Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seiðr and Spá
The Norse practitioners of the various arts of magic were highly respected professionals whose services were valued by their communities (Jochens, Old Norse Magic and Gender, 307; Ellis-Davidson, 37). In the Norse literature, men as well as women appear wielding the arts of magic, however, it is explicitly stated in several places that by doing so these men were taking on a female art so thoroughly that it endangered their reputation and manhood (Ynglingasaga, ch. 7, for instance). Since Norse magic was so intrinsically a woman's art, throughout this paper I will deal with magic as practiced by women, using the feminine pronoun, but it should be remembered that men as well as women practiced the art as recorded in the sagas.
Many of the most important cult practices of the pagan Norse religion occurred in the housewife's domain, where the woman of the house would act as priestess or gyðja(Steffensen, 191). From the time of the ancient Germanic tribes, women were revered by the Northern peoples as being holy, imbued with magical power, and with a special ability to prophecy, a reverence which endured in Scandinavia until the advent of Christianity. It is therefore necessary when examining materials dealing with women in general, and most especially with women involved in pagan or magical activities, to carefully evaluate the effect that Christian attitudes may have exerted upon the author recording the material in question. In general, Christian accounts, most especially those describing the Conversion of Scandinavia, have a hostile view of magic and pagan religion, demoting gods to devils, pagan worshipers into malevolent sorcerers, and those practicing magic in a pagan context become regarded practitioners of the most perverse and evil deeds (Simpson, 165). The further an account is removed in time from the pagan era, the more confusion and inaccuracies creep into the accounts. This is especially demonstrable in the confusion over the concepts of seiðr and spá, as will be discussed below.
It has been noted that women's magico-religious activities are always associated with their socially accepted and defined roles. Sometimes women's magic and religion reflect their domestic duties, while at other times magic and religion are the antithesis of a woman's socially expected role, acting as an outlet for rage and frustration but abhorred by the men who define a woman's role in their society (Geertz, 126-141). This is likewise true for magic in the world of the Norse woman. The woman of the Viking Age found magic in her spindle and distaff, wove spells in the threads of her family's clothing, and revenged herself on the powerful using the skills of sorcery.
Magic as described in the Norse sagas was not a single art: there was seiðr, spá (spae),galdr, and runic magic, and quite possibly other categories of magical arts that the saga writers failed to discuss, did not properly understand as they were the province of women, or dismissed as simple superstition.
Of these terms, seiðr is the most common, as well as the most difficult to define. The term seiðr is most commonly translated as "witchcraft," and is used to describe actions ranging from shamanic magic (such as spirit journeys, magical healing by removing "spirit missiles" such as elf-shot from the body, magical psychiatric treatment in the form of recovering lost portions of the soul-complex, etc.), to prophecy, channeling the gods or the gods' voices through a human agent, performing magic that affects weather or animal movements, as well as a wide range of malefic magic. The single most characteristic element of seiðr, however, seems to be magic of a type which works by affecting the mind by illusion, madness, forgetfulness or other means. The practitioner of seiðr was known as a seið-kona (seið-wife) or seið-man, but these terms tended to suggest a "black magician," so that frequently a seið-worker is called a spá-kona or spae-wife instead to avoid blackening their name with the negative connotations of seiðr. This "politically correct" title usage for the seið-worker has resulted in much confusion over the types of native Scandinavian magic since the categories between seiðr and spá became blurred by later writers. seiðrcould give the worker knowledge of the future, but rather than directly perceivingørlög or fate, as a spá-kona or völva would, the seið-practitioner summoned spirits to communicate the knowledge of the future. Other terms in common use for those practicing seiðr include fjölkunnigr-kona, "full-cunning-wife, knowledgeable women" and hamhleypa, "hamingja-leaper, shape- or skin-changer" (Simpson, 183).
Seiðr was a solitary art, where the seið-witch was not a member of a coven, as in found in other European witch traditions, although a seið-practitioner might have attendants or a chorus to assist her in the practice of her magic. In a very few rare instances only do the sagas report a group of seið-workers practicing together, there they are usually kin folk, such as a pair of sisters, a father and his family, and the like (Ellis-Davidson, 37-38).
The second type of magic was known as spá, or in a slightly archaic English or Scottish term, spae. Spá is often referred to as spá-craft or spae-craft, and the practitioners of spá as spá-kona or spae-wife. spá is intrinsically the art of determining ørlög, usually by intuition or personal gnosis. Ørlög is literally "ur", meaning ancient or primeval, and "lög" is law: ørlög is the law of how things will be, laid down by wyrd or fate by the three Norns. The Norns, Urðr ("That Which Is"), Verðandi ("That Which Is Becoming") and Skuld ("That Which Should Become") are the embodiment of wyrd. In fact, the Norns are the prototypical Weird Sisters who are found in Macbeth, and their seething kettle is both the bubbling Well of Wyrd and theseið-kona's cauldron. Many of the goddesses wield the art of spá: in Lokasenna we are told that Frigga knows all ørlögs, though she does not speak of them; and that Gefjion knows all ørlögs as well as Óðinn; and the Prose Edda says that Thórr's wife Sif was likewise a spá-kona.
Another term for practitioners of spá is völva, usually translated as "prophetess" or "sybil". Völva comes from a root meaning "magical staff," and throughout the Norse literature one sees female prophetesses and witches bearing a staff. The term völvadates back to the early Germanic tribes, where the term is found in the name or title of some tribal seeresses. The völva was an especially honored figure: Tacitus tells us of one such prophetess called Veleda, who prophesied the victory of her tribe over the Romans and saw that a general uprising against the legions would meet with success:
They believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies. In the reign of the emperor Vespasian we saw Veleda long honored by many Germans as a divinity; and even earlier they showed similar reverence for Aurinia and a number of others -- reverence untainted by servile flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses.
