Written by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
Let us first clarify that the Viking magical tradition called Seidur or Seidr, has been the inspiration for numerous modern shamanic movements–which are interesting in and of themselves– but for the purposes of this article, we are talking only about Viking Age evidence for this highly magical shamanism.
Seidur magic was Odin magic. Odin, who later became the chief god, was apparently merely a one-eyed war god when the 10th century began, but he was a powerful war god, and there are explicit descriptions of seidur magic in a number of medieval Icelandic texts. The most important of which are Edda’s Poems like Voluspa and Lokasenna, and great sagas, Gisli Sursson’s Saga, Eiriks saga rauda, and Hrolfs saga kraka, as well as Snorri’s Ynglingasaga.
Seidur magic seems to have been largely the sphere of women. However, Odin himself is said to have practiced Seidur magic, and we have historical references to male Seidur seers. Such men were generally maligned for engaging in feminine activities. Seidur magic had several goals: (1) Prophecy. For example, in Eiriks saga rauda (chapter 4), the seeress is trying to gain knowledge of the future. In Edda’s poem , Voluspa, she is concerned with the fate of the gods, the coming of Ragnarok. (2) Controlling the weather, or people, both of which are documented in Gisli Sursson’s Saga (chapter 18), and The Saga of the People of Laxardal (chs. 35-37).
Seidur seers also gained supernatural knowledge through utiseta, which means they sat outside at night on graves and sought out the secret wisdom known only to the dead. To accomplish these goals, the seeress engaged in rites that included fasting, hanging, exposure to the cold, spirit journeys, ecstatic trance states and shape-shifting. Many seidur seers were apparently particularly adept at taking on the forms of bears and wolves. As with other circumpolar shamanic traditions, we have hints that changing gender may have been part of some seidur intitation rites (see Meulengracht Sorensen 1980; 1983). As Neil Price noted in his excellent article, The Archaeology of Seidr (Lewis-Simpson 2000, p. 278), “It would seem to be the apparent contradiction of Odinn’s role as both a male god and the master of seidr—these rituals that were primarily the province of women—that gives him such extensive power over the minds and movements of others, and particularly over the events of the battlefield.” It was the combination of male and female powers–the crossing of gender boundaries– that were the heart of seidur magic.
In conclusion, though it is rarely mentioned in books on Vikings, the highly magical seidur tradition was inextricably woven into the very fabric of Old Norse society. In fact, we would argue that you cannot understand Viking culture without an understanding of seidur seers and their magical influences.
Lewis-Simpson, Shannon. Vinland Revisited. The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium. Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc., 2000: 277-294.
Lewis-Simpson, Shannon. Vinland Revisited. The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium. Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc., 2000: 295-304.