Ancient literary attestations & archaeological evidence of seidr practice.
This database compiles ancient literary attestations and archaeological data that significantly informs comprehensive analysis of seidr. Scholars, including Price (2002, 2004), Gardela (2008, 2009), Tolley (2007), and Orchard (1997) provide anthropological context to the tradition. Their analyses rely heavily on passages in the Ynglinga Saga, wherein seidr is identified as an art. Attestations of the art along with other arts traditions, commonly known as sorcery, are woven into stories that are central to ancestral Norse cultural identity and worldview. The Ynglinga Saga specifies seidr as:
…the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he [Odin] himself practised; namely, what is called magic [seidr]. By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another (stanza 7; Trans. Laing, 1844).
Orchard (1997) derives a suiting definition of seidr as "a particular form of magic practiced by Odin" (137). The Ynglinga Saga identifies a wide range of types of spell-craft that Odin practiced, which Price (2004) interprets more broadly as, Odinnic Magic, and which is, “often interpreted in a similar context” (pp: 110), however, based on contextual information in the Ynglinga saga, seidr is a specific art tradition. Despite many scholarly works dedicated to unraveling its secrets, a universally accepted definition of seidr remains elusive.
Price (2004) connects literary attestations of seidr to material culture in the archaeological record of viking-age Scandinavia, especially to what he identified as the graves of sorceresses. According to Gardela (2008), “the key artefact which enabled Price to interpret those graves as possible volva-burials was the presence in each one of a strange iron rod. Price sees those items as possible staffs of sorcery, which might have functioned as distinctive attributes of the Viking Age volur and were symbols of their craft and profession” (pp: 53). Scholars agree that understanding of its origins can be advanced through analysis of material culture associated with the art.
There are many open questions about the origins of seidr. Price (2004) asserts, “uncritical ethnographic analogy is a constant danger in shamanic research, but I strongly believe that any meaningful study of seiðr must look seriously to the work being done not just in the Sámi homelands but also in Siberia, Alaska, Canada, the Northern continental United States, and Greenland. (pp: 112). Gardela (2008), adds, "that in order to unravel the seiðr complex one should also look closer at the ritual practices conducted by the Eastern and Western Slavs as well as the Baltic and Finno-Ugric peoples.” (pp: 52). Thus, this data compilation includes sources that are directly relevant to the material culture of seidr, along with literary accounts that elucidate behaviors associated with the practice in an evolutionary cultural context.
Figurine from Lejre, Denmark
circa 900 CE.
Image by Harafnisa
Into Viking Minds by (Leszek Gardela, 2008) (pdf)Download
The Archaeology of Seidr - Circum Polar Traditions... (Neil Price, 2004) (pdf)Download
The Chicanery of Seidr (Rig Svenson, 2015) (pdf)Download
Deviant Burials in Viking-Age Scandinavia (Ruth Lydia Taylor, 2014) (pdf)Download
Vçrôr and Gandr: Helping Spirits in Norse Magic (Clive Tolley, 1995) (pdf)Download
Gand & Seidr (unknown) (pdf)Download
New Thoughts on the Ambivalence of Old Norse Sorcery (Leszek Gardela, 2009) (pdf)Download
A Biography of Seidr Staffs (Leszek Gardela, 2009) (pdf)Download
Within the context of Norse mythos, a seeress is the orator of the Norse cultural origin story, Voluspa. In this poem, Odin raises a seeress from the dead to inquire about his fate. Her response is the composition of poem itself. Her narrative recounts the most ancient events - the origin of the cosmos, the primordial forces that shaped it, and the emergence of life, along with key aspects of mythic history before revealing the prophecy of Odin's death at Ragnarok. In raising the seeress from the dead, the transmission of prophetic knowledge is directly associated with death and rebirth.
The line, "Alone I sat, when the Old One [ancient one] sought me... I know where Othin's eye is hidden," associates the seeress directly with the well of Mimir, and indicates Odin's remarkable sacrifice occurred in the very ancient past, Thus, it is apparent that Odin had already gained the power of prophecy, yet he raised the seeress rom the dead to gain further wisdom. It is significant that Odin offers necklaces and rings in exchange for the dead woman's knowledge. Rings are commonly associated with seidr women in archaeological assemblages.
"1. ...Thou wilt, Valfather, | that well I relate
Old tales I remember | of men long ago."
"Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight."
"28. Alone I sat | when the Old One sought me,
The terror of gods, | and gazed in mine eyes:
"What hast thou to ask? | why comest thou hither?
Othin, I know | where thine eye is hidden."
"29. I know where Othin's | eye is hidden,
Deep in the wide-famed | well of Mimir;
Mead from the pledge | of Othin each mom [morning]
Does Mimir drink: | would you know yet more?"
"30. Necklaces had I | and rings from Heerfather,
Wise was my speech | and my magic wisdom;
. . . . . . . . . .
