Shield Maidens – Real Life Legends?

There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valor to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance.

They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to unsex themselves.

Those, especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter this kind of life

(Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum 6.8)

Spear-wielding horse-riding woman from Stavnes church, 11th century Norway

I was recently asked about shield maidens, warrior women of the Viking Age, a fascinating topic since Old Norse legends provide a great deal of material which, alongside other accounts of strong women, serves to make Scandinavian women of the Dark Ages stand out in comparison to their sisters on the Medieval European continent at the time, stand out as strong, self-assertive, self-confident and sometimes even powerful, and they even had warrior women who appear to have fought on an equal standing as their brothers.

The question is, how true is this?

I would hate to disappoint my fellow women in this regard, but as a serious historian I also need to search for the truth of the matter, and all my studies tell me that the position of Scandinavian women prior to the conversion compared to the position of women in Christian, Medieval Europe says a lot more about the “Gilead”-like society of Christian medieval Europe than it says about Viking Age Scandinavian women.

The position of European women in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages and even right up to the last centuries was horrendously oppressive. Not only were their lives controlled, their potentials suppressed and their opportunities limited, they were also constantly told that they were weak both of mind and body, that they were less intelligent, and that they were more sinful and besides terrible temptresses who needed to be put in their places most of the time, and they were almost constantly blamed if they were victimized.

Medieval Europe was a terrible time and place for women, and even for most men, since very few men actually had any power either, but lived to serve and toil for their masters too.

Compared to that sort of life, Scandinavian women and men were practically freewheeling hippies, only considerably more warlike.

TV-series such as “Vikings” have emphasized this aspect of Norse culture; the relative individual freedom, the sexual freedom, the relative equality, the lack of misogyny, the existence of warrior women, women who led religious rituals – all that is sort of true, but some of it is perhaps a bit exaggerated, especially in the way they depict individual independence in both sexes.

Individual independence is a great thing, but is also completely dependent on a society that will legally protect your right to that independence, and that sort of central government who would protect everybody´s individual freedom did not exist in the Viking Age. You had to go to your clan if you wanted protection of your rights, and then you had to make sure your clan agreed with you, and that your clan was powerful enough to protect you. You had to think communally rather than individually if you were even to survive, whether you liked that or not.

My studies also tell me that Scandinavian women were not quite as equal to men as we would have liked them to be.

Yes, it is a fact that Scandinavian women were blessed with a lack of misogyny and a cultural basic respect for our gender and not the least a deep respect for our potential for equal intelligence that was unheard of in the rest of Europe at the time.

Yes, it is a fact that there were loopholes for women who did not fit into the traditional gender roles in some way or other.

But it is also a fact that Viking Age society was a clan-based society where the extent of your power to be self-assertive depended a lot on the strength and power and importance of your clan, whether you were a man or a woman.

The Clan and Patriarchy

The clan was patriarchal in the original sense; patriarchal because the head of the clan, the one with the final decisions and the right to vote at parliament (most Norse societies were more or less democratic, and yes, there were differences from tribe to tribe in this matter), and the right to command everybody else in the clan, was a man, the head of the clan would always be a man, and only in cases where the man died and left sons too young to rule would his widow act in his place. Her children would always carry the name of their father, not her. Only if a woman gave birth outside of marriage would the child sometimes be surnamed after her, although it appears to have been more common to invent surnames such as “Guest´s Son” or “Viking´s son” rather than applying the mother´s name (and yes, they were relatively laid-back concerning births outside of marriage).

However, today, the term “patriarchy” has come to mean something different than what it once did. Patriarchy in its original sense did not necessarily mean that all men ranked above all women or that they were all privileged as men compared to women, and it certainly did not mean that in Scandinavian society – as said, your family, your clan, and its united power to put swords behind words, decided your rank more than gender did.

The clan would mean your entire extended family alongside other dependents, fosterlings, servants, warriors and lesser farmers all living together in the settlement that the clan owned. Sometimes, a settlement would consist of more than one clan, but usually they made up a sort of small confederation of clans where one of them took precedence. Within this community, everybody had to do their part, men and women worked at everything that was needed for everybody to thrive, and women´s work was just as important as men´s, and even more time-consuming, which may be why most girls never got to practice the arts of combat that freeborn boys were obliged to practice every day from the time they could walk. Only in extremely powerful, noble clans who had lots of servants and slaves could time be freed for the occasional noble maiden who wished to learn the battle arts alongside her brothers.

