I have noticed that in modern paganism, amongst those who practice northern European pagan traditions.
The term Seidr became the word to designate Norse witchcraft in general. Every type of Norse traditional magic goes into the bag of Seidr. This is a common mistake because of the lack of information about other magical arts of Old Norse societies.
Seidr is the term which often appears in the sources and was spread in hundreds of academic works, so the idea of Seidr being the equivalent of Norse witchcraft was highly promoted. Also, it’s important to remember that, the most common term in the sources when referring to someone who possesses magical knowledge and abilities- l that is actually Fjǫlkunning.
Now, Seidr is not witchcraft in its original sense. It’s a far more complex activity which requires a vast amount of knowledge of both science and techniques to induce altered states of consciousness.
Seidr is an ancient pre-Christian Norse form of divination, magic and shamanism, and was regenerative in nature, and also with a connection to the resurrection of the dead. Seidr means Cord, String, because its main purpose is to alter the course of destiny by re-weaving parts of the destiny’s web But as I’ve said, Seidr is a form of magic and shamanism, it’s the combination of traditional science used to cause changes with a much more complex state of consciousness using trance techniques to achieve one’s purpose.
Seidr is about ritualistic actions performed for divination, for seeking what is hidden from us, what we can’t simply come in contact with in our natural state of existence. The aim is to both acquire the knowledge of the secrets of the mind and of physical locations. The hidden knowledge gained through Seidr could be used for a variety of things such as healing the sick; to influence good luck; to control the weather, influence animals etc. Beneficial actions. However, it could also be used for the exact opposite to curse, to induce illness, to injure and even kill. If you know how to create something, you can also undo it and reshape it, give it a different purpose. This is why Seidr is associated with Strings, Cords, the art of Spinning and Weaving. Bending your will and power to weave and create something, you undo it, rework, reshape, pull and push the strings and create something completely different with other purposes. It’s the art of influencing events.
In other words, the performer of Seidr sends forth its mind to influence a variety of things according to the task the practitioner of seidr wants to perform. As I’ve said, Seidr isn’t witchcraft, and in my opinion it can’t be considered the only form of magic of the ancient Norse societies.
I see that people often include within seidr the art of Galdr, or Galdur. Of course, Galdur in later times seems to have taken some moral connotations and became a magical art more “honourable” to use whilst Seidr was considered shameful and unmanly, womanish.But aside from social differences, originally there were certain technical distinctions between these two forms of magic which makes them two distinct magical practices and not branches of the same.
We have other magical and/or shamanic techniques which can be argued as being branches of the same form of magic, or other distinct forms of magic other than the two main ones, Seidr and Galdur. For instance, we have Sitja Uti, which was a type of shamanic divination. This technique was to spend the night out on cross-ways amidst invocations to the powers of darkness to reveal secrets or counsel. This was a shamanic/ritualistic performance which required being out there, sitting in darkness and chant invocations.
This can be argued to be a completely different form of magic, or a branch of Seidr, or even a mixture of both Seidr and Galdur techniques, but we can’t put it in the same bag as Seidr with certainty. And when I said, that Galdur was considered more “honourable” and Seidr was considered to be “shameful” and “womanish”; these social differences existed in Norse societies because Seidr was a woman’s trade. The sources make it clear that Seidr was women’s magic, with the exception of Odin
As I’ve said, Seidr is related to spinning. Much like the forces of the world are spun and therefore are connected, changing the aspects of life so is Seidr spun to affect a variety of realities of life. This aspect of Seidr is reflected on a couple of deities, like the Norns for instance, the Norse goddesses of fate, the female deities that spin the life threads of every human being. Or in the figure of Frigg, who became associated with spinning and weaving because some of Freyja’s magical connections remained alive in the figure of Frigg.
There is a theory that Frigg and Freyja are the same goddess, but Freyja’s cult diminished due to the social changes of the Viking Age and later with the introduction of Christianity, and so Freyja was transformed into Frigg, who was transformed into a domestic goddess and so certain domestic traits connected to the magic of Freyja, were kept in the figure of Frigg – like spinning and weaving. This spinning, was associated with the women’s work of spinning yarn, enhancing seidr as a woman’s trade
The Sagas even explicitly say that it was shameful for men to perform Seidr, precisely because of the association with spinning and a woman’s trade. But surprisingly Odin, a male god, practised Seidr, because Freyja gave to him, and other gods, the magic of seidr. But this myth may be a latter attachment to the Norse myths, precisely to demonstrate that the cult of Freyja progressively diminished and it was Odin who became the most prominent deity, highly worshipped.
