Syritha’s female gaze nearly defeated giant-slayer Othar

Literary scholars have extensively discussed the dominating power of the male gaze. They typically overlook or trivialize the female gaze. But is the female gaze actually less powerful than the male gaze? Many with experience of their mother’s gaze, their sister’s gaze, or their wife or girlfriend’s gaze know its unsurpassable power. Not surprisingly, in ancient Danish history Princess Syritha with her female gaze repelled a crowd of suitors and nearly defeated the giant-slayer Othar.

Syritha, the daughter of the Danish king Sivald, was “conspicuously modest {spectata pudicitia}.” She attracted many suitors. None could induce her to gaze upon him. Back in those days before the male gaze was demonized, Syritha wielded her steely, demure gaze as a severe test of a man’s worthiness:

Confident of her self-restraint, she begged her father to grant her as husband the man who could sweetly coax her into gazing back at him.

{ Cuius continentiae fiducia a patre coniugem depoposcit, qui delenimentorum dulcedine mutuum eius conspectum impetrare quivisset. }[1]

Othar, son of the fierce Viking pirate Ebbi, rose to the challenge. He attempted to win Syritha’s female gaze:

Though he strove to bend her gaze with all his natural powers, no art whatsoever would raise her downcast eyes. He went away marveling at her unyielding severity that he couldn’t overcome.

{ Cuius obtutum omnibus ingenii nervis emollire connisus, cum demissum oculorum eius habitum nulla penitus arte flexisset, invictae severitatis perseverantiam miratus abscedit. }

Some women in ancient times had strong, independent sexuality. Some had strong, independent female gazes. Whatever their specific strengths, women of ancient times were stronger and more independent that the shrinking-violet, melting-snowflake, damsel-in-distressing, herd-thinking weak women of today. Women of the old times ranked with giants.[2]

In fact, a giant attempted to win Syritha’s love. Despite his giant size and giant strength, he couldn’t get Syritha to gaze upon him. Having failed to prevail with his stereotypical masculine advantages, the giant turned to guile, a skill in which women are typically superior to men:

He bribed a woman to become Syritha’s attendant for a period and secure her friendship. Eventually the attendant found a cunning excuse for an excursion and inveigled Syritha far from her paternal hearth. Soon after, the giant rushed upon her and carried her off to his narrow den on a mountain ledge.

{ feminam subornat, quae, cum obtenta virginis familiaritate eius aliquamdiu pedissequam egisset, hanc tandem a paternis procul penatibus, quaesita callidius digressione, seduxit; quam ipse mox irruens in artiora montanae crepidinis saepta devexit. }

Syritha lived a much more privileged life in her royal home than did the giant in his narrow mountain den. Nonetheless, women in medieval literature didn’t check their privilege and apologize for it.

giant abducting Freja / Syritha

As a strong, independent woman captured by a giant, Syritha didn’t cry out like a damsel in distress seeking men to help her. Othar nonetheless took on that dangerous task:

Othar ransacked the depths of the mountains in order to track down the young women. He discovered her, slew the giant, and led her away with him to safety. … Again using various incentives, he attempted to have the young woman look at him. When he had long tried to attract her drooping eyes and nothing happened as he wished, he abandoned his effort.

{ Otharus indagandae virginis gratia montis penita perscrutatus, inventam, oppresso gigante, secum abduxit. … Denuo igitur variis rerum irritamentis aggressus puellarem in se provocare conspectum, cum diu torpentes nequicquam oculos attentasset, proposito parum ex sententia cedente, coeptum reliquit. }

Although Othar was a giant-slayer, he couldn’t control Syritha’s female gaze. She left him and went on her own way.

A massive, rustic woman then captured Syritha. The rustic woman made Syritha herd her goats, which are known to be randy animals. Syritha couldn’t be happy merely with the gender satisfaction of being a servant to a woman-leader. She begged Othar to rescue her. He came and freed her from servitude to the giant rustic woman.

Syritha still refused to gaze on Othar. Othar had pleaded to her at length, in verse:

Don’t you prefer to take my advice
and join in a solemn, equal union
than to stay with this flock and tend
rank-smelling little goats?

Rebuff the hand of your evil lady
and quickly flee this savage lady-master,
so as to return with me to the friendly ships
to live in freedom.

Abandon the animals in your care,
refuse to herd these goats,
and return as my bed-partner,
a prize I desire.

O, I have sought you with such effort.
Turn upward your languid eye-beams —
it’s an easy gesture to lift a little
your modest face.

I will set you again at your father’s hearth,
and unite you joyfully with your devoted mother,
when once by my gentle prayers you are driven
to disclose the light of your eyes.

Since many times I have carried you free from giants’ captivity,
confer the ancient reward for my toil,
and pitying the heavy exertions of my deeds,
refrain from your severity!

