Monday, April 11, 2011

Gandr/Gandus, Horses Wolves and Trees.

Reconstruction is a very, careful process, in which we have to be careful with everything. From the validity of the evidence we're presented with, to the way in which we interpret that evidence and how our interpretations of that evidence may be affected by long held ideas or beliefs about certain things that we've not yet been able to deconstruct.

I find myself in this interpretation quandary when it comes to looking at an old paper from the 2006 International Saga Conference entitled 'Riding the Tree' by an Yvonne S Bonnetain. In what seems to be an (admittedly on the author's part) attempt to put too much information and too many angles in too short a piece, a few points can be gleaned.

First of all is the emphasis on the role of the 'utangard' in magic and with reference to personages from the Eddas and sagas being linked to the 'utangard'. Examples of this that Bonnetain gives are:

1. Odin's speech in Harbardsliod

Nam ec at mönnum
þeim inom aldrœnom,
er búa í heimis scógom.

(I learned from the people,
from the old ones,
who abide in the forests of the homeland).


Þó gefr þú gott nafn dysiom,
er þú kallar þat heimis scóga.
(Neckel, 1983, 85)

(So you give the mounds of stone (over the dead) a good name,
by naming them forests of the homeland).

2.In Hyndluliod, Hyndla is referred to as 'forest dweller' in stanza 48.

This concept of the wild (green) world as the sort of gateway to the supernatural/unknown vs the man-ordered and cultivated world of the mundane is not a new one (for further exploration of the liminal character of the colour green,see Anna Zanchi's paper 'The Colour Green in Medieval Icelandic Literature: Natural, Supernatural, Symbolic?'). In the Eddas, we have the story of the trip to Utgard, in which the normal rules do not apply, nothing is as it seems and death is a character that seems too close for comfort. Fairy tales across Northern Europe, emphasise escape from supernatural entities (found in the natural world beyond the reach of cultivated land) by either jumping over a flowing body of water or by getting back onto cultivated (i.e 'taken') land. In many tales, Seidhworkers live in these liminal places, firmly cementing their characters as 'threshold' dwellers.

Other elements/places seem to play a role as ways across the 'threshold' too. From the vast array of bog offering finds, cultic places linked to various beings and folklore about water being an entry point into another world (i.e Grimm's story 'Mutter Holle') or a dwelling place for otherworldly beings, it would be a reasonable assumption to say that water was considered to be 'threshold'. In the Eddas, we have the examples of Odin and Skirnir having special horses that can withstand the journey through the 'vafrlogi' (wavering fire)to either Helheim or Jotunheim respectively. Not to mention the accounts of burning the dead. Possibly fire was also considered to be one of these threshold elements? Seen in this way, the thrice burning of Heid in the Voluspa must only have served to reinforce her status as one with mastery of the threshold (and her prowess as a witch) in the eyes of the Aesir.

Bonnetain then goes on to lightly touch on staffs and the possible symbolism/use of the staff for the Volva and then, interestingly, she mentions the Gandr. To quote Bonnetain herself:

It is also possible to understand gandr as a staff, which is attributed with phallic significance. Thus, göndull in Bósa saga (11) is used in the sense of ‘penis’. Accordingly, the term gandreið – by which we have another intersection of means of travel, seiðr and the other world – can also be read with a sexual undertone.4 The most extensive discourse on the connection between völur and seiðr, sexuality and gandir has been conducted by Neil Price (2002), to whose work I may only make reference in the framework of this presentation.

It is also notable in this context that this meaning variant of gandr is not reflected in translations of Jörmungandr and Vánargandr. On the contrary, here gandr is frequently translated as ‘monster’, which actually forestalls interpretation. Vánargandr is found only in Skáldskaparmál (23), in which Vánargandr is used as a synonym for Fenrir:

Hvernig skal kenna Loka? Svá, at kalla hann ... föður Vánargands, þat er Fenrisúlfr, ok Jörmungands, þat er Miðgarðsormr... (Guðni Jónsson, 1954, III, 126f.)
‘How shall Loki be called? So, that he may be called… father of Vánargandr, that is the Fenris wolf, and of Jörmungandr, that is the Midgard serpent...’).

Confirmation of the meaning ‘monster’ cannot be inferred from this passage, in which Vánargandr is used parallel to Jörmungandr.

Ursula Dronke (1997: 12ff.) translates gandr in Völuspá as ‘spirit’. With this, she follows the argument already put forward by Cleasby/Vigfússon (1874: 188) and Johan Fritzner (1877, 166-170) based on a well-known passage from the Historia Norvegiae. 5 Maybe such a gandr is also the reason for the switch between the first and third person singular on the part of the völva when referring to herself in the Völuspá (McKinnell, 2001, 394-417). Apart from the interpretation as two seers, one could also assume that there is a third figure in the form of a helpful spirit,6 comparable to the usage of gandr in Fóstbrœðra saga (9):

Víða hefi ek göndum rennt í nótt, ok em ek nú vís orðin þeira hluta, er ek vissa ekki áðr. (Björn Karel Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson, 1943, 234)
‘Far did I run with gandir into the night. Now I know things I knew not before.’