--Germania, ch. 8
The völva appears many times in Norse myth as well, for Óðinn routinely seeks knowledge of the future by using his powers over the dead to interrogate a völva in her grave.
Galdr means literally "to sing" and refers to magical songs that were sung with a range of notes. Galdr is usually associated with men's magical incantations. When occasionally we see a Norse woman "chanting," the verb is usually "to speak," indicating a chant rather than a song.
The magic of the runes was largely the province of men, although it is likely that some women, at least, knew something of the runes. Certainly the sagas record instances of seið-witches cutting runes in wood in order to work a spell:
When they reached the shore, she hobbled on by the sea as if directed to a spot where lay a great stump of a tree as large as a man could bear on his shoulder. She looked at it and bade them turn it over before her; the other side looked as if it had been burned and smoothed. She had a small flat surface cut on its smooth side; then she took a knife, cut runes upon it, reddened them with her blood and muttered some spells over it. After that she walked backwards against the sun around it and spoke many potent words. Then she made them push the tree into the sea, and said that it should go to Drangey and that Grettir should suffer hurt from it.
--Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ch. 79
The word seiðr is thought to be derived from one of two roots. The first derivation, proposed by Grimm, suggests that seiðr is related to our modern word "seethe" and is derived from the rituals of boiling sea water to make salt (Grimm, III:1047). Modern scholars using this derivation have identified Macbeth's Weird Sisters as Nordic-derived figures, "seething" spells in their cauldron:
"Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."
-- Macbeth IV Sc. 1
There are elements in the Scandinavian literature that support this derivation. The first is described in Völuspá (The völva's spá):
|21.||Það man hún fólkvíg||fyrst í heimi,|
|er Gullveigu||geirum studdu|
|og í höll Hárs||hana brenndu,|
|þrisvar brenndu,||þrisvar borna,|
|oft, ósjaldan;||þó hún enn lifir.|
|22.||Heiði hana hétu hvar||er til húsa kom,|
|völu velspáa,||vitti hún ganda;|
|seið hún hvar er hún kunni,||seið hún hugleikin,|
|æ var hún angan||illrar brúðar.|
|(She remembers the war||first in the world|
|when they riddled||Gullveig with spears|
|and in the hall of Har||they burned her|
|thrice they burned her,||the thrice-born|
|often, time again||but yet she lives.|
|They called her Heið||in every house where she came|
|a völva skilled in spá||she enchanted staves;|
|worked seiðr where she could,||with seiðr played with minds,|
|she was ever the joy||of evil women.)|
Gullveig, the mysterious seið-witch who was sent by the Vanir to the Æsir is often identified with Freyja, mistress of seiðr. The name literally means "gold-intoxication," and the theme of being thrice-burned yet living again is considered by some commentators to refer to an chemical or alchemical process. Gullveig is explicitly stated to be a seið-worker, and thus in her own person is associated with the concept of "seething" or cooking as well as with spell-craft.
Völuspá also introduces us to the name Heiðr (heath), which is common throughout the Old Norse sagas as a name for a witch, and which is related to the term "heathen." Like the prophetesses in Germania such as Veleda, it is thought that Heiðr may have originally been a title for a specific type of magical or religious practitioner, and only became used as a proper name after the introduction of Christianity had blurred the memory of the true state of affairs. Another common witch-name is Ljót (ugly), which reflects a Christian belief that witches are evil or harmful people, compounded with the belief that such people manifest their inward natures in their outward appearance. Huld or Hulda (hidden, secret) is also found as a common witch name.
In other places in the sagas, it is seen that an aspect of seiðr involves the brewing of poisons and potions, particularly those causing forgetfulness. In Sörla þattr, Freyja disguises herself as a woman named Göndul, and there uses a horn full of enchanted ale to cause forgetfulness in King Héðinn, so that he forgets his friendship with King Högni, resulting in a great slaughter that was Óðinn's price for the return of Freyja's necklace, Brísingamen. (Sörla þattr, 133-134). Similarly, in Völsunga saga (ch. 28), Grímhild offers Sigurðr the drink of forgetfulness that causes him to forget Brynhildr, and Borghildr, Sigmundr's wife, urges her stepson Sinfjotli to drink poisoned ale from the festive horn (ch. 10). The seiðr of forgetfulness is typical of the art, which seems at its root to act on the mind of the victim.
IV. The Mind, Perceptions and Seiðr
The use of seiðr to affect the mind, with forgetfulness, delusion, illusion, or fear, a sudden mental or even a physical fog is the hallmark of this type of magic. This is calledsjónhverfing, the magical delusion or "deceiving of the sight" where the seið-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are (Jochens, Old Norse Magic and Gender, 313). The role of seiðr in illusion magic is well-documented in the sagas, particularly being used to conceal a person from his pursuers. Part of this power may have been due to hypnosis, for the seið-witch could be deprived of her powers by being deprived of her sight, and the effect faded when the victim left the presence of the seið-practitioner.
Eyrbyggja saga (ch. 20) uses this motif. A woman called Katla, skilled in seiðr, wished to save her son Odd from a band of men determined to kill him. As the men approached the house, Katla told Odd to sit beside her without moving, while she sat spinning yarn. Arnkell and his men searched the house, but saw nothing beside Katla but a distaff. They returned a second time, to find Katla in the porch; she was combing Odd's hair, but it seemed to them that she was grooming her goat. The third time Odd was lying in a heap of ashes, and they thought it was Katla's boar sleeping there. Each time they left the house they realized that a trick had been played on them, or ‘a goatskin waved round our heads,' as Arnkell put it, so that Katla could not try the same deception twice. Finally Geirríðr, another woman skilled in seiðr and a bitter enemy of Katla came with the men to help them cut through the deceptions. When Katla saw the rival seið-kona's blue cloak through her window, she knew that sjónhverfing or illusion would no longer work. She hid Odd inside the dais, but Geirríðr popped a sealskin bag over Katla's head, negating her spell casting abilities, and both Odd and Katla were taken and killed.