Widely I saw | over all the worlds."
(Bellow's Translation, 1936).
The Voluspa also tells the account of the mysterious and powerful sorceress, Gollveig, and of her remarkable power over life and death. The gods speared her and burned her three times, and each time, she was reborn. After being reborn the third time, she was mysteriously transformed and renamed as the seeress, Heith.
Bellows (1936) translates Gollveig as "Gold-Might" and Heith possibly as "Shining One....a name often applied to wise women and prophetesses." Other's have interpreted Gollveig as "Gold Lust/Intoxication," and associate Gollveig with Freya based on their presumably shared lust for gold. These mysterious passages continue to elude definitive interpretation, however, it is clear that Gollveig possessed a type of "Golden Power" - a power over life and death - that Odin could not overcome, despite his mastery of the craft.
21. The war I remember, | the first in the world,
When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig,
And in the hall | of Hor had burned her,
Three times burned, | and three times born,
Oft and again, | yet ever she lives.
22. Heith they named her | who sought their home,
The wide-seeing witch, | in magic wise;
Minds she bewitched | that were moved by her magic,
To evil women | a joy she was.
(Trans. Bellows, 1936)
The story of Odin's sacrifice to the well of Mimir is among the most profound stories in North mythos. The Havamal tells the profound rite that Odin practiced - a sacrifice of 'himself to himself.' He cut out his eye, cast it into the well of knowledge, speared himself, hung himself from the cosmic tree, and suspend there for nine days and nine nights without food or water. Thus suspended from the tree of life (as if attached by an umbilical cord?) at the threshold of life and death, gazing into the well of Mimir, the depth of which no man may know, Odin had a transformative experience. He saw the runes and took them up. From thence, Odin applied his knowledge of the runes for all manner of intentions and spell-craft purposes.
139. I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine; With the spear
I was wounded, | and offered I was To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know What root beneath it runs.
140. None made me happy | with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked; I took up the runes, | shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
(Trans. Bellows, 1936)
Remarkably, in the passages of Voluspa cited above, the seeress recounts this moment. From the narrative structure, she is directly associated with the well of Mimir, as if to suggest that the two are one and the same.
In the final passages of the poem, Odin specifies eighteen spells, each for a different purpose. These are recounted in Attestations of Spell Craft in Poetic Eddas below.
12. Tell me Fafnir,
they say you are wise,
and very knowledgeable -
who are the Norns
who govern childbirth
and choose who mothers what child?
13. There are various
different kinds of Norns:
they are not all of one family.
Some are god-born,
some are elves,
others come from the dwarves.
(Trans. Craword 2015).
Passages in the Ynglinga saga are widely recognized for their characterization of the arts and particularly seidr. In these passages, Odin is venerated for his mastery of the arts, including siedr craft. The detailed association between Odin and seidr attests to its ubiquity in ancestral Norse cultural traditions.
The account describes a diversity of remarkable feats that Odin was capable of, including skald-craft, war magic, shapeshifting, enchantment, prophecy, travel magic, animal communication, necromancy, elemental magic, and others. Price (2004) characterizes the arts that Odin practiced more broadly as Odinic Magic and notes that the Odinic Magic and seidr can be "interpreted in a similar context" (pp: 110). Orchard (1997) specifies that seidr is "a particular form of magic..." (pp: 137); particular forms of the craft are identified in stanza seven (below). Notably, in this and in other accounts, Odin's practices are integrally entwined with the use of words and runes.
The saga also attests to behavior associated with learning of the arts. It tells that Odin, "and the Diar with him introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practiced." Although it also tells that Odin, "...knew them first, and knew many more than other people" (stanza 6), it also attests that Freya, " first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people" (stanza 4) . These passages elucidate a traditional view of the origins, evolution, persistence and continuity of cultural arts traditions. The author eloquently adds, "and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long" (stanza 7).
Due to their importance, the following passages from the Ynglinga Saga are cited in full from Laing's 1844 translation:
Chapter 6. Of Odin's Accomplishments
When Odin of Asaland came to the north, and the Diar with him, they introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practised. Odin was the cleverest of all, and from him all the others learned their arts and accomplishments; and he knew them first, and knew many more than other people. But now, to tell why he is held in such high respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it. When sitting among his friends his countenance was so beautiful and dignified, that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it, but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to his foes. This arose from his being able to change his skin and form in any way he liked. Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and smoothly, that all who heard believed him. He spoke everything in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call scald-craft. He and his temple priests were called song-smiths, for from them came that art of song into the northern countries. Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.
Chapter 7. Of Odin's Feats
Odin could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon his own or other people's business. With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased. Odin had a ship which was called Skidbladnir, in which he sailed over wide seas, and which he could roll up like a cloth. Odin carried with him Mime's head, which told him all the news of other countries. Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord of the mounds. He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news. In all such things he was pre-eminently wise. He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic [seidr]. By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and
also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practise it; and
therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art. Odin knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased. From these arts he became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and relied on his power and on himself. He taught the most of his
arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long.
