The Return of the Völva: Recovering the Practice of Seiðr

Originally published in Mountain Thunder, Summer, 1993.


The Return of the Völva
Recovering the Practice of Seiðr
by Diana L. Paxson


Darkness covers the tents scattered across the drying grass of the festival grounds with a kindly shadow; at the far end of the sloping valley, the cliffs are edged by the first silver shimmer of the rising moon. As its light grows, it outlines a canvas pavilion and glimmers on the upturned faces of the folk gathered before it. They are gazing at a tall chair like a throne, but higher and draped with a bearskin, where a veiled figure waits, her body motionless, her face in shadow.

“The gate is passed, the seidhkona waits,” says the woman sitting on the fur-covered stool below the high seat. “Is there one here who would ask a question?”

After a moment’s hesitation, someone rises. He must decide whether to move from his present home or continue where he is. What should he do? What fate does the Völva see?

“Speak now, seeress, ’till said thou hast. Answer the asker ’till all he knows. . .” says the leader. And after a moment the seidhkona, her voice harsh as if it comes from a great distance, begins to answer him.

This could be a scene from the world of our ancestors, but in fact the ritual described above took place at a pagan festival in Northern California. For the past three years, a group called Hrafnar (“the Ravens”) has been performing a reconstruction of the Old Norse seidh ritual as a service to the community. The group has worked outdoors in rain or moonlight, in an underground bunker, and in living rooms; for groups of forty or more people, or for only two or three. In addition to assisting in personal growth, our purpose has been to demonstrate the validity of the shamanic tradition of Northern Europe, and to serve the larger pagan community to which we belong as the Völvas of Scandinavia served their people. The procedure has undergone many changes during that time, and continues to evolve, but we have now learned enough so that it seems appropriate to share our findings.

Norse Shamanism

The form of divination described above is one of a group of practices referred to as Seidh, which bear a strong resemblance to activities which in other cultures are called Shamanism. In order to understand what Hrafnar is trying to do, one needs to know something about Shamanism in general and how it was practiced in the northern lands.

Shamanism may well claim to be the oldest type of spiritual practice still in use among humankind. Evidence for activities similar to those of later shamans can be seen in the Paleolithic cave paintings. Shamanic practices have survived at all the edges of the inhabited world, with remarkable similarities in both technique and symbolism appearing in places as disparate as Siberia and Tierra del Fuego. Such a broad dispersal suggests that shamanism was practiced by homo sapiens at a very early stage of development, before its dispersion into different cultures. With such a venerable and extensive history, one would expect to find evidence of shamanic practice in the pre-Christian cultures of Northern Europe as well.

A careful analysis of Norse and Celtic sources suggests that this is indeed true. To the reader familiar with the literature of shamanism, many of the visionary and magical feats attributed to both Druids and Old Norse vitkis or völvas seem strongly reminiscent of shamanic practices. The Icelandic sagas are rich in accounts of magic of all kinds, including spirit journeys, weatherworking, healing, prophecy, and shapechanging. Some of the Scandinavian practices may well have been learned from the Saami (Lapps) or Finns, but accounts from Celtic and even Greek legend support a belief in native Indo-European shamanism as well.

Seidh

The practice for which we have the most information is called seidh (nominative case in Old Norse, seidhr), which may come from a word meaning “to speak” or “to sing”, or possibly be cognate to the verb “to seethe”, derived from the rituals of salt-boiling (Grimm, III:1047). According to Stephen Glosecki,

The etymology of seidhr, however, suggests indigenous development, perhaps retention of Indo-European practice. The mysterious term is cognate with French séance, Latin sedere; Old English sittan, and thus with a large group of terms based on the Indo-European root *sed-. A seidhr, then, was literally a séance — a “sitting” to commune with the spirits.

– (Shamanism and Old English Poetry, p. 97)

In the literature, seidh refers to various kinds of magical practice, including an act of divination or prophecy performed while in trance. Other terms for the practitioner of seidh would be seidhkona, spákona, or for a man, seidhmadhr. A more general term for a male spiritual practitioner was vitki (in Anglo-Saxon, wicca or [fem.] wicce). At an earlier period, both men and women appear to have practiced this craft. Male practitioners of seidh included Ragnvald Rettilbeini (the son of King Harald Fairhair, who was burned by Erik Bloodaxe at their father’s command along with the men who worked seidh with him), and Eyvindr Kelda, who was drowned by King Olaf. However the majority of those who practice seidh in the sagas are female. The strong feminine tradition makes this form of shamanism especially interesting to women.