An essential portion of this technique seems to have involved wrapping an enchanted goatskin around the head of the victim (Reykdoela saga, ch. 14), or over the witch's own head (Njáls saga, ch. 12). A related magic was the magical technique called thehuliðshjálmr, the helmet of hiding or invisibility. The method for invoking the huliðshjálmrvaried, from placing hands atop the head of the person to be concealed, to throwing magical powders over them or other means (Ellis-Davidson, 21-24). In another instance, the special hood worn by the seið-witch was used to render another person invisible while wearing it (Vatnsdoela saga, ch 44).
The evil eye was also associated with seiðr, so that it was a well-known technique to thrust a skin bag or leather sack over a witch's head to prevent her from enchanting or cursing her captors. Occasionally one will find a description of a seið-practitioner bending over and looking through their legs, often while grasping their earlobes, in preparation for casting some spell, or to break a spell, to blunt swords, turn the land upside down, or to invoke a magical second sight:
‘What fiend is this coming towards us?" cried Högni. ‘ I can't make it out!' ‘It's old Ljót on her way,' Þórsteinn answered, ‘and what a tangle she's in!' She had cast her clothes up over her head and was walking backwards, and had thrust her head back between her legs; the look in her eyes was ugly as hell as she darted troll-like glances at them.
-- Vatnsdoela saga, ch. 26.
Seiðr might also be used to cause impotence in males: some commentators see Heiðr's action in "vitti hún ganda" as referring to enchanting a phallus, assuming that ganda, normally a "magic wand" to be a kenning for the penis. (Jochens, Völuspá, 353 n. 21). Based on the Anglo-Saxon "key" riddles, which use double-entendre to link the key which opens a lock to the phallus entering a female, as well as the ornate symbolic "girdle-hanger" type of keys found in women's graves, Meaney sees the keys worn at the waist of the Northern housewife to be not only functional, but magical as well, symbolizing a knowledgeable woman's holding the key to her husband's manhood as well as having control over her husband's property (Meaney, 181). Certainly a woman's keys would have been useful in aseiðr spell relying upon sympathetic magic. Queen Gunnhildr of Norway, renowned in Norse literature as a seið-witch, was angered when her favorite Hrútr desired leave to return home to Iceland to the arms of another woman and used seiðr to punish him:
‘I want to give you this gold bracelet,' she said when they were alone, and clasped it around his arm. ‘You have given me many good gifts," said Hrútr. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him, and said, ‘If I have as much power over you as I think, the spell I now lay on you will prevent your ever enjoying the woman in Iceland on whom you have set your heart. With other women you may have your will, but never with her. An now you must suffer as well as I, since you did not trust me with the truth.'
Gunnhildr's spell, symbolized by the ring or bracelet given Hrútr, worked as intended, for he and Unn were never able to consummate their love since though Hrútr could have intercourse as normal with other women, he found that he could not physically enter Unn, being too large with her alone (Njáls saga, ch. 6 and 7). This spell probably operated via the sympathetic magic, transmitted by the bracelet.
V. Shamanic Seiðr
The second possible derivation of the word seiðr is from a root word meaning "seat" or "sitting," being related to French séance, Latin sedere, and Old English sittan (Gloseki, 97). This derivation seems somewhat more likely, since it is known that the practice of seiðroften took place seated on the seið-hjallr, the high seat or scaffolding to which the seið-prpractitioner climbed to practice her art. The best-known description occurs in Eiríks saga rauða (ch. 4):
Í þenna tíma var hallæri mikit á Groenlandi; höfðu menn fengit lítit, þeir sem í veiði-ferð höfðu verit, en sumir eigi aptr komnir. Sú kona var í bygð, er Þorbiörg hét; hon var spá-kona; hon var kölluð lítil-völua. Hon hafði átt sér níu systr, ok váru allar spá-konur, ok var hon ein eptir á lífi. Þat var háttr Þorbiargar á vetrum, at hon fór á veizlur, ok buðu menn henni heim, mest var þeir er forvitni var á um forlg sín eða árferð...Þorkell býðr spákonnu þangat, ok er henni búit góð viðtaka, sem siðr var til, þá er við þess háttar konum skyldi taka. Búit var henni hásæti ok lagt undir hana hoegindi; þar skylldi í vera hoensa-fiðri. En er hon kom um kueldit ok sá maðr, er ímóti henni var sendr, þá var hon suá búin, at hon hafði yfir sér tuglamöttul blán, ok var settr steinum alt í skaut ofan; hon hafði á hálsi sér gler-tölur. Hon hafði á höfði lambskinns-kofra suartan ok við innan kattarskinn huítt; Staf hafði hon í hendi, ok var á knappr; hann var búinn messingu ok settr steinum ofan um knappinn; hon hafði um sik hniósku-linda, ok var á skióðu-pungr mikill; varðveitti hon þar í taufr, þau er hon þurfti til fróðleiks at hafa. Hon hafði kálfskinns-skúa loðna á fótum ok í þuengi langa, ok sterkliga; látuns knappar miklir á endinum. Hon hafði á höndum sér kattskinns-glófa, ok váru huítir innan ok loðnir. En er kom inn, þótti öllum mönnum skylt at velia henni soemiligar kueðiur; en hon tók þuí eptir sem henni váru menn skapfeldir til. Tok Þorkell bóndi í hönd vísenda-konunni, ok leiddi hana til þess sætis, henni var búit. Þorkell bað hana þá renna þar augum yfir hiörð ok hiú ok hýbýli; hon var fámálug um allt. Borð váru upp tekin kueldit, ok er frá þuí at segia, at spákonunni var matbúit. Henni var gerr grautr af kiðiamiólk, en