Trans. Laing, 1844
Erik the Red's saga is widely cited as the most descriptive account of a seeress in ancient Norse literature. She is identified as a woman named Thorbjorn. Her appearance in the saga is brief, but the narrative reveals key details about seidr within the context of Norse social structure. The account suggests that she lived, "in the settlement" with other Greenlanders and that she traditionally made rounds to people's homes in the winter time. To some extent, this contradicts characterization of seeresses as wanderers; although the people are said to be "curious" about her, and also that she did wander about during winter,, the text also strongly suggests that she nevertheless resided within the "settlement."
The account describes her physical appearance and includes detail related to material culture associated with her practice. These literary details have proven useful in cross-examination of archaeological data (see Seidr in Archaeology below). To illustrate, the account describes her clothing, her staff and her bag of talismans. Significantly, Thorbjorn's staff is described as being, "ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob" (Trans. Kunz, 1997: pp. 658). Numerous viking age burials have produced archaeological materials that are consistent or partially consistent with these details, including personalized staffs with brass and/or bronze ornamentation (see Seidr in Archaeology below).
Chapter 4. Description of Thorbjorg
At that time there was a great dearth in Greenland; those who had been out on fishing expeditions had caught little, and some had not returned. There was in the settlement the woman whose name was Thorbjorg. She was a prophetess (spae-queen), and was called Litilvolva (little sybil). She had had nine sisters, and they were all spae-queens, and she was the only one now living. It was a custom of Thorbjorg, in the winter time, to make a circuit, and people invited her to their houses, especially those who had any curiosity about the season, or desired to know their fate; and in as much as Thorkell was chief franklin thereabouts, he considered that it concerned him to know when the scarcity which overhung the settlement should cease. He invited, therefore, the spae-queen to his house, and prepared for her a hearty welcome, as was the custom wherever a reception was accorded a woman of this kind. A high seat was prepared for her, and a cushion laid thereon in which were poultry-feathers.
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 soft hair, 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. Now, when she entered, all men thought it their bounden duty to offer her becoming greetings, and these she received according as the men were agreeable to her. The franklin Thorkell took the wise-woman by the hand, and led her to the seat prepared for her. He requested her to cast her eyes over his herd, his household, and his homestead. She remained silent altogether.
During the evening the tables were set; and now I must tell you what food was made ready for the spae-queen. There was prepared for her porridge of kid’s milk, and hearts of all kinds of living creatures there found were cooked for her. She had a brazen spoon, and a knife with a handle of walrus-tusk, which was mounted with two rings of brass, and the point of it was broken off.When the tables were removed, the franklin Thorkell advanced to Thorbjorg and asked her how she liked his homestead, or the appearance of the men; or how soon she would ascertain that which he had asked, and which the men desired to know. She replied that she would not give answer before the morning, after she had slept there for the night. And when the (next) day was far spent, the preparations were made for her which she required for the exercise of her enchantments. She begged them to bring to her those women who were acquainted with the lore needed for the exercise of the enchantments, and which is known by the name of Weird-songs, but no such women came forward. Then was search made throughout the homestead if any woman were so learned.
Then answered Gudrid, "I am not skilled in deep learning, nor am I a wise-woman, although Halldis, my foster-mother, taught me, in Iceland, the lore which she called Weird-songs.""Then art thou wise in good season," answered Thorbjorg; but Gudrid replied, "That lore and the ceremony are of such a kind, that I purpose to be of no assistance therein, because I am a Christian woman."
Then answered Thorbjorg, "Thou mightest perchance afford thy help to the men in this company, and yet be none the worse woman than thou wast before; but to Thorkell give I charge to provide here the things that are needful."
Thorkell thereupon urged Gudrid to consent, and she yielded to his wishes. The women formed a ring round about, and Thorbjorg ascended the scaffold and the seat prepared for her enchantments. Then sang Gudrid the weird-song in so beautiful and excellent a manner, that to no one there did it seem that he had ever before heard the song in voice so beautiful as now.The spae-queen thanked her for the song. "Many spirits," said she, "have been present under its charm, and were pleased to listen to the song, who before would turn away from us, and grant us no such homage. And now are many things clear to me which before were hidden both from me and others. And I am able this to say, that the dearth will last no longer, the season improving as spring advances.The epidemic of fever which has long oppressed us will disappear quicker than we could have hoped. And thee, Gudrid, will I recompense straightway, for that aid of thine which has stood us in good stead; because thy destiny is now clear to me, and foreseen. Thou shalt make a match here in Greenland, a most honourable one, though it will not be a long-lived one for thee, because thy way lies out to Iceland; and there, shall arise from thee a line of descendants both numerous and goodly, and over the branches of thy family shall shine a bright ray. And so fare thee now well and happily, my daughter."
