Shaman's Blog

The Nine Worlds And The Tree: Seiðr As Shamanistic Practice In Heathen Spirituality

May 14, 2017 | Uncategorized | Author:

9carveIn today’s Heathenism there tends to be a distinction between magic and celebratory-religion. Quite a number of people do not engage in magical practices, but do talk to the Goddesses and Gods, or spirits of the land in a very matter-of-fact way without expecting direct communication, and engage in ritual without a deliberate change of consciousness other than that occasioned by the concentration involved. Others, however, use magical techniques which fall into three main categories: galdr or sung magic, runic magic, and Seiðr.

Until quite recently, most people who did ‘magic’ tended to use runes either for divination or for spell-work by means of rune-charms (combining galdr and runic magic). The community is changing, though, and I am increasingly seeing people who are using consciousness-altering, ecstatic practices, including journeying for divination, for healing, for what a friend calls ‘de-ghosting’, or for gaining personal knowledge and self-development. Groups are arising, of people who help each other learn the old shamanistic techniques of the North. The most recent issue of the journal Idunna, produced by The Troth in North America, is devoted to Seiðr practice.

What we know about Seiðr comes largely from the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas, where there are various accounts of magic-workers, at least some of whom appear to be using ‘shamanistic’ techniques: the Greenland spákona (spae-woman, prophetess) in the Saga of Eirík the Red being the most clearly-described example. People today are drawing on these accounts in constructing their practices, for instance those who practice Oracular Seiðr use the account of this Greenland prophetess, and the possible formulae given in some of the Eddic poems (Völuspá, Balder’s dream, and the Lay of Hyndla, as Diana Paxson describes). The saga accounts were composed, the Eddic poems written down, post-christianization, but it seems likely that the practices referred to had remained part of popular awareness, that is, the possibility of their occurrence was still part of the culture.

Indeed, Jörmundur Ingi of the Ásatrúarfélagidh of Iceland maintains that some practices of Icelandic folk-magic represent a continuation of seiðr-magic into the present day. Traces appear in other areas of Northern Europe: for instance, in Scotland, the ‘spaewife’ remained part of the culture, although with little evidence that her practices involved ecstatic trance, and a number of practices related to divination or spae-working have persisted until the present-day, though stripped of spiritual/ecstatic content.

However, it’s unlikely that Heathen Northern European culture in ‘Viking’ times (the periods described by the Kings’ sagas and the sagas of the Icelanders) could be convincingly described as ‘shamanic’. There quite possibly were shamanic communities here and there, but overall in the period for which we have any kind of after-the-fact record, no. These were times of political change, and there is the suggestion of suppression of Seiðr/shamanic activity, but rulers who were themselves heathen as well as those who were Christian.

There were shamanistic things people did, magical practices that in the view of the later writers of ‘historic’ accounts were connected with Saami shamanism, ways of connecting with spirits and getting knowledge that used ecstatic trance, but most of this was on a private or semi-private basis, not centrally part of the culture by these times of the 9th and 10th centuries of the common era (Blain, 1998). (If you go far enough back in Northern Europe you get to shamanic cultures, obviously, but present day Heathen practices are mostly based on what can be gleaned from the Norse and earlier Anglo-Saxon written material.)

The sagas were written during a particular period of history, and tell of an earlier period. Anthropologist Kristen Hastrup says that the objective of the saga-writers of the 12th and 13th centuries was to tell Icelandic history in a particular way, though family stories (Hastrup, 1996). The sagas do not deal with ‘community’ or ‘society’ as such, rather with the relations and happenings of particular families. According to Borovsky (1999:7), ‘the sagas can be read as documents that straddle the terrain between (oral) “history” and (written) “fiction” because they were intended to provide the medieval audience with a sense of their past that would resonate with the present.’ The descriptions of seiðrworkers appear as part of this construction, and for the most part Seiðr is performed against the protagonists of the sagas.