til matar henni váru búin hiörtu ór allskonar kuikendum, þeim er þar váru til. Hon hafði messingar-spón ok kníf tann-skeptan, tuíhólkaðan af eiri, ok var af brotinn oddrinn. En er borð váru upp tekin, gengr Þorkell bóndi fyrir Þorbiörgu ok spyrr, huersu henni virðiz þar hýbýli eða hættir manna, eða huersu fliótliga hann mun þess viss verða, er hann hefir spurt eptir ok menn vildu vita. Hon kueðz þat ekki mundu upp bera fyrr enn um morguinn, þá er hon hefði sofit þar um nóttina. En eptir at áliðnum degi, var henni vettr sá umbúingr, sem hon skyldi til at fremia seiðinn. Bað hon fá sér konur þær, sem kynni froeði þat, er þyrfti til seiðinn at fremia ok ok Varðlokkur heita. Enn þær konur funduz eigi. Þá var at leitat at um boeinn, ef nökkur kynni. Þá suarar Guðríðr: huárki em filkunnig né vísenda-kona, en þó kendi Halldís, fóstra mín, mér á Íslandi þat fræði, er hon kallaði Varðlokkur. Þorbiörg suaraði: þá ertu fróðari enn ek ætlaði. Guðríðr segir: þetta er þesskonar froeði ok atferli, at ek ætla í öngum atbeina at vera, þuíat ek em kona kristin. Þorbiörg suarar: suá mætti verða, at þu yrðir mönnum at liði her um, enn þú værir þa kona ekki at verri; en við Þorkel met ek at fá þá hluti her til, er þarf. Þorkell herðir nú at Guðríði, enn hon kueðz mundu gera, sem hann vildi. Slógu þá konur hring umhuerfis, en Þorbiörg uppi á seiðhiallinum. Kuað Guðríðr þá kuæðit suá fagrt ok vel, at engi þóttiz fyrr heyrt hafa með fegri raust kueðit, sá er þar var. spákona þakkar henni kuæðit ok kuað margar þær náttúrur hingat at hafa sótt ok þótti fagrt at heyra þat er kueðit var er áðr vildi frá oss snúaz ok oss öngua hlýðni veita; en mér eru nú margir þeir hlutir auðsýnir, er áðr var bæði ek ok aðrir dulðir.
( At that time there was a very bad season in Greenland: those who went hunting got little game, and some did not come back. There was a woman named Þórbjörg dwelling there; she was a spae-wife and was called Little-Völva. She had had nine sisters, and all were spae-wives, but she alone still lived. It was Þórbjörg's custom in winter to go to feasts, and most men who were curious to know their fates or harvest-expectations invited her home; and among those Þórkell was the greatest farmer, who wished to know what should come to him, how soon the bad harvest which oppressed him should end. Þórkell invited the spae-wife to his home, and she was well received there, as was the custom when someone should take this woman up on her habit. A high-seat was prepared for her and a cushion laid under her; that was stuffed with hen-feathers. She came in the evening with the man who had been sent to meet her, then she was dressed like this, so that she had a blue mantle fastened with straps, and stones were set all in the flap above; on her neck she had glass beads, a black lambskin hood on her head with white catskin inside; and she had a staff in her hand with a knob on it; it was made with brass and stones were set above in the knob; she had a belt of touch-wood, and on it was a large skin pouch, and there she kept safe her talismans (taufr) which she needed to get knowledge. She had on her feet shaggy calfskin shoes with long thongs and large knobs on the ends of those. She had on her hands catskin gloves, and they were white inside and shaggy. When she came in, everyone felt obliged to speak to her seemly words, to which she responded according to her opinion of each person. Farmer Þórkell took her by the hand and led her to that seat which was prepared for her. He asked her to cast her eyes over his herds and his home and people; she had little to say about anything. The tables were taken away in the evening, and it is to be said what was prepared for the spae-wife's meal. Porridge was made for her out of kids'-milk, and a dish prepared from the hearts of all living creatures which were available. She had a brass spoon and a knife made of walrus-ivory mounted with a double ring of copper, and the end was broken off. When the tables had been removed, Farmer Þórkell went over to Þórbjörg, and asked her how she liked his household and his people behavior there, and how soon she would know the answer to his question which everybody wanted to learn. She replied that she would not give any answer until the following morning, when she had slept there overnight first. The next day, at sunset, she made the preparations which she needed to have to carry out seiðr. She also asked for those women who knew the wisdom (chant) which was necessary for seiðr and was called Varðlokur or Warlock-Song. But those women could not be found. Then the folk dwelling there were asked if anyone knew it. Then Guðríðr said, 'I am neither magically skilled nor a wise-woman, but Halldís, my foster-mother, taught me that chant in Iceland which she called Varðlokur.' Þórbjörg said, ‘Then your knowledge is timely.' Guðríðr replied, ‘This is the sort of knowledge and proceeding that I want nothing to do with for I am a Christian woman." Þórbjörg said, ‘It may well be that you could be of help to others over this, and not be any worse a woman for that. But I shall leave it to Þórkell to provide whatever is required.' So Þórkell now brought pressure on Guðríðr, and she consented to do as he wished. The women made a ring around the seat, and Þórbjörg sat up on it. Then Guðríðr recited the chant so beautifully and so well, that it seemed to no one that they had heard the chant spoken with a fairer voice than was here. The spae-wife thanked her for the recital and said that many of the powers were now satisfied and thought it fair to hear when the chant was recited so well...'And now many of those things are shown to me which I was denied before, and many others'.)