Afterwards the men went to the wise-woman, and each enquired after what he was most curious to know. She was also liberal of her replies, and what she said proved true. After this came one from another homestead after her, and she then went there. Thorbjorn was invited, because he did not wish to remain at home while such heathen worship was performing.
The weather soon improved when once spring began, as Thorbjorg had said, Thorbjorn made ready his ship, and went on until he came to Brattahlid (the steep slope). Eirik received him with the utmost cordiality, saying he had done well to come there. Thorbjorn and his family were with him during the winter. And in the following spring Eirik gave to Thorbjorn land at Stokknes, and handsome farm buildings were there built for him, and he dwelt there afterwards.
There are several attestations of seidr in the Saga of the People of Vantansdal. It also includes an account of what seems to be different magical tradition identified as trolldami, which is included here for comparative purposes.
Chapter #. Account of Lapp Seeress
The saga includes an account of a Lapp Seeress, "splendidly attired," who "sat in a high seat." It tells that, "men left their benches and went forward to ask [her] about their fates." Her role in the narrative is small, but informative. She tells a man named, Ingimund, "What I am saying will come to pass and, as a sign of this, an amulet is now missing from your purse... and it now lies in the wood where you will settle, and on this silver amulet the figure of Frey is carved, and when you establish your homestead there, then my prophecy will be fulfilled" (pp. 204-205).
Þeir Ingjaldur efna þar seið eftir fornum sið til þess að menn leituðu eftir forlögum sínum. Þar var komin Finna ein fjölkunnig. Ingimundur og Grímur komu til veislunnar með miklu fjölmenni. Finnan var sett hátt og búið um hana veglega. Þangað gengu menn til frétta hver úr sínu rúmi og spurðu að örlögum sínum. Hún spáði hverjum eftir því sem gekk en það var nokkuð misjafnt hversu hverjum líkaði. Þeir fóstbræður sátu í rúmum sínum og gengu eigi til frétta. Þeir lögðu og engan hug á spár hennar.
Chapter 26. Ljot, Fjanda and Trolldomi
In contemporary literature, Ljot is often characterized as an "old-witch," however, she is actually denoted in text as a "fjanda" (originally meaning enemy or monster and later meaning demon or devil) and also as a "kerling" (woman of low standing, as opposed to Fru). She is said to be troll-like (tröllslega) and practiced a type of sorcery identified as "trölldómi" - troll magic, suggesting that seidr was distinct from other arts in ancestral Norse worldview.
Og er þeir bræður komu að mælti Högni: "Hvað fjanda fer hér að oss er eg veit eigi hvað er?" Þorsteinn svarar: "Þar fer Ljót kerling og hefir breytilega um búist." Hún hafði rekið fötin fram yfir höfuð sér og fór öfug og rétti höfuðið aftur milli fótanna. Ófagurlegt var hennar augnabragð hversu hún gat þeim tröllslega skotið. Þorsteinn mælti til Jökuls: "Dreptu nú Hrolleif, þess hefir þú lengi fús verið." Jökull svarar: "Þess er eg nú albúinn." Hjó hann þá af honum höfuðið og bað hann aldrei þrífast. "Já, já," sagði Ljót, "nú lagði allnær að eg mundi vel geta hefnt Hrolleifs sonar míns og eruð þér Ingimundarsynir giftumenn miklir." Þorsteinn svarar: "Hvað er nú helst til marks um það?" Hún kvaðst hafa ætlað að snúa þar um landslagi öllu "en þér ærðust allir og yrðuð að gjalti eftir á vegum úti með villidýrum og svo mundi og gengið hafa ef þér hefðuð mig eigi fyrr séð en eg yður." Þorsteinn kvað þess von að hamingja skipti með þeim. Síðan dó Ljót kerling í móð sínum og trölldómi og eru þau úr þessi sögu.
Chapter 44. Thordis and Her Staff
The prophetess, Thordis, lends her cloak and staff to affect the outcome of a case at an Althing The account is as follows:
She then said to Thorkel, "Go now in my black cloak and carry in your hand the staff which is called Hognud... You will go to Gudmand and strike him three times with the staff on his left cheek; it does not seem to me that you are due for an early death and this may work" (Smiley, 1997l; pp. 262-263).
The cloak and staff are elements of material culture associated with seidr that recur in literary accounts and in archaeological contexts.
Chapter 47. Account of Weather Magic
In this account, a man named Bard applies his craft to alter weather conditions.
