In times ancient or modern, the figure of the Seidrworker, has been a controversial one. In modern times, the arguments generally seem to boil down to either one of three points:
* We can't know enough about what they did to reconstruct Seidr and ergo modern Seidr is nothing more than core-Shamanism with Norse trappings.
* Why on earth are there so many Seidrworkers nowadays? They were a minority of outsiders back in the day, people who get into it only get into it because they're looking for Wicca-type stuff in Heathenry or want to feel special!
* Magic doesn't exist, we don't need that stuff anymore, we've got science!!!
In ancient times, the concerns surrounding Seidrworkers were largely (in my opinion, from read reading the various accounts of Seidrworkers interacting with communities) based around the fear that not only did this person have the potential to do things, non-physical things, to either see the future or change luck, but they also inhabited the outer yard, and who on earth would want to do that?
The world back then was quite strongly delineated between inner and outer yard, between the civilised world of men, and the wild unknown dangers of the wilderness where elves, trolls, giants and goodness knows what else might reside.(1)
However, to quote the character 'Ibn' in the movie 'The 13th Warrior', "things were not always thus", or at least, I don't think they were. This blog post is an examination of the potential origins of the Seidrworker and the sources that led me to to the conclusions I've come to during the course of my study in this field. I warn you though, this is going to be a long one, so grab yourself a drink, dive in, and I look forward to any discussions that may arise from this blog post.
Conclusion Number One: The Nature Of Worship Changed In The Heathen Period
When we moderns think about the Heathen period, we tend to think about it as some period in which there was some kind of 'overarching Heathen worldview', as a time when a huge chunk of Northern Europe worshipped gods like Odin, Thor and Frey, and goddesses like Frigga and Freyja. More of us are moving more towards the mentality of different groups having different customs and beliefs - or 'sidu' (2), of thinking more in terms of 'Heathenisms' rather than a single Heathenism. However, when it comes to thinking about changes that took place within the Heathen period to those Heathenisms, on the whole, we're a little bit behind.
Archaeological evidence from the migration period shows us one of the starkest changes to occur in the Heathen period to how, who and where people worshipped. This change must have been pivotal for the people at the time, a ginormous change in worldview, potentially rivalling that of what new people coming to Heathenry go through. A change, that I believe, laid the groundwork for the concept of inner-yard and outer-yard in terms of the how land was considered.
Before and during the migration period, we see archaeological evidence of a plethora of votive offerings made in bogs, and less commonly, human sacrifices. Rarely, we even see god and goddess pole finds, generally crude wooden posts that give a hint of gender such as that turned up at Foerlev Nymolle in Denmark.(3)
The bog, as a location for worship, is probably about as 'liminal' as a place can be (4). Not only was the bog a meeting place of earth and water, a place that wasn't quite either, and a place of mists and danger, but it was also, in a lot of ways, the lifeblood of many communities. Peat could provide fuel and building materials for warmth, marsh grasses could be woven together for rope and roofing, water fowl could provide food, and flax and nettle growing in the bog could be turned into fibers and spun for clothing.
However there came a point in the Migration period, in which those votive offerings stopped and worship moved from the wild liminal places, and into the hof (5). The nature of archaeological finds also changed around this time, becoming more martial in nature, especially around areas such as Odense (a place named for Odin) (6).
But who was being worshipped in these bogs? Perhaps the first piece of evidence that comes to mind is the following account from Tacitus's of the Nerthus ritual:
"Next to them come the Ruedigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Huitones, protected by river and forests. There is nothing especially noteworthy about these states individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believes that she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples. There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with cloth, where the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she designs to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple. Afterwards the chariot, the cloth, and, if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake. The slaves who perform this office are immediately swallowed up in the same lake. Hence arises dread of the mysterious, and piety, which keeps them ignorant of what only those about to perish may see."
- Tacitus Cornelius. Germania (A.R Birley Translation).
