In the Viking Age, the völvas were both feared and respected: they exercised seiðr and were in direct contact with Odin, the Allfather. The word völva derives from the Old Norse vǫlva meaning “wand carrier”, a traveling sorceress and seeress who got well paid for her services.
A number of women’s graves found in Scandinavia probably contain a völva’s wand. The graves are often well equipped and rich, and show that these women had magical powers.
The völvas were the foremost religious interpreters in the Norse society. The most famous example of a völva’s prediction is the Eddic poem Völuspá (Old Norse: Vǫluspá, meaning ”Prophecy of the Völva”). The poem tells the story of the creation of the world until its coming end Ragnarök (“The Doom of the Gods”), told by a Norse sorceress addressing Odin.
A völva normally was an elderly woman who was standing outside the normal Viking society. She was often called upon in crisis situations and was frequently followed by a group of young people.
In the rich Oseberg ship burial, two elderly women and a huge amount of burial goods were found. In addition to hundreds of other objects, they two ladies had brought with them four horse sleighs, a richly decorated chariot, seven beds and several woven tapestries.
There were also found animal bones from about fifteen horses, a cat, a Eurasian woodcock, a red-breasted merganser, a bull, a cow and four dogs.
The oldest woman was between 70 and 80 years old, and much suggests she was a Norse sorceress; she was found with a little leather pouch full of cannabis and a hollow staff.
This hollow staff found in the Oseberg ship burial is interpreted to have been a völva’s wand. (Photo: Unknown / Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
Seiðr (or seid) is placed somewhere between religion and magic and was practiced by the völvas in the Norse society. It was associated with both the good Odin, and the goddess Freyja; the goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility and sex – but also with war, death – and seiðr. The völvas mastered the magic art of seiðr and could look into and anticipate the future so that people were prepared for what awaited them.
Knowing fate, knowing when it would be bad years and when it would be good crops, was an important source of power. It gave people the opportunity to make plans for the future so that they could get through hard times, and it gave them hope.
We know through written sources, archaeological finds and excavations that seiðr was an important part of Norse religious beliefs. If you in the Viking Age mastered this magic, you had access to mythical powers and worlds.
We know that the völvas used a variety of rituals like songs and special words, and during the seiðr she was often put in a trance so that she could find answers to the questions she was asking the unearthly.
In the Saga of Erik the Red, we find a description of the völva Thorbjörg Lítilvölva who worked in Greenland:
Now, when she came in the evening, accompanied by the man who had been sent to meet her, she was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine.
A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair, and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom.
She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.
Iron staff dating back to the Viking Age found in a grave in Luster in Sogn og Fjordane, Western Norway. This type of staff is found in female graves that also have contained hallucinogens. (Photo: Svein Skare / University Museum of Bergen)
The Dark Side
A Norse sorceress could also use her powers to do evil, to curse people and to call for bad years and difficulties.
The völvas had the ability to make people sick, drive them into madness or death, and cause accidents.
Written sources show that men also could exercise seiðr, but they had a much less respected role than their female colleagues.