Nordic magic (II): Seiðr
As could be seen in the introduction of Nordic Magic (I): Galdr, Seiðr is a type of magic related to the female environment, with less social consideration given its shamanic characteristics, that is, practices of loss of consciousness and ecstasy. The purposes between the galdr and the seiðr are different in that the galdr seeks a voluntary and individual magical act, while with the seiðr a deep and personal communication with the divinities and the cosmos was achieved, hence one of its main activities be guessing. It has already been said that its root was associated with seiðr to "spin, tie", although the reason was not very well known. Perhaps it was an association with women's labor. Coincidentally, the magic wands found in the graves of Seiðkona women are shaped like spinning spindles. Examples of magical spinning we would have in the spinning wheel of the goddess Frigg herself. That is why others point directly to magic with threads, weaving and unweaving destiny. It is more interesting that, given their nomadic life, they were experts in net traps and fishing lines, which were associated with their powers of "attracting" and dominating certain spirits, and even that the spindle-like appearance of their rods was actually a thrown weapon, recoverable thanks to the cord.
The women who practiced it were called seiðkona, "the one who knows", but also spákona, "the one who sees", and völva, according to some, "the one who carries the rod (vǫlr)". They also derive it from, and in fact were so called, from the Old High German walla, meaning "full." It can be understood that both full of knowledge (fjǫlkunnig), and imbued with magic or divinity. The völva is a recurring character in the Edda and all the Nordic sagas, where they help the protagonists with spells and predictions, being a völva the one that predicts Ragnarok to the gods.
In the Ynglingatal saga, where the ancestry and descent of the kings of Scandinavia is organized, it is said that seiðr magic was taught to mortals by the divinities, especially by the Vanir, gods of fertility and natural forces, original from Scandinavia, as opposed to the Æsir, divinities of Indo-European origin who ended up being incorporated into the Nordic pantheon with notable prominence. The myth says that Odin learned seiðr magic from the vanir Freyja. Also Sif, the wife of Thor, was said to be a spakona.
The prophetess woman was a widespread figure in the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon world. Julius Caesar, in his Gallic Wars (1.50), says that Ariovistus withdrew his troops from the battle for no apparent reason, and that he later learned that it was customary among the Germans <<for their women to decide, by divinatory arts, if whether or not to give battle>>. Tacitus, in Histories IV, 61, repeats this idea saying that <<it was an ancient custom of the Germans to attribute prophetic powers to many of their women, and due to excesses of superstition, to have them as divine>> and points out that a certain Veleda had great renown at that time. In his Germania he points to a certain Aurinia of the same profession.
The seiðkona was mainly an itinerant woman, who went where she was needed, but who also walked the paths she wanted both for her learning and her retreats. However, there were many populations that liked to have a völva or seiðkona not far away, especially those who depended on crops or fishing, given their natural powers. It is known, however, of the existence of family clans dedicated entirely to seiðr , such as those that appear in the Laxdaela Saga and the Gísla Súrssonar Saga. But on this question of learning, we also have the appearance of the völva Heid, in the Saga of Örvar-Oddr, who arrives in the city surrounded by fifteen boys and fifteen girls as her disciples and helpers, literally as a teacher.
Their condition as itinerants, and therefore foreigners in many lands, also created certain mistrust among the lords of the lands, who saw how they were invited by the towns to eat and sleep in their homes. However, as has already been said, there was no doubt that their presence could have great advantages. Thus, it is told in the chronicles of the Icelandic colonization, in the middle of the Middle Ages, that a völva named Thurid Sundafyllir achieved that, in the middle of a famine, the fjords will drag a huge amount of fish to the area.
Even so, they had great social consideration that can be deduced from the tombs found. In them are rich trousseaus (long dress, jewelry: some wore rings on their toes; weapons, cars) and very characteristic magical elements: the spindle-shaped rod, spinning wheels, cauldrons, bags with different types of herbs, bones or remains of animals, seeds... and silver amulets in the shape of a chair. The chair, it seems, was a representation of a real seat in which the seiðkona sat or climbed when they contacted the spirits. In fact, an Icelandic law from the 13th century expressly prohibits using a seat to practice paganism or awaken spirits.
But the link between these burials with völvur or seið practitioners and their possible rituals are not simple archaeological deductions. The description given of a seiðkona in the Saga of Eirik the Red shows that these women share the appearance of the shamans of neighboring areas (Sami, Buryat), as opposed to deified and elegant appearances that were given to them for a long time, Although perhaps such distinctions could be made between the practitioner of seiðr who belonged to the nobility and the one who was a peasant. Below we present the description of Thorbjorg, known as Lítilvölva (Little Völva) when he arrives at the colony where they require his presence, during the Yule festivities, to make predictions about the year that is about to begin. It is said of her that:
<< She wore a blue cloak, tied with leather thongs, all the way up to the hem with gems. She had a necklace of glass beads, covered her head with a black lambskin hood, lined with the fur of a white cat. He carried a staff (seiðstafr) with a copper hilt, encrusted with precious stones. Around her waist was a tinder belt, from which hung a large bag in which she kept the talismans she needed for her magic. His feet were shod in furry calfskin shoes, the long, thick laces ending in large brass buttons. She wrapped her hands in cat fur gloves, lined with white fur>>
After entertaining her by also following specific rituals (greeting all attendees, offering her a cushion stuffed with chicken feathers for her seat, and a knife with a broken tip so she can eat porridge with goat's milk and animal hearts), she sleeps there and at The next day she requests the help of the women of the town, so that they sing the old Vardlokur or Songs of Vardlok, which functioned as spells. But they were all Christians, and only one woman named Gudrid had memories of one that her adoptive mother sang to her. Thus, Gudrid sang while the rest of the women moved in a circle around Thorbjorg, who was in the center, sitting on her ritual platform, and when they finished, the seiðkona prophesied that the famine would end in that same year, and that Gudrid would get married in Greenland, but it would be in Iceland where she would give birth to a great lineage, and she prophesied and answered the doubts of each and every one of the attendees, practically everything being fulfilled.
