Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)

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Whenever somebody asks me to give them a quick run-down of Norse religion, I start to sweat. Where do I even begin? Most people would wisely start by pointing out that Norse paganism was a polytheistic ethnic religion, with a varied pantheon of gods, descending from a Northern Germanic system ultimately derived from the same, Proto-Indo-European mythology as the Greeks and Romans, but sprinkled with local innovations and influences from neighboring cultures. They might further say that it was a religion based on public sacrifices and communal meals, a religious calendar of annual and seasonal festivals. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface.

How do you explain a worldview? A totally alien way of seeing reality, and the world around us. Not just a different way of seeing things, but a lost way of seeing things. One that we cannot quite grasp, because our language, society, ethics, sense of aesthetics, economy, and livelihood is so utterly different from theirs. They had all these wonderful and peculiar ideas that we can read about, explore, look at, but never we can never relive them or quite fully understand. In the end, much of what we know (which is not a lot) boils down to tedious source critical nerdery, discussion, and comparative analysis. This work might seem dry and uninspired to the uninitiated, but it opens up a world of new ideas you would not get by simply reading the Prose Edda in translation.

To the people who lived in the 9th century Nordic area, the term of "Norse religion" would have been an alien concept. This odd conglomeration of myths and practices were simply their si­ðr, their "custom". Norse religion was expressed, not just in grandiose and bloody animal sacrifices, or elaborate burial practices for the elite, but also mundane every day tasks, language, figures of speech, law, taxes, hygiene, taboos, ideologies, courtship rituals, family, art, work, play, names, movements, gestures, ethics, etiquette, and how they read the landscape. "Norse religion" covered the entire experience of existence, though by the term we usually mean just a handful of the symbolic gestures and events motivated by their society and worldview. To those who lived in pre-Christian Scandinavia, it was an ontological reality you were born into, with little room for the concept of faith, or the choice of belief. This was a place where every event was the cause of an act, either by seen, or unseen forces. 

The spirit in a concrete world

One aspect of day-to-day religious perceptions in the Norse world, was belief in spirits. In modern popular thought, we tend to think of spirits either as a individual and distinct category of being, such as a ghost, or as a property of something else. Like the "human spirit", or "the soul". In one case, we might consider a spirit to have its own personality, set of motivations, properties, and so on. A spirit can for example inhabit (or personify) a body of water, or represent a non-physical manifestation of an ancestor. In the case of the "human spirit", on the other hand, we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in a discussion about the relationship between mind and body. In the Western world of today, this conversation would soon touch upon cartesian dualism, and the idea of the separateness of mind and body.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But this is not how thing were seen in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Had we taken the conversation back to Viking Age Scandinavia, however, we might find ourselves walking down quite a different intellectual path. A holistic, rather than dualistic discourse on spirit, where the mind-body dichotomy is far less clear. Where even if the spirit is tied to us, it can be both within ourselves, and beside ourselves, travel ahead, be simultaneously inside and outside of us, and be both ourselves and not ourselves at the same time.

Old Norse conceptions of spirits may seem outright irrational and strange at first, but they form quite a coherent, rich, and occasionally even empirical system of belief, though the edges are blurry, the waters muddy, and the ideas overlap and intersect all over the place. First of all, spirits aren't necessarily the same as "invisible entity". The Old Norse world had a large variety of unseen beings, whether naturally invisible, or stealthy by choice. While we can argue that some creatures, such as the so-called vættir (literally "things"), such as giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, and revenants, in fact constitute spirits in various forms, they will not be discussed here. Rather I will concern myself with perceptions on spirits in the narrow-yet-wide sense of "tools, properties, emanations, or companions of human beings".

The sensual world and the spirit world

Relating to the mind-body problem above, it feels redundant to point out that our experience of the world is mediated by our bodies. In the Norse view of the world, the body and its functions provides means for all manner of metaphorical thought: The world was created from the body of the pre-cosmic giant Ymir, and royal poets invoked a king's right to rule by portraying him as a god who has sex with the earth. But even without these culture-specific ideas, we can all relate to the basic truth that we perceive the world sensually, through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.

In Norse culture, the spirit world might have made itself quite tangible through a very simple, involuntary bodily action: The sneeze. How exactly you respond to a sneeze depends on your native culture. We have all probably heard countless bless yous and gesundheits in our lives, but there are also local, less heard of variants of such formulas. In Scandinavia we commonly say prosit, which is Latin for "may it be beneficial". But I grew up in West Norway, where a different version of the sneeze-formula also exists. Whenever I sneezed in childhood, many of the adults around me would say something along the lines of  "are you expecting visitors?", "your friends are coming over", and so on. Of course, my young mind was quite stirred by the fortunes my grandmother, mother, or nanny would tell each and every time snot exploded through my nostrils.

Some interest was invested in the amount of consecutive sneezes. Because, apparently, you would sneeze once for every visitor. Being a child, assuming somebody would come knocking in the afternoon wasn't boldly speculative, either. As far as I was concerned it was a cute, folksy expression, like a nursery rhyme, or some fable you tell to entertain the kids, or shut them up. Neither myself or any of my elders really thought any more about it.

It was only much later that I came to realize the apparent antiquity of this common phrase, and how it related to a much more complicated network of ideas associated with spirits, psychic emanations, forerunners, prophecy and fate. The epiphany came to me when I read Orkneyinga saga where the viking Sveinn Ásleifarson foresees an incoming ambush thanks to a sudden itch in his nose.

