Norse Seiðr

Norse Seiðr Doll Project. Project and Photo by Scarlett Messenger
Norse Seiðr Doll Project. Project and Photo by Scarlett Messenger

NOTE: This journal entry was written as a companion piece to a presentation I gave in my Cross-Cultural Shamanism class. Since the subjects overlapped, I thought it would be an appropriate place to discuss at least one aspect of magick in Medieval Europe. This presentation also included a slide show and I created a doll with a costume based on the description of  Þórbjörgr Lítilvölva. The rather abrupt nature of the writing is due to it being designed as notes for an oral presentation.

Norse Seiðr

Seiðr (pronounced SAY-thur, or SAYTH) is the name for the system of oracle practiced by the Norse and Germanic tribes of Northern Europe from the Caspian Sea to North America in the Pre-Christian era. It was believed to be shamanic in nature. The practitioners of Seiðr were called Völva, and were almost exclusively female, as male participation in Seiðr was seen as taboo and “unmanly”. The position of the völva was held in high esteem by their communities, and they were compensated well for their services. They have historically been depicted as traveling oracles or soothsayers, which was one of the most critical services offered in Norse society. The Norse considered the nature of the world to be a woven tapestry, with each person representing a thread within the tapestry and each thread crossing and mingling with others to create the “big picture”. The importance of the völva in Norse society is illustrated by the fact that she carries a distaff, or Seiðstafr, as a symbol of her power and mastery over destiny. A distaff is normally used in the spinning of wool, and is associated with the Norse fates, or the Norns, who spin the the thread of one’s life.

Seiðr contains many of the shamanic traits we have discussed this quarter. The graves of völvas were found to contain henbane and cannabis seeds, which when burned could create altered states of consciousness (ASC). While the use of drums and bells is not explicitly spelled out in the historical record, there are allusions to their use, as well as some linguistic evidence to support this. The Norse were the original “appropriators”, and were known to borrow heavily from their neighbors the Celts and the Saami, both of whom did use bells and drums in their rituals. Yggdrasil, the world tree and the Axis Mundi of the Norse, is the location of the nine worlds. The name means “the Horse of Ygg (Odin)” and is kenning for the gallows, as it is also presumed to be the tree that Odin hung himself from in order to acquired the runes and the gift of oracle from the “other world”. He also sacrificed an eye to gain knowledge of the future and sees his own death in the jaws of the wold Fenrir. He is a man of great wisdom with the ability to speak to birds, and in fact gets his information about the world from 2 ravens that travel on his behalf. Odin is strongly tied to the practice of Seiðr in spite of its “unmanly” associations. He is the ultimate shamanic figure in Norse mythology.

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
-Hávamál

While the runes are used in the modern age for the purposes of oracle, the historical reality is that we don’t know for certain that they were the actual “lots” cast by the völva. However, between their frequent historical association with curses, hexes, charms, and spells, as well as their association with Odin’s ordeal on the tree, it seems likely that they are the symbols described by Tacitus and other historians. The various rune poems have told us what each symbol represented, and we can extrapolate how they may have been used, but the modern system of divination is not based in any real historical fact. We simply do not know if or how the runes were used for magickal purposes.

The account of Þórbjörgr Lítilvölva (“Thor’s salvation, little völva”), known as “The Seeress of Greenland” in Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Erik the Red) describes the arrival of a völva and discusses her costume in great detail.

“Now, when she came in the evening, accompanied by the man who had been sent to meet her, she was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of touch wood, and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.”
Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Erik the Red)

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This description demonstrates the high status of the völva as well as the more practical elements that could facilitate the harsh realities of life in Norse society. She is described as wearing many beads, which were items of great value that Norse women collected and wore in what is now referred to as a “treasure necklace”. This was often used to fasten a cloak or overdress in place. These beads were also symbols of trade and travel, and beads from North Africa and Central Asia have been found in the graves of völva and high status women. Her fur lined gloves and hat would have provided a traveler with the warmth necessary to brave Greenland’s arctic climate. It also shows the transient nature of the völva. She is a traveler, a nomad, who goes where she is hired to go. This might also explain her belt, that is described as being made from “touchwood”. Touchwood is actually a material known also known as amadou. It is made from a type of inedible bracket fungus that is frequently used as tinder for fire starting. It has been proposed that wearing a long belt or sash of amadou would give the bearer a source of tinder in a rather barren landscape should the need arise. Ötzi the Copper Age natural mummy found in the Alps also carried items made from amadou, showing how far back use of this material goes. Amadou is a somewhat labor-intensive material to make, but could have been indicative of not only the status of the völva, but her itinerant nature.

Works Cited

Blain, Jenny. Nine Worlds of Seid-magic: Ecstasy and Neo-shamanism in Northern European Paganism. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1988. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton U, 1964. Print.

Grammaticus, Saxo. “Gesta Danorum: Book Seven.” Online Medieval and Classical Library. Online Medieval and Classical Library, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Paxton, Diana L. “High Seat Seið and the Core Oracular Method.” Seeing for the People. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Price, Neil S. The Archaeology of Shamanism. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Schnurbein, Stefanie V. “Shamanism in the Old Norse Tradition: A Theory between Ideological Camps.” History of Religions 43.2 (2003): 116-38. Web.

Sturluson, Snorri, and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. The Prose Edda. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916. Print.

Viðar, Hreinsson. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Reykjavik: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997. Print.