Skill in seidh was a speciality of the god Odin. It is said to have been taught to the Aesir by the goddess Freyja (Ynglingasaga: 4) and parts of the practice probably originated with the Vanir cult. On the other hand, Odin was himself originally a shamanic deity, who seems to have acquired this magical technique in addition to his mastery of the runes and other lore. In part VII of the Ynglingasaga, we learn that –

Odin had the skill which gives great power and which he practiced himself. It is called seith, and by means of it he could know the fate of men and predict events that had not yet come to pass; and by it he could also inflict bane on men, or soul loss or waning health, or also take wit or power from some men, and give them to others. But this sorcery is attended by such ergi [a term meaning sexual, or spiritual, receptivity used as an insult] that manly men considered it shameful to practice it, and so it was taught to priestesses. . . .

and,

Odin could change himself. His body then lay as if sleeping or dead, but he became a bird or a wild beast, a fish or a dragon, and journeyed in the twinkling of an eye to far-off lands, on his own errands or those of other men. Also, with mere words he was able to extinguish fires, to calm the seas, and to turn the winds any way he pleased.

A passage from the Lokasenna is of especial interest, since if the verb in the second line is examined carefully, it may provide evidence for Norse use of the shamanic drum. Taunting Odin, Loki says–

But thou in Samsey wast performing seidh

And beating out (spells) like a Völva,

Vitki-like didst pass through the world of men,

In woman’s wise, I believe.

– (Lokasenna: 24)

Other practices identified as seidh include raising storms, journeying or battling in animal form, sending a nightmare to kill someone by suffocation in his sleep, and love spells, all things with which shamans in other cultures are credited (or accused of) as well. Journeying, both in the body and in trance, is a standard practice in Norse literature. Destinations vary, there are references to travel in Midgard (viewing other parts of the real world) and seeking Odin’s Seat of Seeing in Asgard. However by far the most common use of the term seidh is in reference to a ritual in which the seeress (völva or seiðkona) sits on a platform or high seat (seidhjallr), goes into trance and prophesies for the community. It is this practice which Hrafnar has to date spent the most time in recovering.

The most comprehensive account of a seidh session (or indeed, of any Norse ritual) which survives is the story in section four of the Saga of Erik the Red, in which a Völva comes to one of the settlements in Greenland to prophesy for the community. The idea that physically elevating the seer will assist in vision also seems to be behind the tripod upon which the Delphic Pythia sat to prophesy, and perhaps the tree trunk which the Machi shamaness of the Araucanian tribe of South America climbs in order to declare her visions as well.

In former times the machi mounted a platform supported by shrubs (the rewe) and there, in prolonged contemplation of the sky, she had her visions… When the machi has returned to her senses, she describes her journey to the sky, and announces that the Sky Father has granted all the wishes of the community.

– (Eliade: Shamanism, p.325)

The important features of the seidh rite in Erik’s Saga are as follows: The Völva was an itinerant priestess, requested to come to the steading to divine for them when the current famine would end. Other texts suggest that formerly such priestesses travelled with a group of younger people, perhaps in training, but at this period the Spákona Thorbjorg alone remained. When she arrived, she was given an opportunity to get to know the place, and then fed a meal of the hearts of all the different kinds of beasts available (possibly a reference to a sacrifice, in which the rest of the meat would have been eaten by the others). In Irish tradition, an offering to the gods was also sometimes a prerequisite to prophecy.

To prophesy, the Greenland Völva sat upon a raised seat with a cushion stuffed with hen feathers. To enable her to go into trance, a special song, the vardhlokur, was sung by a woman, which summoned the spirits. As a result, the seeress prophesied the end of the famine, and also answered many questions for members of the community. She wore a special costume, consisting of a blue cloak ornamented with stones, a necklace of glass beads, a cap of black lambskin lined with white catskin, catskin gloves, and calfskin shoes. A belt supported her skin pouch of magical paraphernalia and a walrus ivory handled knife, and she carried a carven staff with a brass knob, also set with stones. The most significant aspects of this attire are probably the inclusion of different kinds of animal fur, especially the skins of the cat, sacred to Freyja, and the staff, which appears in a 6th century plaque which may depict a priestess, and is among the items forbidden to Christians. In Laxdælasaga, a seidh staff is found in a grave believed to be that of a völva.