Breath, wind, spirit, mind

Essentially, the irritated nostril ties in with a Nordic folk belief that spirits can enter or exit a host body through the nostrils and mouth. In other words, through respiratory passages. The Old Norse terms ǫnd ("spirit") and andi ("breath", but also "spirit") share the same etymological root, and carries on into the Scandinavian languages. For example in Norwegian 'ånd' ("spirit, ghost") and 'ånde' (breath). There are similar etymologies from different roots in the Indo-European languages, such as Latin  , from whence the English 'spirit' derives, and Sanskrit ātmán. The association of spirit with breath is undoubtedly ancient. We observe that we breathe as long as we live, and when we don't, we die. Our bodies become lifeless, the spirit has departed, and so has the breath.

Though the notion probably dates back several millennia, simply judging from the comparative evidence, the earliest and most compelling evidence I can think of comes from the Migration Era, where odd spirals, arrows, shapes and animals often seem to emanate from the mouths of humans depicted on brooches and bracteates. 

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

The belief that a spirit or psychic emanation could take the form of breath or wind is found throughout Norse literature. In the Prose Edda, Snorri explains that "Troll woman's wind" is a poetic metaphor meaning "mind" (the word here is hugr), and several such examples are attested in Skaldic poetry from the Viking Era. It's worth noting that the Old Norse vindr can mean either 'breath' or 'wind'. The term hugr is interesting, and as the case often is, it provides a wide selection of possible translations. Usually hugr means "mind, thought, consciousness, will", but in other contexts also "emotion, love, affection" or "soul, spirit". We will see throughout the course of this article that these three categories of meaning have a stronger connection than one might at first think, and their association with the "spirit = breath" complex have quite enchanting implications.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to control or send forth one's mind or spirit at will, is particularly associated with magical specialists, or people believed to have "strong minds". When such people died, folklore states that their departing spirit was able to extinguish candles or raise winds (Heide 2006a: 351).

There is also another, fairly widespread folk belief in Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, and Orkney, that the spirits of the dead were able to cause extreme weather. In Scandinavia this is associated first and foremost with the seasonal storms, often those occuring in autumn or winter, particularly around Christmas time. Then the wild hunt - the oskorei - flies around, picking objects, animals, and people, riding them through the air like horses, spreading fear and terror across the land. Other names for these storms of departed souls are, interestingly, 'gandferd' (Norway) and the Icelandic variant 'gandreið'. Gandr being an Old Norse term that essentially means "spirit helper, magical projectile", while 'reið' and 'ferd' mean "riding" and "journey" respectively. In Norwegian dialects 'gandferd' can also mean "flying coven of witches", and in Icelandic folklore it's specifically women who undertake the 'gandreið', snatch men in the night, and "ride" them to death (Heide 2006b: 213). 

The fylgja and hugr - psychic companions, thoughts, and forerunners

In my previous article on seiðr, we saw that a central aspect of seiðr was to produce and manipulate a spirit cord, which could be sent forth and used to pull or string along its target, whether literally or in a more euphemistic sense, but strikingly placed in the symbolic framework of spinning and textile work. Magic is the realm where the mundane meets the divine, and so many other analogies are possible (and made) that fit the same framework. In this situation, a magician's spirit helper or magical projectile, called gandr in Old Norse, could take many shapes. Often long an narrow objects like a string, rod, or even a penis.

There is clearly an overlap between the above, particular understanding of spirits in the context of seiðr, and the more general idea of spirits or psychic emanations as wind and breath. In the third chapter of Hrólfssaga Kráka, there is a particularly interesting account of a seeress (seiðkona) who "yawns much" (geispar mjǫk) before she cites her revelations in verse, implying she breathes in the source of her vision. This, in turn, bears a striking likeness to the belief in spirit companions called fylgjur ("followers, escorts", singular fylgja) and the aforementioned hugir (psychic emanations. Literally "thoughts, minds", the plural of hugr), which are widely attested in the sagas.

There appears to be a twofold, but fluid perspective on the nature of these spirits: The first is that spirits can be either a separate entity, a helper or construct, that interacts with, or protects the individual, and can enter their body with his or her breath. The other is that the spirit is your own mind and spirit, detached from your body. We can also speculate that both can be the case at the same time, and in varying degrees. Such is the case among the Sami, where the ritual specialist, the noaidi, sometimes had a spirit who was his very own mind, yet simultaneously the soul of a dead person, which could travel around and do what the noaidi was thinking, sometimes without him even knowing it (Heide 2006b: 215).

In terms of agency the fylgja is at least a semi-separate entity. She acts as a sort of spirit alter ego vaguely comparable to the idea of a guardian angel, that every person seems to have. Some individuals have several fylgjur, as was ascribed to the powerful 10th century heathen leader Hákon Sigurðarson (Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 3), but in other cases a fylgja can be shared by an entire family, or even inherited (cf. Hallfreðar saga ch. 11). The term fylgja literally means "something that follows", but can also mean 'afterbirth, placenta', supporting the notion of the parallel fate of the person and their fylgja.

Killing a fylgja or hugr can kill the person they were attached to, suggestive of a certain oneness between them, but meeting your fylgja - whether in a dream or in person - often foreshadowed your death. It's important to state that, counter to what the name implies, the fylgja is usually described as going before the individual. This can cause premonitions in people he or she will encounter, and also warn enemies (Ström 1960: 37). This is certainly accidental, as the fylgja tries to act in accordance with a person's interests.