As to independence, only the vǫlur (traveling oracles and witch-priestesses) could be described as independent women. There would also be the occasional independent, rogue warrior, but they were not fortunate as such, and would usually attempt to become bound to a clan, since that was how you actually survived back in those days.

Everybody else, men and women, would have been completely powerless if they were independent, because everybody, men and women, depended completely on their clans for physical protection, legal representation, economic support and status. Without the clan, you had nothing and nobody to protect you against hostility, represent your legal cases, or take care of you in case of sickness and old age. So to say that anyone was independent would have been wrong – people had to be a part of a community and act within that community as an active, productive member in some way or other, and I think it is hard for modern westerners to even imagine the degree of communal thinking that people back then depended upon for their lives and their well-being.

Within the clan, led by a patriarch, his wife, the House-Freyia, was second in command and would be first in command in his place while he was away, and would also be first in command in the case she was widowed before her sons were grown. In matters of combat and war, however, most House-Freyias would assign a male warrior kinsman for the task of leading her warriors.

Norse society was not egalitarian even if it provided a certain dignity and freedom to the individual compared to other places at the time; It was a hierarchic society that would mean some women did take a leading role in many circumstances, but only if they were the wives or widows of a powerful man, or if they happened to belong to a category of women who wielded religious and magical power – but these women were the exception, not the rule.

Most women were wives and daughters of men who did not have that much power in society, and the relative power of women depended completely on the power of their menfolk. Men were usually the only ones who could put blades behind words.

Norse people also kept slaves, just like everybody else did at the time in some way or other; Slaves, whether male or female, had no power at all, and sources more than suggest that slave women could be sexually abused, bought and sold, although the sources that we have also suggest that they were usually treated with the same famous lack of misogyny and victim-blaming that the Old Norse society is known for. Women who were abused were hardly ever blamed for it in any way. Free women could honorably avenge themselves or demand that their kinsmen did it for them. Beating your wife could get you killed by her kinsmen or else cause her to act in a way that would get you killed anyway, and nobody would blame her, since beating a free person was unpardonable. Some of the slave girl stories tell us that even an enslaved woman could impress her masters if she acted with dignity and self-respect all the way – that sort of personal quality could even earn her freedom.

This complete lack of cultural woman-hatred in itself could have provided Scandinavian women with a great deal of freedom even compared to many places today– freedom to not live in shame and self-loathing and the constant message that you were a lesser human being and that your sexuality or looks defined you – they were free from that.

It was also taken for granted that a woman could possess wisdom and intelligence and cunning just as men could, and if a woman possessed such qualities, she would be respected for it, and she was allowed to speak up and could expect to be listened to. Women could trade and own their own property and get a divorce if they were unhappy in their marriage. Once widowed or divorced, she could not be married off again without her personal consent.

So yes, compared to other medieval to Iron Age cultures, Scandinavian women really did stand out.

But did they fight alongside men?

Warrior Women in Written Sources

Shield Maiden figurine Viking Age Denmark, Odense

It would be extremely exaggerated to say that warrior women abounded in Old Norse society. Not even the written sources, where we have most of our information about such women, do women as such stand out as warriors. Men, on the other hand, appear to have been obliged to practice and excel in combat art – even commoners. They had annual parliaments where all free men had to appear carrying all the weapons they owned, and they could be fined if they did not possess the weapons appropriate to their rank. Only noblemen were expected to own expensive swords, but every commoner needed at least a battle-axe and a spear. This was because, if needed, every free man had to partake in the defense of their tribal land. So even among low-ranking farmers and other commoners, a free man was always supposed to be a warrior, and to be afraid of fighting was a deep shame for a man unless he got off the hook due to extreme talent at some craft or because he chose the path of seiðr.

Women were not in any way expected to own weapons or prove themselves as warriors or partake in battle and combat. But in such a warlike society, they were constantly surrounded by a warlike mentality and appear to have been engaged anyway. Many women would have known a little about fighting and weaponry, and in cases where women acted with warlike courage in order to help their outnumbered menfolk, they were appraised for that.

Several sources describing courageous women who took up arms despite having no chance against a large, heavy, trained warrior also suggest that a certain  gentlemanly behavior was expected of men; it would dishonor a man to use his strength against a woman, and if attacked by a woman he would attempt to just disarm her rather than harm her. Most women spent their girlhoods learning all the crafts needed for the community´s survival, including medicine and surgery, and had no time to set aside for combat practice. Most boys, however, were under obligation to set aside time for that. By the time they were grown, the greatest difference between the sexes would have been that men were expert at all sorts of martial arts while women were expert at transforming fiber into clothing and sails and shoes, and at mending wounds and making plant medicine and running farms.

