SONGS OF ENCHANTMENT:
the Legacy of the Seidr Tradition
Annette Høst & Caduceus Magazine 2010 ©
Like many other students of shamanism and spiritual traditions, I first thought that you only find shamanism in faraway exotic cultures, among the Siberian peoples, among Native Americans, or closer to us North Europeans, among the Sami in northernmost Scandinavia. Then I heard about the tradition of seiðr, (pronounced somewhat like say-th, where ð is pronounced like th in there) an old Nordic form of shamanism, or shamanic magic. I was instantly fascinated: Imagine, a shamanic tradition in my own “indigenous culture” although a long time ago! I decided immediately to learn everything I could about it.
Seiðr - From Viking age to modern practice
Our only written sources are bits and pieces in Norse myths and sagas from late Viking age, but the tradition probably has much earlier origins, with roots in Germanic fertility cult and early shamanism. A practitioner of seiðr would be called seiðr -woman, seiðr -man, or volva - meaning staff carrier. Traditionally, the seiðr workers used a combination of staff, song and a magic high seat as means to open the doors to the otherworld.
Let us try to picture how a seiðr ritual typically unfolds in theViking era, for example as told in our most famous seiðr account, that of Thorbjörg Little-Volva in the saga of Eric the Red:
Thorbjörg - an experienced, professional wise woman and seiðr worker - is sitting on the seiðr seat holding her staff. The people who have summoned her to solve the problems of illness and bad hunting luck in their settlement, surround her singing the seiðr song. Thorbjörg’s spirit allies gather around her, called by the hauntingly beautiful chanting, and the song transports her into trance, into the spirit world. There she meets with spirits, divine beings or forces, and puts forward her request for help on behalf of the suffering community. Her task completed, she signals the singers to end the song. She then chants the outcome of her magic, predicting a speedy return of health and fertility in the settlement.
In the silent “echo” following the song, the volva is still in trance and gives oracular answers to the questions put to her by individuals from the farms about health, the crops and the future.
Thorbjörgs seiðr was a big community ritual, but seiðr can also be done with just a few people, or alone in nature. Other saga accounts describe seiðr used for bringing fish back into a fishless fjord, making a weapon invincible or telling the future. In short, seiðr can be used to transform, to heal, and to seek vision.
Academic and experiential research
Seiðr has been the object of academic research for several generations, and many aspects of seiðr are still discussed, contested, or unknown. My twenty-five years’ interest in seiðr is based on my modern European shamanic practise. 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, by combining scholarship with experiential practice of the method itself. And then ask: What does the seiðr tradition has to offer us now? What does it bring to the magic and spiritual practices of today?
Today there are several different approaches to the new seiðr. I have chosen a form I see as consistent with both the historical sources and the shamanic tradition.
The new Seiðr
The account of Thorbjörg’s seiðr outlines a ritual recipe for a community seiðr, which I have successfully used for many years if a group of people work for common purpose, like finding a guiding vision for a new work project or re-empowering a neighbourhood. Apart from the results of the work, just being part of such a community seiðr can be very empowering for the unity of the group as well as the individuals in the circle. One participant called it “a deeply meaningful human activity”.
However a big group seiðr is not the most convenient magic method for most people. Luckily, a simpler, related practise exists, much more accessible for you and me in our everyday. It is the solitary seiðr, a way of nature-magic, where your seiðr seat might be a rock or a root of a tree in a forest or other natural setting. 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 and guide you and energise you. It is a way of literally rooting your spiritual practice in your own land. People often say it is like coming home.
Looking at our experiences of the last twenty years with different forms of seiðr work, I find this tradition has a lot of relevance for us today; it is far more than an exotic, ancient speciality. The most impressive elements are the magic Song, the Staff and the Power. Let us take a look at each of them
The Magic of Song
The old seiðr songs are portrayed with expressions like: “Sweet was the chanting” or “No one present had ever heard a fairer song”, at other times it is “strong” or “harsh”. Both then and now the seiðr song is known to often be 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 Northern Europe, especially the old Nordic galdr, the Finnish runosong, the Sami joik, to learn the old secret skills of magic singing.
Traditional magic chanting is characterised by being repetitious, going on for a long time, facilitating trance or a change of consciousness, similar to the way shamanic drumming works in other traditions. This is the old, literal meaning of the word enchantment. Today this is experienced by both the seiðr worker in the middle and by the singers, who maybe for the first time in their lives know the basic human experience of letting go completely into singing.
Often modern shamanic or spiritual chanting is wordless. But we might benefit from heeding the old traditions, which maintain that the power of word adds to the power of chant.
This is highly developed in the art of Galdr. A galdr is a magic song with both words and tune. It is always directed towards a being or object in order to change it, and it may be high-pitched or penetrating as a laser beam. In “Oddrun’s Lament” for example, a sharp, biting galdr is used for aiding a difficult childbirth. Another famous galdr is the second Merseburg Incantation, a healing spell for sprains and bruises used all over Northern Europe for more than a thousand years. A version of it was still used in the Orkney and Shetland Islands in the early 1900s.
