KEEP IT CLOSE TO NATURE:
Karen Kelly interview Annette on Seidr, the old Norse way of shamanic magic
Annette Høst & Karen Kelly, 1999 + 2010 ©
KK Can You Say Something About What Seiðr Is?
AH Seiðr is an old Nordic way of shamanism, using ecstatic singing rather than drumming. If you strip the seiðr ritual structure as described in the old sources to the bone, then you have the Staff, the Song and the seiðrhiall (magic high seat). Both the staff and the song are wonderful and powerful in themselves, and well known from other shamanic traditions, but it is the combination of staff, song and ritual seat that promotes the unique quality of seiðr. They are all essential if you want to call it seiðr.
The basic seiðr ritual goes like this: The seiðr performer (called volva, seiðrman or seiðrwoman) sits on the high seat holding onto the staff, surrounded by a circle of singers. The singing invites the spirits and carries the seiðrworker into an altered state of awareness, into the enchanted spirit world. There s/he meets with spirits, gods and forces, and puts forward a request for help or knowledge. When this main task is completed and the song dies out, the volva or seiðrman is still “between the worlds” and in this state s/he can give oracular answers to questions from members of the group.
KK How did You First Come Into Contact With Seiðr?
AH I got into contact with seiðr through the Swedish shamanic network called “Yggdrasil” in 1987. I believe that they were the very first to experiment with seiðr. It was there that I got my first practical introduction, and I went home and started to study the written sources of sagas and Edda and decided to give it a slightly different approach.
KK What Role Does It (and Shamanism More Generally) Play in Your Life?
AH At first I had a fascination with seiðr, a curiosity about this tradition that had grown out of the same land and the same nature that I have grown out of. It was like being in love. Now that has grown into a more mature and sober and clear eyed love and respect for the tradition of seiðr.
In all the time I have practised shamanism I have had two themes that are very dear to my heart - one is seiðr and the other is the cycles of nature. It's hard to say which of them has done what, but those two ways, together with the on-going exchange between Jonathan and I, have really impressed on me the need for rooting our shamanic practice in Nature as the everlasting source of power and guidance. What that means to me is that I consider myself an apprentice to the Moon, to the Night, to the Crow, to the Elder Tree, to the Wind. Shamanism in general is simply the heart sign and leading star of my path.
KK Do You Feel It Is Important To Practise A Shamanic Path That Draws From the Ways Of Our Physical Ancestors?
AH The way you put this question makes me ask: Why does one want to practise shamanism? If the main purpose is to help oneself and others then the first important thing is to feel connected so that you are part of the flow of life power. What I think you are really talking about here is the need for roots in order to feel connected and have a sense of belonging.
I know people hunger for roots. For me it's important that my practice is rooted in the land I am living on. That can be different for other people. But as long as it's something that connects you, makes you feel that you belong, then it is fine. I don’t see that your path has to be connected to your physical ancestors. That would narrow that connection down to only human beings and thereby tend to exclude everything and everybody else that we also grew out of.
KK Does This Mean That In Order to Practise Seiðr We Need to Follow the Religion of the Vikings?
AH I am glad that you bring this up because I think that this question lingers maybe unconsciously in many people’s minds. I’ll put it this way: A lot of the research connects the tradition of seiðr with the Viking Age, with the Aesir deities and especially with Odin. This is without considering the fact that seiðr is much older than the Vikings, much older than the Aesir gods. I would rather go behind the filter and structure of any religion in my seiðr working to the source of the spirits and powers of Nature. That is the same for us as for the old ones - it is timeless. I don’t see seiðr as being necessarily part of any religion. I really want to emphasise connecting it to the power and spirit of Nature rather than any religion.
If we should relate seiðr to a religion it would be much more relevant to link it to the older fertility religion and the Vanir. They are the earlier Nordic gods and spirits concerned with fertility, sexuality, magic, peace and abundance. We know the main deities of the Vanir: Frey, Freyja and Njord. But what is interesting is that they were inseparable from groups of spirits of the land and Nature. Frey is connected with the Elves (alfar), Freyja with the Disir and sometimes the whole group of Vanir is called Elves. So they are much closer to the Earth and shamanism than any later Nordic gods. I think most people don’t really know about the Vanir, so they have not yet been the object of romantic interest, but they are much more in harmony with some important aspects of seiðr, such as the ecstasy and ergi.