However, as mentioned before, there were high-ranking noble clans where the work of young maidens could be done by servants. In such clans, it appears that girls who wished to train in battle were allowed to do that, and nobody raised an eyebrow. This is where we are most likely to find women carrying arms and acting like warriors, but we still do not know to what extent they actually partook in battle on an equal standing as their brothers. Also, while an army would have consisted of all the free men of the tribe regardless of rank, only a very few, high-ranking women would have been present.

Around the year 1200, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote, in his Gesta Danorum (The History of the Danish People) several passages concerning warrior women. In chapter six, he summed up what he believed had been a past, pagan tendency:

“And that no one may wonder that this sex labored at warfare, I will make a brief digression, in order to give a short account of the estate and character of such women. There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valor to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance.

They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to unsex themselves.

Those, especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter this kind of life. These women therefore (just as if they had forgotten their natural estate, and preferred sternness to soft words) offered war rather than kisses, and would rather taste blood than lips, and went about the business of arms more than that of armorers. They devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom. They assailed men with their spears whom they could have melted with their looks, they thought of death and not of dalliance.”

In chapter 8, we hear of more such women, ready to attend the legendary Battle of Brávellir, which may have taken place around the year 750:

“Now out of Lejre came Hortar and Borgar, and also Belgi and Beigad, to whom were added Bari and Toli. Now out of the town of Sle, under the (female) captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hákon Cut-Cheek came Tummi the Sail-Maker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Vebjörg was also inspired with the same spirit….

…The maidens I have named, in fighting as well as courteous array, led their land-forces to the battle-field…”

This all sounds splendid. But the reality of medieval and Iron Age warfare was harsh, and women could be mutilated and killed just like men could. During the Battle of Brávellir, the shieldmaiden Vebjörg killed the champion Soti and managed to give additional wounds to Starkad, who was greatly angered. She was killed by the champion Thorkell. Furious, Starkad went forth in the Danish army, killing warriors all around him, and cut off the shieldmaiden Visna’s arm, which held the Danish banner.[2]

Another and very ambitioius Shield Maiden was Rusla, whom Saxo refers to as a Norwegian Amazon (chapter 8):

“At the same time, the amazon Rusla, whose prowess in warfare exceeded the spirit of a woman, had many fights in Norway with her brother, Thrond, for the sovereignty. She could not endure that Omund rule over the Norwegians, and she had declared war against all the subjects of the Danes. Omund, when he heard of this, commissioned his most active men to suppress the rising. Rusla conquered them, and, waxing haughty on her triumph, was seized with overweening hopes, and bent her mind upon actually acquiring the sovereignty of Denmark.

She began her attack on the region of Halland, but was met by Hormod and Thode, whom the king has sent over. Beaten, she retreated to her fleet, of which only thirty ships managed to escape, the rest being taken by the enemy. Thrond encountered his sister as she was eluding the Danes, but was conquered by her and stripped of his entire army, he fled over the Dovrefjell without a single companion.

Thus she, who had first yielded before the Danes, soon overcame her brother, and turned her flight into a victory. When Omund heard of this, he went back to Norway with a great fleet, first sending Homod and Thole by a short and secret way to rouse the people of Telemark (a tribe in Norway) against the rule of Rusla.

The end was that she was driven out of her kingdom by the commoners, fled to the isles for safety, and turned her back, without a blow, upon the Danes as they came up. The king pursued her hotly, caught up her fleet on the sea and utterly destroyed it, the enemy suffered mightily, and he won a bloodless victory and splendid spoils.

But Rusla escaped with a very few ships, and rowed ploughing the waves furiously; but, while she was avoiding the Danes, she met her brother and was killed.”

*

Warrior women who lost a battle would easily have become booty, like Saxo here describes how Alfhild tried to escape her suitor by assuming a masculine role, but is defeated and forced to marry him anyway (chapter 6):

“Thus Alfhild was led to despise the young Dane, whereupon she changed woman´s for man´s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover.

Enrolling in her service many maidens who were of the same mind, she happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain, who had been lost in war; they made her their rover captain for her beauty, and she did deeds beyond the valor of woman (….)

