Samstag, 2. Februar 2013

Seiðr, Seidr and Seidhr: Lifting the Veil - part one

Since the first part of the seidr article in German has been published, lots of positive reactions were triggered, i.e. one very unsatisfactory article about seidr was replaced in German Wikipedia  by a much better though not perfect version. The author felt obliged to publish this article also in English due to the impression, that certain misconceptions about the Germanic  heathen lore  continue to be spread in an organized way, like “Loki worship is cool” and “Seidr is fun for everyone” - even on a multinational level.
This blog is for  ethnohistorical research  –  and no tool of any organization or pressure group, please keep that in mind. 

We find it quite bizarre, that such a defamed magical technique as seidhr could be taught to everybody today - if it is seidhr what they teach, we don't know.  It may harm you but I am not saying it will harm you in any case. Even with oracle seidr you may take care before that you are in a stable psychological condition and do not carry to many demons around with you. But I exclude oracle seidr from many other techniques sold as seidr today as it has some more or less genuine elements. Just read Jenny Blain's warnings in her book "seidr" but please do not go the "Helway", we are not sure if Hel likes tourists but we are sure the helway is just a blend of Core Shamanic Techniques with the Germanic lore. Please read Part 2 of our Seidhr article for more specific warnings. 

Part 1: Terminology and Seiðr in action

Quick summary: seiðr or seidr or seidhr is a closely related group of complex and sometimes dangerous rituals, that were described well enough in the nordic sagas for a definition. Earlier sources as the sagas and Snorri’s Ynglingasaga are not known to us. (Except sources in the form of “shamanic channeling” or “seeing” but this not part of this research article)  For that reason we regard seiðr as a scandinavian phenomena of the later iron age that has a lot to do with cultural exchange with “finnish” or sami groups. (see part 2 for that)

If this kind of seiðr or seidr has existed 2000 years ago, before or later in the southern parts of Germania Magna: we don’t know but we feel it hasn’t, at least not in that specific scandinavian form described here. Because no known kind of Germanic magic has ever got such a bad reputation as seiðr did have in Scandinavia. To the contrary there is an ongoing worship for the Germanic Völvas, Valas, seers as Veleda, Valburga and many others here in the south until today. “Weleda” is i.e. a brand name for a nature cure company in Germany, well known for their herbal remedies with a very postive connotation.

There are much more sources than the well known and nice Eiriks Saga Rauda, chapter 4, with Spákona Thorbjörg fortelling the harvest and the future of a Greenlandish settlement in a seidr ritual. This kind of happy-go-lucky postcard picture of seiðr for many Asatruar is only one of many sources about seiðr. Sadly most of them are usually unknown to heathens today.
According to these sources, deaths and worse like constant madness among practitioners and targets were not uncommon – normal risks for magic mercenaries or “normal” magic deaths for those practising black seidr.

Thomas Dubois clearly defines seiðr as a heathen ritual mostly responding to a situation of crisis and is undertaken by a religious specialist at the request of a client and within the context of a communal gathering. Spirits are used or divination or manipulation of other people. Divination is white seidr, manipulation of others black seidr.

Sorry to disappoint any readers, who may expect recipes or practical lectures of how to do seiðr / seidr. Too much “unwanted misfortune” is connected with seiðr in our opinion, also nowadays, with the exception of oracular seidr Paxson style maybe. (and even this can be very dangerous as Jenny Blain describes in her excellent book) And: None of our honourable ancestors and as insiders of their clan with its virtues: Honour, Peace and Hail wanted close contact with seiðr or seidmen – with the eventual exception of oracle seiðr. Seiðkonas and Seiðmen were outsiders, much more than shamans were in other cultures, but nevertheless used and paid, often in secrecy. In that status they differed from spákonas and other seers, who were accepted by the community. Being labeled "a sorcerers friend" could mean the accused of being regarded as ergi and seperated from society themselves with the seidkona or seidmen.