Admittedly, there are problems with this, the most glaring being that it's only describing the activities of seven tribes, worshipping a goddess whose name is male in gender. However what of other evidence? Such as the Fuerstenberg type bracteates that depict goddesses, often spinning? If the males depicted on bracteates are unanimously considered to be gods, then so the female figures must be considered goddesses (7). What too of observations based on archaeological finds of votive offerings, where they were made and who they were most likely made to? Based on such observations, the Swedish archaeologist, Anders Andren sees a connection between the type of water body and the gender of the being being offered to, with large open bodies of water being more likely to be connected to offerings to male deities and bogs/marshland more likely to contain offerings made to female deities.(8)
And what of the evidence of people and tribes? Both Erika Timm and Lotte Motz make the connection between the tribes mentioned by Tacitus and the areas of Germany where female numena have survived in folklore (often as the spouse of Wodan). (9) (10)Furthermore, these numena such as Holle, Frau Gode/Wode and Frau Herke (Perchta cannot truly be classified in this group), are all strongly linked with spinning - a theme which is reminiscent of the Oberwerschen-B bracteate, especially considering the find-provenance of the object (in a woman's grave situated next to a cultic site, under the chin of the woman, accompanied by a spindle whorl, keys, a silver needle and a knife). (11)
Several scholars (12), have put forth the theory that as peoples moved, worship moved from the land into the hof, the cult of a male god, namely Odin, came to the fore.
In a lot of ways, it makes a lot of sense for a people on the move to adopt worship that is more 'portable' and less rooted in the land, it is also natural for people to be suspicious of the wild places in new lands and to stay close to their halls, but as Terry Gunnell posited in his presentation 'Goddess of the Marshes', this change may have ultimately made it easier for the Christian conversion to take as the church replaced the hof and one sky-father replaced another. (13)
Conclusion Number Two: Seidrworkers Weren't *Just* Magic Workers - At Least Not Originally
Arguably, the archetypal Seidrworker is Gullveig/Heidr, described thus in Voluspa:
"She remembers a killing between peoples, the first in the world,
when they propped up Gullveig with spears,
and in the hall of Hárr they burned her;
three times they burned her, three times reborn,
often, not seldom, and yet she still lives.
They called her Heiðr, wherever she came to houses,
a prophetess foretelling good fortune, she laid spells on spirits;
she understood magic, practised magic in a trance;
she was always the delight of an evil bride."
As Heidr (Heath) was a common name for a Seidrworker, the second stanza seems to be referring to the human Seidrworkers that travelled exchanging prophecy for goods, such as the one seen in Erik the Red's Saga who exchanges hospitality in the dead of winter, in the middle of a famine for prophecy. Heidr is an inhabitant of the wild places, a denizen of the suspicious outer-yard.(14) But she also seems to have her origins in Gullveig, she seems to be that which 'still lives'. So what, or who is Gullveig?
As McKinnell points out in 'On Heidr', Gullveig is only mentioned in Voluspa and states that:
"It seems likely that the poet may have invented Gullveig himself; if so, her meaning can only be what a contemporary audience could gather from the name. I used to think that this points towards an allegorical interpretation of her; but it is alternatively possible that the poet intended his audience to recognise in her a mythological being who usually goes by another name."
In deconstructing Gullveig's name, the 'Gull' component seems quite clear:
"It seems that Gull- in human names normally refers to wealth or to objects made of gold, not to figurative excellence or golden colour. "
However it's the '-veig' that provides the most interesting point in terms of this post:
"The element -veig is not uncommon in female names; in verse we find Álmveig (one of the ancestresses of the Skjoldungar, in Hyndluljóð 15/5), Boðveig (said in Sólarljóð 79/4 to be the eldest daughter of Njorðr),
Rannveig (Óláfr inn helgi, lausavísa 1/3, Kock I 110, and Málsháttakvæði 18/4 — referring to two different women, apparently both historical) and Þórveig (Kormákr, lausavísa 22b, Kock I 45). Also relevant is the
woman-kenning horveig (Víga-Glúms saga ch. 23, lausavísa 7/6, ed. Jónas Kristjánsson 81; ed. Turville-Petre 42 and notes on p. 79), where the first element means ‘flax’, ‘linen’, and clearly refers to what the woman wears; the same might be true in the name Gullveig. It is even possible that some poets regarded -veig merely as a heiti meaning ‘lady’, possibly with ancestral or Vanic connotations. Veigr also appears as a male dwarf-name (Voluspá 12/1), but the meaning here is no clearer than in the case of the female name-element. The origin of the element is uncertain. Noreen relates it to Gothic weihs ‘place’ and Latin vicus ‘village’, but this seems unhelpful (though it is historically possible), for there is no way that a tenth-century poet could have recognised this meaning, or used it in a made-up name. Sijmons and Gering suggest that the root is that found in víg ‘war’ and Gothic weihan ‘to fight’, and this might have been more meaningful to a tenth-century poet (cf. the sword-heiti veigarr, Þula IV l 4/1, Kock I 328). Most commentators, however, have connected it with the feminine noun veig ‘alcoholic drink’, though Dronke (II 41) suggests that the poet may also have wished to draw on the sense ‘military strength’, which survives only in prose (see CV 690)."