… For Alfhild had gone before them with her fleet into the same narrows… The Danes wondered whence their enemies got such grace of bodily beauty and such supple limbs. So, when they began the sea-fight, the young man Alf leapt on Alfhild´s prow, and advanced towards the stern, slaughtering all who withstood him. His comrade Borgar struck off Alfhild´s helmet, and, seeing the smoothness of her chin, saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings. So Alf rejoiced that the woman whom he had sought over land and sea in the face of so many dangers was now beyond all expectations in his power, whereupon he took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man´s apparel for a woman´s, and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid. Also Borgar wedded the attendant of Alfhild, Groa, and had by her a son…”

*

Another shield-maiden who was maimed and ended up married to the man who maimed her, was “Stunt-Brynhild” of the Saga of Bósi and Herrauð, chapter 2, although Brynhild may have been luckier with her man than Alfhild and Groa:

“There was a man called Thvari or Bryn-Thvari, who lived not far from the king´s residence. He had been a great Viking in his younger years and during his fighting career he had come up against an amazon, Brynhild, the daughter of king Agnar of Noatown. They had set about one another, and soon Brynhild was wounded and unable to carry on fighting. Then Thvari took her into his care, along with a great deal of money. He saw to it that her wounds were fully healed, but she remained bent and twisted for the rest of her life, and so she was known as Stunt-Brynhild. Thvari made her his wife, and although she wore a helmet and a coat of mail at her wedding, their married life was a happy one.”

*

A far more successful Shield Maiden was Lagertha, or, as she would have been called in a less Latinized account, Hlaðgerð. She is found in Saxo´s book chapter 9 as one of several women who, after having been  had been forced into prostitution and who would now rather join the army before being raped more:

“At the time, Fro, the King of Sweden, after slaying Siward, the King of the Norwegians, put the wives of Siward´s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar Lóðbrok heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their person or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage.

Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge.

Among them was Ladgerda, a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

Ragnar, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might on one woman…

…Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men, and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.”

*

There is also the story of Hervör, a shield maiden who even got a whole saga named after her and her grand-daughter by the same name, Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. In this saga, Hervör the elder retrieves the sword of her own father from his grave after conquering his ghost. Hervör was described as being as strong as the boys from an early age, and learned archery, swordsmanship, and horse riding. She dressed like a man, fought, killed and pillaged, played tafl and even demanded to be called by a masculine name, Hervarðr.

After having traveled far and wide, she settled down, resumed her female identity, got married and had two sons, Angantyr and Heiðrek. The latter had a daughter who took after her father´s mother and was also named after her; Hervör the younger became the commander in chief of a Gothic fort, but perished during an attack of the Huns. Upon hearing of her death, her brother made a praising lament about her:

“Unbrotherly the bloody game they played with you, excellent sister.”

***

Stories like these do tell us something: they tell us that people of the Viking Age told legends of warrior women and that they appraised these, and that these stories were remembered and told way into the High Middle Ages, when they were written down by men who, like Saxo, felt the need to explain that this was how things were back in the pagan era.

Stories will often reflect the attitudes and values of a culture, and often also reflect some realities about that culture. Numerous so called “shield maiden graves” have been found, serving to give evidence to the truth of these stories – although many archaeologists are cautious and pointing out that many of these graves are not quite as certain evidence as we might think on first sight. When the skeleton of a woman found next to a sword belongs to a woman who could hardly have weighed more than 40 kilograms and probably was unable to lift and wield the sword effectively, we have to consider whether she was actually the warrior or whether the grave could yield some other possible explanations, which they often do.[3]

Images of fighting women or armed women from the Viking Age are rare, but they are there. Stories about fighting women are also there, but they are also quite rare compared to the entire source material available. Graves belonging to warrior women are also there, but even they are rare. We must assume that the presence of women warriors in this society was also rare, even if they existed – but when they did, they appear to have been honored as such.

I will finish this with a short account of a woman who appears in the Poetic Edda, Gudrun Giuki´s daughter, a princess of the Burgunds. As with the saga of Hervör, the story is set in the time of the Huns, which would historically mean that these are legends of the 4th and 5th centuries, the deep Iron Age, as is the case with many of the shield maiden stories.

Gudrun does not appear to be a warrior in most of the story, but when her brothers are outnumbered by the Huns, she does pick up arms. The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (Attila) tells us, in stanza 50-51:

50: Guiki´s daughter ————– Dóttir lét Givca

brought down two warriors —-drengi tva hníga,

she struck at Atli´s brother——brodvr hio hon Atla,

he had to be carried thereafter—bera varþ þann siþan,

she designed her fight————scapþi hon sva scǫro,

cut the foot from under him——sceldi fót vndan.