Some of these traits are shared with other völvur. For example, the aforementioned Heid, from the Örvar-Oddr saga, also wore a hooded cloak, between bluish and black, and the young people who accompanied her sang in their rituals. He also carried a spindle-shaped rod with which, if he gently hit someone's cheek, he would cause them to forget.
There were also other types of rites, apart from divination, such as harvest rites, with symbolic and trance dances, possibly aided by songs and percussion instruments. In the Vatnsdæla saga, a völva named Thordis helps Thorkel, who has been brought to trial, by giving him a staff with which to gently strike his accuser's left cheek, so that he will forget everything, and the right, so that he will remember. He also gives him a black hood with which he will become invisible.
In the Saga of Kórmak, this same Thordis is hired by the protagonist's enemy to perform a spell that grants him victory over Kórmak. Kórmak himself goes to the völva to do the same with him, but he interrupts her several times during the ritual sacrifice of three geese that was going to provide him with protection, so the spell did not work. Despite everything, his enemy was badly wounded, and it was Thordis, once again, who performed a healing ritual for him, making a sacrifice to the elves, spirits that sent both disease and good health.
In the Eyrbyggja Saga, we find two women, Katla and Geirrid, who can cast spells to change the appearance of things. But without a doubt Geirrid is portrayed as a seiðkona or völva, since she is described as wearing a blue cloak and hood and a sealskin bag tied to her belt, with which she manages to stop Katla from hiding with her spells (curiously, spinning with spinning wheel or braiding goat's wool) to her son.
As for the masculine seiðr, the seidmen, he was considered ergi (effeminate) and not very honorable for a man. It is likely that it was due to issues associated with the practitioner's passivity regarding nature, with sexual connotations. In the poem Lokasenna (Loki's Sarcasms), the god is not welcomed at a banquet and despite being given a seat, he begins to drop little barbs towards his initial rejection. Then, all the divinities present who recriminate him for something receive an elaborate insult from Loki, in a dialogue succession, until leaving no puppet with a head, until Thor manages to get him to leave after threatening him four times with the hammer. Well, in this text, Loki dares to publicly call Odin, who also knows seiðr magic, an effeminate:
<< Oþinn qvaþ: / "Veiztv, ef ec gaf þeim, / er ec gefa ne scylda, / enom slęvorom sigr: / atta vetr vartv / fyr iorþ neþan / kýr mólcandi oc cona, / oc hefir þv þar [born of] borit, / oc hvgða ec þat args aþal."
Loci qvaþ: / "Enn þic síþa koþo / Sámseyio í / oc draptv a vétt sem vꜹlor; / vitca líci / fórtv verþioþ yfir, /oc hvgða ec þat args aþal." >>
<< Odin said: Do you think I gave victory to those who didn't deserve it? You spent eight winters underground, milking cows as a servant woman, and you even conceived children. That, to me, is being unmanly.
Loki said: In Samsey they say that you drummed magic and knocked on doors as a völva. Under the guise of a fortune teller you went among the people. That, to me, is unmanly. >>
In connection with this "perversion" thought, their practices were identified with evil magic. This is the case of King Harald I of Norway, according to the Heimskringla Saga, who had his son Ragnval Rettilbeine killed as a seidmen - Rettilbeine means "erect member", again a sexual connotation - whose grandson, Eyvind Kelda, followed in his footsteps and He tried to go to the banquet of King Olaf Trygvasson, who had tried to Christianize and kill him before, with a small army of witches, although in the end the move went wrong, because the fog that he had invoked to hide prevented them from seeing the enemy attacks, and they all died tied up on Skrattasker's reef, drowned by the tide.
In the Saga of Gísla, the evil seisskratti Pomgrímr nef is required by Bork, Gísla's adversary, protagonist of the saga, so that he is isolated and abandoned in Iceland; however, the wizard mispronounced a word, and finally an Icelander finds and helps Gísla. This same character is requested by Gísla himself during the winter holidays to assassinate his brother-in-law. The witch casts a spell on a spearhead and causes a storm that traps the brother-in-law in the house where he will kill him.
The perception of negative magic will not only be for men. There will also be examples of Icelandic witches using seiðr with harmful intentions. In the Saga of Frithiof the Brave, Auðbjórg, the sister of the sorcerer Pomgrímr nef, is responsible for the death of the protagonist, after summoning a storm that destroys the ship in which he was traveling.
With these distinctions between galdr and seiðr, and between the varied uses of the latter, it could be concluded that the fears towards this type of shamanic magic, both from the Iron Age and already in the Christian Era, were most likely due to the distrust that wandering characters whose practices and way of life were a mystery caused. However, the double standard of this fear provoked both his untouchability and his admiration when necessary, since in his mythical record even the gods themselves supported his actions. But for all this, its secrecy and traditions are, unlike the galdr, very difficult to reconstruct, and both scholars and neopagans can only drink from the sources and the few neighboring shamanic examples.
Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - firstname.lastname@example.org
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-Kruychkova O., Kyuchkova E. Asgard: Northern Magic. Babelcube Books, 2019.