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THE STAFF AND THE SONG
Using the Old Nordic Seiðr in Modern Shamanism

by Annette Høst ©

 
   

 

Maybe you, like I, have felt a longing to let your shamanic or other spiritual practise take root in your own land and its traditions. For many years I have been enchanted by old stories about the Nordic form of shamanism called seiðr. It was practised mostly by women called volvas, who used ecstatic song as means for their soul to journey. As I have explored the seiðr, and included it in my own shamanic practise and teaching, I have found that it has so much to reveal. In this article we will look at seiðr from the inside, from the perspective of the shamanic practitioner, and focus on what the seiðr tradition has to offer and teach us here and now. The greatest gift is the treasure of ecstatic song and magic chanting. 

Seiðr - the written sources
The old written sources about seiðr are found in the Edda and the sagas, and often it is not at all clear if they describe myth or this reality or both. Some key points in the seiðr practise are never mentioned, and the descriptions are often heavily biased. I will briefly introduce here the bare bones of seiðr, enough for a basic understanding. (1) 

In its blooming days, a thousand years ago and more, the Northern shamanic tradition of seiðr was practised mostly by women, called volvas, seiðr-wives, sp -wives, or wise women. The volva is often described as being past her fertile years, and unlike other women she has no clan- or lineage-name. The seiðr has its roots in the fertility cult around the goddess Freya, and the ceremonial form of a seiðr seance is quite unique. The volva does her shamanic work sitting with her staff on a highseat, or platform, a seiðrhiallr. The staff is important, but it is never said what for. The volva is surrounded by a circle of people, who sing the seiðr songs, the spirit-calling songs, the magic chants, but no chants are written down. It is this ecstatic song which changes her state of consciousness, carries her into trance on a journey. When the song ends, and the volva is still suspended between the worlds, she is in a state to prophesy, to divine, to answer questions about future and fate, receiving her knowledge from the spirit realm. 

Seiðr has been used mainly for divination, but in some accounts the volva's close link to Freya and the powers of fertility shines clearly through: In the story of Thorbi"rg Lillvolva, the volva is called because of the famine and the barrenness of the land. In Landn mab¢k another volva gets named "Filler of the Sound" because she made the herring return to a fjord they had disappeared from. The seiðr is thus used to bring plenty, to restore balance between people and nature. 

In some accounts seiðr is used for harmful magic, to send somebody illness or misfortune. Here we must remember that the literature is very biased, written by christian sholars often opposed to this heathen practise. But of course the seiðr practitioners have been faced with the same fundamental ethical choice between using or abusing power as shamans are everywhere. What we can read between the lines is: If one can send harm, one can also send healing. In short, seiðr can be used to gather and send power. (2) 

Building on the old foundation
We can learn only so much from books. The stories, short side remarks, and mere hints form only a sketchy picture of seiðr, a puzzle with big pieces still missing. Still, I have been determined to pick up my heritage and learn from the volva. And so I have tried to reach over this vast gap of time, of stories twisted and knowledge forgotten, hidden and lost.

It is possible! With a basis in our own shamanic experience, we can pick up the ancient track and see where the path takes us. We can try out that part of the volva's recipes which transcend the difference in time and life conditions. And most important, we can go to the same sources that guided and empowered our ancestors: the spirit teachers, and the power and knowledge stored in the land. 

And so I have picked up the volvas track and worked with seiðr in this experiential way over quite a few years now, and taught it too. Broken pieces have been sung together, and the big holes in the picture of seiðr get slowly filled out with patterns emerging from our experiences.  (3) This is the first I publish about this work, and I want to focus on the magic use of song. Seiðr has first and foremost taught me that song has an ability to open doors and carry power that is beyond my wildest expectations.                                          

The song
The seiðr song as portrayed in the literature is unmistakably shamanic and has shown me a lot about magic singing in general. Song and chanting has been a dimension in shamanic practise always and everywhere, and song shows up all by itself for anyone who starts on the path of shamanism. 

It is said that the seiðrsong was ecstatic song. To me ecstasy means a state where you have let go so much of ego, control, and convention that the power of the universe flushes through you unhindered. And that is the first trait of shamanic singing: that you sing from a source that is bigger than yourself, and let power flow through you as song. In other words, the song is sung in an altered state of awareness, or in trance. And when we start to sing like that, we can experience a marvellous shift in our voice, our breathing and endurance, the power and effect of our utterance. The song sings us. 

There is a second trait of the ecstatic song that makes it shamanic: the song has a definite purpose. We sing open the doors to the otherworld. We sing out to our spirithelpers, so they may know we're calling them. We sing to a tree to honour its beautiful power. We sing the invisible threads between us and our spirithelpers stronger. We sing a mound open, so we can talk with our ancestors. We sing pains and spirits of illness away. We sing thanks to the plants we harvest. 