Cleasby/Vigfússon (1874: 188), too, had already point to the possibility of interpreting gandr in gandreið as a spirit. Moreover, attention is drawn to the meaning of ‘wolf’.

So far from reading that passage, the word gandr, can mean/or is linked to either 'staff', 'penis' (the penile aspect is further explored by Eldar Heide in his paper, 'Spinning and Seidr'), 'a spirit', 'wolf spirit'. Which is it to be? The author draws no conclusions in her paper, however in a paper by Clive Tolley, entitled 'The Historia Norwegiae as a Shamanic Source', we are given a translation of an excerpt from the Historia Norwegiae:

Moreover their intolerable paganism, and the amount of devilish superstition they practise in their magic, will seem credible to almost no one. For there are some of them who are venerated as prophets by the ignorant populace, since by means of an unclean spirit that they call a gandus they predict many things to many people, both as they are happening, and when delayed; and they draw desirable things to themselves from far off regions in a wondrous way, and amazingly, though themselves far away, they produce hidden treasures. By some chance while some Christians were sitting at the table amongst the Sámi for the sake of trade their hostess suddenly bowed over and died; hence the Christians mourned greatly, but were told by the Sámi, who were not at all distressed, that she was not dead but stolen away by the gandi of rivals, and they would soon get her back. Then a magician stretched out a cloth, under which he prepared himself for impious magic incantations, and with arms stretched up lifted a vessel like a tambourine, covered in diagrams of whales and deer with bridles and snow-shoes and even a ship with oars, vehicles which that devilish gandus uses to go across the depths of snow and slopes of mountains or the deep waters.

He chanted a long time and jumped about with this piece of equipment, but then was laid flat on the ground, black all over like an Ethiopian, and foaming from the mouth as if wearing a bit. His stomach was ripped open and with the loudest roaring ever he gave up the ghost. Then they consulted the other one who was versed in magic about what had happened to them both. He performed his job in a similar way but not with the same outcome – for the hostess rose up hale – and indicated that the deceased sorcerer had perished by the following sort of accident: his gandus, transformed into the shape of a water beast, had by ill luck struck against an enemy’s gandus changed into sharpened stakes as it was rushing across a lake, for the stakes lying set up in the depths of that same lake had pierced his stomach, as appeared on the dead magician at home.

In this passage, we meet the term 'Gandus', which, according to a comment made by John McKinnell (2003: 115) who works from the perspective of Norse (rather than shamanic) scholarship: ‘This passage probably represents Norse beliefs about Saami magic rather than the reality of it, for the word gandr does not exist in the Saami language.’

Now this is one key area where any examination of Seidh becomes tricky.We know from various sources, that there were (or it was believed that there were) cultural exchanges when it came to Seidr. There is mention of 'Lappish' characters or characters that spent time among the Sami, learning their witchcraft (Queen Gunnhildr being the best known example here). However there is, to my mind, a HUGE sticking point in then applying aspects of what we know of Sami worldview to Seidh. For starters, we have a lot of evidence that the Sami are/were dualist in belief, but we have no definitive evidence that the Norse were. Thomas Du Bois does a great job of examining the intercultural dimensions of the Seidh sceance from Erik the Red's saga, however the whole issue is far from clear.

We also have to remember that while the term 'Gandus' is included in the above quote from the Historia, it was written very much post conversion (and dualist), and so the events that are described (if real), would have been written from that POV. However there is one point that I find interesting and worth further investigation:

*In the ON sources, the gandus is potentially a kind of spirit helper or not dissimilar to ( or even the same as?!) the hamr . Could it then be possible that travelling with your 'gandr' might not refer to having something to travel with, but a means for your hamr to travel by? Hence the link with wolves and horses as being potential shapes to shift your hamr into?

* In the account from the Historia, the drawings on the drum are interpreted by the Christians as being 'vehicles' by which the gandus can travel. It would be interesting to read a Sami interpretation of drum symbols and just what the 'gandus' could have been referring to from a Sami POV.

And this is where my quandary lies when it comes to interpretation. I'm non-dualist. Seidr in the actual lore-based sense makes absolutely NO sense to me from a dualist perspective. Because of this, I'm very aware that I'm always looking for ways to interpret evidence from a non-dualist perspective and I worry that sometimes that's not the right way to go and that I may just be as 'guilty' as I consider others to be in the Seidr-community.

So, no conclusions, just more reading....anyone anything to add/new directions to go in to all of that 'written too late at night' posting?


I've just been reminded of Gna's horse, Hofvarpnir and its ability to 'fly' through the air and run on the sea. Gylfaginning 35:

The fourteenth is Gná: her Frigg sends into divers lands on her errands; she has that horse which runs over sky and sea and is called Hoof-Tosser. Once when she was riding, certain of the Vanir saw her course in the air; then one spake:

What flieth there? | What fareth there,
Or glideth in the air?

She made answer:

I fly not, | though I fare
And in the air glide
On Hoof-Tosser, | him that Hamskerpir
Gat with Gardrofa.


'Riding the Tree'

'The Colour Green in Medieval Icelandic Literature: Natural, Supernatural, Symbolic?'

'The Historia Norwegiae as a Shamanic Source

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