"On Heidr" - John McKinnell
Now this is where I diverge from Professor McKinnell's conclusions and although I see nothing wrong with them (his research is far more thorough than this blog post), there is nothing wrong with presenting other theories. I believe that the 'Aesir/Vanir' war is a reflection of the migration period upheaval as previously described in this post and that 'Gullveig', although often linked to Freyja, is potentially a physical representation of the previous, outer-yard based, 'marsh goddess' cult/s. The suggested roots of the word '-veig', to me, are reminiscent of 'Veleda', or the 'Lady with a Mead Cup' that Enright wrote of, that was considered to have within her an element of holiness and who would prophecy for the war band. If we accept the potential meaning that '-veig' is a kenning for 'lady', then when connected with 'Gull', it would mean a 'lady made out of gold', or to take that further, an idol. In terms of this meaning, a golden idol of a woman being first attacked by spears (one of the most prominent symbols of Odin), before being burned thrice, surviving and then continuing on as 'Heidr', one of the most common names for a Seidrworker, seems like a poetic remembrance of the migration period change. However strangely enough, in linking 'Gullveig' to 'gold', it's almost like there was still some respect when it came to this 'Gullveig' figure, just as there is in the various terms used to refer to Grendel's mother in Beowulf. (15)
As the most-worshipped, and arguably the most 'contrary' of the goddesses when it came to male will (a trait she shares with the various Seidrworkers in the sources that have hostility and animosity with a male figure that also threatens them), Freyja is a natural candidate for being equated with the figure of 'Gullveig', and it is often the case that she is. However I would argue that she and Frigg are like two sides of the same coin, that were separated at some point in the past as society moved from a more agrarian and settled existence, to a more militaristic one.
In the older manuscript of the Konnungsbok, the origin of Seidrworkers is given as being from 'out of the waters beneath the tree', but could those waters not be the bogs of Northern Europe and the 'tree', the very naturalistic idols such as the one found at Foerlev Nymolle?
In short, is it not possible that Seidrworkers had their origins as priestess/seeresses in this/these earlier cults to (a) goddess/es?
Conclusion Number Three: Seidr Isn't What A Lot Of People Now Think It Is
In terms of the sources and evidence concerning Seidr, we know that it was a form of magic performed in trance (leikin) (16); we also know that these Seidrworkers were considered to be able to do certain things, such as affect the luck of another, manipulate perception and weather, call up the dead, and prophecy (17); we know they worked from high places (be they high seats or mounds) (18); and we also know that Seidrworkers often had staffs (19). These areas are not ones where you'll find much disagreement. However, *how* they worked their magic, the process and interpretation that we have now for those acts, I would argue, is wrong.
Typically speaking, a lot of modern Seidr functions in accordance with the Hrafnar method, that is to say, the Seidrworker sits on a high seat, goes into a trance and travels to Hel in search of answers. Although some may consider this to work for them in their communities (and all power to you if you're one of those folks and you feel it does), I would argue that not only is this method fundamentally flawed in terms of the wider view of the worldview that it's supposed to belong to, but that the sources themselves do not back this up as an authentic method.
So what methods do I think were employed?
