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


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 siðrmostly 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 scrittahermaphrodite” (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

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
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).
Image provided by 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.

Gender norms and sexual taboos


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

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)

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

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.


Comments

  1. I find this highly fascinating. Shamanic journeying - i.e. an altered state of consciousness - usually results in images of some sort or other. Most persons indeed perceive imagery, some get words, sound, feelings, whatever; in any case, they get an impression of what it is about, of the topic, the problem to solve. It is possible to act - to move, to communicate, etc. - within this imagery, similar to the possibility to act within dreams, but with a higher amount of awareness and control.
    On a few rare occasions, I did not land in any such scenery when journeying, but on a level or in a realm that gave me no idea at all what it was about. There only were strands, which I assumed to be strands of energy. Kind of colorful, straight, but a little bit unsorted, going this way and that, but mostly more vertically than horizontally. My impression was not that these were something like connections between things or people, but that they were energy-as-such, so to speak. I could pluck at these strands, and somehow something changed by this plucking. Until today, I have no idea at all what I did, the only chance I had was to trust in my spirit allies and in my intention.
    So now. What if seidr means something similar? Working, if one wants to put it like that, on the purely energetic level of the world? The Norns actually do the same, I believe.

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