The Legacy of Seidr:
history, experiences and the path ahead
by Annette Høst & JCS 2013 ©
During the past 25 years, the old Norse shamanic tradition called seiðr has experienced a renaissance internationally. Different shamanic and heathen groups, as well as individuals, have been exploring this heritage experientially. In this article, shamanic teacher Annette Høst examines traditional Seidr as well as the New Seidr asking: What have we learned about the old seidr and the new? What does it take to do a strong clear seidr, respecting the tradition? And, looking ahead, what possibilities and challenges does it offer our shamanic practice of today and tomorrow.
OLD NORSE SEIÐR
Seidr is originally a Norse shamanic tradition, or could be seen as an old Scandinavian form of magic with strong shamanic traits. Seidr, in Norse seiðr (pronounced somewhat like say-th, where ð is pronounced like th in there) was a living tradition used for divination and transformation up until middle or late Viking age.
The ritual structure of seidr consists of magic song, staff, and a ritual seat. It is the combination of all three elements, used in a shamanic way, that gives the unique quality of seidr.
Our only written sources are bits and pieces in the mythical Edda-poems, and the sagas from late Viking age and early middle ages. In this literature a practitioner of seiðr is called a seidr woman (seiðkona), seidr man (seiðmaðr), or vǫlva – meaning staff carrier – or spákona, meaning seer. Sometimes the person experienced in the art of seidr is just called fjǫlkunnigr, meaning a person skilled in magic. The eddic poems and the sagas mostly mention women as practitioners of seidr, but this might have been different at an earlier age. Seidr is much older than both the written sources and the Vikings. Most likely, its roots are in iron age fertility cults and early shamanism, and the tradition thus a lifespan of more than a thousand years. The old texts only offer us glimpses of the practice in its latest days, and clearly it must have undergone many changes through its long life.
To picture how a seidr session might unfold in the Viking era, we can turn to the most famous seidr account, that of Thorbjörg Little-Volva in the Saga of Eric the Red. Thorbjörg – an experienced, professional wise woman and seiðkona – is sitting on the seidr seat (seiðhiall) with her staff. The people who have summoned her to help solve the problems of illness and bad hunting luck in their settlement, surround her singing the seidr song. Thorbjörg’s spirit allies gather around her, called by the haunting chanting, and the song transports her into an altered state of consciousness, into the spirit world. There we must imagine how she meets with spirits, divine beings or nature forces, asking for help on behalf of the suffering community, but the saga is silent on this intimate part of the ritual. Her task completed, she signals the song to end. The saga then tells that she chants (kuað) the outcome of her magic: Both health and fertility shall speedily return to the settlement. In the silent “space” following the song, Thorbjörg is still between the worlds and from there she gives divinatory answers (spá) to the questions put to her by individuals from the farms about health, the crops and the future.
Thorbjörg’s story tells us about seidr done as a big community ritual, but seidr can also be done with just a few people. In Laxdoela saga, Kotkel, Grima and their two sons do an outdoor seidr together, singing strong songs raising a storm to wreck a ship. In other sagas, Thuridr performs seidr to bring fish back into a barren fjord, and Halgrim uses seidr to make his spear axe invincible. Seidr can be done alone in nature, as the few ambiguous hints in the eddic poem, Vǫluspá,(The Vision of the Seeress) might be indicating.
As in all shamanic work, there is always a purpose for the seidr. And in short, it can be used to transform, both to harm and heal, and to seek vision including knowledge about the future. Earlier academic researchers held the view that seidr for the purpose of change or transformation is by nature harmful, black magic. There is no more substance to this claim than similar claims about shamanic work as such. Whether an act is harmful or helpful is determined by the intent of the practitioner, not by the method. Recent researchers in the past fifteen years seem to have broken free of the “black seidr” idea. Still it has created uncertainty among modern seidr students, leading some communities to settle on doing only divinatory seidr to avoid the whole issue.
Academic and experiential research
Seidr has been the object of academic research for several generations, and many aspects of the art are still discussed, contested, or plain unknown. Since the middle of the nineteen-eighties different groups and persons, from shamanic circles to ásatrú communities, have joined the research, asking: What can we learn about seidr by combining scholarship with experiential practice of the method itself?
What distinguishes Seidr in relation to other magic?