51: Another man she struck so hard—-Annan reþ hon hꜹggva,

he could not get up again——— sva at sa vpp reisat,

into Hel she had him sent———-i Helio hon þann hafdi,

and her hands never trembled.——þeygi henne hendr scvlfo.

Despite her courage and skill, Gudrun and her brothers are taken down, and Gudrun must watch how her brothers are tortured to death. She commits a terrible revenge, tricking the Hunnish king, Atli (Attila) into eating the hearts of his two sons by her, spellbinds the entire hall and burns it down and strikes her sword into Atli´s heart. The real Attila was rumored to have died by the hands of a Germanic princess whose brothers and father he had slayed.

In the Medieval, Christian version of this story, Gudrun is called Kriemhild, and when she picks up arms to avenge herself, she is condemned and killed, for in this Christian Medieval world, a woman could not be suffered to live if she transgressed the limited role of a woman.

But in the Edda, a much older source and far closer to the pagan mind, Gudrun is praised in the end, praised as the last warrior woman.

Stanza 43 in the Lay of Atli goes;

Fully this story has now been told—— Fvllrętt er vm þetta,

never again will anyone see—————-ferr engi sva siþan

a bride in armor——————————brvþr i brynio

avenging her brothers———————-brǫþra at hefna;

She had, to three—————————–hon hefir þriggia

great kings————————————-þioþkonvnga

been the bane——————————– —-banorþ borit

that bright woman, before she died too —–biort, aþr sylti.

 

 

[1] First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani stanza 32-44, the ritual bickering between Gudmund and Sinfiötli where they end up revealing that they have been intimate together before, and then argue about which one was the stallion.

[2] Gesta Danorum Book Eight and Sögubrot

[3] https://www.tor.com/2015/06/08/viking-warrior-women-did-shieldmaidens-like-lagertha-really-exist/

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The Vǫlva as an Oracle in Old Norse Sources

nehalennia 4“Vǫlva” was the official title for a woman who practiced seiðr professionally. We do not know if there were more sorts of practitioners, but we do know that the title of a fully-fledged female practitioner with a proper standing in society was called a vǫlva. The title is derived from the word vǫl, meaning “wand” or “staff”. We are immediately reminded of Gandalf ’s staff or other magical staffs such as those in Harry Potter. And indeed, graves belonging to magical practitioners often do include staffs of all sorts and sizes – these women certainly held staffs of office.

We do not know exactly how the Norse vǫlur used their staffs, but we do know that their art of divination was similar to shamanistic rituals of divination and that there had been ancient bonds between Siberia and Scandinavia. According to the ethnographer Vilmos Dioszegi[1], female shamans in Siberia often carried staffs which they used to shake and rattle with in order to enter a state of trance instead of a drum.

Interestingly, the term for “staff” in this case, the vǫl, is the same as the term for “horse penis”. In one saga short story known as the vǫlsa-tott, the penis of a sacrificed stallion is preserved by the “House-Freyia” (the Lady of the house) and passed around the table during a family ritual, while songs are sung about its power and ability to sexually please the giantesses, to whom the vǫl is dedicated, and with a plea that Óðinn himself will assume the power of the vǫl in order to please the giantesses.

The title vǫlva appears to mean “Wed to the Wand”.

Briefly summarized, the Vǫluspá poem explains that the god Óðinn seeks the prophecy of a vǫlva by giving her precious jewels. In this, his action is echoed in the saga sources, the vǫlva is always invited to the settlement by its patriarch:

Host Father (Óðinn) chose for her
rings and jewels
for her wise counsel
and her spells of divination
she saw widely, so widely
into all the worlds.

In response, the vǫlva begins her prophecy, and we are taken back to the beginning of the Vǫluspá poem, where she demands the attention of everybody in the entire universe. She declares that she remembers a time before time itself, and that she herself existed back then, remembering the nine worlds that came before the present.

The vǫlva proceeds to tell of the creation of the present world, grown to spurt out of the Well of Origin, the oldest norn (fate goddess), how everything is arranged, how human beings are given thought, warmth and desire, then how the first war started, leading up to the moment when Óðinn finally becomes so worried that he seeks the vǫlva for a séance of seiðr in order to understand what is happening and where it is leading – the present moment in that poem. Then begins a vision of the apocalyptic future, paving the way for a new and better world in the end.