In several sagas, the fylgja or hugr can make an enemy yawn or fall asleep, which would arguably benefit the invader. The opposite is obviously true if it fails, and the victim becomes aware of not only the fylgja, but the impending attack, as happened to Sveinn in Orkneyinga saga when we was saved by his itchy nose.

It's no coincidence that a person's fylgja could approach others and give itself away in the form of a yawn or nose itch, as the respiratory organs served as the spirit's main point of contact (and entry) with a person. The belief that the respiratory organs are vulnerable to supernatural attack, seems attested in a Southern Norwegian folk tradition where mothers, if they saw their child yawning, would do the sign of the cross in front of their mouth and say "in Jesus' name" (Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 2). 

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway.  See the whole thing here

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway. See the whole thing here

The sagas don't give a clear answer to whether the fylgja's attack constitutes a form of combat ma gic, or if the fylgjur act on their own agency. Both were probably the case. The fact that the fylgjur or hugir are frequently clumsy and give themselves away, may well tie in to a person's ability to curb their own thoughts. In Nordic folklore, intense thoughts about a certain person can sometimes harm, or even kill them. This is probably derivative of the very same concept of detached spirits and psychic emanations found in Norse texts, as the term hugr (Norwegian 'hug') has been used in this context as late as the 20th century.

I've found that there are several terms in Norwegian folklore tying respiratory reflex symptoms to the idea of somebody else's thoughts, such as 'nasahug' (literally "nose mind"). Psychic emanations were even believed to cause heart disease, in which case it was called 'hugbit' ("Mind bite". Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 1-2). The verb 'hugsa', which means "to remember" in Swedish and Norwegian, has the secondary meaning of "through one’s thoughts make someone ill or sick" in the Swedish Dalecarlian dialect (Heide 2006a: 353). This is all similar to the contemporary Sami and Northern Scandinavian tradition of cursing people with one's mind, 'gann'. The word itself was borrowed into Sami from Old Norse gandr, described above.

There appears to be a subconscious, involuntary component to these spiritual attacks: They minds really do what their host person is thinking. The spirit's give-away, uncouth behavior, or sudden attacks may be analogous to the intensity of the host's emotions, neurotic thoughts, and overall lack of cool. Sometimes a victim will se a woman implied to be a fylgja in a nightmare, where the victim's death is simulated. The character of Án Hrísmagi ("Án Brushwood-belly") in Laxdæla saga, who got his name after a dream where a woman approached him, slit his abdomen, pulled his intestines out, and stuffed him with twigs. His peers laughed, but not for long, as he was horribly disemboweled in the next chapter.

Psychic emanations, emotion, and eros

The varying expressions of a fylgja seem appropriate if the fylgja is to be understood as a voluntary or involuntary psychic emanation. As the fylgja sometimes seems to do what a person thinks, it makes sense that they would approach a person's object of hate or fear, seeing that these emotions are difficult to control. On the flip side, we may not be surprised to find that the fylgja also expressed erotic desire. In Gísla saga Súrssonar one such approaches the eponymous Gísli in a dream and tries to "ride" him. It takes a more sinister turn in Eyrbyggja saga, where the character Gunnlaug is found witless outside of his home, bruised around the shoulders and with the flesh torn off his legs, having been ridden in the night, apparently by a beautiful widow by the name of Katla. It seems reasonable to think that wet dreams, nightmares, and supernatural erotic encounters, could be seen as caused by the psychic emanation, the roaming hugr, of a woman. Here we find an example motif attraction or overlap between the belief in hugir/fylgjur, and the mara who expressed the danger, and hence power, of unfettered female sexuality (cf. Berzina 2017)

When it comes to curbing the spirit or emanation, I cannot help but be reminded of the emphasis on controlled breathing in many ecstatic and meditative spiritual traditions, from shamanism to contemporary astral projection. Though his idea of magic certainly differs from that of the vikings, the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley raised an interesting point in his book Magick Without Tears (1954):"

Why should you study and practice Magick? Because you can’t help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.

Sound advice if you live in a world populated by unruly spirits, and mischievous magicians. 

What does a spirit "look" like?

Though spirits are prone to move about unseen, they were certainly able to manifest visually. During a seiðr-séance in Eiríks saga rauða, the seeress tells that she is able to "see" the entities (náttúrur) that help her, but does not say anything abut their appearance. Otherwise, spirits seem to take a variety of forms.

Gandr, as mentioned, could mean a variety of things, and their specific, cosmetic appearance (say, a long string), might only serve to illustrate points and analogies in terms of how they operated. Presumably, a spirit's exact image was contextual.

However, the fylgjur were conventionally thought of as women. The exceptions are animal fylgjur, who only really appear in dreams, taking the form of animals that symbolically reflect the characteristics or attitude of their host. There, the fylgja of an enemy can take the shape of a wolf, for example, but it's hardly reasonable to believe that temporal conflicts dictated the permanent form of a fylgja, or even that the fylgja had a concrete, literal form.

