We delve deeper into the goddess said to be Loki's favorite wife.
A symbol of marital loyalty and courage
For a figure rooted in Norse mythology, Sigyn, a Norse goddess, stands as a symbol of some very human qualities: loyalty and endurance.
Marriage was an important cultural, social, and spiritual event for people in Viking societies.
Given that the men – if they were Vikings – would often leave their wives and families at home for weeks, months, or even years to raid, pillage, and plunder (should they be lucky enough to survive and return alive), the sight of a patient and long-suffering wife soon became part of every Norse community.
Perhaps this was the inspiration for Sigyn, a Norse goddess in her own right but often portrayed as the loyal and long-suffering wife of the more famous Loki.
Her presence in Norse mythology is often overshadowed by her more flamboyant husband. Yet she is attested in the Norse sagas – however fragmentary – written in the 13th century by Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson.
This means that despite her small role in these epic sagas, she has been immortalized for the ages as a very Viking symbol of marital loyalty and courage.
Before we delve into her attestations in the sagas, we must analyze the societal and gender expectations of wives in Viking societies.
In Viking societies, while women managed domestic affairs, they still had very limited power, political voice, or agency, reflecting the era's deeply patriarchal norms. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Highly rigid gender and societal expectations of a Viking wife
For we moderns, people from Viking societies lived in a world that was truly dominated by patriarchy.
Whilst some contemporary scholars and historians have teased out the fact that some women in Viking societies had a limited amount of power – when compared to some other European cultures or civilizations – the fact remains that women had extremely little power, political voice, or agency.
They were the property of first their fathers and then their husbands, second-class citizens whose major societal expectations were to marry and rear as many children as possible.
It is true, however, that some wives were not passive when it came to economic decisions. They were responsible for managing the household, which, given that Viking societies were largely agricultural, often included a large farm.
Within the house, there was a degree of gender equality as husbands and wives were generally seen as partners in decision-making. However, this did not extend beyond the boundaries of the home or the hearth.
Whilst there are several sagas and stories featuring female warriors, sometimes even wives, the archeological record has yet to prove that, in Viking societies, women were able to engage in military exploits, from raiding to warfare.
In the only Norse myth featuring Sigyn, she witnesses a tragic turn of events where her son Vali, cursed to become a wolf, attacks and kills his brother Narfi, with their father Loki bound and unable to intervene. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Sigyn and the sagas
If we scour the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas, myths, and legends, there is but one story that involves Sigyn.
In the Prose Edda, she is introduced as the wife of Loki, and they have two sons together, named Narfi and Vali.
In the most famous rendition of Sigyn's story, Loki and his sons have been captured and bound by the Norse gods.
Vali is then changed into a wolf by the gods and rips apart his brother, Narfi. All of this was done in front of Loki, who was powerless to stop this twisted fratricide.
The intestines of Narfi are then used to bind Loki, and Skaði, the Norse goddess of skiing, places a snake above him as an extra means of torment.
It is here in the story, with one of his sons killed by another, that Loki's wife, Sigyn, enters.
She comes to the rescue and places a bowl above Loki's head to catch the venomous poison dripping from the snake, thus saving his life.
When the bowl is full of poison, she leaves to empty it and repeats this process many times.
However, Loki is so enraged with his situation that he works himself into such a state and shakes so violently that he breaks free from his chains and is said to set Ragnarök into motion.
Whilst her story may lack the grandiosity of heroic feats or bloody battles, so often the hallmarks of Norse sagas, myths, and legends, Sigyn's quiet strength and constancy contribute to the intricate tapestry of Norse mythology.
"Loki's Punishment," a 1923 sculpture by Ida Matton, resides at Stockholm City Hall, depicting the ongoing torment of Loki by two venomous serpents. Photo: Hedning / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Appearance on the Gosforth Cross
Despite her limited appearance in the Norse sagas, Sigyn features in the archeological record.
The Gosforth Cross, a large stone monument dating from the first half of the 10th century in Gosforth, England, features many characters from Norse mythology.
This area was once part of the Viking-dominated Kingdom of Northumbria, which flourished during the 9th to 10th centuries.
Among the images etched on the monument are what is believed to be an image of Sigyn protecting a bound Loki.
Now, whilst this is her only appearance in the sagas, this story must have been deemed important enough to memorialize in stone for posterity.
Aside from Sigyn's appearance on the monument, the Gosforth Cross is also fascinating for scholars due to the appearance of both Norse and Christian symbols and images.
Sigyn's character in Norse mythology is a testament to the enduring power of love and loyalty.
Her unwavering support for her husband, aiding him in a time of great anguish and pain, is a testament to what people in Viking societies saw as the enduring power of love, fidelity, and devotion.
Sigyn reminds us that sometimes the most profound tales are not of grand conquests or epic battles but of the quiet, steadfast support we offer to those we hold dear.
For more information on the synthesis of Christian and Viking beliefs, visit BBC History Extra here.
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