Interestingly, in the Vǫluspá, the first war in the world is strongly connected to the first time a vǫlva appears among human beings on earth. Most scholars agree that this is a tale of how Freyia and the Vanir came to be with the Aesir gods (and of how seiðr was introduced to them). The first stanza describes an attempt to burn and stab the witch called Gullveig (“Gold Power-Drink”), but she conquers death every time. After this trial (a trial of initiation, probably), she appears as a fully-fledged vǫlva doing what vǫlur did – travelling the land, helping people everywhere, and teaching her art to the women:

She was called Heiðr (Bright, Open Space)
when she came to the settlements
the Vǫlva of good prophecies
she knew spells/magic
she made seiðr wherever she could
she made seiðr with a playful mind
she was always loved
by ill/wicked/bad women.

The last line is a bit puzzling. The adjective “illr” is directly related to the English word for “ill” as in sick, and it would make sense that “ill women” loved her, since she could heal them. But in Old Norse, the word primarily meant “wicked” or “bad”. The word “brúðar” would refer to “women” but literally meant “brides”, and I cannot help but wonder if we are speaking of “bad brides” here, as in women who were not exactly housewife material. For the vǫlva was not, by any account, a married woman but one independent, who travelled as she pleased, and who, unlike most women in this largely patriarchal society, had a status completely independent of male relatives.

In many shamanic traditions, there are myths of the “first shaman” – a divine being who introduced the arts of shamanism or similar.    I regard the myth of Gullveig/Heiðr as a myth of the first vǫlva to introduce the art of seiðr.

The most famous and detailed descriptions of seiðr in Old Norse sources take the form of oracular or divinatory seiðr. Like many such descriptions, we see hints of breathing techniques designed to induce “altered states of consciousness”. Adding to breathing techniques, other descriptions also hint towards secret rituals and the application of songs, also as a part of inducing a trance-like state in which the practitioner may see what had before been hidden about fate, and reach communication with spirits.

THE SAGA OF HROLFR KRÁKI

[In the Saga of Hrolf Kráki, we hear of a séance of seiðr performed by a vǫlva, where the distinct purpose of the ritual is to discover the whereabouts of two wanted boys. However, the vǫlva sympathizes with the boys and aids them through obscure hints. In this description of seiðr, the vǫlva appears to be applying a particular breathing technique]:

Chapter 2: The search

Then a vǫlva called Heiðr arrived. The king told her to use her art to divine what she could learn about the boys. The king held a magnificent feast prepared for her and had her placed on a high seiðhjallr [a platform or seat where the seiðr was practiced]. Then he asked her what she could see of the future, “Because I know,” he said, “that much will be made clear to you. I see that there is great fortune in you, so answer me as quickly as possible.”

She wrenched open her jaws and yawned deeply, and this chant emerged from her mouth

[The vǫlva called Heiðr speaks forth her prophecies about the whereabouts of the boys that the king is chasing, and all her prophecies are spoken in poetical riddles. The vǫlva is corruptible, however, for when the queen, wanting to protect the wanted boys (her own brothers), offers a gold ring to the vǫlva, she declares her own previous prophecies as false.

The king is angry and commands her to tell him the truth, threatening her with torture if she doesn’t. The vǫlva proceeds]:

Her mouth gaped wide, but the spell became difficult. Finally she spoke this verse…”

[The vǫlva solves the problem of loyalty by speaking forth true prophecies, but uses the metaphorical language of poetry to disguise what she really sees, in effect warning the boys who have hidden in the hall. Solving a poetical riddle could take time, and her maneuver gives the boys and herself enough time to flee the king´s hall].

ÖRVAR-ODDS SAGA

The Saga of Örvar-Odd is a 13th century Icelandic romance about the life and death of the champion Oddr, also known as Arrow-Oddr (Örvar-Oddr). It belongs to the category of fǫrnaldarsǫgur (sagas of the olden times), placed in the time of Heathenism, yet written down by Christian scholars who stayed relatively true to the legends but had a tendency to make their heroes into people who were very skeptical towards the old religion, perhaps in order to appease a Christian audience. The way they describe the vǫlva is, however, in tune with other descriptions and may offer interesting and relatively genuine information about the rituals of seiðr that these women practiced, and what sort of position they had in society.  

Chapter 2: The Wand-Witch Made a Prophecy for Oddr (Völvan spáði Oddi)

A woman was called Heiðr[2]. She was a vǫlva and a seið-woman (Seiðkona) and she knew about things that had not happened yet out of her great wisdom (fróðleik). She went to feasts and told men about their destinies and forecasted the weather of coming winters. She had with her fifteen boys and fifteen maidens. She was invited to a party not very far from where Ingjald lived.