The Hrafnar Seidh Ritual

In the references to prophetic seidh which have survived, attention focuses on the questions, and beyond the information that a special song was sung, little is said about the techniques used to achieve vision. However in studying the Eddas, we note that the Voluspá;, BaldersdraumR, and the Shorter Seeress’ Prophecy all recount episodes in which Odhinn journeys to the Underworld to consult the Völva. These stories suggest two possibilities — the first is that the place in which prophetic vision is found is Hel, home of the ancestral spirits, and second is that the process of questioning was structured according to a traditional formula to which the seer was conditioned to respond. In seidh as performed by Hrafnar, singing is used to change consciousness and raise energy, the journey to the Underworld serves to bring everyone to the source of knowledge, and the formulaic questioning keeps the visionary state under control.

The first step is purification with the smoke of sacred herbs. Today smudging is most familiar from Native American tradition, but the practice of smoking with herbs (called recels) is found in Anglo-Saxon sources and elsewhere in European folklore. The purpose of the practice is to help people get rid of tensions and preoccupations that would prevent them from focusing on the work at hand. The leader or householder then defines the space to be used for the ceremony. One or more of the participants may orient and balance the group by honoring the directions and the local nature spirits. Finally, the gods in general and those deities particularly associated with seidh are invoked. With each step, the group moves deeper into the world of Norse myth. By the time the journeying begins, everyone should be caught up by the momentum of the ceremony.

None of this is strictly necessary for the practice of seidh. However Christian denunciations of pagan prophetic practice indicate that the gods were invoked before performing divination. More important is the psychological function of these activities. Taking time to establish Sacred Space provides a transitional period in which the participants can release the preoccupations of the day and their identities in the modern world and move into the world of Nordic myth. It is also useful to define the area of the ritual, especially when a ceremony is being performed in someone’s living room.

Wearing authentic clothing helps all of the participants make that psychological transition, just as wearing a cap or cape with skins or pictures of one’s power animal and other symbols helps the shaman to function. A great deal of this could be classed as theater, but any analysis of the shamanic literature will make the dramatic element in most traditional practices quite clear.

‘Tis time to sing at the Seat of Thul,

At the well of Urdh to welcome wisdom. . .”

With these words from the Havamál we move into the heart of the ritual, preparation for the prophetic trance begins.The seidh journey is powered by the energy raised by dance and drumming, chant and song. As in traditional societies, an exchange takes place between shaman and people in which the energy of the community enables the shaman to journey farther and faster to bring back the knowledge they need. The forms this takes may vary. Sometimes Hrafnar ceremonies include fiddlers who play Swedish folk music to get people into the mood. More often, we use the drum. The drummer should begin a strong beat to which all may sway, clap, etc. and if there is room, dance in a line or spiral which becomes a circle again, or only the seer/esses may dance. This is followed by the power songs of the seer/esses. A whistle may signal the end of the preparatory phase.

The Guide or drummer then begins a slow beat, and Guide begins the induction, or the Seer/ess may narrate the journey. It begins with instructions to relax the limbs, to deepen and regularize the breathing. Then people are directed to visualize a familiar outdoor spot from which a path leads downward and into a forest. The trees arch overhead to form a tunnel, through which one passes to the Sacred Grove. This is the barrier between the real world and Midgard, which is the Mid-world, the non-ordinary version of our normal plane of existence. In the center of the Sacred Grove rises Yggdrasil, the world tree. From this point, the journey incorporates imagery from traditional Underworld journeys, ending before the Gate, where all except the Seer/ess remain during the questioning.

The journey always follows the same general outline. Since this is being done aloud, the rest of the group hears and is carried along on the journey. In practice, each participant interprets the narration through his or her own symbol system, so that each person’s journey is different, although everyone arrives at the same goal. Each seer/ess or Guide visualizes the journey and narrates it in his or her own way, however the route is always essentially the same. As the group has continued to work together, members have influenced each other’s visions of the road.

This shared vision is the equivalent of the culture-specific interpretation of the Otherworld inherited by members of a traditional society. It also places the entire group in a rapport which facilitates the divination. Some symbols are universal, but the visions of individuals in a traditional culture tend to consist of images which other members of that culture can recognize and understand. By intentionally furnishing the first part of the journey with images from Norse culture, we increase the probability that the original material that follows will come from the same stratum of the collective unconscious, providing an integrated and comprehensible experience.

It is important to note that the Hel of Germanic mythology is by no means the same as the Hell of Christianity, to which, in English, it gave its name. Although Loki’s daughter Hella, who rules it, is in part a goddess of death and decay, the other side of her face is young and beautiful. Hel appears to include both the horrors of the grave and the beauty of the Undying Lands. Green plants flourish there even when in the world it is winter. Hel is the world beneath the mound — the world of the ancestors.