However now that we know how a seiðr works I prefer to let go of all that historical fringe and concentrate on the timeless aspect of seiðr. We are not recreating the past.
KK Traditional Shamanism Places A Great Deal Of Importance On Spirit Helpers. Can You Say Something About The Role Of The Spirits In Seiðr?
AH My experience is of course flavoured a lot by the fact that I have chosen shamanism as my starting point for working seiðr. Still after all these years I think that this is a very sound base to work from, especially for dealing with the powers and spirits that we meet in seiðr. Really in my experience the role of spirits in seiðr is no different than their role in other magic and shamanic work.
I find it important in seiðr to always use the essential shamanic work principles that we train right from the basic course: That your intent is clear. That you only “work” when you are in good contact with your spirit helpers or spirit teachers. And that your relationship with those spirits is based on co-operation and trust, not on a need to control. When I hear of problems in shamanic or other branches of magical work, I can always trace it back to a lack of one of these principles. This is the discipline that is just as fundamental for doing good, fruitful seiðr work as for any other shamanic work.
KK Given The Ecstatic Nature Of Seiðr, Do You Feel It Requires More Discipline Than Other Shamanic Practises?
AH This is very connected to what we just talked about. I see seiðr as a somewhat advanced shamanic work because there is not so much in the framework to hold onto. And sometimes it happens in seiðr that we meet an awesome raw earthy power. In seiðr you might encounter as great a power and therefore need as great a discipline as, say, in really strong shamanic healing work. It is being anchored and centred in that basic shamanic discipline that makes you skilful in both seiðr and other shamanic work.
KK Many of the Sagas Speak of Seiðr as Being Associated With Women. Do You Feel That This Is Particularly A Female Shamanic Practise?
AH No, I do not. Again we should remember the limitations of the written sources and the medieval, Christianized society that they came from. seiðr developed its form in connection with the older fertility cult which is closer to Earth and Nature than the younger Asatru. Some scholars have seen the reasons for the female practitioners in this fact, but I think we will get more of an answer if we talk about ergi.
KK The Saga Speak Of “Ergi”. Do Modern Seiðr Practitioners Also Experience This?
AH There is a lot of fuss over ergi in the written sources. The late Viking understanding of ergi meant a linking together of unmanliness, magic skilfulness and sexual perversion. If you look at these concepts you will see that only one - skill in magic - is an objective term and the other two are very subjective and relative. They depend solely on how society defines manliness and acceptable sexual behaviour. Our definition is hopefully not the same in this day and age as in the militant Viking society. To put it bluntly, ergi back then expressed a macho Viking paranoia for being a “soft man”. However that might be what we today would call a “whole man”.
I was mighty intrigued about ergi when I first read about it. The understanding that has finally grown out of practising seiðr for many years is more like what is all the fuss about? My understanding is that ergi is “just” the acceptance of the full force of life power and the skilled magical use of it. seiðr practice, like much shamanic practise, includes a voluntary loss of control. And sometimes we meet this untameable power of the Earth or Nature which can also have a sexual or erotic streak to it. And the way to handle it is to accept it, ride it, surrender to it, in order to use it. This was what a “real man” in the Viking society could not deal with socially, but that does not really need to concern us at all today.
KK The Practitioners of Seiðr in the Sagas Seem to be at least As Often Involved in Cursing As In Beneficial Magic. Do You Feel That Seiðr is Associated With Any Ethical Framework?
AH A method or tool like seiðr does not have an ethical framework. It's the user or practitioner that has ethics. I know that all of this about ethics or seiðr as harmful magic gets some people both scholars and new practitioners all confused. Partly they fall prey to the bad talk of seiðr and partly they forget to look behind the surface to the energy aspect of seiðr.