Some researchers and modern practitioners view seidr as a generic term for all Norse magic as well as a distinct method. The way I understand the written sources, reading with “shamanic” eyes, seidr is one kind of Norse magic. But not all kinds of Norse magic are seidr. In the earlier sagas at least, seidr is clearly distinguished from both other branches of magic and from the shamanic noaide tradition of the Sami.
There are four main branches of magic described in Norse tradition: galdr, rune magic, seidr and utiseta. Utiseta (sitting out overnight for wisdom) shares many traits with the vision quests of other cultures, and it was practised by laymen as well as professional magically trained people. Galdr (an art of magic singing), rune magic and seidr are skilled magic traditions not found elsewhere in the world. They are arts demanding substantial, even professional, training to learn. Froeði (translated to skill, wisdom) is a word used both about seidr song and about other magic skills, indicating it takes a certain effort and patience to learn.
An experienced fjǫlkunnigr practitioner of old might combine the different kinds of magic in a session if the task demands it. In “Oddrun’s lament” a “biting” galdr is combined with runes cut on the wrists to aid a difficult childbirth. In Vǫluspá, the ambiguous poetry hints that the vǫlva may be combining seidr and utiseta to call forth her deep visions.
EXPERIENCES OF THE NEW SEIÐ
Since my first introduction 25 years ago to experimental and ecstatic seidr through the Swedish shamanic network called Yggdrasil, I have practiced seidr with countless groups in many countries. During the years, different aspects of seidr slowly revealed themselves, in an ongoing exchange between critical text studies and shamanic exploration. I find it is far more than an exotic, ancient speciality.
I call what we do new seidr, acknowledging that it must, of course, be different from the old one. My feet are planted here in modern Northern European shamanism, and my aim has never been to reconstruct the past or do Viking-age seiðr. Rather, my passion has been to find out how it works, and then ask: What does the seidr tradition bring to the magic and spiritual practices of today, and what shamanic skills does it demand of us?
Today there are several different approaches to the new seidr. I have found working with seidr as a distinct method, defined as a shamanic work using staff, song and magic seat in combination, to be consistent with both the historical sources and the shamanic tradition. In other words: there are four S’s in a seidr: Staff, Song, Seat and Spirits. If any of those four is missing it is not seidr as I see it, but some other method which we may call “seidr-inspired” rather than proper seidr. Let us take a look at each of the elements song, staff and seat to better understand how they play together with the spirits.
The Seidr song
In seidr we use singing instead of drumming to come into contact with the otherworld. Thorbjörg states that without singing, the spirits turn away from her. And without spirits, she cannot “see” to do the seidr. “Sweet was the chanting” or “no one present had ever heard a fairer song” are some of the descriptions of the old seidr songs. At other times they are referred to as “strong” or “harsh.” Both then and now the seidr song is known to often become ecstatic.
No old seiðr songs have been handed down to us, so I have had to turn to the related traditions of magic and ritual song of the Nordic countries, especially the Norse galdr, the Finnish runolaulo, the Sami joik, to learn the old forgotten skills of magic singing. Traditional magic chanting is characterised by being repetitious and going on for a long time, thereby facilitating trance or a change of consciousness, similar to the way drumming works. This is the old, literal meaning of the word enchantment. Today, this is experienced by both the seidr worker and by the singers in the circle, who, maybe for the first time in their lives, know the basic human experience of letting go completely into singing.
In different types of seidr, you are either sung over by other people, or you can sing yourself on your journey. In the example from Laxdoela Saga mentioned earlier, Kotkel’s family, as a close-knit unit, sang their own seidr. Just as important, though, chanting is often used by the seidr-worker to communicate with the participants, and to manifest the outcome of the seidr work. When Thorbjörg for example chants “This illness shall end sooner than any of you expect!”, she is doing more than reporting a vision: she is singing it into being! Sung messages, unlike spoken words, have a way of going directly to the heart of the listener, without being first filtered by the brain. It is a way of moving power, strengthening the magic impact, and deeply touching the listener.
In both Norse and Celtic spiritual tradition this is a strong trait known as inspired (in the literal sense) poetry, and is often ecstatic. It is also used worldwide in shamanic rituals of many traditions, including Siberian and south American. It easily enhances and empowers our own modern healing and other shamanic work.