{ Num meis mavis monitis adesse
et pares votis sociare nexus
quam gregi praesens olidisque curam
ferre capellis?

Impiae dextram dominae refelle
et trucem praeceps fugito magistram,
ut rates mecum socias revisens
libera degas!

Linque commissae studium bidentis,
sperne caprinos agitare gressus,
et tori consors refer apta nostris
praemia votis!

O mihi tantis studiis petita,
torpidos sursum radios reflecte,
paululum motu facili pudicos
erige vultus!

Ad lares hinc te statuam paternos,
et piae laetam sociabo matri,
si semel blandis agitata votis
lumina pandas.

Quam tuli claustris toties gigantum,
confer antique meritum labori
et graves rerum miserata nisus
parce rigori! }[3]

She still refused to gaze upon him. Then he angrily exclaimed:

Why have you taken up this sick-brained madness, so as to prefer to lead a stranger’s flock and be counted among the slaves of monsters rather than move forward to a marriage-bed contract with our equal and fitting consent?

{ Quare etenim cerebrosa adeo dementire coepisti, ut alienum ductare pecus et in monstrorum famulitio numerari praeoptes quam pari consensus aptitudine mutuum tori promovere contractum? }

Syritha consented to have Othar set her free from the giant woman, but she sternly refused even to gaze on him. Women have never acted as if men owned them, even men to whom they owed their freedom. Both women and men throughout history have chosen their amorous relationships. Women generally have had more choice than men. Unable to gain Syritha’s female gaze and weary with his humiliation and grief, Othar left her and went back to his ships.

After Syritha has wandered for awhile in the wilderness, she came across a stately home. It was the home of Othar’s mother:

Ashamed of being threadbare and needy, Syritha pretended to be the daughter of paupers. Othar’s mother observed that this woman, although dirty and needy and covered with a meager cloak, had come from noble breeding. She seated her in a place of honor and treated her with courtesy. The woman’s beauty was an indicator of her noble birth, and her facial features followed her lineage.

{ nuditatis et inopiae rubore egentium se filiam astruebat. Animadvertens autem hanc Othari mater, quamvis marcore illitam inopique contectam amiculo, a generosis pullulasse ramalibus, honorato sedendi loco susceptam reverenti secum comitate detinuit. Nobilitatem quippe virginis index forma prodebat, et vultu genus interprete resultabat. }

Even while being treated with honor in Othar’s mother’s home, Syritha refused to gaze upon Othar. Bewildered, Othar arranged a test:

In order to test her heart for certain, Othar pretended that he was taking another woman as his bride. Climbing into the wedding bed, he gave Syritha a candle to hold. Since the wick nearly burned down while waiting for the bride, Syritha was tormented by the flame creeping close to her skin. Nonetheless, she gave such a display of endurance that she restrained any movement of her hand, pretending that she felt no annoyance from the heat.

{ Cuius animum certius experturus nupturam sibi feminam fingit eiusque torum conscendens lucernam Syrithae gestandam committit. Quae cum, absumptis paene lychnis, admoto propius igne premeretur, tantum patientiae specimen praebuit, ut manum absque motu continere visa nullam ardoris molestiam sentire crederetur. }[4]

This test positioned Syritha as a desexualized, immodest witness to a wedding consummation. She became hot inside, undoubtedly with imagination and jealousy for the bride who would be enjoying a wedding night in bed with Othar.[5] With a simple act of kindness toward her in her servant position, Othar brought forth her passionate love:

When at last from Othar came the command to take care of her hand, she calmly turned to him the modest gaze of her raised eye-lights. Suddenly, the pretended nuptials pushed aside, she climbed into the nuptial bed as his bride.

{ Quae demum ab Otharo manui consulere iussa, placidos in eum obtutus verecunda luminum erectione convertit statimque, semoto nuptiarum figmento, genialem torum nuptura conscendit. }

Love in this story doesn’t depend on the man performing heroic deeds. Only when Othar acted with here-and-now compassion for Syritha as his fellow human being did she offer him her female gaze and her passionate love. That’s a Christian understanding of love.

Freja / Syritha averting her gaze

Intending to hang Othar for having sex with his daughter Syritha, King Sivald subsequently captured him. Syritha immediately rose in Othar’s defense. She declared Othar’s manly worth in terms of his giant-killing acts. That’s manly worth as understood in societies in which men are treated as disposable instruments. Syritha actually understood Othar’s manly worth in a more humane and intimate way. She merely said what was necessary to save her beloved man’s life. More women should do likewise.