The procedure here, though geared at foretelling what will come to pass, is seiðr, not spá-craft: the prophetess is called völva since she does prophecy, but she does not directly interact with the strands of wyrd or determine them by intuition or foresight from within herself. Rather, the spae-wife must have the assistance of spirits, summoned by special chants, with whom she converses from atop her scaffolding. Used in this manner, seiðrbears many resemblances to the shamanic religion of the Saami and the various Siberian peoples. Altaic shaman utilize a birch pole carved with nine steps upon which they enter their trance (Eliade, 191). It is interesting to note in this regard that in Völuspá 2, the völvaalso climbs a tree of nine steps (Buchholz, 14):
|2.||Eg man jötna||ár um borna,|
|þá er forðum mig||fædda höfðu.|
|Níu man eg heima,||níu í viði,|
|mjötvið mæran||fyr mold neðan.|
|(I call to mind||the kin of jotuns|
|which long ago||did give me life|
|Nine worlds I know||the nine steps|
|of the famous measure-tree||the ground beneath.)|
The völva, like the shaman, wears a special costume made of animal skins and ornaments. It is perhaps significant that the hood and gloves are lined with the fur of the cat, sacred to Freyja, herself the goddess of seiðr-working. The cloak which the völva wears is blue, which is the color associated in Norse literature with death, Hel, and the realm of the dead. One persistent theme in the Eddas and sagas involves the acquisition of wisdom from the dead. Another element is the special cushion filled with hen's feathers upon which the spae-wife is seated: the feather cushion was probably intended to give the seið-worker the power to penetrate other worlds by flight, much like Freyja's falcon-feather cloak, or perhaps only betokened the high respect in which the prophetess was held.
Where a Saami or Siberian shaman would rely upon the beat of a drum to achieve the ecstatic trance, the völva requires a special type of chant, the Varðlokur. No words have been preserved of this chant, but since the Varðlokur had been used by Guðríðr's foster-mother as a lullaby, it seems likely that the chant was repetitive and soothing in character. Though it does not appear in Eiríks saga, there is some suggestion from other sources that the völva's staff may have been used to beat on the floor of the seiðhjallr rhythmically like a drum, for in Lokasenna Loki accuses Óðinn:
|þic síða kóðo Sámseyo í|
|ok draptu á vétt sem völor|
|(you practiced seiðr on Samsey,|
|and you beat on a vétt as völvas do)|
Commentators such as Strömbäck have long noted the similarities between Saami religion and the practice of seiðr. Indeed, a significant portion of the accounts of seiðr in the Norse literature recount that the art is either learned from or practiced by "Finnish wizards," which in Old Norse meant Lappish (Saami) shaman. The powers attributed in the sagas to the "Finnish" sorcerer, actually Saami (Lapps) are those of the seið-worker in many cases. The Finnar are said to change shape into a variety of animals, often sea-mammals or birds, in order to make spirit journeys to other lands to seek information (Vatnsdoela saga, ch. 29). Often the magical arts of the Finnar are said to include magical archery, including being unable to miss a target, being able to shoot three arrows simultaneously, magic arrows which fly back to the bowstring of their own accord and hit whatever they are aimed at. These stories all seem to be connected to the belief in elfshot, common in European folklore, where the elves or other supernatural agency were said to shoot stone-tipped arrows to harm livestock or people: in Scandinavia, the term was finnskot or lappskot, a belief which lasted long after the Viking Age, causing medieval Christians in Scandinavia to pray For Nordenvind og Finskud bevar os milde Herre Gud ("From the North Wind and the Finn-shot deliver us good Lord God").
According to Snorri Sturluson's account in Ynglingasaga, seiðr was an art of the Vanir, originally brought among the gods and taught to them by Freyja, first in her guise as Gullveig, and later in her own person to Óðinn:
Óðinn kunni þá íþrótt, er mestr máttr fylgði, ok framði siálfr, er seiðr heitr, en af þuí mátti hann bita ørlög manna ok óorðna hluti, suá ok at gera mönnum bana eða óhamingiu eða vanheilendi, suá ok at taka frá mönnum vit eða afl ok gefa öðrum. En þessi fiölkyngi, er framið er, fylgir suá mikil ergi, at eigi þótti karlmönnum skammlaust við at fara, ok var gyðiunum kend sú íþrótt.
Óðinn had the skill which gives great power and which he practiced himself. It is called seiðr, and by means of it he could know the ørlög of men and predict events that had not yet come to pass; and by it he could also inflict bane on men, or loss of soul (hamingja) or waning health, or also take wit or power from some men, and give them to others. But this sorcery is attended by such ergi that manly men considered it shameful to practice it, and so it was taught to priestesses.
-- Ynglingasaga, ch 7
Seiðr was women's magic, first and foremost, so much so that to learn the arts of seiðrcaused a man to be regarded as argr (the adjective form of ergi): willing or inclined to play the female part in sexual relations with another man, unmanly, effeminate, and cowardly. (For more information on the derivation of these terms and the social consequences of these terms, see the Viking Answer Lady article on Homosexuality in the Viking Age.) No one is certain why practicing seiðr should carry such a strong condemnation of masculinity with it. It has been speculated that seiðr was considered unmanly because it allowed a man to strike at enemies with magic or poison, or perhaps that the rituals attending seiðr included some sexual rites in which the seiðr-worker was the recipient of sexual attentions. It is more likely that the seiðr-practitioner was at times undergoing spirit possession or even possession by the gods, as happens in voudoun. By allowing one's self to be "ridden," and to allow another spirit or entity control over one's body, one totally gave up control and became passive, the antithesis of the expected ethic for masculinity.