They were – to our opinion - well paid magical mercenaries often with the outsider status of a “Neiding” often used for black magic attacks beside more honourable activities as oracle-seidr. I personally believe: anybody wishing to do black seiðr as a recreational activity nowadays may better look for help on a personal level. On the other hand: even this had its place somewhere in the 9 worlds, but we should not regard this as a common part of ancient heathen life.

Just at the beginning is the famous article from Ynglinga saga Chapter 7:
"Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely,what is called magic / seidr.  By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another.But after such witchcraft followed such shame (ERGI),that it was not thought respectable for men to practise it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art."

Before the Ynglinga saga describes that Freyja taught this art to the Asa gods first and so emphasizing the vanic and female charactre of seidr for the first time.
Seidr is NOT the generic term for magic in general in a norse context. Sadly, this misinformation was and is still published.

Seidr is a very specific art of magic:

Dubois concludes in his excellent work “Nordic religions in the viking age” in chapter 7, pp. 136 that the above mentioned negative and in a norse context effiminate characteristics of Seidr differ fundamentally from the praised magical arts of Odin, described at the beginning of chapter 7 of Ynglinga saga. These are taught to priest and not priestesses.
"Odin could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or
asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or
bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon
his own or other people's business.  With words alone he could
quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any
quarter he pleased.  Odin had a ship which was called
Skidbladnir, in which he sailed over wide seas, and which he
could roll up like a cloth.  Odin carried with him Mime's head,
which told him all the news of other countries.  Sometimes even
he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the
burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord
of the mounds.  He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the
speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and
brought him the news.  In all such things he was pre-eminently
wise."   (not ergi)

We see, that Odin is a master of “shamanic” techniques as shapeshifting, connection to power animals, shamanic journeys and divination etc., but all those techniques are described as increasing wisdom and positive and not shameful as seidr is. According to old icelandic scriptures, seidr is connected with the term ERGI, a deathworthy insult for effiminate, perfidious, cowardly behaviour, and sorcery itself, also but not only connected with passive homosexuality and female promiscuity.

That was the reason why seidr according to norse clan codex was taught to the women not the honourable men of a clan. For clansmen, not in the status of a NEIDING or Níð, the law of open fight and honour was mandatory. A debarment to practise black seidr.
Probably the male Seiðmadr were somehow in a Neiding status and we can NOT see a clear connection with homosexuality. Grönbech describes on page 340: “Vicious aimlessness is a characteristic of the sorcerer, qualifying his whole behaviour. Contrary to the man who knows in all what he is doing. The man without honour has no intention in a human sense; ...but there are other kinds of intentions or drives...that can be called sorcery.”
The defamation ERGI was mainly a very bad, deathworthy insult used for unmanly, effimate but also unethical behaviour against the codes of the norse clan in other areas of social life. It's use for passive homosexuality or female promiscuity is just a minor connotation. Pracitising seidr or having in depth knowledge about it was an ergi activitiy in itself! AND: in the complete old icelandic literature not one case of an actual homosexual act is decribed - only the accusations about it. 
The total moral ambivalence is the trademark of the seidr people in connection with their status of a neiding, not sexuality, as many people today argue and to put it frankly: we do NOT see seidr as a “queer phenomenon” because there is absolutely no proof of a “queer” or “gay”connection, only speculation but there is proof of a “Neiding connection”. Even the term ergi is translated wrong as "doing sodomy" just to fit in this. There is absolutely no evidence but the vague reference with the term ergi and Odin’s female dress Loki was joking about. 

And to set things straight: Seidr was not, in any connection an old norse code word for "gay scene". Homosexual acts had its kind of "legal" place in norse society more or less only between a slave, (Chritians were favoured)  as a passive and a free clansman as an active part. Both were not punished under this circumstances. Nearly all other homosexual activities meant punishment from more mild to most severe. But the task of the seidmen can not be seen as a a part of a sexual playground - they had other things to do, as we see.