There was a man named Bard... he also went with them. They asked them to call off the bad weather, because he had the wisdom of a magician (margkunnigur). He asked them to join hands and make a circle; he then went round three times backwards, spoke in Irish and bade them all say 'yes' out loud - and this they did. He then waved a kerchief at the mountain and the weather relented"
(Smiley, 1997 )
Bárður hét maður og var kallaður stirfinn. Hann fór með þeim. Þeir báðu hann af taka veðrið því að hann var margkunnigur. Hann bað þá handkrækjast og gera hring. Síðan gekk hann andsælis þrisvar og mælti írsku. Hann bað þá já við kveða. Þeir gerðu svo. Síðan veifði hann giska til fjalls og tók þá af veðrið.
Chapter 7: Sorceress & Shape-Shifting:
"It is now told that Signy was sitting in her room one time when very powerful witch visited her. Signy said to her: I would like for the two of us to switch our forms.The witch answered, That's for you to decide. And so the witch used her magic to cause the two women to exchange shapes" (Trans. Crawford, 2015).
The raven banner was... a standard used by the Norse Jarls of Orkney. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, it was made for Sigurd the Stout by his mother, a völva or shamanic seeress. She told him that the banner would "bring victory to the man it's carried before, but death to the one who carries it." The saga describes the flag as "a finely made banner, very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying ahead." Sigurd's mother's prediction came true when, according to the sagas, all of the bearers of the standard met untimely ends. The "curse" of the banner ultimately fell on Jarl Sigurd himself at the Battle of Clontarf:
Earl Sigurd had a hard battle against Kerthialfad, and Kerthialfad came on so fast that he laid low all who were in the front rank, and he broke the array of Earl Sigurd right up to his banner, and slew the banner-bearer. Then he got another man to bear the banner, and there was again a hard fight. Kerthialfad smote this man too his death blow at once, and so on one after the other all who stood near him. Then Earl Sigurd called on Thorstein the son of Hall of Sida, to bear the banner, and Thorstein was just about to lift the banner, but then Asmund the White said, "Don't bear the banner! For all they who bear it get their death." "Hrafn the Red!" called out Earl Sigurd, "bear thou the banner." "Bear thine own devil thyself," answered Hrafn. Then the earl said, "`Tis fittest that the beggar should bear the bag;'" and with that he took the banner from the staff and put it under his cloak. A little after Asmund the White was slain, and then the earl was pierced through with a spear.
Saga of the People of Laxardal
Chapter 32. Dream Interpretation and Prophecy:
A man named Gest interprets several dreams and predicts future events.
Chapter 35. Male and Female Practitioners:
A man named Korkel had only recently immigrated to Iceland, along with his wife, Grima, and their sons Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye and Strigandi. They were all from Hebrides, all of them skilled in witchcraft and accomplished magicians. Hallstein had received them on their arrival and settled them at Urdir in Skalmalfjord, where their presence was anything but welcome (Smiley, 1997)
- Seidr in Frodi's Hall
- Hvit: Gand Sorceress
- Bodvar's Prophecy
There are many accounts of prophetic dreams throughout the Icelandic sagas. This particular type of prophetic power is not limited to priestly classes. Any character might potentially have a prophetic dream.
Saga of King Harald.
The Saga of King Harald attests to three men who have prophetic dreams.
Chapter 83. Gurd's Dream:
While they lay at the Solunds a man called Gyrd, on board the
king's ship, had a dream. He thought he was standing in the
king's ship and saw a great witch-wife standing on the island,
with a fork in one hand and a trough in the other. He thought
also that he saw over all the fleet, and that a fowl was sitting
upon every ship's stern, and that these fowls were all ravens or
ernes; and the witch-wife sang this song: --
From the east I'll 'tice the king,
To the west the king I'll bring;
Many a noble bone will be
Ravens o'er Giuke's ship are fitting,
Eyeing the prey they think most fitting.
Upon the stem I'll sail with them!
Upon the stem I'll sail with them!
Chapter 84. Thord's Dream:
There was also a man called Thord, in a ship which lay not far
from the king's. He dreamt one night that he saw King Harald's
fleet coming to land, and he knew the land to be England. He saw
a great battle-array on the land; and he thought both sides began
to fight, and had many banners flapping in the air. And before
the army of the people of the country was riding a huge witch-
wife upon a wolf; and the wolf had a man's carcass in his mouth,
and the blood was dropping from his jaws; and when he had eaten
up one body she threw another into his mouth, and so one after
another, and he swallowed them all. And she sang thus: --
"Skade's eagle eyes
The king's ill luck espies:
Though glancing shields
Hide the green fields,
The king's ill luck she spies.
To bode the doom of this great king,
The flesh of bleeding men I fling
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!
To hairy jaw and hungry maw!"
Chapter 85. King Harald's Dream:
King Harald also dreamt one night that he was in Nidaros, and met his brother, King Olaf, who sang to him these verses: --
"In many a fight
My name was bright;
Men weep, and tell
How Olaf fell.
Thy death is near;
Thy corpse, I fear,
The crow will feed,
The witch-wife's steed."
Many other dreams and forebodings were then told of, and most of them gloomy.