The topography of the Underworld appears to have been thoroughly mapped by the ancients; there is a remarkable degree of agreement in the accounts of journeys– the obstacles to be surmounted, the rivers crossed, the beings encountered on the way. Such a definitive tradition suggests generations of journeying. This pathway through the collective unconscious has been well surveyed.

Although the entire group makes the journey to the Underworld together, only the seer takes the further step of going through the gates, and only after formally indicating his or her willingness to do so. If the first Seer/ess has guided the journey, at this point a second person takes over as Guide. The chant is sung by everyone, to a medieval Norwegian melody. The music and the drumming carry the Seer/ess as s/he visualizes going through the Gateway into the Underworld. Individual experiences of this second stage of trance vary, however all agree that a definite shift in consciousness occurs. The experience is generally pleasant. For some, the stimulus of a question is required for images to form, others begin to see spirits etc. as soon as they arrive.

In the Eddas, Odin generally begins by chanting a spell to summon the Völva from her mound, and stating his magical name and powers. He signals his question by saying– “Cease not, Völva, till said thou hast; answer the asker till all he knows….” (Baldrsdraumr 8, etc.). The Völva signals that she has finished with one answer and is ready for a new question by saying, “I tell thee much, yet more lore have I; thou needs must know this — wilt know still more?” (line 4, etc.). or in Voluspá, “Wit you more, or how?”

This pattern is the model for the interaction between the Guide and the seer/ess during Seidh trance. The role of the Guide at this point is to act as intermediary between the group as a whole, still in first stage trance, and the Seer/ess. In the orientation, people should be warned to make their questions as simple and specific as possible. The Guide signals questioners to begin, and signals the end of a sequence. S/he also maintains sufficient rapport with the Seer/ess to tell when the Seer/ess is tiring and end the session. If there are more questions than the first Seer/ess can handle, a second and if required a third speaker is put up into the high seat and the sequence from the singing onward repeated.

Some querents may have questions involving the dead, or there may be times when a seer/ess senses spirits who are eager to communicate. Given that we are invading the realm of the spirits for this work, it seems only just that from time to time they should be allowed to have their say. The seer/ess may hear and transmit the message, or in some cases, allow the spirit to speak through him/her. This kind of communication, however, should be handled carefully, and special care should be taken in bringing the seer/ess back to ordinary consciousness.

When all questions have been answered, the Guide brings the last Seer/ess back through the Gate, but s/he may stay in High Seat for journey home. To the beat of the drum, the Guide narrates return journey in reverse order from entry. At the end of the narration, the Guide or a singer may sing another song to help people make the transition back to ordinary reality.

The final part of the ritual recapitulates the actions of the opening in reverse order, assisting all participants to make an orderly transition back to normal reality. Tasting rock salt is helpful in grounding, and distributing it provides an opportunity to make sure that everyone has in fact shifted back to ordinary consciousness. We always try to have food and drink available afterward to continue this process and replace expended energy. The social atmosphere of sharing food also provides a supportive environment in which people can debrief and discuss the interpretation of their answers.

The larger the group being served, the more useful a division of labor in the ceremony becomes. Roles include that of the Seer/ess, the Guide, one or more Wardens to assist in getting seers in and out of the chair and recovering as well as watching out for problems in the group as a whole, and of course, the people who are asking the questions. Each of these functions is important, and each requires preparation and training.

The element that makes seidh different from individual shamanic journeying is the presence of the people with the questions. The Harner technique in which a shaman journeys to obtain a vision for a client, helps him or her to interpret it, and teaches him to continue working in this way on his own occupies a middle position between solo work and seidh. Seidh allows a shaman, or seer, to use a single journey to see for many people in a way which recreates the culturally supportive environment of a traditional setting. In fact only if there are a number of people seeking information of this kind does it make sense to put on such an elaborate ceremony. It might be said, therefore, that next to the seer/ess, the people are the most important participants.

Despite the fact that others lead the journey, the role of the querent should not be a passive one. Adding to the number of people sharing the vision seem to increase its intensity. Even an experienced journeyer may find the trip more vivid when others are along. The presence of a group provides an automatic support network which helps to validate the experience, and the energy and excitement created by group chanting provides extra power to carry the seer/ess into the second level of trance.

It is the responsibility of the querent to frame the question in a way that will provide a useful answer, so s/he should spend some thought on choosing the subject, and be specific about how it is described. Questions should be narrowed down so that a single short vision will provide useful information. They should be serious, and they should be important to the asker. In asking their questions and interpreting the seidhkona’s replies, Querents would be well advised to heed the advice Socrates gave to Xenopohon regarding oracles. According to the master, it is stupid to ask questions which can be answered by research, reason or ethical principles.