In addition to the use of the seiðhjallr to perform seiðr, some magical techniques were accomplished by the practitioner withdrawing to a secluded location and covering herself with a hood, cloak, hide, or blanket, in the solitude of which she meditated and muttered her spells while the body of the practitioner lays as though asleep or dead. During this procedure it was important that no one speak to the practitioner, most especially no one should say the practitioner's name, else it would interrupt the working, possibly with dangerous consequences. In many of the accounts, the trance entered in this manner was heralded by a huge and unnatural yawn, and the end of the trance announced in the same manner, suggesting that the practitioner's consciousness or soul or hamingja was issuing out through the mouth and returning the same way (Buchholtz, 12). This technique of working "under the cloak" was more often practiced by men than by women, and seems to be a part of the art of the þulr and of the skald, of use in seeking out hidden truths, foretelling the future, creating sendings to attack others or to seek out information afar for the practitioner, and sometimes to cast spells which cause physical events in the real world such as landslides. The most effective location for this "under the cloak" technique was atop a barrow or grave, presumably in order for the practitioner to receive wisdom from the dead, a practice known as utiseta, "sitting out," or sitja á haugi "sit on a barrow". There was always danger in utiseta, for a person who dared it might be attacked by the haugbui or corpse who dwelled in the barrow, or they might be found to be insane the next morning (Aðalsteinsson, 110-122). (For more information on Norse ghosts and ghost beliefs, see the Viking Answer Lady article on Norse Ghosts.)
Another shamanistic aspect of seiðr was the ability to either shape-shift or to project one's spirit into an animal, often a sea-mammal such as a walrus, whale, or seal, of if a land animal then it is often one of the animals associated with Freyja, such as a cat, boar, or falcon. This is termed gand-reið, "riding the gand." The term gand itself means "chant, incantation, enchantment," no doubt the means used to power the reið. The riding of broomsticks, distaffs, or wolves is also included in the art of gand-reið (Cleasby-Vigfusson, s.v. gandr) . In Kormáks saga (ch. 18), the seið-witch Þórveig's gand-reið appeared as a walrus:
The two brothers had but left the roadstead, when close beside their ship, up rose a walrus. Kormák hurled at it a pole-staff, which struck the beast, so that it sank again: but the men aboard thought that they knew its eyes for the eyes of Þórveig the witch. That walrus came up no more, but of Þórveig it was heard that she lay sick to death; and indeed folk say that this was the end of her.
This is apparently a spirit-sending, for Þórveig's body stayed on shore, and she took harm when injury was done to the sending at sea. This shape-shifting is seen to be intrinsically connected to seið-work in Friðþjófs saga (ch. 5-8), where the seið-witches practice their shape-shifting sending from atop the seiðhjallr:
Then they sent two women skilled in magic, Heiðr and Hamglama, and paid them to send such a storm upon Friðþjóf and his men that they might all be lost at sea. So they practiced their magic; they fared to the seiðhjallr with charms and sorcery. . . . Then Friðþjóf and his men found that the ship made great speed, but they knew not whither they had come, for that so great a darkness fell on them that the stem was not seen from the center, what with driving spray and storm, frost and snowdrift and bitter cold. Then Friðþjóf climbed up in the mast; and when he was mounted up he said to his fellows, ‘I see a marvelous sight. A great whale circles the ship, and I suspect that we must be near some land, and he would not let us near the land. Methinks that King Helgi does not deal with us in friendly wise: it is no loving message that he sends us. I see two women on the whale's back, and they must wield this hostile storm with their worst spells and magic.
Friðþjóf and his crew managed to smite the women, and they disappeared, the whale submerged, and the storm dissipated. But back ashore it was seen that "while the two sisters were at their incantations they tumbled down from the seiðhjallr, and both their backs were broken."
The ability of the seið-worker to send forth her spirit in animal form could be put to good use as well as ill, for often the animal form is sent to distant locales in order to look for certain items, scout a path of travel, find out information about one's enemies, or to protect a person or home (Ellis-Davidson, 29).
The concept of "faring forth" in animal form exactly parallels Saami and Siberian shamanistic practices. Gand-reið could also include dream-faring and hag-riding or nightmare attacks, also well known shamanistic magical occurrences:
The mara "rides" humans and animals, at times trees, too. Anybody can be beset by the mara, men perhaps more often than women, however. The risk is especially great if one lays on one's back. The mara usually enters through the key-hole, through a knot-hole, a hole in a window-bar, or it may come down the chimney. It may, as a matter of fact, enter through any kind of round hole, but if the hole is of a different shape it cannot make its way in. Even so, window-chinks do not appear to have constituted any obstacle for it. The mara could be heard coming. There was a click in the lock, there was a patter crossing the floor, there was a sound as if something soft were being hauled across the boards. Sometimes a ‘sshh, sshh," or some similar indefinite, weak sound could be imagined. But however quick one was there wasn't time after this warning to move before the mara pounced on you. It felt as if a great weight fell over you, most frequently as though rolling on one from down at one's feet. At times it seemed as if someone were trying to stop up one's mouth and nose, sometimes as if one were being squeezed so tight that it was quite impossible to make the slightest movement. A person who was "mar-ridden" became anguished, he groaned, struggled violently, but nevertheless could not move a limb, and at last woke up with severe palpitation, wet with perspiration (Tillhagen, 318).