There are other cases where spirits sent by magicians latch on to or scratch their victims, as if they have claws, which may imply animal form even if the victim is unable to see them. Yet, we should be wary of thinking too literally about a spirit's exact appearance. For the sake of analogy, we can turn to the later Norwegian witchcraft tradition surrounding the "troll cat". This was a spirit envoy or familiar that would go forth steal milk for their owner. It would suck the milk out of other peoples' cows, which they vomited out upon their return. The "cat" itself usually looks like a ball of yarn. 

Owing to the explicitly feminine nature of the fylgja's human form, some scholars such as Else Mundal (1974), have argued that the fylgja originated or functioned as a maternal ancestral spirit, whose purpose was to protect the living members of the family. It's not a massive stretch to associate the fylgja with fate, as she often foreshadows or simulates events that have not yet come to pass. Sadly, this is not the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the concept of fate in Norse culture and religion. In the next part of our series on Norse Metaphysics, we will take a closer look at spirits in light of out of body experiences, possession, and zoomorphic shape-shifting.

If you haven't already, feel free to check out the previous entries on magic below:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)

Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse Metaphysics pt. 2)

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Bek-Pedersen, Karen (2011). The Norns in Norse Mythology. Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh 
  • Berzina, Inga (2017). "Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro." In: Maal ogMinne 1, 2017. Novus forlag: Oslo
  • Heide, Eldar (2006a): "Spirits through respiratory passages." In John McKinnel et. al. (eds.): The Fantastic in Old Norse / Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006
  • Heide, Eldar (2006b): Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen
  • Mundal, Else (1974): Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo
  • Reichborn-Kjennerud, Ingjald (1927). "Hamen og fylgja." In: Syn og segn 1, 1927. Oslo.
  • Ström, Folke (1960): "Fylgja." In: Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 5. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen

A Supernatural Guide to the Oseberg Ship (The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.5)

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In this Halloween special, we tackle the weird and mysterious case of the Oseberg ship, and the lesser known, but true, story of how a Brooklyn clairvoyant may have caused the discovery of the most extravagant Viking Age burial ever found.

The episode is available from all podcast apps worthy of praise. If you like my stuff, feel free to rate, review or subscribe. Or better yet; pledge your support over at Patreon.com/brutenorse!

Brute Norse Podcast Ep.1: The Archaeology of Emotion with Leszek Gardeła

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It is my supreme pleasure to reveal the next chapter in the Brute Norse saga, namely the spanking new Brute Norse Podcast. Keeping up with the public can be a difficult task. I guess it's all about meeting your audience where they are at. While articles have their charm, they lack the versatility and perks of the podcast format. My readers have been suggesting I try it out for some time, and I admit that I've shied away from certain topics in the past, thinking they deserved something more sparkly than my usual article format. With the recent revamp of the blog I think the time is ripe to try something fresh and new.

A podcast allows me to let someone else do the talking for a change, and lets me invite people with talents and knowledge I may not possess. This episode was a treat to produce for that exact reason. I the had pleasure of meeting up with Leszek Gardeła, who is an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Rzeszów, Poland. A rising star of viking scholarship, his vast body of work includes magical staffs, ritual specialists, the viking diaspora in Poland, and the spooky world of "atypical burials". We sat down for a discussion about the ambiguity of magic, morbid viking burials, and the ethics of studying the dead. He recently published his doctoral thesis about magic staffs in the viking era. I've featured his work previously in my article on the magical practice of seiðr.

Leszek frequently works with the Polish artist and illustrator Mirosław Kuźma to reconstruct the various graves he studies, adding imagination and color to the dark past. I highly recommend you check out his work.

As for the podcast itself: It is now available through Soundcloud, iTunes, and any podcast app worth it's salt, so be sure to subscribe!

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse metaphysics pt. 2)

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In this second part of my series on Norse metaphysics, we're going to look at one of the most important, fascinating, and complicated terms in Norse magic: Seiðr (anglicized seid), a specific magical practice, closely associated with spinning and textile work, sexual taboos, and possibly trance and ritual ecstasy. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misattributed terms in the study of pre-Christian magic. No wonder, though; the sources leave a lot to the imagination.

Magical misunderstandings 

We're dealing with two main misconceptions. Firstly, seiðr is often confused with siðr – mostly among non-scholars. Though similar in spelling, the two terms have widely different content and etymologies: Seiðr is restricted to a specific magical practice, while siðr refers to abstract notions of “tradition, paradigm, custom”. In short, siðr is the closest thing the Old Norse tongue had to a word for religion, before Christianity appeared with the concept of trú (faith). This goes back to the fact that Norse pagans did not see religion as something distinctly separate from society. The separation of religion and cultural custom was originally inconceivable, as it was an ethnic religion. In such a system one is born and raised according to a certain set of customs and beliefs particular to your family or ethnolinguistic group, but I digress.

The second misconception relates specifically to the contents of seiðr in magical terminology. Namely the idea that seiðr originally referred to Norse magic in the broadest sense – that seiðr is any given kind magic in the Norse world – which is inaccurate, though some sources make such generalizations. For example, medieval translators may reach for seiðr when they need a convenient native word for magic when working with continental sources. It's a mistake commonly found in academic works, perhaps written by scholars who may not be specifically interested in the technical peculiarities of the history of magic. For example, Rudolf Simek – otherwise a true pillar of the academic community – writes in his highly influential Dictionary of Northern Mythology that galdr (“chant, incantation, spell”) is: “an element of the Old Scandinavian magical practices (seiðr)” (Simek 2007: 97). However the sources do not correlate these terms: Seiðr doesn't pretend to be “magic in general”. Moreover, there is no evidence or reason to consider galdr a practice tangibly subordinate to seiðr, though galdr occurs alongside seiðr in certain sources.