There could be reasons for this: some members of the Icelandic church had become versed in certain kinds of magic, including galdr and to some extent foretelling not associated with Seiðr. Various kinds of magic were proscribed by the laws in Jónsbók, after the (13th century) annexation of Iceland to Norway, as punishable by death. These included “sorcery and spae-working (foretelling) and sitting out to wake up trolls and practising heathenism”. In actuality, no-one was convicted until Iceland’s small witch-craze in the 17th century, long after official religion had changed from Catholicism to Lutheranism (Hastrup, 1990).

The proscription shows however that “By the act of sitting out, which was a metaphor for leaving the ordinary social space, it was possible to invoke supernatural beings” (Hastrup, 1990, p. 391), and that the invocation of these beings, by the time of writing, was regarded suspiciously. Whether it was regarded with equal suspicion in the 10th century is not clear. Some early accounts (of for instance the activities of Queen Gunnhildr, a noted seiðrworker and political figure) suggest that seiðr-magic was more acceptable, more part of the community, whereas in later ones Seiðr is negatively construed and Gunnhildr has become the archetypal sorceress, ‘the prototype of evil and revenging women in the old Norse corpus’ (Jochens, Old Norse Images of Women, p. 180). However we are told that Gunnhild’s husband and father-in-law, Eiríkr Bloodaxe and his father Haraldr Fairhair, ‘hated Seiðr’ and put to death Eirík’s half-brother together with eighty seiðrworkers: indication both that Seiðr was performed, and that it was not favoured by some of the power-seekers of the time.

Exactly what was meant by Seiðr, in these accounts, is unclear, and it is possible that the meaning changed over time. However there is indication that spirits were invoked for their assistance, that the person might call the spirits to her or himself, or journey elsewhere to receive their aid or seek knowledge (possibly in changed form, as one who was hamramr, shapestrong). Snorri Sturluson in Ynglingasaga describes the magical practices engaged in by Ódhinn, who :- 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 …

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… Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic [Seiðr]. 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 [ergi], that it was not thought respectable for men to practice it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art… . (Snorri Sturluson, Trans. Samuel Laing, London, 1844, Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #15b)

9thor2And indeed, in the old literature, Seiðr appears primarily as women’s magic: taught first to the Æsir by Freyja, according to Ynglingasaga. In the Eddic poems, we are introduced to the volva, or prophetess who speaks the great poem Völuspá (the speaking of the seeress), and to Heidhr (who may be Freyja herself, or may be another name for the volva who is speaking). Freyja in the poem Lokasenna is described as ‘fordædha’, a word for a (usually evil) magic working-woman. In the sagas, in addition to Thorbjörg the seeress of Eiríkr the Red’s saga, there are numerous women who are described as seiðrkonur (seiðrwomen), or as illusion-workers or shape-shifters.

These include two seeresses from Kormak’s saga, Katla from Eyrbyggja saga, the ‘Finnish’ seiðrworker from Vatnsdala saga, Oddbjörg of Víga-Glúms saga, and more, together with the many seeresses named ‘Heidhr’ who appear in Landnamabók and Hrolfs saga Kraka, Örvar-Odds saga, and many others. (Indeed it seems that by the end of the saga-writing period, the name ‘Heidhr’ had become synonymous with ‘seiðrworker’.) Some of these sagas deal with the everyday lives of Icelanders, and while they were composed some two centuries after the episodes they purport to record, people are portrayed in them as engaging in activities of a fairly usual kind, so that the concept of the seiðrwoman or volva seems one that was generally acknowledged. Jenny Jochens says that

Tapping ancient custom embodied in oral tradition and reinforced by persistent social practice, these narratives… give credence to a historic reality of prophetesses among pagan Germanic-Nordic tribes. Equally important, the literary proliferation of the sibyls in the thirteenth century suggests that they were part of the contemporary perception of pagan times. (Jochens, 1996: 116)

But while the accounts may give ‘credence to a historic reality of prophetesses,’ they also portray seiðrwomen as ‘fordædha’, doers of evil deeds, seiðrmen as ‘ergi’, ‘argr’ or ‘ragr’, a disputed word that has been translated as cowardly, unmanly, sometimes said to imply homosexuality, and one of the few words for which provision was made in Icelandic law, that its saying without cause would be cause for outlawry.

