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).

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