This gets us to the third trait. Shamanic songs or chants are not composed or constructed. They are found, heard, gotten, when we are in-spired. They arrive, arise, unfold. And then they burst from me, when I am full, full, and cannot contain them any longer. The songs visit us. Sometimes they stay with us for a long time, sometimes they leave again fast. Sometimes they have words, sometimes just sounds. (4) 

One of the first verses in Finlands great magic song cycle "The Kalevala" expresses beautifully where the magic songs live, where the source of power is: 

"The Cold offered me Lays out there
The Rain sent me often Songs
Other Ballads the Wind brought me 
The Waves carried them to the Shore 
Birds shaped Words into Tones 
Talking sounded from the Crowns of Trees." 

The art of galdr
The song is central to seiðr, but magic song also had its own independent tradition called galdr. In some sources the seiðr song is even called galdr. Galdr stands for sung spells and incantations, used in highly skillful and differentiated ways. A galdr is directed at something or somebody, and can have all the purposes and traits that shamanic songs in general have. Sometimes a new one is born out of the need and the moment, sometimes a galdr is passed on for centuries. 

In the prose Edda it is told how the god Thor once got hit by a whetstone, which embedded itself firmly in his forehead. Thor went to the giant volva Groa for help, and she sung her spells (gol sine galdre) over him. When Thor felt the whetstone loosening, he wanted to reward her for the healing, and told her that her husband, long lost, would soon come home again. This made Groa so happy, that she couldn't galdre any more, and the whetstone never came further loose. Otherwise it is a fine account of galdr used as healing song for extracting an intrusion, singing an illness out. The story also illustrates how it is only possible to galdre effectively in a certain state of awareness. 

In "Oddruns Lament" galdr is used in midwifing. Not until "Oddrun sang powerful, sharp, biting galdrs at Borgny's bed" was the child delivered. 

You can still hear the galdr sung. Listen to the wild haunting wails of a Gale, and to the enchanting trills of a NightinGale. Then you know the power of the galdr, and you know where to find the true teachers of the art.

When we sing now
No seiðr songs or galdr tunes (5) are handed down to us from back then, but enough is said so we know what to listen for. And our new seiðr songs work in basically the same way as the old ones. The volva sits as in a dome of song, which carries her to other worlds. 

I have found, though, that the purpose and effect of a good seiðr song is not only to transport the volva, it is just as much to transform the singers. Even for the terribly many of us, who as children were told that we could not sing, and wouldn't we please shut up, magic singing offers healing and new voice. The secret is to strip off, to un-do all that you were taught about "right" singing. And then let the power flow through you. I have heard the most heavenly music, piercing bird calls, the cackling of old hags, growling of fierce four-leggeds, coming from the throats of people who "can't sing". 

People sensitive to power can fear being swept totally off their feet when magic song starts growing. But I have seen more than once that even powerful trance inducing chanting is only "dangerous" if done without intent. As soon as the shamanic attitude of intent and focus in the work is added, all disorientation evaporates, and the song empowers and grounds. I soar on the song, but it is the scent of earth, that pours from my mouth. 

The craft of seiðr
To let the seiðr reveal its secrets and inherent qualities, we have started out with only the necessary background information, to avoid shaping the result and experience. However two main conditions have seemed indispensable in practising the craft of seiðr: 

First, we have used the basic physical framework consistently mentioned in the literature, that is the song, the highseat, the staff and the circle of singers. This unique ceremonial form of a seiðr seance seems to strongly influence the quality and flow of power, for example it seems to facilitate embodiment of spirithelpers. 

Second, the seiðr is clearly a shamanic practise, and so we have emphasized that it is done in a shamanic way. Both the volva and the singers have a clear mission. The volva lets the song transport her into a shamanic state of awareness and close contact with her spirithelpers, and then she lets go in trust. 

When we begin a seiðr ritual today, the volva steps out of the old myths and into this reality. Modern women take their place on the seat and they change in front of our very eyes: They sit, with a glow, with the authority of a mountain, and as long as the enchantment of the seance lasts, we see the figure of the Norne, goddess of fate, sitting in our middle. The visual impact of this shapeshift is often a mirror of the volvas own experience. As the song grows in power, it does happen that she experiences embodiment, and she merges with the spirit source of her knowledge, she becomes her spirit guide. When the song dies out she talks to us with a voice as from far away, or with the licence of an irreverent old hag. (6) 

The staff
The staff must be part of the core of seiðr, as it has given the volva her name: She who carries the magic staff, or just staff carrier. But we are never told, how this magic wand is used. In the account of Thorbi"rg Lillvolva, her staff is adorned with stones and metal. That is on the outside, but what is inside? What is the staff for? 

When the people I have worked with have chosen or cut their staffs, their guidance have been this scanty information plus spirit instruction or intuition. It is peculiar, how the very most of the staffs turn out being of the same length. 