It seems therefore that not everyone supported the practice of Seiðr, and even people who made use of the services of seeresses or seers might turn against them, as in Kormák’s saga. Furthermore, there are no references (that I have found) to Seiðr used for healing, only that the strength of one person could be given to another. Some people within today’s heathen community have concluded that the term ‘Seiðr’ was synonymous with ‘evil magic’. Others consider that Seiðr is too involved with changes in consciousness, too associated with the ‘new age’, for a religion of (assumed) Viking warriors. Seiðr is therefore contested in today’s practice.

An ongoing debate exists over the word ‘ergi’, used to refer to male seiðrworkers on various occasions in the sagas, and in the Eddic poem Lokasenna. Some heathens shun Seiðr because they fear a link with homosexuality. Others, like French seiðrworker Yves Kodratoff, maintain that the word does link Seiðr with so-called ‘receptive’ sexuality, whether of women or of some gay men, in the past, but that for various (as yet, unspecified) reasons this need not apply to male Seiðr practitioners today. Jordsvin, a gay male Seiðr worker, points out that in practical ability to ‘do Seiðr’, women and gay men seem more able to effect the change of consciousness required, but that heterosexual men can do this also: they may have to work harder to achieve the same effect.

One suggestion from several seiðrworkers is that Seiðr work requires a ‘loss of ego’, a setting aside boundaries of self and other and decentralising of self. This is counter to hegemonic masculinity in North America and Europe today (Blain and Wallis, in press). If ‘real men’ are expected to ‘be in control’, and Seiðr involves relinquishing this control, be it to spirits, deities, ghosts or ancestors, to do Seiðr is to become de-masculinized. Yet this in itself is capable of many meanings, and this ambiguity may be seen as a strength. Today the word ‘ergi’ takes on a new meaning in the light of debates about the need for men and women alike to understand the world rather than seek to dominate it, to listen to voices of others around them in an increasingly multivocal society, as we move into a new century and a new millennium.

Today’s seiðrworkers are drawing on a rich resource, in the old literature and the folk-practices of the countries of the north, and drawing, too, on knowledge of shamanic practice elsewhere. Seiðr is being constructed in many ways, in many places: emerging from study, emerging from folk-magic, from sagas, from folk-tales or fairy-tales, from history and from imagination, in ways that fit places and peoples, landscapes, wights or spirits and specific cultures of the communities and individuals concerned. Oracular or high-seat Seiðr is only one practice, though perhaps the most ritualised and community oriented, and obviously based in saga description. Seiðr can be used, as stated at the commencement of this article, for healing, ‘de-ghosting’, for what seiðrworker Bil Linzie terms ‘whole-making’, which includes all of those and more.

The seiðrworkers I have interviewed involve themselves in a range of activities requiring altered states of consciousness. Thus, Bil works as a healer, or ‘wholemaker’: though a considerable portion of his work is with those who are dying, to enable their transition as ‘whole’ beings. He will meet ancestors, ghosts, bridge worlds of living and dead for those who seek his help. In different ways, Jordsvin uses techniques derived from oracular Seiðr to bridge between worlds, enabling spirits trapped in the ‘wrong’ world (and causing trouble for householders) to pass through him to their next ‘home’.

The ancestors who help him are not all heathen, and nor are the people whose houses he ‘unhaunts’: but his practices remain based in heathen cosmology of the nine worlds, the well and the tree. Winifred uses techniques of spae-working to counsel and guide: she becomes a link between deities and those who come to her for counsel; but she does not use the term ‘Seiðr’ for her divinatory and counselling practices. For Thorgerd, seiðr-journeying becomes a way to connect with Heidhr, who seems to be instructing her in herbalism by this means. She and others point out that the ability to bless is the other side of the ability to curse.

Many of those who do Seiðr or spae-working state that their Seiðr has broadened their awareness of themselves and their relationship with past and present, with earth and ancestors and spirits and with the deities and wights of Heathenism. For at least some, it seems that seiðr-work becomes a way to move away from the hegemonic discourses of identity, gender and ethnicity within mainstream ‘western’ societies, and create identities that are more fluid, more able to deal with ambiguity and transitions. Seiðr becomes a way to resist categorisation, particularly of gender and sexuality.