Swooping around secondary literature (or online), one may also encounter off-hand comparisons between seiðr and shamanism. I've even seen seiðr referred to as a kind of “Norse shamanism”. I think one should avoid applying this term to the Norse tradition, and please excuse my pedantry. The comparison itself is not helpful without further elaboration, given the large variety of ideas behind such a casually thrown about word. However, it is true that there are qualities to seiðr that are also found in certain traditions, that are conventionally referred to as “shamanistic”. Such as otherworldly visions and what we will call “spirit emissaries”.

Reconstructing seiðr from vocabulary and etymology

So far, we've focused on the things that seiðr is not. To recap, seiðr appears to have been a specific practice, and not all viking age magicians did it. From now on we'll be addressing method and its practitioners, starting with a tentative analysis of vocabulary. For example, one verb associated with performing seiðr is efla - “to prepare, perform, arrange”. In the context of ritual, this same verb is also associated with performing blót, or “sacrificial ceremony/feast”, which was the main expression of public religion in the viking era. From this we may assume that seiðr fell into the category of ceremony, consisting of a series of rituals and rites. In the study of religions, rites are the building blocks of ritual. A rite is any individual gesture, movement or action (for example: a prayer), which may join in a sequence to form a ritual. For example, a prayer may be followed by an offering of food or drink. When several rituals come together they form a ceremony. One may have a procession, followed by a petitioning of the gods, followed by sacrifice, followed by a feast – all with their individual minor rites. If this assumption is correct, it would seem that that the performance of seiðr took the shape of a prepared, sequential event. This also how it is described in Eiríks saga rauða, which gives an elaborate description of such a séance involving a vast number of items and gestures. It also suggests that the seeress was a respected specialists that traveled to offer her services. By the way: A supplement containing a translation of this passage is available to my patrons.

Practitioners and titles

Magic itself is commonly referred to as fjölkynngi which means something akin to “manifold wisdom”. Linguistically, it is associated with the folkloric concept of cunning folk, broadly an umbrella term for European folk magicians of all kinds. Those who possess fjölkynngi are sometimes described as versed in seiðr. There are also specific titles such as seiðkona (“seid-woman”) and seiðmaðr (“seid-man”). The late 12th century king's saga Ágrip recounts that king Harold Fairhair's 20th (!) son, Rögnvald, was a “seid-man, that is to say a seer” (seiðmaðr, þat er spámaðr). The female counterpart is commonly referred to as a spákona, and adds to the general impression that divination (spá) was one essential quality of seiðr. Ágrip also refers to Rögnvald as a skratti, a sorcerer/warlock, which is a common derogatory title for male practitioners, apparently related to Old English scritta “hermaphrodite” (see below for seiðr and sexual taboos).

The practice is further associated with a particular female ritual specialist called a völva (plural völur), conventionally translated as “seeress, oracle”, and is used interchangeably with spákona. The title seems to derive from völr, meaning “stick, staff, wand”. Staffs are also associated with the völur in described in Eiríks saga rauða and Laxdæla saga. With the former described as decorated with gems and brass fittings, and the latter referred to simply as a seiðstafr – “seid staff” (Heide 2006a: 251).

 

Seiðr staffs? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Seiðr staffs? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Incidentally, this may be tied to ornamented iron staffs found in several viking era female burials, which bear a striking resemblance to some varieties of traditional distaffs. Scholars generally agree that these may indeed have been magical wands associated with the völur and used for seiðr. This is a theory commonly associated with the work of Neil Price and Leszek Gardeła, with the latter having recently published an entire book on to this subject. These distaff-like staffs lead us to our next point, namely the practice of seiðr and its relationship to spinning and textile work.

Seiðr as magical textile work

Literally, seiðr appears to mean “thread, cord, snare, halter”, according to Eldar Heide. His 2006 doctoral thesis “Gand, seid og åndevind” [Gand, seid, and spirit-wind] is by far the most comprehensive linguistic and philological study on the subject of seiðr. His work is noteworthy not only for the heavy and technical use of etymology, and the pre-Christian traditions of the neighboring Sami people. He also uses later folklore to point out interesting analogies.

 

Photo: Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

Photo: Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

One of Heide's key points is that magicians were believed to send their mind forth in spirit form to do tasks outside of the body. In this he points to an apparent continuity of motifs from later folklore to pre-Christian times, which also includes a parallel notion of magic manifesting as wind – which associates the spirit with breath – which we shall get into later on. Both the will of the magician, and magical winds, could be visualized as something spun, such as a thread or a ball of yarn. For example: Witches in later times were believed to be able to steal milk from other peoples' cows by milking a rope (Heide 2006b: 165). It is significant to Heide's interpretation that the tugging motion involved in milking resembles the pulling of a rope or cord, since seiðr – as we shall see – seems primarily concerned with attracting or pulling things.

