Saturday, March 12, 2016

Magic and Mysticism in the Norse Sagas

My current manuscript telling Vika and Grímr's story includes a bit of the mystical within it. I've found the study of the Norse mythology and Norse sagas very helpful in building this layer into my book. One of the Old Norse Sagas, "The Saga of Erik the Red", includes a prophetess (lítilvölva), and is an excellent resource regarding this aspect of life and beliefs before, during and after the time of the Vikings. The following blog post, from one of my favorite blogs devoted to the Viking era, The Viking Answer Lady, has been a treasure-trove for me. Enjoy!

  Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seiðr and Spá

I. Introduction

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.
II. Terminology

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. seiðr could give the worker knowledge of the future, but rather than directly perceiving ørlög 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 the seið-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 völva dates 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.

Runic magic

    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

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