Seiðr (pronounced “SAY-ther” in Reconstructed Old Norse) is a shamanic-magical tradition that was practiced in pre-Christian Northern Europe, primarily in the Germanic and Norse regions. Practitioners of seiðr were called völur (plural of völva), given the interpretive translation “staff-carriers”, or alternatively seiðmann (seiðr-man) or seiðkona (seiðr-woman). There are 24 accounts of seiðr in medieval Norse literary sources (update: there are more, an up-coming resource by Maria Kvilhaug will compile the references). Based on these accounts, völur would travel between villages and serve as oracles by sitting on a an elevated seat; a ceremonial platform or the high seat of a hall. From this seat the völva would enter a trance state and speak to the community. Non-oracular seiðr practices included weather-working, combative magic, astral projection, and at least in one case healing. Seiðr practitioners seemed to have lived outside standard cultural roles. Female practitioners traveled and were independent of family and the standard duties of women. Male practitioners deviated from male norms as seiðr was considered, at least by one point in history, an “unmanly” practice that possibly involved types of gender fluidity. Seiðberendr is a term found only once in the medieval literature and may be a poetic reference to a third gender or transgender practitioner. It literally means seiðr-bearer, to bear in this case the same verb as in bearing a child.
As far as I know, there are no seiðr lineages continuous from that time period. Seiðr practice of today has been recreated and developed by people versed in forms of spirit contact – shamanic and mediumistic practices. Modern seiðr practice takes features of seiðr described in the medieval Norse sources to create a template for modern practice. This template is distinguished by the use of staffs, the use of song to induce altered states of consciousness, the ceremonial High Seat, and relationship to the most compassionate aspects of the tutelary deities Freya, Óðinn, Hella, and the Norns.
Staffs (völ, gandr):
Archaeological evidence indicates the existence of people, mostly genetically female but some male, buried with staffs. These people were also buried with other items that can be interpreted as having medicinal or ritual purposes. The standard theory of grave goods is that they reflect the cultural role of the buried person, so the assumption is that these people had cultural roles associated with staffs when they were living.
The names of two Germanic seers from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD suggest an association between the role of seer and staffs. Ganna, the name of one Germanic seer, is potentially related to Old Norse gandr meaning wand; and Waluberg, another seer, is likely related to Old Germanic walus meaning wand or staff.
A völva in the Saga of Erik the Red carries a staff, as do several characters in the sagas, and Thor in one mythological account.
Song (varðlokkur, galðr, ljóð, seiðlæti):
There is only one passage in the Saga of Erik the Red that suggests the trance state of the seiðr practitioner in induced with a song, and that oracular success depends on the spirits’ response to the song. In this passage the song is called a varðlokkur, a compound word that has uncertain meaning and is not found elsewhere in medieval Norse sources. Nevertheless, it is not unusual for ritual trance states to be induced by singing, and this practice is used in some modern seiðr communities. Other forms of sound associated with seiðr-practice include chants, sung-spells (galðr), and the singing of oracular responses.
High Seat or Seiðr-Seat (Hásæti, Seiðhjallr):
In nine accounts of seiðr-magic in the medieval Norse literature, practitioners work from a raised platform or seat, making it a common feature of seiðr practice. This feature has been incorporated into modern seiðr work in the form of a ceremonial High Seat (more on this below).
Relationships with Tutelary Deities:
Two deities, Freya and Óðinn, are referenced as being seiðr practitioners by Snorri Sturluson, the medieval Icelandic author of the Prose Edda, our primary source of information on the Norse myths and cosmology. In this account seiðr was a practice known to Freya and the Vanir that was then taught to Óðinn and the Æsir. Óðinn and seiðr are associated in other references, whereas the Snorri reference is the only direct association of Freya with seiðr. Nevertheless, based on Snorri’s comment, Freya is considered by some modern practitioners as the primary tutelary deity of seiðr. Other deities are conceptually but not directly related to seiðr; these include the Nornir as mediators or embodiments of örlög and Hella as an embodiment of the knowledge of the ancestors. Theoretically, any deity can be invoked for a High Seat, as well as, more generally, the wise and well ancestral practitioners of seiðr.
In the Hjarta Community framework, relationships with deities are ones of partnership and mutual respect. We work with “only the most compassionate” aspects of the deities to distinguish their essence from the broader field of associations created by human interaction and projection. It is a way of making a distinction between the essence of the deities and their portrayals in literature, mythology, cultural groups, and modern media.
The Hjarta Community
Conscious, Consensual Mediumship:
Seiðr is a mediumship practice, meaning the practitioner’s consciousness becomes a medium for the transmission of other forms of consciousness. Mediums can transmit impersonal energetic fields (like the field of compassion) or the fields of other conscious beings such as deities and ancestors. In the Hjarta community we practice what is called conscious mediumship: the practitioner does not lose consciousness or relinquish personal sovereignty, but instead shares consciousness with the spirit or quality of energy being transmitted. Practitioners then become what I call an “oracular complex” which includes the consciousness of the practitioner, the channeled spirit, and associated transmission fields.
Not everything from the spirit world is wise and helpful, and this includes information from the broader field (in contrast with just the essences) of deities. To ensure that the quality of an oracular transmission will be good, a few precautions are in order: First, we work with “only the most compassionate” aspects of deities and not their broader fields of association. This in no way diminishes the power of the transmission, in fact quite the opposite as the compassionate aspect makes challenging input more readily received. Second, we train practitioners in monitoring the source of the transmission. If they are not sure about the quality of information, or if it’s particularly edgy, they can check to make sure it is coming from the intended source. Practitioners are also trained to monitor their own projections and to make sure any personal inputs that arise are aligned with the wisdom of the intended source. Third, we emphasize the importance of accountability on the part of the practitioners as well as the seekers of oracular insight. In neither role should personal sovereignty and power be given away to a channeled spirit. The ultimate purpose of High Seat transmissions is to inform, invoke, and validate the seeker’s own wisdom and self-knowledge.
Another aspect of quality control is the vetting of spirits. Spirits are not material and can therefore be flexible in the forms they take. They can assume external identities that are not accurate reflections of their true natures. So how do you know a spirit that presents as Freya is actually Freya? There are methods for making this distinction. For more on vetting spirits see my post Safe and Sovereign.
An Inclusive Community:
It is the view of the Hjarta community that the High Seat and seiðr practice are for the benefit of all people and the Earth. Hjarta communities are not meant to be cultural or religious groups; Hjarta ceremonies and seiðr trainings are open to people of all backgrounds and do not require the adoption of a religious belief system.