Seiðr (which is sometimes anglicized as seidhr, seidh, seidr, seithr, or seith) is an Old Norse term for a type of sorcery which was practiced in Norse society during the Late Scandinavian Iron Age.
Much speculation but little fact has been written of Seidr craft or trance magic of the ancient Nors. Trance Magic is a misleading term and should be placed in its proper perspective. There are many who claim that the shapeshifting ability of the ancients was no more or less than visions that took place during unconscious or "trance" states. This attitude should be discounted as a lack of understanding of the principles involved.
Trance is only the first of the states required for learning to effect a "sending". The trance condition is necessary for novice volva or vitki in order to learn effective use of Seidr magic but it isn't the whole of the craft. Blocking out "real world" distractions is a paramount skill. Without it little can be accomplished in the shadow realms. It is useful to clear the mind and enhance the shaman's ability to focus and visualize the desired conditions. Ideally, the practitioner should be able to achieve a trance state by will alone. To attain the mental dispelling necessary for this feat sometimes requires years of practice. However, with the judicious use of certain techniques most novices can develop a basic trance state within weeks of beginning their training. The techniques include repetitive sound, visual focus devices and a variety of herbal substances. A few of the less dangerous techniques are included here.
As with all disciplines Seidr magic has many levels of expertise. In the most basic level the practitioner is able to project images into the minds of susceptible individuals that are interpreted first as dreams and later as real events. In more advanced students the projected image takes on a physical reality and in the adept can become a true reality. The substance of our world and the extradimensional worlds that surround it are more or less mutable. That is, we can by focusing will, cause both apparent and real changes in the fabric of our existence. Most practitioners begin with little or no ability to shape or shapeshift. Their arena is limited to the space inside their minds. Now, that is a wide space indeed, but nothing when the true vastness of reality is considered. The true art of Seidr lies in the ability to create shapes in your head and impress them on the outside world.
Seiðr - the old Nordic form of shamanism
Traditionally, the practitioners of seiðr used a unique combination of staff and ecstatic song as means for the soul to journey. Seiðr is described in late Viking age sources, but origins much earlier in fertility cult and early shamanism.
The mystical core of seiðr is inseparable from the wild nature. Therefore a key part of our work is connecting our practice with the power of the land: “Sitting out” alone with our staff between hills and trees, the songs of earth and wind will blend with our own songs, and dusk and darkness will teach us to see. In this way our seiðr takes takes root in our own landscape and time.
One of the greatest gifts the ancient seiðr tradition has to offer practitioners of today is a skillful way of dealing with power, expressed in the Norse term ergi, with hints of parallels to tantra. Seiðr can profoundly inspire our shamanic work, we become freer to choose the right ritual tool for the right task, and we deepen our experience of the power of earth.
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 practice 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.
In its blooming days, a thousand years ago and more, the Northern shamanic tradition of seiðr was practiced 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 highs seat, 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 scholars often opposed to this heathen practice. 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.
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 practice always and everywhere, and song shows up all by itself for anyone who starts on the path of shamanism.
It is said that the seiðr song 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 marvelous 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 spirit helpers, so they may know we're calling them. We sing to a tree to honor its beautiful power. We sing the invisible threads between us and our spirit helpers 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.
One of the first verses in Finland's 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 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 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 neighbors, to ensure that both the land, the spirits and humans would prosper. 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 value system 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.