Moreover, Heide leans on the consensus that seiðr was a practice in which the magician used spinning to conjure spirits, for example to help her see geographically or temporally distant events. However, his main emphasis lies in the deployment of the magician's mind, or rather what he calls a “mind-in-shape emissary”, a spirit visualized as a cord or line, which may be sent forth to perform various tasks. It has been suggested, based on the meaning “snare”, that seiðr related to binding spells common throughout western magical traditions, but Heide considers this explanation too simple: “Binding is not very characteristic of seiðr. However, with a cord, one can not only bind, but also attract things, and this is characteristic of seiðr” (Heide 2006b:164). Heide seems to keeps a relatively strict emphasis on how words are contextualized in the primary sources. Based on this he asserts that: “Seiðr (initially) seems to be all about the spinning, and sending of, and attraction with, and manipulation by, a spirit-cord” (Heide 2006a: 237).

It should then make sense to us why the völva would carry a staff as an attribute, and why such wands take the shape of distaffs. Notably, this magic could be done on a dedicated platform, a seiðhjallr (hjallr means “platform, scaffold, loft”). Heide remarks: “When one is spinning, one would want to sit high above ground. Because this allows one to spin longer before one has to stop and wind the thread around the spindle” (Heide 2006a: 254).

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

The aforementioned mind-in-shape emissary, or “magic projectile”, is sometimes called gandr (anglicized gand). This is an extremely conflated term that literally means “staff, stick, wand”, but takes a wide array of forms and connotations in viking era, medieval, and also later sources. They may come in the form of not only a cord, but an animal such as a fly, a clawed beast, or even a “spirit-penis”, which may irritate or hook into the skin, or force its way through respiratory passages and bodily orifices. The emissary may also serve as a “supernatural spy drone” or manipulate objects. I must however be noted that such spirit emissaries, even when they attract and manipulate, needn't always be associated with seiðr or gandr. Rather, they may be features of the magical worldview of the pre-enlightenment Nordic area.

All in all, Heide points out two main properties of seiðr according to the primary sources:

  1. A spirit emissary that attracts resources or individuals, like a cord.

  2. Divination, which makes sense if fate was visualized linearly as a thread, which could be manipulated.

At first this may seem constricted, but seen collectively seiðr comes across as very versatile. It is ascribed to the conjuring of storms, making people vulnerable (or invincible), invisibility, killing, and even driving whole groups of people to suicide.

The gender norms and sexual taboos of Seiðr

In its apparent relation to spinning and textile work, it came to be associated mainly with women, as this was their domain within the Norse household. Textile work also had strong connotations to the concept of fate. As such, women are often ascribed strong intuition – and in the sagas it's not unusual for weaving to be associated with fateful events, and handling textiles sometimes foreshadows a character's death. This form of magic was not merely femininely charged; male practitioners were outright stigmatized, which has led to a lot of scholarly speculation regarding the apparent sexual and gendered content of the magical method.

Seiðr has an element of sexual magic, and it would seem; even gender bending. I've already mentioned the connection between Old Norse skratti “warlock”, scritta meaning “hermaphrodite”, suggestive of gender transgression. However, our main source comes from the mythological poem Loksasenna. When Odin accuses Loki of unmanliness (he had spent eight years as a woman in the underworld, milking cows and making babies), Loki retorts by revealing that Odin himself practiced seiðr: “You struck charms as a seeress [völva], in the likeness of a sorceress [vitka] you traveled above mankind. I consider that the pervert's essence.”(st.24) The accusation here is one of ergi, which is yet another hard to translate term meaning “perversion, fornication, indecency, unmanliness”.

One might justifiably think that it is strange to portray the gods in such a demeaning and compromising way, referring to them as witches, perverts, and throwing accusations that could easily get one killed according to Norse legal conventions. But Norse mythology rarely ascribes moral superiority to the gods. Perhaps their divine nature allows them a double standard that humans may not indulge in. It may also underline the fact that the Odin is an ambivalent, and often untrustworthy god, who repeatedly uses subversive methods to further his gains. 

 

The seiðmaðr as “unmanly man”

The concept of ergi also comes in the form of an adjective, argr, which means “unmanly, dishonest, slothful, soft, cowardly”, and less obvious; “recipient of homosexual penetration”. That is to say, all the things a man was not supposed to be, according to Norse notions of gender. Surprisingly the feminine form örg, does not mean “lesbian”, but “nymphomaniac”. When women are accused of ergi, it is because of lacking sexual self-control or loyalty, not any apparent magical association – as the case is with men. It seems that argr/örg could be interpreted as along the lines of “a socially disruptive compulsion to be sexually penetrated”, due to a quirk in Norse gender norms. Obviously, this definition would at first seem to elude the non-sexual, antisocial aspects of the term. Then again, Norse people were essentialists who tended to work with broad, metaphorical generalizations.

Snarky, ludicrous accusations of sexual deviancy were a common means of defamation in viking society, even tough false allegations of unmanliness could legally get the accuser killed. Sometimes, such accusations are supernatural to underline the stigma. While Norse magic is loaded with the same rigid gender expectations as the rest of society, seiðr was considered explicitly unmanly. Male seiðr-practitioners were worthy of suspicion and contempt, and they tend to be presented as antagonists in the sagas, as if their competency in magic underlined their apparent wickedness, and they are often made examples of by means of humiliating and torturous execution. The culture, as we've already seen, applied different standards to male and female gender roles, and while literary sources tend to consider paganism and magic as generally misguided, female practitioners tend to be portrayed as less disruptive to the social order.

