Seidr (seidhr, volva, seidh, galdr, seithr or seith) is an Old Norse term for a type of sorcery which was practiced in Norse society during the Late Scandinavian Iron Age. Connected with Norse religion, its origins are largely unknown, although it gradually eroded following the Christianization of Scandinavia. The term seidr is most commonly associated with 'witchcraft,' and is used to describe actions ranging from shamanic magic (spirit journeys, magical healing, magical psychiatric treatment), to prophecy, channeling the Gods or the Gods' voices through a human agent, performing magic that affects weather or animal movements, as well as a wide range of malefic magic.
Accounts of seidr later made it into sagas and other literary sources, while further evidence has been unearthed by archaeologists. Various scholars have debated the nature of seidr, some arguing that it was shamanic in context, involving visionary journeys by its practitioners.
Seidr is interpreted differently by different groups and practitioners, but is usually taken to indicate an altered consciousness or even total loss of physical control. Paxson and her group Hrafnar have attempted reconstructions of seidr (particularly the oracular form) from historical material. Fries regards seidr as a form of 'shamanic trembling', which he relates to 'seething', used as a shamanic technique, the idea being his own and developed through experimentation. According to Blain, seidr is an intrinsic part of spiritual practice connecting practitioners to the wider cosmology in British Germanic Neopaganism.
Seidr practitioners were of both genders, although females are more widely attested. In many cases these magical practitioners would have had assistants to aid them in their rituals. Within pre-Christian Norse mythology, seidr was associated with both the God Odin, a deity who was simultaneously responsible for war, poetry and sorcery, as well as the Goddess Freya, a member of the Vanir who was believed to have taught the practice to the Aesir.
In the Viking Age, the practice of seidr by men had connotations of unmanliness or effeminacy as its manipulative aspects ran counter to masculine ideal of forthright, open behavior. The magic of the runes was largely the province of men, although some women knew something of the runes. Freya and perhaps some of the other Goddesses of Norse mythology were seidr practitioners, as was God Odin, a fact for which he is taunted by Loki. In the poem Lokasenna, Loki, amongst other things, accuses the Gods of moralistic sexual impropriety, the practice of seidr and bias.
The female practitioners were religious leaders of the Viking community and usually required the help of other practitioners to invoke their Deities, Gods or Spirits. The seidr ritual required not just the powers of a female spiritual medium but of the spiritual participation of other women within the Norse community; it was a communal effort. As they are described in a number of other Scandinavian sagas, Saga of Erik the Red in particular, the female practitioners connected with the spiritual realm through chanting and prayer. Viking texts suggest that the seidr ritual was used in times of inherent crisis, as a tool used in the process of seeing into the future, and for cursing and hexing one's enemies. With that said, it could have been used for great good or destructive evil, as well as for daily guidance.
In the 13th century Saga of Eric the Red, there was a seidkona or volva in Greenland named Thorbjorg ('Protected by Thor'). She wore a blue cloak and a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white ermine, carried the symbolic distaff, which was buried with her, and would sit on a high platform. A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. On her neck she had glass beads.
From the time of the ancient Germanic tribes, women were revered by the Northern peoples as being holy, imbued with magical power, and with a special ability to prophecy, a reverence which endured in Scandinavia until the advent of Christianity. The woman of the Viking Age found magic in her spindle and distaff, wove spells in the threads of her family's clothing and revenged herself on the powerful using the skills of sorcery. Seidr was a solitary art, where the seidr was not a member of a coven, as in found in other European witch traditions, although a seidr practitioner might have attendants or a chorus to assist her in the practice of her magic. In a very few rare instances the sagas report a group of seidr workers practicing together, there they are usually kin folk, such as a pair of sisters or a father and his family.
The Vikings believed that everyone has a personal fylgja or follower who usually manifests in animal form. Our fylgja is part of us and with us from birth, and acts as our animal ally during Seidr work. Other spirits that may attach themselves to us are kinfylgja (family spirit guardians), Disir (ancestral women), and other helpers who may take animal or plant forms.