There was a morning when Ingjald was up early. He went to where Oddr and Ásmundr were resting, and told them; “I want to send you on an errand from this house today.”

“Where are we supposed to go?” asked Oddr.

“You are to invite here the vǫlva, and tell her that there is a feast ready for her,» said Ingjaldr.

“Then I will not go,» said Oddr, «and I will be very ungrateful to you if she comes here,» said Oddr.

“You shall go, Ásmundr,” said Ingjaldr, “I can command you.”

“I am going to do something,” said Oddr, “that will seem no better to you than this seems to me.”

Ásmundr went off and invited the vǫlva, and she accepted and came with all her following, and Ingjaldr went to meet her with all his men and invited her into the hall. Then they got things ready for her performance of seiðr the next night. And when people had eaten, they went to sleep, and the völva to her night-travel-seiðr (til náttfarsseiðs) with her company.

And Ingjaldr came to her in the morning and asked, how the seiðr had fared.

“I think this,» she said, «that I have discovered all that which you want to know.

“Then all the people should go to their seats,” said Ingjaldr, and he was the first to stand before her.

[The vǫlva offers her prophecy to Ingjaldr, and then to Ásmundr, both prophecies turn out true in the end]

Then Ásmundr went to his seat, and the rest of the household went to the seið-woman, and she told each that which they were destined for, and they were all pleased with their lots. Then she predicted the weather for the following winter and many other things that was not previously known by men. Ingjaldr thanked her for her prophecies.

[Oddr is the only one who does not want to have a prophecy, but the vǫlva gives him one about how long he is to live, about how he will fare, and about how he will die – all turns out true in the end, but Oddr, in accordance with the attitudes of those who wrote his saga, turns aggressive towards the woman who everybody else in their Heathenism believes is holy]

“Damn you for making this prophecy about me,” said Oddr. And as soon as she had finished speaking, he sprang up and struck her so hard on the nose with the stick that her blood gushed onto the floor.”

“Get me my clothes,” said the vǫlva, “let me out of here. I have never been to any place before where I have suffered a beating.”

“Don’t go,” Ingjaldr pleaded, “there is compensation for every injury. Stay here for the three nights [obviously, that she stayed three days would have been the common practice] and I will give you fine presents.”

She accepted the gifts, but did not stay for the celebrations.

THE SAGA OF EIRIK THE RED

Chapter 4: The Little Vǫlva

There was a terrible famine on Greenland. Those who had gone hunting had poor results, and some of them had failed to return.

In the district there lived a woman called Thorbjörg, and she was a prophecy-woman (spá-kona), and she was called the Little Vǫlva (Litilvǫlva ). She had had nine sisters [niu systr[3]], and they had all been prophecy-women, and she was the only one of them who still lived [Her nick-name, the Little Vǫlva, is probably explained by her once having been the youngest of the coven of nine vǫlur, perhaps a child when she began her path].

It was Thorbjörg´s custom to spend the winter visiting one farm after another where she had been invited, mostly by people who were curious to learn about their own future or what was in store for the coming year. Since Thorkel was the leading farmer there, people felt that it was up to him to try and find out when the hard times which had been oppressing them would let up.

Thorkel invited the prophecy-woman to visit, and preparations were made to entertain her well, as was the custom of the time when a woman of this type was received.

The High Seat[4] was offered to her (búit var henni Hásæti) [To be offered the High Seat was an extreme honor – usually, only the patriarch and his wife would be seated there, and offered to guests only if the guest was of considerably higher status than the patriarch and his wife], complete with a cushion. This cushion was stuffed with chicken feathers.

When she arrived in the evening along with the man who had been sent to invite her, she was so dressed, that she was wearing a dark blue mantle with a strap which was adorned with precious stones right down to the hem. About her neck she wore a string of glass beads and on her head a hood of black lambskin lined with white cat-fur.

She carried a staff in her hand and it had a knob on the top made of brass and adorned with stones. About her she had a linked charm-belt with a large purse. In it she kept the charms which she needed for her predictions.

She had tall boots made of lamb-skin lined with fur, with long, sturdy laces and large pewter knobs on the ends. On her hands she wore gloves of cat-skin, white and lined with fur.

When she entered, everyone was supposed to offer her respectful greetings, and she responded according to how the person appealed to her [this meant that she did not adhere to social status, but treated people according to her own liking, and that she was above or beyond the ordinary hierarchy].