If we look at the nature of seiðr we see two basic types of magic. One is seiðr concerned with knowledge, what we might call divinatory seiðr, and the other is seiðr concerned with power. seiðr concerned with power works by gathering energy and sending it in order to influence a distant being or object. Whether that turns out harmful or healing is a result of the intent and ethics of the practitioner, it is not a result of the method. There is nothing mysterious in this.
Please don’t stare yourself blind looking at written sources which were for the most part written in a time that did not look positively at seiðr or at magical work in general. What you can do is simply remember your general shamanic training and keep your intent clear. Remember to distinguish between power as might and power as energy and then you have nothing to worry about.
KK Many Of the Techniques Of Shamanism Are Associated With Healing. Can Seiðr Be Used For Healing?
AH To this I would say that it can, but why and when should it? Often I see that people are in such awe over seiðr because it is an old North European tradition that they sort of forget their feet. When you start learning to use seiðr you will see that it is really just another way of getting into contact with the spirits. It's another method or ritual tool in your tool kit. When you get it incorporated into your shamanic practice you will only get it out and use it when it is the most fitting tool for the occasion. seiðr is wonderful as a community ritual for gathering and sending power for a common cause. It's great for divination or for getting answers for a lot of people. It gives a great sense of community that people appreciate especially in this culture of separation and isolation. And it can be used for healing. But in my experience the seat and the staff - the ritual structure - often sort of get in the way. Some people have a different experience though. I would rather start out with free style shamanic healing work in a circle of family or community. The circle can support the shamans work and help maintain the shamanic state of awareness by singing the healing songs while the shaman is working. For me this offers the same qualities.
KK Most Shamanic Practitioners Balance Community Based Practises With Work Out Alone In Nature. What Nature Based Practises Are Associated With Seiðr?
AH There is a different kind of magic related to seiðr that is not the big communal affair. It is a solitary way of contacting the spirits and powers and this is called “sitting out” or “utiseta”. And if you do a sitting out as a seiðr - that is using staff, song and seat - it's strong and beautiful. Using this method has really for me cast a new light and new inspiration on the other ways I work shamanically for the same purposes. There is evidence in the old sources that this has also taken place earlier. The whole eddic poem “Voluspa” - literally “the Vision of the Volva” - seems to be an utterance of such an experience. It seems so natural to sit on your seat with your staff and sing yourself into contact with the wind, with the night, with the animals, with the spirits out there. If it was not already indicated in the sources we might have to invent it ourselves! But please do not do this without the proper training, and good grounding. Otherwise it can be overwhelming.
KK How Does Seiðr Connect To Later Folk Witchcraft Practises?
AH It connects in a lot of ways to later folk magic, it didn’t just disappear. In Scandinavia this is expressed very clearly in that we have the same title “troldkyndig” used for a seiðr practitioner and a later village witch. It was used right up until the eighteenth century instead of “heks” (witch). Now try to forget everything that you have been told about witches. Just try to imagine the practise of seiðr trying to go on in spite of a more hostile climate. The seiðr tradition did not exist in an isolated way, it was part of the whole Nordic tradition of seiðr, rune magic and galdr. The first thing that seems to disappear from a shamanic tradition under political pressure is the change of consciousness, the trance. What is left is spells and magic that does not have the change of consciousness but still work with Power building on a very close relationship to Nature and Nature spirits. So you can indeed say that there is a connection and a fascinating one. When we practise seiðr we learn what the medieval and later folk magic grew out of. It gives us a knowledge about the factual, historical witch, from the inside, from the roots. I often call the volva the great great grandmother of the witch.
KK Where Is Your Own Practise Taking Your Right Now?
AH It's taking me farther down the winding path of seiðr and shamanic singing. I have no idea where it's going to go and it can go as slow as it wants. On this path I feel very much at home without knowing where it will take me. But I think that there are a few things that are going to stay with me as very important for practising seiðr. I will put it this way: Keep it simple. Keep it shamanic. Keep it close to Nature.
Originally printed in Karen Kelly’s Core Shamanic Newsletter
“Spirit Talk” issue 9, a special issue on Seiðr, summer 1999.
Many thanks to Karen Kelly and SPIRIT TALK for permission to post the updated interview here.