The Seidr Seat
In the past, I often translated seiðhiall to “high seat” when speaking English, as do many written translations of the Norse sources. But this inaccurate translation is mixing two terms, which historically and energetically are very different. For example, in the case of Thorbjörg, she is lead to the hásæti on the night she arrives. The next day, doing the seidr, she climbs onto the seiðhiall . The hásæti high seat is a seat of social honor in the hall, often kept in the family for generations. It is of this world, a VIP seat – full of ego. The seidr seat, seiðhiall, is a magic seat or platform, built for the occasion, and it has no room for ego.
The seidr practitioner– like all shamans – is, while on the job (and the seat!), the servant of the people and at the same time a servant of the spirits, a mediator sitting between the worlds. It can be very seductive to sit on the seidr seat if the distinction between the two seats is not made clear and well understood. The danger is in forgetting that the authority of the words coming out of your mouth does not belong to you, but to the spirits.
The staff (vǫlr, which has given name to the vǫlva) is – also literally speaking – the centre of seiðr. When you sit on the magic seat in a sea of human and spirit voices, or sit in the visions of the twilit forest, it is the staff in your hands which holds the direction of your journey and keeps you centred. At the same time, the staff is your grounding, like the Tree of Life, connecting earth and sky.
In the old literature another word used for staff is gandr. But gandr can also mean spirit ally, or magic, or all three at once. As in a shamanic experience where the soul of the staff might turn into a horse or move like a snake. In seidr work, it is the inner spirit side that makes a powerful staff, not the looks of its outer surface.
The ritual forms and variations
The account of Thorbjörg’s seidr outlines a ritual recipe for a community seidr. It has proven a great way of working for a group of people with a common purpose, like finding a guiding vision for a project or re-empowering a neighbourhood. Apart from the results of the work, just being part of such a community seidr can be very empowering for both the unity of the group and for the individuals in the circle.
However, a big group seidr is far from always the most appropriate or effective method. It all depends on the task. Often a simpler version – done indoor or outdoor – can be a better choice for your mission. If you are just a few people together, you can still let one person journey, carried by the song of the others.
There is also a related practice for when you work alone, which I call solitary seidr. The term “solitary seidr” is not used in the old literature, but in the mythic poem Vǫluspá it is indicated that such a ritual method was used. If you do it in nature, your seidr seat might be a rock or a root of a tree. With your purpose or intent clear in your heart, you simply sit with your staff and sing yourself into contact with the wind, the night, with the animals and spirits out there, and let their songs blend with yours to guide you and heal you.
Working with power and ergi
Sometimes the character of a seidr is mostly gentle and clear. But now and then in a strong, ecstatic seidr you may encounter a raw power of nature coming from the earth or whirling in the song, running through the staff or yourself. And sometimes this power has a clearly erotic or sexual character. This can be a profound spiritual experience in itself. But the point is that this is the power that you are given from the spirit-world for the stated purpose of your seidr, be it healing, transformation or deeper insight into the web of life. And the way to deal with it is through surrender without forgetting your mission. For me, this is the beautiful mystery core of seidr.
This quality of seidr is hinted at and named ergi in the mythic poems and the sagas. Ergi is the most esoteric and enigmatic aspect of seidr. In the academic research it is also the most misunderstood aspect of seidr. In the early medieval texts it is said that men could not perform seiðr without shame due to the ergi inherent in seiðr. Ergi was in the age of the sagas, the Viking age and early middle ages, interpreted as a linking together of unmanliness, magic skilfulness and sexual perversion. Thus the idea of the “unmanly seidr man” is heavily dependent on the Viking age’s narrow definition of acceptable masculinity and sexuality. Still the “unmanly seidr” myth has stuck in almost all later academic and popular speculations.
It is noteworthy that the whole issue of ergi and reputed unmanliness has had more impact in the modern circles which have studied seidr in the sagas and academic research and adopted their view of ergi before experiencing it firsthand in seidr.
My personal understanding is that ergi is a skilful way of handling spirit power through focused surrender, by receiving the power and expressing it magically. Voluntary loss of control, the union of ecstasy and consciousness, is also known by both the old Sami noaide and the Siberian shaman. Today it is experienced anew by people, who venture out on the path of shamanism. I should emphasize though that a seidr, especially for divination, easily can be effective without deep ecstasy and ergi: It all depends on the task. The power that needs handling through ergi only reveals itself now and then, and is neither something to fear nor pursue.