The mara could be formless, it could appear as a hag, a shadow, a horse, a cat or other animal. The attack of the nightmare or mara is reported in all cultures world-wide, and seems to be related both to children's night-terrors and a condition in adults of being in a state between waking and dreaming. To the Viking culture, however, the mara was an assault by a powerful and ill-intentioned seið-witch, such as is seen in the account of the death of Vanlandi:
Then Drífa sent for Huld, a seið-kona, and sent Vísbur, her son by Vanlandi, to Sweden. Drífa prevailed upon Huld by gifts that she should conjure Vanlandi back to Finland or else kill him. At the time when she exercised her seiðr, Vanlandi was at Uppsala. Then he became eager to go to Finland; but his friends and counselors prevented him from doing so, saying that most likely it was the witchcraft of the Finns which caused his longing. Then a drowsiness came over him and he lay down to sleep. But he had hardly gone to sleep when he called out, saying that a mara rode him. His men went to him and wanted to help him. But when they took hold of his head the mara trod on his legs so they nearly broke; and when they seized his feet it pressed down on his head so that he died.
-- Ynglingasaga, ch. 13
It is said in many places in the sagas that various seið-practitioners had learned their crafts from Saami wizards or shaman. It is not surprising, therefore, that like the Finnish or Saami, the seið-witch often knows spells to unleash the winds, tame tempests, send snow upon their foemen and lash the ocean to fury. One instance in Friðþjófs saga has already been discussed above. Like the episode in Friðþjófs saga, weather-working in the sagas seems to be a type of magic usually practiced from atop the seiðhjallr, although instances are recorded where other magical techniques are used. Certainly the seiðhjallr appears inLaxdoela saga when Kotkel and his family use the platform to call a tempest against Þórðr (ch. 35). Storms are not the only forces of nature the seið-witch could summon: many sagas recount episodes where landslides are caused, either be a seið-witch walking thrice widdershins around a place and chanting or by laying in a trance (Ellis-Davidson, 36).
VI. Magic and the Household Arts
Spinning is intrinsically connected with fate and with magic in the Old Norse literature. The goddesses of spinning inspected the spindles and distaffs of women of the household at Midwinter, rewarding the families of industrious spinners with good luck, and lazy spinners with disaster for the coming year (Motz, 152, 154), so that the industry of the spinning women of a house directly influenced the luck of the family. The Norns are said to spin each man's wyrd. In Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, the Norns spun Helgi's fate:
|3.||His fate-thread span they||to o'erspread the world|
|(for Borghild's bairn)||in Brálund castle|
|they gathered together||the golden threads,|
|and in moon-hall's middle||they made them fast.|
The belief that the fate of a child could be made, or altered, or irreparably harmed by this spinning has persisted, embodied in children's tales, such as the Märchen of Sleeping Beauty. This belief led to rituals performed by Swedish women, who in the seventh month of pregnancy drew blood from their finger with a sewing needle, and used it to mark a strip of wood with protective symbols. Then she spun three lengths of linen thread, which were dyed red, black, and one left white. The wooden strip was burned, and its ashes mixed with mead or beer. A burning twig from the fire was used to burn apart seven inch lengths from each of the linen threads, which were then boiled in salted water and left to dry in the forest on the limb of a tree for three days. These were then wrapped in clean linen and saved until the day of birth. The white cord was used to tie off the umbilical cord of the newborn. The red was tied around the baby's wrist as a protective amulet, sometimes strung with a bead to repel the evil eye. And the black , symbolic of death and ill-luck, was burned to ash and the ashes buried. Often the afterbirth was buried beneath the tree on which the linen threads had dried.
Germanic women's grave sites on the Continent and graves from Anglo-Saxon and Danelaw British women's graves often produce large, somewhat flattened, pentagonal-faceted rock-crystal beads with disproportionately large holes which have been interpreted as spindle whorls. Such a spindle whorl would give off brilliant rainbow flashes, acting as a prism when spun in the sunlight. Spindle whorls made of amber and of jet are also found in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon contexts: jet was considered to be "black amber" and hence sacred to Freyja, as was true amber, as the goddess's tears, and both "amber" types were frequently used as amulets. How better to "spin a spell" than with a magical spindle whorl made of scintillating rock crystal, or of the goddess's own tears? (Meaney, 78-79)
Not only could spells be spun, but magic could be woven into cloth. The best examples of this type of seiðr comes from Orkneyinga saga, where Helga and her sister Frakkok weave a shirt of fine white linen, embroidered with golden thread, and impregnated either with poison or killing magic, intended for the Earl's brother, Paul. Helga's son, Earl Harald of Orkney, found the shirt and wanted to have it for his own, but:
...the sisters pulled off their bonnets, tore their hair and said that if he put on the garment his life would be at risk. Though they were both in tears he didn't let that stop him, but no sooner was the garment upon his back than his flesh started to quiver and he began to suffer terrible agony. He had to go to bed and not long after that he died.
--Orkneyinga saga, ch. 55
Weaving magic could be used to help as well as harm. Often in riddles mail shirts are likened to magically woven protecting shirts. These shirts were called gørningstakkr or witch's shirts, and examples can be found in Eyrbyggja saga when Katla weaves a wound-proof shirt for her son Odd (ch. 18), in Vatnsdoela saga, where Ljót weaves one for her son Hrolleifr (ch. 19), as well as many other places in Norse literature. The motif is also well known in Finnish runos, where a mother weaves a magical shirt that is proof against the feared and deadly metal iron.
A famous type of weaving that was used for protection was the Raven Banner: these banners were recorded to have been carried by Danes attacking Belgium and northern France in the 9th and 10th centuries, as well as to Vikings under Sigifrid in the British Isles in 878, and in the Icelandic manuscripts of the 12th and 13th century the Raven Banner is found connected with Sigurðr Hlöðvisson Dyri (the Stout), Earl of Orkney, or with King Harald of Norway. In all these accounts, the magical banner has the power to terrify foemen; the ground of the banner which at rest was seen to be a shimmering white turned black in battle, or else the figure of a huge black raven in flight appeared on the white fabric, which was seen to magically flap its wings. The magical banner is always woven by the mother or sister of the warrior in question, with the magic woven into the fabric as it was made to protect the son or brother. Victory was always assured to the man whom the banner was carried before, but the banner bearer was often doomed to fall in battle (Orkneyinga saga, ch. 6, 11, 14, 17;Njáls saga, ch. 157; Lukman, 135-150).
