Ergi and argr are two Old Norse terms of insult, denoting effeminacy or other unmanly behavior. Argr (also ragr) is "unmanly" and ergi is "unmanliness"; the terms have cognates in other Germanic languages such as earh, earg, arag, arug, and so on.
Ergi in the Viking Age
To accuse another man of being argr was called scolding (see "nīþ"), and thus a legal reason to challenge the accuser in holmgang. If holmgang was refused by the accused, he could be outlawed (full outlawry), as this refusal proved that the accuser was right and the accused was argr (= unmanly, cowardly). If the accused fought successfully in holmgang and had thus proven that he was not argr, the scolding was considered what was in Old English called eacan, an unjustified, severe defamation, and the accuser had to pay the offended party full compensation.
The Gray Goose Laws states:
There are three words—should exchanges between people ever reach such dire limits—which all have full outlawry as the penalty; if a man calls another ragr, stroðinn or sorðinn. As they are to be prosecuted like other fullréttisorð and, what is more, a man has the right to kill in retaliation for these three words. He has the right to kill in retaliation on their account over the same period as he has the right to kill on account of women, in both cases up the next General Assembly. The man who utters these words falls with forfeit immunity at the hands of anyone who accompanies the man about whom they were uttered to the place of their encounter.
The practice of seiðr (sorcery) was considered ergi in the Viking Age, and in Icelandic accounts and medieval Scandinavian laws, the term argr had connotations of a receptive, passive role of a freeborn man during homosexual intercourse. There are no written records of how the northern people thought of homosexuality before this conversion. The Historian Greenberg points out:
at first stigmatization did not extend to active male homosexuality. To take revenge on the disloyal priest Bjorn and the mistress Thorunnr in the Gudmundar Saga it was decided to put Thorunnr into bed with every buffon, and to do that to Bjorn the priest, which was considered no less dishonorable, dishonorable to Bjorn, not to his rapists. In the Edda, Sinfjotli insults Gudmundr by asserting that all the einherjar (Odin’s warriors in Valhalla) fought with each other to win the love of Gudmundr (who was male). Certainly he intended no aspersions on the honor of the einherjar. Then Sinfjotli boasts that Gundmundr was pregnant with nine wolf cubs and he, Sinfjotli, was the father. Had the active, male homosexual role been stigmatized, Sinfjotli would hardly have boasted on it.
Although no runic inscription uses the term ergi, runestone Vg 67 in Saleby, Sweden, includes a curse that anyone breaking the stone would become a rata, translated as a "wretch," "outcast," or "warlock", and argri konu, which is translated as "maleficent woman". Here argri appears to be related to the practice of seiðr and represents the most loathsome term the runemaster could imagine calling someone.
The Björketorp Runestone however, uses the runes forming the word Argiu (ArAgeu), which is just another form for ergi.
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In modern Scandinavian languages, the lexical root arg- has assumed the meaning "angry", as in Swedish arg, or Norwegian and Danish arrig. In modern Icelandic the word has evolved to "ergilegur," meaning "[to seem/appear] irritable". (There are similarities to the German Ärgerlich, "quick to anger, volatile".) In modern Faroese the adjective argur means "angry/annoyed" and the verb arga means to "taunt" or "bully", the same is found on the modern Dutch verb ergeren, Also in modern Dutch, the word erg has become a fortifier equivalent to English very; the same is true for the old-fashioned adjective arg in German, which means "wicked" (especially in compounds as arglistig "malicious" and arglos "unsuspicious"), but has become a fortifier in the Austrian standard of German. However, the word's original Norse meaning has been preserved in loans into neighboring Finnic languages: Estonian arg and Finnish arka, both meaning "cowardly". It may be the origin of the English verb "irk".
- Sørenson, Preben M.; Turville-Petre, Joan (transl.) (1983). The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society. Studies in Northern Civilization. 1. Odense University Press. p. 17. ISBN 87-7492-436-2.
- Greenberg, David F. (1988). The Construction of Homosexuality. University of Chicago Press. p. 249. ISBN 0-226-30627-5.
- Project Samnordisk Runtextdatabas Svensk - Rundata entry for Vg 67.
- MacLeod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. pp. 225–226. ISBN 1-84383-205-4.
- Moltke, Erik (1985). Runes and their Origin, Denmark and Elsewhere. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseets Forlag. p. 140. ISBN 87-480-0578-9.