In Old Norse, seiðr (sometimes anglicized as seidhr, seidh, seidr, seithr, seith, or seid) was a type of sorcery which was practiced in Norse society during the late Scandinavian iron age. Connected with Norse religion. Accounts of seiðr later made it into sagas and other literary sources, while further evidence has been unearthed by archaeologists. Various scholars have debated the nature of seiðr, some arguing that it was shamanic in context, involving visionary journeys by its practitioners.
Seiðr practitioners were of both genders, although females are more widely attested, with such sorceresses being variously known as vǫlur, seiðkonur and vísendakona. There were also accounts of male practitioners, known as seiðmenn, but in practising magic they brought a social taboo, known as ergi, on to themselves, and were sometimes persecuted as a result. In many cases these magical practitioners would have had assistants to aid them in their rituals.
Within Norse religion, seiðr was associated with both the god Oðinn, a deity who was simultaneously responsible for war, poetry and sorcery, as well as the goddess Freyja, a member of the Vanir who was believed to have taught the practice to the Æsir.
Seiðr is believed to come from Proto-Germanic *saiðaz, cognate with Lithuanian saitas, “sign, soothsaying” and Proto-Celtic *soito- “sorcery” (giving Welsh hud, Breton hud “magic”), all derived from Proto-Indo-European *soi-to- “string, rope”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *seH2i- “to bind”.
Related words in Old High German (see German Saite, used both in string instruments and in bows) and Old English refer to “cord, string,” or “snare, cord, halter” and there is a line in verse 15 of the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa that uses seiðr in that sense. However, it is not clear how this derivation relates to the practice of seiðr. It has been suggested that the use of a cord in attraction may be related to seiðr, where attraction is one element of the practice of seiðr magic described in Norse literature and with witchcraft in Scandinavian folklore. However, if seiðr involved “spinning charms”, that would explain the distaff, a tool used in spinning flax or sometimes wool, that appears to be associated with seiðr practice.
Old English terms cognate with seiðr are siden and sidsa, both of which are attested only in contexts that suggest that they were used by elves (ælfe); these seem likely to have meant something similar to seiðr. Among the Old English words for practitioners of magic are wicca (m.) or wicce (f.), the etymons of Modern English “witch”.
Seiðr involved the incantation of spells (galðrar, sing. galðr) and possibly a circular dance. Practitioners of seiðr were predominantly women (vǫlva or seiðkona “seiðr woman”), although there were male practitioners (seiðmaðr “seiðr-man”) as well.
These female practitioners were religious leaders of the Viking community and usually required the help of other practitioners to invoke their deities, gods or spirits. The seiðr ritual required not just the powers of a female spiritual medium but of the spiritual participation of other women within the Norse community: it was a communal effort. As they are described in a number of other Scandinavian sagas, Saga of Erik the Red in particular, the female practitioners connected with the spiritual realm through chanting and prayer. Viking texts suggest that the seiðr ritual was used in times of inherent crisis, as a tool used in the process of seeing into the future, and for cursing and hexing one’s enemies. With that said, it could have been used for great good or destructive evil, as well as for daily guidance.
In the Viking Age, the practice of seid by men had connotations of unmanliness or effeminacy, known as ergi, as its manipulative aspects ran counter to masculine ideal of forthright, open behavior. Freyja and perhaps some of the other goddesses of Norse religion were seiðr practitioners, as was Oðinn, a fact for which he is taunted by Loki in the Lokasenna.
Eric the Red
In the 13th century Saga of Eric the Red, there was a seiðkona or vǫlva in Greenland named Thorbjǫrg (“Protected by Thor”). She wore a blue cloak and a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white ermine, carried the symbolic distaff (seiðstafr), which was buried with her, and would sit on a high platform. As related in the Saga:
|En er hon kom um kveldit ok sá maðr, er móti henni var sendr, þá var hon svá búin, at hon hafði yfir sér tuglamöttul blán, ok var settr steinum allt í skaut ofan. Hon hafði á hálsi sér glertölur, lambskinnskofra svartan á höfði ok við innan kattarskinn hvít. Ok hon hafði staf í hendi, ok var á knappr. Hann var búinn með messingu ok settr steinum ofan um knappinn. Hon hafði um sik hnjóskulinda, ok var þar á skjóðupungr mikill, ok varðveitti hon þar í töfr sín, þau er hon þurfti til fróðleiks at hafa. Hon hafði á fótum kálfskinnsskúa loðna ok í þvengi langa ok á tinknappar miklir á endunum. Hon hafði á höndum sér kattskinnsglófa, ok váru hvítir innan ok loðnir.||Now, when she came in the evening, accompanied by the man who had been sent to meet her, she was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair (or belt of touch wood), and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.|
As described by Snorri Sturluson in his Ynglinga saga, seiđr includes both divination and manipulative magic. It seems likely that the type of divination of seiđr-practitioners was generally distinct, by dint of an altogether more metaphysical nature, from the day-to-day auguries performed by the seers (menn framsýnir, menn forspáir).
However, in the Icelandic saga Ǫrvar-Oddr, the seiđkona’s cloak is black but she also carries a distaff, which allegedly had the power of causing forgetfulness in one who is tapped three times on the cheek by it.
Because of its connection with ergi, seidr was undoubtedly located on ‘one of society’s moral and psychological borders’.
Certain aspects of seiðr were sexual in nature, leading Neil Price to argue that it was very likely that it actually involved sexual acts. Various scholars have argued that the staff used by seiðr practitioners may have been used as an imitation penis. As evidence, they have highlighted the fact that the staffs have phallic epithets in various Icelandic sagas.
Oðinn and Seiðr
In Lokasenna, Loki accuses Oðinn of practising seiðr, condemning it as an unmanly art (ergi). A justification for this may be found in the Ynglinga saga, where Snorri opines that following the practice of seiðr rendered the practitioner weak and helpless.
One possible example of seiðr in Norse mythology is the prophetic vision given to Oðinn in the Vǫluspá by the vǫlva after whom the poem is named. Her vision is not connected explicitly with seiðr; however, the word occurs in the poem in relation to a character called Heiðr (who is traditionally associated with Freyja but may be identical with the vǫlva). The interrelationship between the vǫlva in this account and the Norns, the fates of Norse lore, is strong and striking.
Freyja and Seiðr
Like Oðinn, the Norse goddess Freyja is also associated with ‘seiðr’ in the surviving literature. In the Ynglinga saga (c.1225), written by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, it is stated that seiðr had originally been a practice among the Vanir, but that Freyja, who was herself a member of the Vanir, had introduced it to the Æsir when she joined them.
Freyja is identified in Ynglinga saga as an adept of the mysteries of seiðr, and it is said that it was she who taught it to Oðinn:
Dóttir Njarðar var Freyja. Hon var blótgyðja. Hon kenndi fyrst með Ásum seið, sem Vǫnum var títt.
“Njǫrðr’s daughter was Freyja. She presided over the sacrifice. It was she who first acquainted the Æsir with seiðr, which was customary among the Vanir.”