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.


The Hermit said...

Once again an interesting read, I look forward to reading more from you on this subject :)

AuĂ° said...

A terrific read! Not only do you give your point of view, but you give references too. :)

t23 said...

Wow... you really should write a book or something! Thanks for enlightening

fizz's bloggy bits said...

yes, more please. I find seidr a fascinating subject