In the most extensive work about seidr, Dag Strömbäck defines seidr in “Sejd. Textstudier i nordisk religionshistorie” as “a form of primitive magic to harm other people (black seidr) or to foresee the future, as well as weather an harvest (white seidr)”. Black seidr aims directly at the life and the spiritual wellbeing of the victim by causing fear, melancholia and restlessness.

Dubois emphasizes this as the main task of professional seidkonas and seidmadr and exactly that contributed to the bad reputation in heathen scandinavia. Absence of any kind of ethics or moral is remarkable and surrounds the whole complex of seidr, even white seidr. According to needs of the customers and the pay-offs, services offered include divination (also morally ambigious under some circumstances), magical killings and all steps of magical manipulation in between.

Even knowledge about the own future und those of other people, white seidr, had sometimes a stigma of moral fishiness by gaining an dishonorable advantage above others. Alway keep in mind the codex of the norse clans: Peace, Honor and Hail. Outside of that codex a human being was regarded as Neiding or similar. To gain a secret advantage above other clansmen or bonds puts anybody in a dangerous proximity to a Neiding and so banishment.

In Vatnsdoela Saga farmer Ingialdr invites a seidkona to the Norwegian island of Hefniey, to foretell the future of all party members. Public divination seems to be a common part of white seidr, contrary to the more secret black seidr. When Ingieladr’s son rejects the offer, the seidkona insists and tells him his future in Iceland against his will. Also in Örvar-Odds Saga and Nornagests þáttr persons reject knowledge of the future because they fear unwanted interference with their wyrd. (Picture: Skern Runestone, wiki commons)

About the Danish king Frodi Hrolfs Saga and Saxos Gesta Danorum report that he ordered his nephews to be traced, tracked and killed by a seidkona after they themselves hired a seidkona to kill the rightful king. Off course the seidkona Frodi hired was able to trace the two nephews but she refused to tell about their whereabouts because she was bribed before. Instead she claims a strange magical attack to be responsible for her failure. An example of seidr’s moral ambivalence – according to norse codex an ensemble of deathworthy crimes for different reasons. The behaviour displayed here is ergi in the worst sense and no homosexual act is in sight...... Instead pure "Neidingswerk" or Níð  ... The whole norse ethical system is turned upside down on different levels in this example and shows how strange and “outlandish” seidr was.

An evil intention shows Queen Gunnhildr in Egils Saga Skall-Grimssonar. She uses seidr to confuse the mind of the skald Egill. Gisla Saga Surssonnar describes how Thorgrimmir of Iceland used seidr to confuse his enemy Gisli who is wandering about restlessly and only finds peace on one specific island.

Even in Ynglingasaga itself evil consequences of seidr and its professional mercenaries are described: Queen Drifa hired not only a seidmadr to confuse the mind of swedish King Vinlandi but decides in the end to send him an incubus who takes posession of Vinlandi and kills him.
Laxdoela saga reports about a group of seidr professionals coming from the Hebrides to Iceland causing massive mischief there, due to seidr practices and committing magical thefts. At Allthing the men want to judge about the foreign seidmen but they built a plattform, a seidjallr, and begin to chant what is called “galdr”. So a storm is stirred up and the accuser is killed by a flood. (The galdr described here is different from the usual galdr but has some similarities)

In contemporary Norway this is still an issue. The author found a billboard from the Norwegian government in 2010 in a fjord in West-Norway to remind of the drowning of 120 “attacking seidmen” in the 8th century. Those seidr soldiers came by boat, created magical fog to invade the village and to do some plundering there, but the villagers could defend themselves and killed all seidmen. Even today there is a strong aversion observable and the billboard was heavily marked with profanities. This billboard is a like a modern form of the Skern Runestone, one of many runestones where curses against seidmen or seidkonas were carved in. We got the impression, killings of seidmen is not regarded as a specifically evil deed up there, it is part of the Norwegian history when King Harald Fairhair and Erik Bloodaxe burned their relative, seidmadr Roegnvaldr Rettilbeini and 80 of his seidmen to death. Harald Fairhair just hated seidmen, even his own son. But do not misunderstand this as an aversion of myself or others I may know against seidmen or - women or an encouragement to prosecute them. These are just historical facts. 