Thorkel the farmer took the wise woman (vísendakona) by the hand and led her to the High Seat which had been prepared for her. He then asked her to survey his people, his servants and his buildings. She had little to say about all of it.

That evening tables were set up and food was prepared for the seeress. Porridge of kid´s milk was made for her, and as meat she was given the hearts of all the animals available there. She had a spoon of brass and a knife with an ivory shaft, its two halves clasped with bronze bands, and the point of which had broken off.

Once the tables were cleared, Thorkel approached Thorbjörg and asked what she thought of the house there and the conduct of the household, and how soon he could expect an answer to what he had asked and everyone wished to know. She replied that she would not reveal this until the next day after having spent the night there.

Late the following day she was provided with things she required to carry out her seiðr.

She asked for women who knew the chants required to carrying out the seiðr, which are called Varðlokur (“Invocation of the Guardians”). But such women were not to be found [in this time of transition, many women were no longer brought up in the old ways, but were vaguely Christian]. Then the people of the household were asked if there was anyone with such knowledge.

Guðríð replied: “I am not versed in magic (fjǫlkunnig) nor am I a wise woman (visendakóna), but in Iceland, my foster-mother Halldís taught me chants that she called Ward-Invocations (varðlokur).”

Thorbjörg said: “Then you are wiser than I expected.”

Guðríð said: “These are, however, actions I do not wish to partake in, because I am a Christian woman.”

Thorbjörg answered: “It could be that you could help the people here by doing it, and you would be no worse a woman for that. But I expect Thorkel to provide me with what I need.”

Thorkel (the patriarch and the boss) then urged Guðríð who said that she would do what he wanted.

The women formed a ring around the seið-platform (seiðhjell), and Thorbjörg sat perched on top of it. Guðríð chanted so well and so beautifully that people there said they had never heard anyone recite the chant in a fairer voice. The seeress thanked her for her chant.

She said that many “natures” (nattúrur – “spirits, beings, wards”) had been attracted by the chant because of its beauty – “though earlier they wished to turn their backs on us and refused to do our bidding. Many things are now clear to me which were earlier concealed from both me and others. And I can tell you that this spell of hardship will last no longer, and times will improve as the spring advances. The bout of illness which has long plagued you will also improve sooner than you expect.

And you, Guðríð, I shall reward on the spot for the help we have received, since your fate is now very clear to me. You will make the most honorable of matches here in Greenland, though you will not be putting down roots here, as your path leads to Iceland and from you will be descended a long and worthy line. Over all the branches of that family a bright ray will shine. May you fare well, now, my child.”

After that the people approached the wise woman (visendakona) to learn what each of them were most curious to know. She made them good answers, and little that she predicted did not occur.

Following this and escort arrived from another farm and the seeress departed, Thorbjörn was also sent for, as he had refused to stay at home on the farm while such heathen practices were going on.

With the arrival of spring the weather soon improved, as Thorbjörg had predicted…

***

(Guðríð, whose full name was Guðríður víðförla Þorbjarnardóttir,  was later married to Thorfinn Karlsefni, and with him she traveled to Vinland and was one of the first Norse explorers in the western lands, possibly America. She was given a nickname, víðförla, which meant Guðríð the Far-Traveled, and while in Vinland she gave birth to Snorri Thorfinnson, the first (known and named) European to be born in America. Her first marriage was with Thorstein Eiriksson, a son of Eirik the Red. Her children did, as the vǫlva had predicted, become very important people and ancestors to even more important people in Iceland.)

 

[1]   Dioszegi, 1968, s. 110-114 (Tracing Shamans in Siberia)

[2] Incidentally, this is also the name of the vǫlva who appears in the Edda poem Vǫluspá (The Prophecy of the Wand-Witch), where Heiðr (“Bright Open Space”/“Heath”) is the new name of the vǫlva Gullveigr who survived being burned and stabbed three times and who then travels from settlement to settlement in order to perform seiðr (divination, witchcraft) and teach the women her arts.

[3] The number nine is probably not coincidental – it may mean that there were actually a coven of nine vǫlur who accompanied the settlers from Iceland to Greenland, and that the number nine was considered important in real life, or it may simply be an association to the typical number nine of female collectives that had to do with magic and the divine – like the nine mothers of the world, the nine previous worlds, of which the vǫlva in Vǫluspá also speaks.

[4] To be offered the High Seat was an extreme honor – usually, only the patriarch and his wife would be seated there, and offered to guests only if the guest was of considerably higher status than the patriarch and his wife).