Saga of Gisli Surrson . Chapter #. Gisli's Dream
Gisli was a wise man who dreamed a great deal and whose dreams were prophetic."He dreamed of two women, "one of them good to me," and the other "..only prophesies ill for me..." Gilsli tells that the good woman advised him, "to stop following the old faith for the rest of my life, and to refrain from studying any charms or ancient lore. She told me to be kind to the deaf and the lame and the poor and the helpless."
Gisli recounts four versus, two of which speak directly to a moral code:
'Bringer of death in battle
from words spoken by poets,
take and learning only what is good,'
said Nauma's gold to me.
Almost nothing is worse,
for the burner of shields,
the spender of sea-fire,
than to be versed in evil.
Do not be the first to kill
nor provoke into fight
the gods who answer in battle.
Give me your word on this, ring-giver,
shield of Balder. Beware,
evil resides in scorn
Shown to the lame and needy.
(From Sagas of Icelanders, Smiley, 1997: pp 531-532)
In the final passages of the poem, Odin specifies eighteen spells, each for a different purpose. Some of these are paralleled in greater detail in the passages of Svipdagasmol [see below]). Bellow's (1936) explains, "With this stanza  begins the Ljothatal, or list of charms. The magic songs themselves are not given, but in each case the peculiar application of the charm is explained."
147. The songs I know | that king's wives know not,
Nor men that are sons of men;
The first is called help, | and help it can bring thee
In sorrow and pain and sickness.
148. A second I know, | that men shall need
Who leechcraft long to use;
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
149. A third I know, | if great is my need
Of fetters to hold my foe;
Blunt do I make | mine enemy's blade,
Nor bites his sword or staff.
150. A fourth I know, | if men shall fasten
Bonds on my bended legs;
So great is the charm | that forth I may go,
The fetters spring from my feet,
Broken the bonds from my hands.
151. A fifth I know, | if I see from afar
An arrow fly 'gainst the folk;
It flies not so swift | that I stop it not,
If ever my eyes behold it.
152. A sixth I know, | if harm one seeks
With a sapling's roots to send me;
The hero himself | who wreaks his hate
Shall taste the ill ere I.
153. A seventh I know, | if I see in flames
The hall o'er my comrades' heads;
It burns not so wide | that I will not quench it,
I know that song to sing.
154. An eighth I know, | that is to all
Of greatest good to learn;
When hatred grows | among heroes' sons,
I soon can set it right.
155. A ninth I know, | if need there comes
To shelter my ship on the flood;
The wind I calm | upon the waves,
And the sea I put to sleep.
156. A tenth I know, | what time I see
House-riders flying on high;
So can I work | that wildly they go,
Showing their true shapes,
Hence to their own homes.
157. An eleventh I know, | if needs I must lead
To the fight my long-loved friends;
I sing in the shields, | and in strength they go
Whole to the field of fight,
Whole from the field of fight,
And whole they come thence home.
158. A twelfth I know, | if high on a tree
I see a hanged man swing;
So do I write | and color the runes
That forth he fares,
And to me talks.
159. A thirteenth I know, | if a thane full young
With water I sprinkle well;
He shall not fall, | though he fares mid the host,
Nor sink beneath the swords.
160. A fourteenth I know, | if fain I would name
To men the mighty gods;
All know I well | of the gods and elves,
Few be the fools know this.
161. A fifteenth I know, | that before the doors
Of Delling sang Thjothrörir the dwarf;
Might he sang for the gods, | and glory for elves,
And wisdom for Hroptatyr wise.
162. A sixteenth I know, | if I seek delight
To win from a maiden wise;
The mind I turn | of the white-armed maid,
And thus change all her thoughts.
163. A seventeenth I know, | so that seldom shall go
A maiden young from me;
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
164. Long these songs | thou shalt, Loddfafnir,
Seek in vain to sing;
Yet good it were | if thou mightest get them,
Well, if thou wouldst them learn,
Help, if thou hadst them.
165. An eighteenth I know, | that ne'er will I tell
To maiden or wife of man,--
The best is what none | but one's self doth know,
So comes the end of the songs...
(Trans. Bellows, 1936)
5. "Beer I bring thee, | tree of battle,
Mingled of strength | and mighty fame;
Charms it holds | and healing signs,
Spells full good, | and gladness-runes."
* * * * * *
6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.
7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)
8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.
9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.
10. Branch-runes learn, | if a healer wouldst be,
And cure for wounds wouldst work;
On the bark shalt thou write, | and on trees that be
With boughs to the eastward bent.
11. Speech-runes learn, | that none may seek
To answer harm with hate;
Well he winds | and weaves them all,
And sets them side by side,
At the judgment-place, | when justice there
The folk shall fairly win.
12. Thought-runes learn, | if all shall think
Thou art keenest minded of men.