Yet as stated above, some within the heathen community have said that the term ‘Seiðr’ is commonly associated with evil magic, and that activities of journeying and divination are more properly termed spae. On the one hand, there are the arguments that Seiðr involved ‘messing with people’s minds’, changing memories or personality characteristics, turning (or threatening to turn) ‘the world upside down’ (which potentially refers either to an earthquake or to a great distortion of perception of the one whose world is so affected). The curse that Gunnhildr laid on Egill Skalla-grímsson seems an example of negative Seiðr. Yet the accounts of negative Seiðr can be read as the attempts of people to defend, or to avenge. Again, blessing and cursing can be sides of the same coin.

9headOn the other hand, we have the stories of the Greenland seeress, and of Thurídhr sundafyllir, who gained her name by calling fish into the sound, by means of Seiðr, thereby providing prosperity for the people. Zoe Borovsky (1999) points out that both these instances of Seiðr relate to fertility, and she speculates that not only does the Greenland seeress foretell fertility and prosperity, but her use of Seiðr techniques, calling the spirits, actively accomplishes this fertility by bringing the components of innangardh and útangardh — approximately settlement and wildness, deities and giants, knowable and unknowable — back into balance.

If so, this concern for a dynamic balance sites Seiðr securely as shamanistic practice, performed for the community, and going beyond telling the future to engaging with its construction. Practitioners and others speak of the Seiðr worker as responsible to the community, where this community goes beyond that of humans alone. Often the seiðr-worker shares her or his life with spirits, ghosts, or other beings who have a stake in whatever is afoot, and a say, as times the final say, in what will be performed.

Finally, there are differing views within the community as to the ‘true form’ of Seiðr practice, some following the rather elaborate formulation derived by Hrafnar, which includes a guided journey to the gates of Hela’s realm, the underworld or world of the dead. Others point out that in the literature, there is no description of the seeress making this journey to seek spirits of ancestors: rather the spirits are called to her. (Hrafnar do not claim a monopoly of ‘true’ practice. They point out that they are reconstructing one form of Seiðr, in their own way.) My sense is that no practices are ‘correct’, for we are striving to recreate something which ‘works’ within the present. The past is a guide; but making contact with powers, spirits, god/desses requires us to escape or evade centuries of Western ‘rationalist’ thinking. Journeying ‘elsewhere’ to seek spirits, therefore, has its practical side.

I am attempting to study Seiðr through engaging with practices on different levels, as a seiðrworker and an anthropologist. Thus, I am becoming aware of an increasing variety of ways in which Seiðr practice is gaining relevance in the present day, within the rather loosely-woven community of those who are aware of it, in a number of countries in North America and Europe. My own practice involves personal journeying, facilitation of others’ connection with the spirits through journeying, and oracular Seiðr performed for the small local Heathen community and for a wider circle of those (Pagans and others) connected with and supportive of this community; and I am learning to use Seiðr techniques in healing and counselling work. As Thorgerd says, blessing and cursing are not far separate, and there is need to know the ‘dark side’ of the deities of Seiðr, Freyja and Woden. I also write, as a poet, of Seiðr visions, and at times I write in trance.

Seiðrwork offers opportunity for shamanistic practice within a heathen cosmological framework. While its present-day reconstruction draws on techniques from elsewhere, including the copious literature, both academic and popular, on shamanism, Seiðr has its firm basis in the cosmology, mythology and imagery of Northern Europe: of the Well of Wyrd and the World Tree Yggdrasill; the Norns who spin lives for deities and people alike, the animals which come to the tree; the spirits of the land; all the beings and deities of the Nine Worlds. For those of us who grew up within cultures influenced by those of Northern Europe, who learned the names of deities as we named the days of the week, this is an accessible imagery, a familiar mythology, a potential home: grounded in a spirituality that avoids appropriation. And so for myself as a daughter of earth and of the grey northern skies: though hazards and dangers lie in the darkness of the long nights, I will seek the tree and the worlds that lie on its branches, and would drink from the well at its roots, source of wisdom for which Ódhinn gave his eye.

Jenny Blain