A handful of runic curses also attest to the taboo of male practice. Prominently the runestone DR83 from Sønder Vinge, Denmark, which threatens that whoever disturbs the monument shall be considered “a sodomite and a seiðr-warlock” (serði ok seiðhretti). Something like an occult gay bomb by the look of it, it is clearly meant to deter people from breaking the monument. If the prospect of magic sounds tempting to the modern reader, the inscription implies that male practitioners had an abhorrent status viking age Denmark. Similar curses of magicianship and perversion are attested on the Saleby-stone (VG67) in Sweden, and the Danish Glavendrup-stone (DR20). Suggesting that the power to perform certain forms of witchcraft and magic came at an unacceptable cost in the eyes of common society, or that their very presence was considered destructive. I'm reluctant to use the word superstition, but perhaps we can compare the seiðmaðr to the witches of Africa today, who appear to be more abundant in popular imagination than objective, physical reality, but none the less real to those who believe in them.

Then we are forced to ask why the male practitioner held such a strong position in the Norse imagination, or why there was such a strong element of taboo in seiðr. I recall discussing this with Eldar Heide back when I did my BA, and we came to an interesting analogy to human sexuality – which is full of taboos. That that which is forbidden or suppressed, often becomes an object of fetishization – its allure and power may be proportional to the negative pressure it receives in society. It's not a paradox. For example: Japanese society is famously very formal, and infamous for its double standard in terms of sexuality. A strong emphasis on shame appears to conjure a counterpart: That which has no shame is both powerful and terrifying. Obviously, this is not a complete theory of human sexuality or magic, but it might serve to explain why the seiðmaðr was such a vivid character in a society where the concept of homosexuality, to the extent that such a concept even existed, was very negatively charged.

Seiðr, trance and ecstasy

What is less clear is how (and if) seiðr involved trance-like states, though it is very tempting to think so, as this pertains to certain other forms of Norse magic, which we will return to in a future article about spirits and gandr. If the theory holds true that seiðr was connected to spinning, then we may consider that the act of spinning involves rotation, and is suggestive of movements which could well induce a trance. Spinning around, and walking backwards in circles around a fixed axis, are two attested methods of inducing trance – even shape-shifting – in later Nordic tradition (Heide 2006a: 250). We may indulge in this speculation, though it says nothing conclusive about viking era practices.

Seeresses in the sagas make the claim that they see things other people can not, thought it's not clear how this manifests. In Eiríks saga rauða, spirits appear before the seeress (völva) when a particular poem (kvæði) named Varðlokkur is sung. A trance is not suggested, as she seems mentally present during the entire séance. However, there seems to have been a general notion that spirits come and go through respiratory passages, carrying desired information. Trance could have been associated with the magician's own spirit or free-soul (sometimes referred as hugr, vörðr, or fylgja) leaving the body. In Hrólfs saga kráka, a seiðkona repeatedly yawns as she provides information to her client about the whereabouts of certain people, but the sequence suggests that spirits are are arriving through her respiratory passages through magical attraction, feeding her visions, rather than her personal spirit being engaged in extra-corporeal travel (Heide 2006a: 182). This is in line with the idea that seiðr functioned like an invisible snare or line. None the less, controlled breathing remains perhaps the simplest and most common means of provoking trance-like states all over the world.

 

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Seiðr and narcotic drugs

Finally there is the possibility of drug-induced ecstasy, which by the way is never suggested in any primary source. Its plausibility rests mainly on archaeological finds. Famously, a minute amount of cannabis seeds (less than a single dose, according to a friend) was recovered from the 9th century Oseberg burial, and apparently associated with the older of the two inhumated women who may or may not have been a seeress. Another exciting example comes from Denmark, specifically the Fyrkat grave IV, where a woman was buried with a number of peculiar items: An upcycled box brooch, serving as a container for toxic white lead which may have been used as face paint. Fragments of a decorated iron staff, possibly a wand – a seiðstafr. Pellets of rolled hair, fat and ashes – originally thought to be owl pellets. And finally: A small pouch of poisonous henbane seeds, which may be used both as an anesthetic and narcotic drug that produces “visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight” according to a friend by the name of Wikipedia. The peculiar assembly of items, particularly the fragmented staff, is suggestive of a ritual specialist at the very least.

Fyrkat IV, as envisioned by Þórhallur Þráinsson (from Price 2002)

Fyrkat IV, as envisioned by Þórhallur Þráinsson (from Price 2002)

A translation of the seiðr séance from Eiríks saga rauða is available as a supplement on my Patreon. Become a patron to access it.

 

Also in this series:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)
Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)
 

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006a: Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen.

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006b: “Spinning seiðr”. In Anders Andrén et. al. (eds.): Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives. Origins, changes, and interactions. An international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004. Vägar till Midgård 8. Lund: Nordic Academic Press. 164-70.

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006c. Manuscript: Seid-seansen i Eiriksoga / Eiríks saga rauða.

  • Gardeła, Leszek. 2016. (Magic) Staffs in the Viking Age. Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia, Band 27: Wien.

  • Gardeła, Leszek. 2009: A Biography of the Seiðr-Staffs. Towards an Archaeology of Emotions. In L. P. Słupecki, J. Morawiec (eds.), Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, Rzeszów: Rzeszów University, 190-219.

  • Price, Neil S. 2002: The Viking Way. Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. The Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Uppsala University.

  • Simek, Rudolf. 2007: Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge.

