Monday, October 18, 2010

Reconstructionism and Seidhr

During my 15 or so years firstly as a proto-Heathen and then eventually as a Heathen, I've seen a lot of change come about. For me, first it was looking for the tiniest mentions of Northern European lore in my hometown's rather...*ahem*...backwoods library and then came the internet. Now the internet opened so much up, especially for those of us that came from places that hadn't really progressed from being Victorian mill towns. For some reason at this point, more or less all the Heathens online seemed to have names that included the names of gods or goddesses and almost everything was on an angelfire or geocities site. Things were terribly fluffy.

At the time, there really wasn't that much information out there about Seidhr and what there was had very little connection to anything in the lore or worldview of the Heathen period. It's my belief that this particular issue has plagued Seidhr ever since.

Now I'll lay it out there, I'm one of those freaky, deaky people that does nutty things like mound sitting or spending the night in bronze age burial chambers, however about three years ago, my view of these magical practices began to change and I started to look at Seidhr from a reconstructionist angle. And so began an area of study that I'm probably going to be digging into for at least the next twenty years. From my studies in Seidhr from a reconstructionist point of view, I've come to certain conclusions when it comes to the role of Seidhr in communities and how Seidhr is often practiced today.

The first conclusion is that magic and the supernatural were part of the Heathen period worldview. How many occurrences of magic and supernatural are there in the Eddas, Sagas and contemporary accounts? And how many occurrences are there of people saying 'What a load of bollocks! Piss off and stop chatting shit!' (or words to that effect)? No, they generally took it seriously, even if it was just to put a sealskin bag over its head and clobber it to death with rocks (as in the Eyrbyggja Saga). So if we really are to reconstruct a Heathen worldview, surely it then follows that magic and the supernatural would be a part of that?

The second conclusion is that each person had a role(s) and a function(s) in their community, i.e each person had skills that they could bring to the table that made them useful and valuable. Survival from winter to winter wasn't a guaranteed thing and people would utilize the skills that got them through.Seidhworkers were no different. In the lore, magic isn't done out of a sense of altruism but for some kind of reward (1), revenge(2), to protect family or oneself(3). It's a commodity that can be traded just like any other. It wasn't some higher calling, it didn't mean that the practitioner was going to be 'closer to the Gods' or whatever. It was just that some folks had the knack for it, kind of like some folks have the knack for playing the piano or brewing the best beer or mead. In the words of Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 book Fight Club:

'You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.'

The third conclusion is that, while mostly liminal characters, people that were known to be skilled in Seidr, *were* able to form parts of the communities they inhabited(4) although not all of them chose to do so and in some cases, are believed to have formed their own communities(5).

The forth conclusion is that the Heathen period worldview was world-accepting, rather than world-rejecting and therefore any magical system that is a part of that worldview must also be world-accepting. Modern ideas about travelling off to different worlds and going gallivanting with the gods or after some concept of enlightenment are not world-accepting in nature (or at least accepting of this world right here) and therefore could not have been a part of the Heathen period worldview.

So now that we've cheerfully ruled out big chunks of what constitutes modern Seidhr practice (e.g altruistically 'seeing for the people', trance journeys to the gates of Hel, going to natter with the gods etc), what's left? And how can Reconstructionism and Seidhr be combined?

There are certain aspects of modern Seidhr practice that do stick quite close to the lore but this does vary from group to group. Some groups try to reconstruct the high seat ritual as described in Erik the Red's Saga, even down to the clothes the seer wears and the description of the staff. Other groups only do this to a point and substitute what they feel has been lost in the sands of time with other techniques. That these techniques are usually of the world-rejecting variety doesn't seem to be an issue to the groups that employ them. While I am the first to admit that we don't have enough detail to reconstruct Seidhr in its entirety with any degree of accuracy and that some aspects would need to be created anew, I do believe that it is imperative to try and reconstruct as much of the period worldview as possible, and then create anew the aspects of Seidhr that are lost through the medium of that worldview.

Now this may seem a rather strange concept that Reconstructionism can also work for Seidhr, but why should it be? Some groups already reconstruct to a point, but why not take it further than what the Volva wore or how her staff looked? Why not look to what was actually considered Seidhr in the lore, find examples and study the recorded charms we do have in depth? Why not look at the way they were written, at any meters and language used and why not try to write your own? Why not go through those charms with a fine tooth comb and try and see if you can find shreds of Heathen worldview and then try to back it up with other examples? Why not look at the different theories that scholars are bringing forward about Seidhr, such as Eldar Heide's theory about Seidhr as a form spinning magic? Why not take it a bit further and pick up a drop spindle and learn to spin, go into that trance and try the theory out? Why not experiment?

And yes, it is a very subjective game. However how is it any different from Heathens standing at blot and 'feeling the presence' of the gods or that their offerings have been accepted? Do we have scientific proof of those things either? Do we have scientific proof that killing that animal there as an offering to the gods and splashing its blood on the congregation will ensure that our luck as a community will grow, that the gods wanted some rabbit or whatever in the first place or getting splashed with blood will mean that we're blessed?

Of course we don't have any proof for that,but that's where we cross into the domain of faith and UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). In my opinion, this is a key part of Reconstructionism in general. We do the research, we reconstruct, we experiment and see if it works out to our satisfaction.

Why should Seidhr be any different?