And off they go on the journey, holding onto their staffs. What do they tell upon returning? That the staff is a power antenna, it is a lightningrod, it grows hot, it comes alive and vibrates, it moves like a snake in the hands, it keeps the focus and direction of flight clear, at the same time as it grounds. It is the tree of life, connecting the lower world and the sky world, power flowing through it. (7) 

The spiritual roots of the seiðr
The fertility deities Frey and Freya were members of a clan of gods and spirits called the Vanir. The earth centered Vanir-religion is a spirituality of peace and plenty, including sexuality and magic in the sacred realm. It is much closer to animism and non-duality (8) than the later Viking gods, the Aesir, where the most well known are Odin, Thor, Balder. The Vanir goddesses and gods of fertility are inseparable from a vast omnipresent population of nature spirits, powers of fruitfulness, and elemental forces. 

People of that time were always aware of these beings. They were in daily communication and exchanged help with their spirit neighbours, to ensure that both the land, the spirits and humans would prosper. (9). This is the spiritual foundation of the seiðr, and obviously the volva works within an intimate relationship with nature: It is from there she draws her power. Thus the volva represents the world view of this older, fertility and earth oriented spirituality, and this shows in her seiðr. 

The saga accounts often depict a conflict between the old volva and a young man representing the newer, militant Viking culture. The written sources testify that the men of the Viking age, even before Christianity, experienced more and more difficulty with the valuesystem personified by the volva, in fact it provoked them and enraged them. Whereas women were the keepers of the old cult and spirituality, since it allowed them more power and freedom. 

It is tempting to read this conflict exclusively as "male" vs. "female" values, men vs. women, but if we do we're likely to miss the point. The heart of this conflict is the choice between staying in harmony with nature, or trying to conquer and dominate it. It was a vital choice then, it is a vital choice today, and it will show in our shamanic work. 

Seiðr today?
One of the questions that arises for a modern practitioner of shamanism or earth spirituality is: How much of the ancient seiðr is inseparable from its specific time and place? What aspects can we use of the seiðr tradition today in a genuine way without becoming wanna-be-Vikings? The key here is to take inspiration from the content of seiðr, rather than imitate the form of the ceremonial details. 

This is closely connected to another issue. How much knowledge does it take to do a complete seiðr ritual, respectful and safely? In this introductory article there are still many important elements of the craft of seiðr not touched upon. I think it is sound advice that you read the literature on seiðr, are familiar with its spiritual roots, and have a firm basis of practical shamanic experience before jumping into the deep water of a full seiðr ritual. But the heart, or the essential lore of the seiðr tradition is a heritage for all of us to take inspiration from, and start using here and now. 

This heart of seiðr shows first of all, that song has an incredible potential for healing and empowering, in our daily life and spiritual practise, in so many ways. For example, you can sing yourself or a partner on a journey instead of using a drum, or a circle of people can bathe someone in the center with healing song. 

Also, the seiðr tradition teaches us, as do native shamanic traditions from other parts of the world, about the importance of staying in harmony, in good relationship with the land and its spirits - the source of power. Finally, the story of the volva makes a female shamanic tradition visible, adding more depth and colour to our knowledge of North European shamanism. Hearing her story, and maybe even picking up her work, helps us build up a native shamanic identity and a spiritual sense of belonging. 

We stand more firmly planted on our soil now, the song flowing through us with voices we didn't know we had. The song changes us, it touches and heals and changes the world around us - as it has always done.

Notes:

1. See also Brian Bates' more detailed description of a saga seiðr seance in Sacred Hoop, issue 15.

2. Scholarly literature on seiðr and its background: H.R. Ellis Davidsson: "Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe" and "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe", an M. Eliade: "Shamanism, - Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy." THE source book on seiðr:"Sejd" by Dag Str"mb„ck, from 1935 is in Swedish and Norse.

3. I know of two other groups who have worked with seiðr for years, from a slightly different angle than mine: People in the shamanic network "Yggdrasil" in Sweden, to whom I owe my first introduction to seiðr. And the group "Hrafnar" with Diana L. Paxson in California. Both have published articles about their work.

4. See also "Sacred Plant Song" by Stephen H. Buhner in Sacred Hoop issue 15.

5. However quite a few texts of galdrs and spells are written down, attesting to the very popular use of the power of the word, which has survived in North European magic tradition long after the song tradition degenerated.

6. The volva's oracular or prophetic soothsaying is a long story in itself to be told another time. However it has strong links to the Celtic prophetic tradition. See Matthews in Sacred Hoop issue 15 and 16. and Davidsson: "Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe"

7. See also Karen Kelly: The World Tree. Sacred.Hoop. issue 12

8. See also Jonathan Horwitz on Animism in Sacred Hoop issue 9.

9. Therefore there are so many specified names for nature spirits, both in my land and in yours, see fairy lore in Sacred Hoop issue 15.

 

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