In our culture today the tradition of magic chants is still kept barely alive - by lullabies. A lullaby’s aim is to restore peace to the child it is sung over and to open the doors to the Realm of Sleep. This is another meaning of spellbinding and enchantment, with great healing power when used consciously and ethically.
Finding new Songs
Many parents know how new lullabies have sprung out of their hearts, born in the moment from love and intent to help. However there are other time tested ways of finding new spells or healing chants. In the beginning of Finland’s great magic song cycle “Kalevala” we are told where the new magic songs (runes) live, where the source of power is:
Many runes the cold has told me,
Many lays the rain has brought me,
Other songs the winds have sung me;
Many birds from many forests,
Oft have sung me lays n concord
Waves of sea, and ocean billows,
Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation,
Oft have been my guide and master.
Today we can use magic chanting to sing open the doors to the spirit realms, to sing pains or illness away, to sing stronger the bonds between ourselves and the tree in our backyard, to sing thanks to the dawn or the car running smoothly, to sing blessings for a newborn child.
The healing potential in singing is immediate and great, both for the singer and the one being sung over. Basically it only requires that you allow yourself to be moved by your purpose…and open your mouth. The Netsilik Inuit Orpingalik put it like this: “Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices”
In the new seiðr and other shamanic rituals I listen to the singing pouring from modern people when they are moved and opened by the song. Usually they have no “song training” but in their voices I hear echoes of the old song traditions, I hear the most heavenly harmony, the irreverent cackling of old hags, the coarse calls of ravens blending into a full sweeping wave of Song.
The Staff and the Power
The staff, which has given name to the volva, is - also literally speaking - the centre of seiðr. When you sit on the magic seat in a sea of voices, it is the staff in your hands, which holds the direction of your journey. At the same time the staff is your grounding like the Tree of Life connecting earth and sky. Or it might turn into a horse or move like a snake.
Sometimes the character of a seiðr is mostly gentle and clear. But now and then in a strong, ecstatic seiðr you could encounter a raw power of nature coming from the earth or whirling in the song, running up 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 it lends extra energy to the stated purpose of your seiðr, be it healing, transformation or deeper insight into the web of life. And the way to deal with it is through focused surrender.
This quality of seiðr is named ergi in old Norse. You can say that ergi is a skilful magic way of handling spirit power through a voluntary loss of control, uniting ecstacy and consciousness. To me, this is the beautiful mystery core of seiðr.
Links to other traditions?
Such experiences with energy in the new seiðr lead me to wonder if - in the concept of ergi - we might glimpse parallels to the ancient tradition of Tantra? In sexual Tantra the apprentice also trains a spiritual handling of sexual power through conscious surrender, and an ability to contain more and more energy. I see this parallel as a vague hint only, I am not saying that seiðr or ergi is Nordic Tantra. Far from it.
One marked difference between the two traditions is that the tantric practitioner attempts to let go of all agenda, all purpose, allowing the energy to move towards spiritual transcendence. Whereas the seiðr worker has “a job to do”, and aims at using the energy for the stated purpose of the seiðr. This said, applying a tantric perspective to our view of seiðr might help us respect our own native, esoteric traditions more.
The occasions when the seiðr staff sometimes behaves or manifest like a snake have naturally given rise to associations with both the Caduceus, Hermes’ wand entwined by two snakes, and the staff of Asclepius entwined by one snake. What does that tell us? Being careful not to take this comparison too far, it simply confirms to me that power of the Staff and spirit of Snake always have turned up as guides and allies in magic and healing work, and apparently they like to work together.
Without attempting any conclusions, these glimpses of links between seiðr and Tantra, Caduceus and Asclepius strengthen the evidence that ancient, pre-Christian Northern Europe has also had its own traditions of highly refined energy work of both spiritual and magic depth.
So what are the gifts we can use today from the tradition of seiðr and magic chanting?
The seiðr tradition, broadly speaking, offers us a beautiful way of reconnecting our magic and spiritual practices with Nature, especially with our own landscapes and spiritual roots.
Another great gift is the time-tested way of dealing with power, expressed in the term ergi. Thus, seiðr can teach us about how to let energy flow through us, how to apply it wisely, how to ground it. A very useful skill in all healing and energy work - and for enriching our life in general.
But first and last, seiðr has especially taught me of the healing property and power of all singing! This is a strong message to us today, as our people are losing their songs. It has impressed on me a wisdom found in all indigenous cultures, that in order to maintain the spiritual health of a people, song is of vital importance. And it is of vital importance that people join together in rituals which build a bridge between the physical and the spirit world, invoking inspiration and healing, thereby strengthening the fabric of their community.
When modern people do seiðr or magic chanting, this knowledge becomes a vibrant, sensed certainty deep in ourselves: We stand more firmly planted on our own soil, the song flowing through us with voices we didn’t know we had. The song changes us, and it touches and heals the world around us - as it has always done.
This article was first written for Caduceus Magazine no. 79, spring/summer 2010, see www.caduceus.info