1. Thorbjorg, 'Erik The Red's Saga' chapter 4, offered her services in exchange for hospitality during the winter in a time of famine.
2. Thurid, 'Grettis Saga' chapter 78, cursed Grettir after he threw a huge stone at the boat that she was in and it broke her thigh. Gunnhildr, 'The Saga of Egil Skallagrimson' chapter 59, brings Egil to York by Seid spell, argues for his death and then changes into a sparrow and twitters incessantly to spoil his concentration when trying to write his 'Head Ransom Poem'.
3. Katla, 'Eyrbyggja Saga' chapter 20, manipulates the perceptions of Arnkel and Thorarin to hide her son, Odd.
4. Thordis from 'Vatnsdaela Saga' uses her seership skills to help out at legal cases and then uses Seidr to get both parties to accept the solutions she gives them.
5. See 'Gods and Worshippers' pages 110 - 126 by Thor Ewing. Also references in Lokasenna to Volvas on Samsey. 'King Olaf Trygvason's Saga Part II' chapter 69, Olaf goes to Tunsberg to wipe out male Seidhmenn, of which there seems to be a high number living in the area.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Balance Series 1: Gender Roles in Heathenry

A few years ago, I did security for a Pagan event in England called Pagancon. Now in England, there doesn't seem to be the same divide between Pagans and Heathens as there does elsewhere. We all tend to socialize together but do our rituals and have our study groups separately and so there was a good mix of different Pagan 'paths' at this event. It was the second day of the event and after a rather stressful morning that involved stopping an impending altercation between a man in a cape and about twenty, large, rugby lads, I'd managed to get hold of a rather nice drinking horn. I went to the bathroom to clean it out and I came across this lady in there, who, on seeing the hammer, first asked me if I was an Odinist.

'Nay lass' said I. 'I prefer the term Heathen.'

Then she looked at me awkwardly, almost as though she was uncomfortable with what she was going to ask next.

'But...but...isn't that a terribly sexist path for a woman to be in?'

At the time, I defended Heathenry. I told her about strong goddesses and strong women, about women in Northern Europe having more rights than their counterparts elsewhere and about modern Heathen women being respected by Heathen men. For her part, she looked at me with pity, as if I was somehow deluded.

But now I'm not so sure if I was or not. Looking at the wider Heathen community, I see so many ideas and so much bad behaviour from Heathen men towards the women in the community that just scream 'imbalance'.

For me, the biggest imbalance for Heathen women is the overall lack of knowledge that Heathens have about the roles, rituals and rights of women during the Heathen period. People just tend to leave it at 'women had the babies or did the Seidr and they're cool' and leave it at that. Conversely, there is so much discussion out there about the various roles that men held - especially when it comes to the role of warrior (and shock horror, the Viking), so much so that it's become our stereotype. When outsiders think of Heathenry, they tend to think of it only in terms of being a warrior religion, but what of the farmers, the craftsmen, the traders, the fishermen, the businessmen and women, the travellers, the thinkers, the wives, the husbands, the poets, the writers, the children and every other role/s that a person can hold in a society?

Thankfully, farmers are receiving more of a mention nowadays, but still, that the gender roles only seem to boil down to warrior/farmer or mother/Seidkona as far as the wider community is concerned seems a little myopic to me. We need to look much deeper.

And we're already seeing the effects of these ideas, especially when it comes to women and some of the behaviours I've heard of being used against women to get them to conform to the ideas that each particular community has about what women should be and how we should behave. The following is a list of examples that I or Heathen women that I know have come across:

* Being ignored or cut out of participating in more scholarly conversation topics. Or a 'Ok, now the 'estrogen' has left, we can talk about serious stuff' kind of attitude

* Being subjected to personal abuse for daring to (politely) disagree with a man about a point of lore when in the same conversation, a man can express the same disagreement and in the same way and get a perfectly peaceable response.

* People addressing your husband and asking them about you when you're standing right there and obviously capable of answering for yourself. Or asking your husband if they are allowed to speak to you or friend you on Facebook (well after all...we're the property of our men, right? Duh!).

* People mailing your husband when you disagree with them to complain about you and then wishing your husband 'luck in being married to you/that' after he tells them that they deserved what they got for their rudeness.

* Being subjected to peer pressure to have children and conform to this role of being a motherly 'peace-weaver' type.

* Unmarried women receiving messages about how they need to hurry up and get married or they'll be too old to have children and then will be therefore 'too old' to marry and what about 'breeding for your folk'?

* Judgmental comments that imply a link between childlessness and lack of worth in community.

And of course, most of the people that display these behaviours and communities in which these behaviours are prevalent also usually claim to respect women and sometimes will even wax lyrical about how great Heathen women are (within the confines of the aforementioned gender roles, of course).

One typical example of this kind of thing is this note.

The author probably thought he was being complimentary in writing this but there are so many flaws, so much that is based around the idea that the woman is the 'helpmeet' of the man and it's scarily very much focused on the idea of the woman as a mother. In fact the author refers to the woman's role as childbearer in relation to no less than five of the 'Nine Noble Virtues'(as he has written them 'for women'). And yes, while it cannot be disputed that childbearing did play a huge part in a woman's life back then, was that her only role? Nothing more than a baby-machine with no views of her own that can only find freedom in widowhood or death in the childbed, always ready to lay back and think of Freyja whenever her big, hunky, viking comes by wanting to spill some seed?

Is our view of Heathen women really so one-dimensional?

Can a woman not be more than some compliant baby-machine that basically cleans and cooks for her man's comfort? And more to the point, what is the remedy for this imbalance?

As I have previously mentioned, Heathens in general are woefully ignorant of the 'Spindle side' when it comes to Heathenry and the rituals, history and roles that that entails. The current views that are prevalent when it comes to the roles of women are simply a symptom of this ignorance. I think it is also telling that these views are generally not held among Reconstructionist Heathens who are more concerned with building up a picture of community as a whole rather than just one particular, favoured role.

So, as with many other issues that we face, the key is education. The problem is how to encourage more people to look at the 'Spindle side' in any kind of depth.