I was quite surprised that Theon survived the procedure – especially after I read that the Viking’s use of castration was driven by the higher prices they could get for castrated men due to the low survival rate.

    • Reply May 29, 2014

      George Greene

      Thanx to Criss for correcting the terminology. To anybody who cares (more) about (this PART of) the story, this is VERY important. NOBODY ANYwhere, not in DWD *or* on HBO, implies that Theon has been castrated. To reiterate, precisely as Criss said, “Castration IS the removal of the testicles only!” It has ALWAYS meant that and it STILL means that. Everybody who thinks otherwise is just IGNORANT of this vocabulary, but unfortunately, ignorance prevails. G.R.R.Martin himself should CLARIFY what has actually happened, but the sheer amount of time — CULTURAL EVOLUTIONARY time — that has passed between the original authorship of the books and the presentation of the story on HBO has made Martin’s insistence on “implying” things — which could originally have been interpreted as making the story more intellectually satisfying by forcing readers to think harder — seem more like mere cowardice. If Theon has only lost the longest 1 of his 3-piece set then he CAN still “further the Greyjoy line”, withOUT even needing magic, but it might take more art than most Maesters can provide. And more to the point, he can and will remain prone to relevant lusts. Feeling those and not being able to do anything (or anything he’s wanted to do, or been used to doing) about them — well, THAT would be quite a strong MOTIVE for some real drama.

      • Reply May 30, 2014

        Jamie Adair

        The question is, what was in the box (on the show)? My interpretation is that it would be Theon’s penis. This is based on Ramsay’s use of his bed warmers before the procedure – and the sausage pun (when Ramsays eating the sausage and Theon appears to think it is something else).
        Also, as for terminology, the problem is when you are writing an article, you need to find words that are widely understood and resonant. Okay, fair enough, if he had his penis removed, it would be a penectomy, but how many people would understand what that term means outside of the medical community? Even if it isn’t technically correct, I think most people would think of Theon’s procedure as a castration.

  • Reply July 19, 2014

    Jeffrey McIntyre

    Just a small correction: Asha does not seduce Theon in Winterfell, but Osha does. Asha is the book’s name for the Yara character. Great article though!

    • Reply July 19, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oh rats! You’re right. I will definitely correct that. How ironic — I actually wrote an article a while back about how easy it is to trip over those two names and stating that’s why the showrunners changed Asha to Yara. Whoops. :) Thanks!! Also, thanks for reading and your kind words about the article. It was a lot of fun to write and some of the sagas were much racier than I would have thought.

Leave a Reply

What do you think?