In short, what the gods have granted us to do by dint of learning, we must learn. What is hidden from mortals we should try to find out from the gods by divination; for to him that is in their grace the gods grant signs.

– Xenophon, Memorabilia, LCL, trans. O.J. Todd, vol. 4, pp. 5-7

Ancient writers such as Epictetus also point out the necessity of approaching the oracle with a completely detached and open mind, determined to put the answer to good use, whatever it may be.

Interestingly enough, we have found that a vision will sometimes answer more than one question — the one that triggered it, and a question which someone else in the group is waiting to ask. The visions may stimulate insights in those who have not yet asked their questions or did not know they had one. Others simply “hang out” in a comfortable state or do their own spiritual work until it is time to return.

The greater the need of the querent, the more powerful the vision will be. The process is essentially interactive. Seer and querents have already been placed in rapport by journeying together; the seer uses his or her skills to reach a level of consciousness in which information and images can be accessed with great efficiency, but the questions, especially those coming from complete strangers, evoke the images, and validate the seer’s belief in his or her skills.

The querent therefore needs to stay as focused as possible, to sing enthusiastically when required, and to formulate his or her question as simply and clearly as possible. The more open the querent is to the experience, the more powerful the answer. In some cases the answer may be something the querent has been told before, or a thing that could be communicated just as well in a less elaborate setting. The fact that the information is communicated when both parties are in an altered state seems to give it more impact. The images which are the most common type of response can have great power, and even ordinary information conveyed in trance may acquire profound significance. In any case, the querent is more likely to remember and understand advice received in this way.

The only equipment really needed for seidh is the mind. However, like shamans in traditional societies, in Hrafnar we have found that when one is working with a group, a certain amount of dramatic technique increases the effectiveness of the process. Physical symbols, which speak to the unconscious, help us to convince ourselves and those who work with us that we are indeed recreating the spirituality of our ancestors. Thus, in addition to researching the process itself, we have studied the culture from which it came, and tried, as much as possible, to recreate its clothing and artifacts. The effectiveness of this may be judged by one attendee’s comment that the experience felt like participating in something out of National Geographic.

Results

Seidh is not intended to replace other spiritual or therapeutic practices. Its benefits, as with any experience, depend on the use that is made of them. The ritual appears to have two major effects. The first is to provide spiritual counselling for a maximum number of people in a single session. The second is to give people a powerful sense of participation in a spiritual experience in the Northern European tradition. Many querents have reported that the answers they received were extremely accurate, and that they received new insights into their situations.

The Hrafnar seidh procedure is now reasonably well tested. Both women and men have been trained and seem to function equally well. Several of the seers are able to handle a roomful of questions with minimal assistance. Others are able to take several questions at a time with some support. Clearly, this is a skill which becomes easier with practice. The group has become known as a resource available to the local community and is beginning to work with other Norse groups such as the Ring of Troth. Hrafnar performs seidh at several annual festivals as well as on special occasions. In the future, we will continue to train more seer/esses, and give them the experience they need to function more and more independently.

We are also beginning to explore ways of teaching seidh skills to people in other areas. The present account is intended to serve only as an introduction — those who are seriously interested in learning this technique are invited to write to me at Box 5521, Berkeley, CA 94705. use the contact form on this site.


Bibliography

  • Eiriksagarauðr, (Saga of Erik the Red), trans. E. Jones, World’s Classics, 1961
  • The Elder Edda, (“Lokasenna”, “Völuspá”, “Shorter Seeress’ Prophecy”, “Baldrsdraumr”) trans. Lee M. Hollander, University of Texas, 1986
  • Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, Princeton, Bollingen series, 1964
  • H.R.Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books, 1964
  • ______________, The Road to Hel, Cambridge University Press, 1943
  • Stephen O. Glosecki, Shamanism and Old English Poetry, New York: Garland Publishing, 1989
  • Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, Bantam, 1980
  • Roger Lipsey, Have you ever been to Delphi? Tales of the Ancient Oracle for Modern Minds, Harper-San Francisco, 1992
  • Howard Patch, The Other World, Harvard University
    Press, 1950
  • Snorre Sturlason, Poetic Edda, trans. Jean I. Young, University of California, 1954
  • ______________, Ynglingasaga (Ch. 1 of Heimskringla), trans. Erling Monason, Dover Publ., 1990