In Defense of Magic (Norse metaphysics pt.1)

Norse metaphysics2.png

Hey kid, wanna hear about magic in Viking and medieval Scandinavia? This is the first article in what will eventually be a whole series on magic and metaphysics in the Viking and Norse world. In it, I'll offer explanations and explorations on key subjects and terms, such as galdr (chants and incantations), seiðr (let's just call it “textile-magic” for now) and gandr (spirit emissaries). There will be magical projectiles, incantations, sigils and symbols, voodoo doll-like effigies and fetishes, divination, supernatural sodomy, and the massive can of worms that is runic magic. Dear lord, I will most definitely step on a few toes, but hopefully I will give more than I take away.

The viking and medieval world was full of magic, for protection, harm, to predict future events and communicate with forces and spirits. Naturally, all was integrated into how they made sense of the world around them, which was full of unseen entities. A lot of the terms we'll get into have some level of overlap, and grants us a glimpse of the taboos, beliefs and symbols that shaped their day to day experiences.

I presently aim to cover the most important bits of Viking and medieval magic over a span of several months, but I won't shy away from covering the zany world of contemporary spirituality and new religious movements either. Will there be Nazi occultism? Minoan runic sex cults?? Ancient aliens??? Who knows! It all depends on how far down the rabbit hole I decide to go.

The magic of magic

Now, magic is an extremely fascinating subject, but it is sadly misrepresented (and -understood) in public discourse. This warrants an introductory rant to kick us off, which will also serve to clarify my academic and philosophical stances and biases on the subject.

Firstly, I do not consider the notion of magic to be primitive in itself, but rather a feature of human psychology that may manifest itself in various forms of belief and behavior. The Vikings like any other pre-modern society, was not populated solely by superstitious twits who naively wasted their time and resources on self-deceptive practices that never actually worked. They wholeheartedly did believe in its existence, and they certainly felt that it granted them some benefit. Yet, perhaps not in the way people tend to think. Conversely, absence of witch trials is by no means evidence of a lack of magical thought in modern Western society. There's no need to turn to the occult: As an anthropologist might tell you, you'll find endless examples of pseudo-magical thoughts and practices by throwing a brief glance at the world of business and advertisement.

Fantastic and vivid descriptions of magical wonders, as well as their strange and wacky physical effects, are as old as the hills, and I'm sure that snake oil salesmen and quacks of all sizes have always thrived withi.n our ranks. This doesn't take away from the fact that magic has always encompassed a wide range of functions, ideas, and practices beyond whatever hocus pocus our minds might usually consider magic in a strictest sense. A magician may offer counseling and meditation therapy, strengthen social bonds, give pep-talks, and so on. Besides this, there may be many other culture-specific functions of magic that are difficult to pin down and properly discern. Even in the twilight realm of magic and medicine we find, at the very least, the time-tested and scientifically proven placebo effect. 

If we are to talk about naive magical notions, then basing one's entire perception of magic on, say, Lord of the Rings says more about the modern reader, than it tells us about the witch doctor.

Believers in magic: village idiots of popular histor

Magic is commonly used as a cheap trick to demonstrate a supposed lack of sense and logical thought, particularly in past societies. Contemporary cultures with strong magical traditions, especially the non-industrialized, are thought of as intellectually or philosophically deficient. There's no room for such nonsense, or so we're told, in the world of scientific materialism and Cartesian rationalism. 

Subjectively, I simply don't think this true. Rather, it shows the arrogance of Whig history at its very basest. That is to say: The idea that history is something akin to a bumpy train ride, ever rolling towards inevitable moral truths and intellectual progress. Every year is de facto better than the last, as we await a coming state of societal perfection. I'm no historian of ideas, but people guilty of such thoughts do tend to pity those poor souls unfortunate enough to be born in the horrid, dark chapter of human history colloquially known as the past

 

Such an attitude neither helps us understand how past man thought, nor does it bring us any closer to understanding ourselves (except, perhaps, for shedding light on intellectual snobbery). I am not about to unleash a crackpot narrative of a past paradise, but I will scoff and pass judgment on those who squarely pass water in the faces of the giants whose shoulders they stand on.

 

In my unrewarding struggle to defend past man against slander, the supposed mental simplicity of medieval and ancient people is probably what I hear the most, whether we are debating art, ethics, or religion. Mind you, this does not correlate with low education: There are many academically trained, talented individuals who treat anybody born before the 18th century as downright dumbasses. So it's not characteristic of lacking intelligence or education, by any means – but I do believe it is a distinguishing mark of someone lacking historical literacy, and perhaps a basic grasp of human psychology.

 

I hope I'm not too crass. It's obviously no crime to disagree with (or not care about) the beliefs of people who died ten centuries ago. But it is important to realize, despite any chronologically imbued misanthropy that, anatomically, their brains were no different than ours. It's unlikely that a random person born in the 10th century was any dumber than you, unless you are some kind of genius. Either way, the psychology of magic is probably as old as mankind itself. Irrational as it may seem, there are probably rationally justifiable, Darwinian reasons for its presence in the human brain. It won't ever disappear, but if it should I highly doubt its loss would be an enhancement to human life.

The academic study of the history of magic, it should be noted, is a fairly young and marginal discipline. Traditionally, Old Norse scholarship seemed more interested in how and when to distinguish magic from religion. When reading older works in particular, they often have an ethnographic tinge, and scholars seldom demonstrate any particular interest or competency in the history of magic proper. Luckily, a lot of great research has been published in recent years, which we shall dive into in future parts of this series!