The seidr is usually elevated on a platform and surrounded by women who chant to evoke her guardian spirit to come to her aid. In her inspired state, the Spirits give her answers to people's requests: weather forecasts, marriage, misfortune, harvest tidings, travels and so forth. While her body lays in a seemingly lifeless state, her soul travels to other worlds to seek knowledge.
Music and dance are useful for achieving altered states. Shamanistic animal dancing, as described by MacLellan and Harner may be used to assist possession by animal spirits. Dancing to achieve exhaustion may also be employed. Music is described in Egil's Saga as an aid to the Volvas to achieve an altered state, chanting being used. Glossolalia or galdr (chanting runes) may be especially useful here along with power songs, singing the practitioner into gnosis.
According to Eliade, drumming has long been associated with sharnanic practice but should not be confused with the random cacophony of beats to the pseudo-evangelical "we all come from the Goddess" chant that lasts for bursts of up to ten minutes at some Pagan campfires. Persistent, rhythmic beats are needed and the longer the drumming, the more the mind seethes.
In a seidr trance, the body goes through varying degrees of shuddering and vibration, ranging from the gentle, undulating swaying of a serpent to the extremely forceful abandon and violent movements of a wild animal, such as a wolf or bear. Two wolves are Geri and Freki, who were the Norse God Odin's faithful pets who were reputed to be 'of good omen.' Wherever Odin went, the wolves went with him.
Spinning is intrinsically connected with fate and with magic in the Old Norse literature. The Goddesses of spinning inspected the spindles and distaffs of women of the household at Midwinter, rewarding the families of industrious spinners with good luck and lazy spinners with disaster for the coming year; so that the industry of the spinning women of a house directly influenced the luck of the family. The Norns are also said to spin each man's wyrd (fate or personal destiny).
Even though the destiny may be altered by either humans or Gods, there are Norns who build the initial framework. For that they use the same tolls as any norn, just with a lowercase 'n', such as weaving and carving runes.
Germanic women's grave sites on the Continent and graves from Anglo-Saxon and Danelaw British women's graves often produce large, somewhat flattened, pentagonal-faceted rock-crystal beads with disproportionately large holes which have been interpreted as spindle whorls. Such a spindle whorl would give off brilliant rainbow flashes, acting as a prism when spun in the sunlight. Spindle whorls made of amber and of jet are also found in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon contexts. How better to 'spin a spell' than with a magical spindle whorl made of scintillating rock crystal.
Amber is considered sacred to Freya and was used as a sacrifice to Gods and Goddesses. It is said that when Freya could not find her husband Odr, she shed tears that became amber as they hit trees. As reported by the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus around 600 BC, a charge could be accumulated by rubbing fur on various substances, such as amber. The Greeks noted that the charged amber buttons could attract light objects such as hair. They also noted that if they rubbed the amber for long enough, they could even get an electric spark to jump. Talk about magic in a time before electricity.
Healing was another important part of the magical duties of Norse women. Although men did practice battle-field medical treatment, they may not have received much in the way of training for this task other than what they acquired by doing the job. Women were the primary medical practitioners. Red thread was used in medical applications, being used to bind off the umbilicus of the newborn or to tie packets of herbs to an afflicted body part to encourage magical healing. Amulets and curing stones were known in Iceland, being a part of the practice of the healer. The Vikings also used charms, prayers and runes to help heal the ill.
Good health was seen as an extension of good luck. So, preventative medicine consisted primarily of chants and charms that would maintain one's good fortune. The eddaic poetry is full of charms of the maintenance of health in daily life, such as those in the Havamal.
Seidr is a Norse form of shamanism or working closely with Spirit through trance prophecy and oracular work, rune carving, magical chants and songs, sitting out on grave mounds, shape shifting, writing poetry and knowledge competitions. Other practices identified as seidr include raising storms, divination, journeying or battling in animal form, sending a nightmare to kill someone by suffocation in his sleep, sex magic and love spells; all things with which shamans in other cultures are credited as well. Of all the reconstructed systems of archaic magical practice, Seidr seems to be one of the most misunderstood. This is partly because of its sinister reputation, and partly because of sexist notions that only women ever practiced divination. The only equipment really needed for seidr is the mind.
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