In medieval Iceland Odin became the equivalent of the Christian God. Odin became the Alfather, King of the Gods, Ruler of Heavens, and so people worshipped Odin more than ever, after all, he was the equivalent of the creator. What you have to understand is that in the beginning of medieval Iceland, Paganism was still allowed, even if it was only hidden from public view, but there was this great mixture between Catholicism and Norse Paganism, so people still practiced a lot of the old traditional magical practices. But since most deities were put aside to easily implement Catholicism, those who still practiced the old ways needed a deity to call upon to help in magical practices. That was Odin, the god who somewhat survived, but with a lot of Christian influences. Odin became associated with Seidr precisely because there was no other god anymore. The cults of Freyja had been outlawed, and any practice related to the goddess was punished, for instance, “night-riding”, a form of shapeshifting associated with the Cult of Freyja, performed by women Any magical activity performed by women was seen as a negative magic and was associated with witches, or “Troll Hags”. Just like many female magical practices, “Night Riding” was a banned magic and punished if found guilty of its use
So no more Goddesses associated with magic, only gods, only male figures because male figures were the ones who prevailed in a society culturally and religiously shaped by Christianity. This is one of the reasons why Galdr and Seidr were socially distinct, because the practice of Galdr wasn’t associated with women’s magic, therefore it was more “honourable” to practice even within a Catholic societyand Seidr was shameful because it was associated with women. But well, some men also practiced Seidr, but needed a patron male god so it wouldn’t feel so shameful and to avoid being ostracized by the society. So both Freya and Odin were seen as the divine models of seidr practitioners among their respective genders
Seidr was a highly gendered activity during the Viking Age and onwards, so the creation of the myth of Freyja giving Odin the magical art of Seidr was of the utmost importance. Now both genders could practice without being so shameful for men.
Since I’ve spoken about Freyja, and don’t worry I’m not going to delve much more on that Goddess, but even so speaking about Seidr it’s inevitable to speak about Freyja. Freya is the divine archetype of the völva, a practitioner of Seidr. We have a couple of sources, both sagas and poems, with interesting details about the Volvur and their doings such as The Saga of Erik the Red, where the seeress is helped by spirits, as in the practice of shamanism, where the shaman is thought to be assisted by friendly spirits – and others not so much recommended – when the body of the shaman lies in trance so that its spirit can journey into the otherworld. But in that account also describes in detail what the Seeres wears, including the fact of using talismans. And of course one of the most famous accounts about a Volva is the Völuspá. “The Prophecy of the Volvur“ which contains sparse accounts of seidr-workers and their practices.
Just like other northern Eurasian shamans, the völva was a figure completely apart from the rest of the society. Both in a positive and a negative way. She was simultaneously exalted but also feared.
We have other terms to refer to practitioners of Seidr, which goes directly to the practice itself, such as seidmenn, Seidmadr, for a man, and Seidkona for a woman, or spákona has being a prophetess, directly related to the art of divination, foretelling the future.
However, the term Volva links the woman to a staff, which was used during the rituals with a distaff in hand, the practitioner of Seidr entered in a trance to travel in spirit throughout the Nine Worlds. Although the Volva seems much more to have been a traveling woman, going from place to place performing her acts of Seidr in exchange for a variety of things, while the other terms seem to be used for those who practice Seidr but do not necessarily wander about, acquiring something in return for their services.
And of course in archaeological findings we have many burial mounds belonging to vǫlur, or the subjects were identified as being Volur, where staffs were buried with the individuals, and in some accounts, drums, that one instrument highly used in shamanic rituals.
In conclusion, unlike Galdr where the use of incantational formulas, spoken or sung, predominate, it’s a magical art much more conscious and centred in the physical abilities of the person, Seidr seems to be much more intuitive and synthetic, where a trance state is required and induced in which the consciousness would be of relatively less importance, therefore much closer to a shamanic practice.
Seidr is a specific Scandinavian form of magical practice, a form of sorcery. And it’s important to refer a point, which reinforces this more shamanistic approach related to Seidr. The fact that to perform seidr was also needed to sing songs, chant, recite, the words of a spell called “Invoking the Spirits” comes spirits the wore varðlokkur, vard meaning “spirit”, “guardian”, and loka is to “call”, “lure”, “invoke”, or “lock”. The contact with the spirits was achieved while in an altered state of consciousness.
Helping spirits is the main focus of shamanic practices to acquire knowledge, power, and a variety of abilities – to perform the tasks required for a specific purpose. This, Vardlokkur, is the name of a magical song which was sung at prophetic sessions by Scandinavian seeresses, and this shamanistic practice probably had a function of calling up the spirits from whom the seeresses received knowledge. But other accounts call this type of song Seiðlæti which is “Magic Tune”.
So maybe Seiðlæti is the name given to these songs used in Seidr, and Vardlokkur is the name of one specific song used to call a specific spirit, maybe Loki, who knows?
There seems to be some similarities between the name of the song and the name of this god.
I’m saying this because for instance, there are accounts of a song/spell used for the same purpose but called Urðar Lokkur, specifically for the Norn Urdr, contacting the spirit of Urdr, maybe magical work directly related with fate.
So it seems there were multiple songs for each spirit, called upon to aid on the field of expertise of the specific spirit. Although there is only one reference about this Vardlokur invocation, it seems working with spirits is implicit in Seidr. Vardlokur may be one single invocation which was used for a specific purpose, to lock the helping spirit
and as I’ve said, there may have been other invocations in Seidr just as there are hundreds of invocations in Galdr. Well, in fact, these songs are directly related to Galdr itself, which seems to be a magical practice used before performing Seidr magic.