* * * * * *
13. Them Hropt arranged, | and them he wrote,
And them in thought he made,
Out of the draught | that down had dropped
From the head of Heithdraupnir,
And the horn of Hoddrofnir.
14. On the mountain he stood | with Brimir's sword,
On his head the helm he bore;
Then first the head | of Mim spoke forth,
And words of truth it told.
* * * * * *
15. He bade write on the shield | before the shining goddess,
On Arvak's ear, | and on Alsvith's hoof,
On the wheel of the car | of Hrungnir's killer,
On Sleipnir's teeth, | and the straps of the sledge.
16. On the paws of the bear, | and on Bragi's tongue,
On the wolf's claws bared, | and the eagle's beak,
On bloody wings, | and bridge's end,
On freeing hands | and helping foot-prints.
17. On glass and on gold, | and on goodly charms,
In wine and in beer, | and on well-loved seats,
On Gungnir's point, | and on Grani's breast,
On the nails of Norns, | and the night-owl's beak.
* * * * * *
18. Shaved off were the runes | that of old were written,
And mixed with the holy mead,
And sent on ways so wide;
So the gods had them, | so the elves got them,
And some for the Wanes so wise,
And some for mortal men.
19. Beech-runes are there, | birth-runes are there,
And all the runes of ale,
And the magic runes of might;
Who knows them rightly | and reads them true,
Has them himself to help;
Ever they aid,
Till the gods are gone.
(Trans. Bellows, 1936)
Numerous viking age burials throughout Scandinavia produced archaeological data consistent with descriptions of material culture associated with seidr in ancient literary attestations. The widespread distribution of these burials further elucidates seidr material culture and siedr practice in the context of ancestral Norse social structure. The distributions of burials sites suggests that seidr was an integral aspect of ancient Scandinavian culture, with similarities in material culture spanning widely throughout viking age Scandinavia and beyond.
A Seeress from Fyrkat?
National Museum of Denmark.
Accessed Online. August, 23, 2021.
…there is the very strange Viking woman’s grave, which was found at the ring fortress of “Fyrkat”, near Hobro, in Denmark. Amongst the total of around 30 graves from the site, it stands out because of its unusual grave goods. It was the grave of a female, who may have been a seeress. At the time of burial the woman was dressed in fine blue and red clothes adorned with gold thread – which had royal status. She was buried, like the richest women, in the body of a horse-drawn carriage. She had been given ordinary female gifts, like spindle whorls and scissors. But there were also exotic goods from foreign parts, indicating that the woman must have been wealthy. She wore toe rings of silver, which have not been found elsewhere in Scandinavia. In addition, two bronze bowls were also found in the grave, which may have come all the way from Central Asia.
Amongst the unusual objects were a metal wand and seeds from the poisonous henbane plant. These two accessories are associated with the seeress. The most mysterious object is the metal wand. It has partially disintegrated after the long period in the ground. It consists of an iron stick with bronze fittings. This may have been a wand associated with the practice of magic – a völva’s wand or magic wand. The henbane seeds were found in a small purse.
The Magic Wands of Viking Seeresses?
National Museum of Denmark.
Accessed Online. August, 23, 2021.
The völva burial from Köpingsvik, on the Swedish island of Öland, contained an 82 cm long iron staff, with bronze ornamentation and a house represented on top. Accompanying this was a jug from Central Asia and a bronze cauldron from Western Europe. The woman was dressed in bear fur and was buried within a ship setting, or stone ship, which also contained sacrificed animals and humans.
Another völva burial is the Oseberg burial from Norway. This contained the bodies of two women. One was a woman of high status, whilst the other was a slave. Several of the objects in the burial are associated with seid and seeresses, for example a wooden staff or wand, and cannabis seeds in a purse.
At Hagebyhöga in Östergötland, Sweden, another seeress was buried. Apart from her staff or wand, she was placed with horses, a carriage and Arabic bronze jugs, together with a small piece of silver jewellery shaped like a woman with a large necklace. This figure can be interpreted as Freyja – the goddess of the Viking seeresses – who is wearing the necklace ‘Brísinga men.
A Völva’s Grave at Roskilde, Denmark.
Kultur Ministeriat (Ministry of Culture, Denmark).
Accessed online. August 23, 2021
A complex burial from the Viking Age was excavated at Trekroner-Grydehøj in the outskirts of present day Roskilde, Denmark. Grave A 505 was an inhumation demonstrating a ritualized furnishing. Amongst other things the burial A 505 contained two women, half a man, a stallion, a dog cut in two halves, a foetus of a sheep, a small menhir and large boulders, all with a stone covering of granite, flint and chalk. Double graves are often interpreted as the master and his/her slave, the latter executed at the time of the funeral to accompany the first. However, it has also been suggested that some graves with more than one individual could represent a völva, i. e. a seeress and sorceress, accompanying a deceased person to the Otherworld. The identification of a völva rested on a staff-like object of iron. This brings a peculiar metal point of bronze and iron from grave A 505 into consideration. It is suggested that the point is a part of a magic wand and consequently identifies the woman interred as a völva. Besides the pointed staff of magic the presence of an old stallion attracts attention.