Like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s On the Deeds of the Britons {De gestis Britonum}, Saxo Grammaticus’s Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} mainly chronicles horrific violence against men. History should be more than just a chronicle of men being killed. History should recognize female privilege and the female gaze. History should also recognize extraordinary women’s unconventional love and concern for men. Syritha’s love for Othar is among the best history in the Gesta Danorum.

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[1] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum}, Latin text from Olrik & Raeder (1931), English translation (modified) from Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). The previous short quote “conspicuously modest” is similarly from Gesta Danorum All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced from Gesta Danorum 7.4.

Saxo Grammaticus probably finished Gesta Danorum about 1210. Saxo apparently was canon of Lund Cathedral in the service of Archbishop Absalon. Lund was then part of Denmark, but is now part of Sweden.

The first nine books of Gesta Danorum are regarded as legendary history. Rydberg (1886) associated Othar with Svipdag and Syritha with Freyja in Germanic mythology. Syritha is spelled Sigrid in Elton (1894), Siritha in Davidson & Fisher (1979-80), and Sigrith in Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015).

Davidson & Fisher (1979-80) contains nearly the same English translation for the first nine books of Gesta Danorum as does Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). An earlier, freely available Latin text is Holder (1886). For a freely available English translation of the first nine books, Elton (1894).

[2] Ignoring the social injustice of men’s vastly disproportionate gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships with women, Saxo commented:

At one time our young women severely disciplined the wantonness of their eyes, so that their hearts’ purity might not be corrupted by too much freedom of looking. They aimed to display their chaste souls through a modest face. … How demure must have been the women of that age! They could not be induced to offer a mere flicker of their eyes under the strongest provocations of their admirers.

{ Olim siquidem apud nos puellarum continentia magnopere visus petulantiam edomare solebat, ne mentis integritas oculorum libertate corrumperetur, affectabaturque, ut cordis castimoniam oris modestia fateretur. … Quantae porro pudicitiae saeculi illius feminas exstitisse putemus, quae ne ad levem quidem oculorum motum maximis amatorum irritamentis adduci potuerunt? }

To promote social justice, young women today should more frequently gaze lovingly upon men whom they find attractive. They should also offer to buy these men dinner, without of course assuming that the men then owe them any amorous favors.

[3] The translation above is largely mine. It’s more literal and less poetic than that of Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). The Latin poem is in Sapphic stanzas that associate it with Horace’s love poetry. Id. vol. 1, pp. 466-7.

[4] Within this passage, the leading edition of Gesta danorum surely contains a mistranslation of “nupturam sibi feminam fingit”: “he pretended that she was to become his wife.” Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015) vol. 1, p. 469. The point explicitly is to deceive Syritha to test her love. In thirteenth-century Iceland, the groom was led by witnesses with lights to his wife’s bed. Frank (1973) p. 475-6. Having sex with others present wasn’t necessarily shameful in the pre-modern world. Syritha acting as a witness to Othar’s wedding consummation makes brilliant sense in its literary context. Elton got it nearly right: “he feigned that a woman was about to become his wife.” The “femina” was a woman other than Syritha.

[5] Saxo observed:

The warmth inside her overcome the temperature outside her, and the glow of her itching heart checked the candle’s scorching of her flesh.

{ Externum quippe aestum cohibebat interior, et pruritantis animi fervor adustae cutis incendium temperabat. }

That’s the type of elaborate rhetoric for which Saxo is well known. Put differently, Syritha, while holding the candle burning down to her skin, was concealing her burning passion for Othar. That’s a very awkward position for someone supposedly witnessing Othar’s wedding consummation. Dramatic revelation in a bedroom, candle-light scene goes back at least to Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche.

[images] (1) Giant abducting Freja / Syritha. Illustration by Arthur Rackham between pages 32 & 33 in Wagner, Rackham & Amour (1910). (2) Freja / Syritha not gazing at the viewer. Excerpt from oil on canvas painting by John Bauer. A Swede, Bauer made this painting for Karlskrona flickläroverk {The Karlskrona School for Girls}. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Frank, Roberta. 1973. “Marriage in the Middle Ages, 4. Marriage in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Iceland.” Viator. 4: 473-484.

Friis-Jensen, Karsten, ed. and Peter Fisher, trans. 2015. Gesta Danorum = The History of the Danes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by John Lindow and by Lars Boje Mortensen.

Holder, Alfred, ed. 1886. Saxonis Grammatici Gesta Danorum. Strassburg: Trübner.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

Rydberg, Viktor. 1886. Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi, första delen {Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Volume I}. Stockholm: Bonniers. English tranlation: Rasmus B. Anderson, trans. 1889. Teutonic mythology: gods and goddesses of the Northland. London, Aberdeen: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Wagner, Richard, Arthur Rackham, illustrator, Margaret Armour, trans. 1910. The Rhinegold & the Valkyrie: The Ring of the Niblung. London: W. Heinemann.

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