1. The use of 'enticement songs' in order to entice and then question the wights.
In Erik the Red's saga, Thorbjorg asks Gudrun to sing the Vardlokkur, and comments that "she had attracted many spirits there who thought it lovely to lend ear to the chant-- spirits 'who before wished to hold aloof from us, and pay us no heed. And now many things stand revealed to me which earlier were hidden from me as from others."
2. Manipulation of the Hamr/Scinn in order to affect perception, to damage the 'haelu' of a person, to learn things from far away and as a form of battle magic.(20)
3. The sending forth of a spun 'Gandus/Gondull'.
To quote Eldar Heide in his paper 'Spinning Seidr':
"My studies on gandr have been a gateway to this view. In several sources, gandr is a designation of such a mind-in-shape emissary that the seiðr performer could send forth. This is evident in the description of the Saami noaidi séance in Historia Norwegie (60–63), and is the most reasonable interpretation also in Fóstbrœðra saga (243), Þiðriks saga (303–04) and Þorsteins þáttr bœjarmagns (76). Several of the early eighteenth-century sources for Saami religion also support this view (Heide 2002:77ff). The word gandr is still in use in Norwegian and Icelandic, and modern Icelandic also has retained the derivative gondull, as göndull. Some of the meanings of these words connect them with spinning. In Modern Icelandic, göndull may mean ‘coarse yarn’ and other twisted items (Sigfús Blöndal 920:282). Gand in modern Northern Norwegian may mean ‘spinning top propelled by a string’ (Aasen 873:207), which closely resembles a spindle twirling on the floor (using a certain spinning technique). These or related meanings of gandr/gand and g ̨ndull/göndull probably existed in Old Norse, as there was not much contact between Northern Norway and Iceland after the Middle Ages.If so, the “spinning” or “twisting” meanings of gand/göndull suggest that the mind emissary that the seiðr performer could send forth could be conceived as something spun or spinning. "
(Also see Yvonne Bonnetain 'Riding the Tree'.)
It is worth noting here that all three types of magic were performed in trance, and it goes without saying that the parallel between a spun form of magic and the Oberwerschen bracteate/burial goods of the 'priestess/seeress' is interesting. Unfortunately, very few nowadays can spin to a high enough standard that they can go into a deep enough trance while doing it to attempt anything like creating a gandr. I have been working on it for a couple of years now, and I'm not there, but there's nothing to feel ashamed about in this. As modern people, the majority of us women in the Western world don't grow up spinning. We don't start from childhood and spend hours every day practicing. Most Heathens, even women, don't even understand how the spindle could be considered sacred, and I find this sad.
I appreciate that this blog post has been very long, it's taken me around 3-4 hours to put down the ideas that have been whirling around my head for the past few weeks, and it's by no means a complete theory. I really hope for feedback, and to start a dialogue on this whole thing, I really want to see where this goes. But I really hope that at the least, more ladies pick up a spindle ;).
Sources (page numbers not given because this is a blog post and not a scholarly paper and after almost 4 hours of writing, I'm done, so nuh!)
1. L.M.C Weston - Women's Medicine, Women's Magic: The Old English Metrical Childbirth Charms
2. Josh Rood - Establishing The Innangard: Some Concepts Relating To Custom, Morality, And Religion. (Odroerir issue 2 http://odroerirjournal.com/?wpfb_dl=2)
3. P.V. Glob - The Bog People
4. Eldar Heide - Holy Islands and the Otherworld
5. Terry Gunnell - Goddess of the Marshes (presentation)
7. Michael J Enright - The Goddess Who Weaves
8. Terry Gunnell - Goddess of the Marshes (presentation)
9. Erika Timm - Frau Holle, Frau Percht, und verwandte Gestalten
10. Lotte Motz - The Goddess Nerthus: A New Approach
11. Michael J Enright - The Goddess Who Weaves
12. Terry Gunnell and Erika Timm
13. Terry Gunnell - Goddess of the Marshes
14. John McKinnell - On Heidr
15. Hilda Ellis Davidson - Roles of the Northern Goddess
16. John McKinnell - On Heidr
17. Ynglinga Saga Cha. 7
18. John McKinnell- On Heidr
19. Eldar Heide & Lesek Gardela
20. Katla from Eyrbyggja Saga Cha. 20 is one example of this.