The Good, the Bad and the Undead: New Thoughts on the Ambivalence of Old Norse Sorcery. Leszek Gardela, 2009. The 14th International Saga Conference Uppsala. Volume 1. Edited by Agneta Ney, Henrik Williams and Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist. Gävle: Gävle University Press.
Gardela summarizes theory on the material culture and the recurrence of Seidr staffs associated with volur burials:
In 2002 Neil Price...convincingly argued that it is possible to identify a number of Viking Age graves as belonging to ritual specialists involved in the practices of seiðr... Although all those graves are in many respects different from one another... it possible to view them as a special, coherent group of burials is the presence of iron “rods” in each one of them. Those “rods”, which in several cases were decorated with bronze knobs, are currently believed to be attributes of the ritual performers and labeled as staffs of sorcery (a term first introduced by Neil Price in 2002). As Price (2002: 175–180) argued, the staff was one of the main attributes of the Late Iron Age performers and there exist many sources which confirm that they were strongly associated with the practices of seiðr.
The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia
Comprehensive overview of theory and evidence of seidr and in late Iron age and Viking age Scandinavia.
A 'Divination Staff' From Viking Age Norway: at the British Museum
Brunes, Sue. 2016.
Acta Archaeologica 87(1):193-200
A long iron rod in the British Museum's Viking collection (accession number 1894,1105.5) has been reclassified by curators. Accessioned in the nineteenth century as a fishing tool and later recast as a roasting spit, it can now be added to a group of enigmatic iron rods that are widely interpreted as the special attribute of the völva, or Norse seeress.
Staffs of Sorcery
Accessed online Nov. 12, 2021
Overview of distaffs recovered from Viking age burials and association with Seidr.
"The distaff symbolism of the Norse völr or seiðstafr is not a theory, but an irrefutable reality."
Drum Riding & Seidr
In Sami tradition, drums are central to shamanic practices; the use of drums among Sami is widely documented and there are many drums in the historic and archaeological records. In the context of Sami culture, drums are profoundly associated with trance, incantation, and "spirit travel," characterized as drum riding.
Despite many strong parallels between Sami shamanic and Norse seidr traditions, surprisingly, there is no known evidence of drums in the archaeological assemblages associated with volur burials. However, literary attestations of the the Old Norse words, vitt and vett, hint that drums were significant tools in ancient practice of seidr arts.
Lokesanna 24 is often cited as an Old Norse literary attestation of Odin practicing seidr arts. Contemporary translations often miss or over-generalize the significance of the line, "draptu á vétt sem vǫlor." The word vett is often translated generally as "charm" (noun), but in this particular context, the act of draptu - beating or tapping - strongly suggests that the charm in question might be a drum. The line translates literally to, "you beat on a vett like a seeress (volur)" (Tolley, 2016). Alternatively, this line is sometimes translated as, "you put in (or on) a vett like a volur," which suggests a possible reference to shape-shifting, as in, to put on the guise of something, possibly a spirit or animal skin. Tolley (2016) investigates the word vett in depth (see attached article below). If indeed in this stanza vett does refer to a drum, then the phrase, "like a volur," directly links drum-riding to seidr practice.
While questions remain abut the meaning of vitt and vett, legal code that specifically outlaws them suggests their significance was integral to seidr arts. The legal code, Eiδsivaþingslov, outlawed sorcery, along with vettr and stafr specifically (see Svenson, 2015). The meaning and significance of stafr is not ambiguous; staffs were definitely significant in seidr arts, (as confirmed by literary attestations and archaeological evidence); although there remains some question about the meaning of the words vitt and vett, the legal code strongly suggests that their significance must be comparable to the significance of a staff in the hands of a volur.
The absence of evidence of drums in the archaeological record may result from sampling bias. This becomes apparent in the ethnography of Sami traditions. To infer from known parallels between Sami gand and Norse seidr traditions, in Sami traditions, drums are a profound symbol of heritage and remain within families, passed on from generation to generation; they are often prominently displayed within the household as a symbol of the family itself. It is reasonable to speculate that drums may have been passed on in a similar fashion in seidr traditions, however, such a practice would deviate from the traditional practice of burying volur with their belongings, most notably, staffs. Meanwhile, solid archaeological evidence of drums in ancient seidr practice remains elusive.
Image: The unique and profound cultural significance of drums in Sami cultural heritage is presently apparent on a global scale as an international national dispute between Sami people and the Nation of Denmark unfolds; Sami people are requesting the return of a drum that is currently on display and in the possession of the National Museum of Denmark, raising questions about unresolved ancestral grievances in a political context (2021).