An important element of white and black seidr is a “sweet song”, well known from the most important description of white seidr in Eriks Saga Rauda with Spákona Thorbjörg who was “doing seidr” or in old norse: “En um morgininn at áliðnum degi var henni veittr sá umbúningr, sem hon þurfti at hafa til at fremja seiðinn.”, as is clearly stated in the text. Thorbjörg clearly did seidr and not only spá. The song Vardlokkur is so sweet and it attracts the wise spirits, who are able to foresee the future. But as sweet as the Vardlokkur sounds the black seidr song of Kotkell and Grima from the Hebrides. And this songs only intention is to murder a man from another clan.  They built a seidjallr, a platform on top of a roof, sing the seidr song and when the victim leaves the house, blandished by the song, he is hit by the seidr and killed on the spot. So says Laxdoela Saga. And off course the seidmen were well paid for their contract kill.

Also Thorbjörg, the seidr icon for modern Asatruar, is well paid and treated with honor for her white seidr - she is definteley needed by the community. But she is an offspring of a family famous for their spákonas and all her sisters were also spákonas. Also Thorbjörg sits on a seidjallr and she needs also a sweet song to call the spirits. But her task is only to foretell the future for the Greenlandish community under pressure - no black seidr is done. The basic structure of the ritual remains the same: very special clothing, wand, high-seat, spirits, song, contact with spirits. These elements tell us today that Thorbjörg was doing seidr, white seidr, besides the fact that her activities were named as “fremja seiðinn”.  This form of oracular seidr doesn’t differ a lot from spá in its results, but the ritual is different and the “deepness”. So the question why Thorbjörg was also called spákona may find an additional answer here.  What takes Thorbjörg out a bit from the seidr context is her high social status. She is liked and respected. So maybe she was a spákona doing seidr there but usually only spá? Or she only practised white seidr? We will never know for sure but at least we see, there were some exceptions from the grim and gloomy picture of seidr painted in the sagas of our ancestors. (Picture: Völva Heiði, stamp of Faroe, artist: Anker Eli Petersen, public domain)

Today this form of white seidr is reconstructed by different groups, i.e. around Jenny Blain and Dianne Paxson. An honourable but not harmless and sometimes dangerous task as Jenny Blain reports. And this danger very often lies in the personalities of the particpants that shine in a completely different light when spirits are present in a seidr ritual. As Jenny Blain said: wyrd, health and fortune of whole groups can be changed for quite a time when just one “wrong” person is present and the spirits are “psyching out”. Blain also reported long-term physical illness of a whole seidr group she was part of  because one spirit had a bad day and didn't like one person there...... And we are stricty talking about white seidr here. But I doubt it is really "white" when people are going the "helway" there - who is able to encounter giants by the way, except maybe the gods and it is said that even they could not control Hel, so.......

Dubois: Nordic Religions in the Viking Age
Dag Strömbäck: Sejd: Textstudier i nordisk religionshistorie
Kultur und Religion der Germanen
Folke Ström: Nordendisk Hedendom
Mircea Eliade:  Schamanismus und archaische Extasetechnik
Sir Sigurd: Seidhr, a scholarly study of the art
Jenny Blain: Seidr
Vatnsdoela Saga
Örvar-Odds Saga
Tattr af Norna-Gesti
Hrolfs Saga
Saxos Gesta Danorum
Egils Saga Skall-Grimssonar
Gisla Saga Surssonnar
Laxdoela Saga
Eiriks Saga Rauda