Christian commentators railed against this type of women's magic. Eligius of Noyon preached that a woman should not "name other unfortunate persons either at the loom, or in dyeing, or in any kind of work with textiles," while the Corrector of Burchard of Worms, ca. 1010, sets the following penance for magical weaving:
Have you been present at or consented to the vanities which women practice in their woollen work, in their weaving, who when they begin their weaving hope to be able to bring it about that with incantations and with their actions that the threads of the warp and the woof become so intertwined that unless someone makes use of these other diabolical counter-incantations, he will perish totally? If you have been present or consented, you must do penance for thirty days on bread and water (Meaney, 185).
The colors red and blue were considered to be especially magical, and cloth of these colors was prized for straining medicinal infusions. The Dutch word toverij, the German wordZauber, and the Old English term teafor all mean "magic" and are related to the Norse wordtaufr, used for an amulet or talisman: all these terms are derived from a Germanic root meaning "red, vermillion" (Storms, 102-103). Red thread was used in medical applications, being used to bind off the umbilicus of the newborn, or to tie packets of herbs to an afflicted body part to encourage magical healing.
VI. Magic and Healing
In pagan societies, magic can be applied not only to medical techniques which heal the body, but are often the primary course of treatment for mental illness. Healing was an important part of the magical duties of Norse women (Steffensen, 192). Þuríðr in spaka (the Wise), also known as spá-kona, healed the injuries of two men wounded in hólmganga (the Norse form of the duel) (Steffensen, 188). Amulets and curing stones were known in Iceland, being a part of the practice of the healer, usually a woman. Grágás states:
"People are not to do things with stones or fill them with magic power with the idea of tying them on people or on livestock. If people put trust in stones to ensure their own health or that of cattle, the penalty is lesser outlawry" (Christian Law, §7).
Other Norse sources mention "stones of life," curing stones, stones to ease childbirth, stones which staunch bleeding, stones which cause the wearer to be invisible, and stones that can grant wishes (Meaney, 102).
The laying-on of hands was known to women in Scandinavia as a magical technique. Usually this form of diagnosis was performed by a man's foster mother or mother, who would touch their sons all over before a battle, and would know as a result what wounds the men would receive (Ellis-Davidson, 27). Other magical healing techniques were used, but accounts of healing magic are rare in the sagas. Other healers include Gríma the Greenlander fromFóstbræðra saga and Heiðr from Biarmiland in Haralds saga hárfagra (Ellis-Davidson, 40-41, n. 20 & 55). The laying on of hands combined with runic magic is mentioned in Sigrdrífumál:
|8.||Learn ale runes eke,||lest other man's wife|
|betray thee who trusted in her:|
|on they beer horn scratch it,||and the back of they hand,|
|and the Nauð rune on thy nails.|
|9.||Thy beaker bless||to banish fear|
|and cast a leek in thy cup:|
|then know I that never||thou needest fear|
|that bale in thy beer there be.|
|10.||Learn help runes eke,||if help thou wilt|
|a woman to bring forth her babe:|
|on they palms wear them||and grasp her wrists,|
|and ask the dísir's aid.|
|12.||Limb runes lean thou,||if a leech would'st be,|
|and wishest wounds to heal:|
|on the bark scratch them||of bole in the woods|
|whose boughs bend to the east.|
|21.||These beech runes be,||and birth runes, too,|
|and all ale runes,|
|and mighty, magic runes|
|for whoe'er unspoilt,||and unspilt, eke,|
|for his help will have them:|
|gain he who grasps them,|
|till draws near the doom of the gods!|
VII. Women and Magic in the Danelaw
In Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th and 10th centuries, there is a strong tradition in the Danelaw of women practicing pagan magical arts. Constant communication of the Danelaw with Scandinavia caused greater preservation of the practices of heathenism than in other parts of England. There is the woman who is wyrtgælstra, who sings galdor over herbs (Crawford, 105). Churchmen decried the practice of women making love philters, who:
wiccige ymb æniges mannes lufe. & him on æte sylle, oþþe on drince, oþþe on æniges cynnes gealdrorcræftum, þæt hyra lufu forþon þe mare beon scyle
"practices wicce concerning the love of any man, or gives him in food or drink or in galdor-craft of any kind anything so that because of it love may be the greater" (Crawford, 111).
Ælfric fulminated against women who taught the worship of trees, stones, and wells, who brew love potions and interpret dreams (Crawford, 111). Maleficent magic was made by "staking" an image with iron pins to harm the person after whom the image was modeled:
& þæt land æt Ægelewyrðe headde an wyduwe & hire sune ær forwyrt forþanþe ht drifon serne stacan on Ælsie Wulfstanes feder & þæt werþ æreafe & man the þæt morþ forþ of hire inclifan
"and a widow and her son had previously forfeited land at Ailsworth because they drove iron stakes into Ælsie, Wulfstan's father, and that was discovered and the deadly image was taken from her closet" (Crawford, 113).
The spae-wife is not absent in Saxon England, either, for a Christian penitential states:
Si qua mulier divinationes vel incantationes diabolicas fecerit, I annum poeniteat, vel 3 XLmas, XL dies, juxta qualitem culpae poenitentis.
"If a woman makes prophecies and incantations by diabolic means, she is punished for one year, or 40 masses, 40 days, with the punishment being proportional to the guilt" (Crawford, 107).
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