Magic and heathenry
While the magic and religious realms were closely connected in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the ancient written sources distinguish between magic and heathenry. In other words, you don’t have to be ásatrú to practice seidr, galdr and utiseta. Seidr is an independent tradition, much older than the Viking age and the divinities we know of from Norse mythology. I feel we are on safer, more authentic ground if we go behind the structure or filter of any religion and connect with the spirits and power of Nature as the spiritual foundation of our seidr. More authentic because the great forces we meet firsthand in nature are timeless.
SEIDR OF TODAY AND TOMORROW
We are now at a point where we know what it takes to do a good seidr, and we know something about which skills it demands of us. What possibilities and challenges are ahead of us now? Why do we want to do seidr today?
Often I have seen that people are in such awe over seidr because it is an old North European magic craft, that they want to use it for everything in their shamanic practice. When we start getting familiar with it, we will see that it is really just a way of working together with spirits and nature powers. It’s another shamanic method or ritual tool in our tool kit. When you get it incorporated in your practice you will only use it when it is the most fitting tool for your given task. The question is always: Does it work? Does it bring you closer to the mystery and power? Does it do the job? With song, staff and seat integrated in our shamanic repertoire together with drum, rattle, dancing, we can become freer to choose the right ritual tool for the right task.
Ways of Seid training
How do I get seidr training? I am often asked. My answer is always that all shamanic training is good seidr training. Your seidr doesn’t get any stronger than your general shamanic work practice: your connection with your spirit allies, your journeying skills and your ability to handle power.
That said, here are a few training suggestions for your inspiration: Find (or get found by) a staff. A magic staff is your travel companion, your spirit guide. Get well acquainted with your staff by travelling with it in both worlds. It is your work together as a team that matters, somewhat like the way you and the rattle can work together.
Also, get comfortable singing your journey experiences out loud while they are happening. For centuries shamans all over the world have been simultaneously speaking or chanting out loud their encounters with spirits and powers. Some modern practitioners are already used to speaking their journey out loud, for example through working with different kinds of shamanic counseling. Just start chanting instead of talking, until it becomes a natural way of expression.
Thirdly, find - on journeys or in nature - your own seidr songs and learn them well by heart. Learn other ritual songs by heart. We need song-keepers in both the new seidr and modern shamanic community in general.
These exercises prepare us to perform a big or small seidr ritual. They are also valuable shamanic disciplines in their own right, and will enhance our shamanic craft and abilities.
Seidr, Nature and The Spiritual Longing
Modern people, especially Americans of European descent, often tell me of a longing for anchoring their practice in an earth honoring spiritual tradition which is also part of their own “native” cultural heritage, so they do not have to “borrow” from the American Indian or other indigenous spiritual tradition. This is one important reason for seidr’s appeal to modern people. To me, the mystical core of seidr is inseparable from wild nature. Therefore, a key part of our new seidr training and practice is “sitting out” alone at night with our staff, amongst the hills and trees, singing the power of earth and wind. This offers a beautiful, wild way of literally rooting our spiritual and magic practice in our own landscape and in our own time. What we experience there is both ancient and new, authentic and timeless. People often say it is like coming home.
The Path Ahead
Seidr can indeed renew and inspire our modern shamanic practice in many ways. The greatest challenges I see for the new seidr is that we respect the tradition, and, at the same time, we keep our focus on the timeless aspects. As Gustav Mahler said, “…tradition is the keeping of the fire, not the worship of the ashes.” For me, keeping the fire means that we keep our seidr ritually lean, and free of excessive “Viking” ritual, liturgy and romanticism. In other words: Keep it simple, keep it shamanic, keep it close to nature! It is also means that we maintain that seidr belongs to both men and women, letting the ergi-angst of the Viking age rest with the Vikings.
It is easy to dilute a practice and I feel we should remember to distinguish between seidr and seidr-inspired work. We can do this by remembering the four S’s in a full seidr: Song, Staff, Seat and Spirits.
Finally, to honor seidr it is important that we respect that the craft and songs are froeði, demanding skill, and we must take our time to learn them well. It is worth it to make the effort to do our best with each seidr, knowing that the steps we take today create the tradition of tomorrow.