Misconceptions about seidhr (pronounced “seethe” or “sayth”), Norse trance journeying, abound in both the lore and Heathenry−much of it hinging on modern fantasies or medieval corruptions and loaded with sexual politics that have no real place in approaching our elder kin. This creates fear, distrust and distance from the Gods and ancestors where there should be real affection, truth and learning instead.
It’s time to change that.
Since I am not a Norse language or cultural expert, but very well versed in trance magic, Northern European mythology, folklore and beliefs, when practicing seidhr, I rely upon common sense and direct experience working with the Gods and spirits, the same way our ancestors gained this knowledge in the first place. It was this first-hand knowledge that was passed down in the oral lore of myths known as the Eddas, named after the wise old grannies who retained such knowledge until it was recorded in writing.
I also look to trained scholars with a respect for Heathenry– and other adept magicians who have independently had similar experiences, stable minds who speak of the Gods with respect, not servility, rather than relying on the corpus of untried academic theory alone.
This is how the Gods taught me, and it’s the same way I will teach you.
What’s in The Eddas vs Modern Prejudices
Medieval sagas, largely historical fantasies about humans, typically paint a dim and scary portrait of seidhr work. You will not find this attitude in the Edda poems, which are almost entirely a how-to manual of galdr, runework, utiseta and seidhr. This fear has been compounded by non-Heathen, non-magician scholars and translators who have inserted modern political theories, motivations and (in at least one case) anti-Germanic agendas connected with the previous world wars into verses which contain no such material (such as equating the first volva, Gullveig, with monetary greed)!
Freyja, the master seidhkona, is one of the most beloved deities in all of paganism, let alone Heathenry… so why is seidhr still stigmatized and feared today? Should the province of the very Goddess of life, without whom all the Gods would wither and die, be treated as something any less than holy?
Let’s dispel a few myths and get onward with an essential magical skill practiced and taught by our own Gods and Goddesses and mastered by our ancestors, shall we?
What Seidhr Is
Seidhr is a powerful form of soul and fate magic, a state of visionary trance and accompanying magical techniques for journeying to observe a physical location or people, a method of gaining visions of the future, allowing observation of past events or entry into the experience of another being as if it is your own. Seidhr is a way to converse with spirits to gain wisdom– and, very specifically, the art of evaluating and re-weaving the energies of a person, place, object or fate pattern.
This can be achieved in several different ways and be accompanied by a variety of observable physical and other phenomena. It is an entire branch and way of performing magic, rather than a single practice. All seidhr is accessed through the imagination; most of it relies on communication with spirits.
(You can find a longer introduction to seidhr in my first column in Witches and Pagans #30 or here on my website. Norwegian scholar Maria Kvilhaug gives excellent scholarly explanations of seidhr, the Norse mysteries, as found within out lore in her book, Seed of Yggdrasil, website, and Youtube channel. An excellent beginner’s trance book is also Magic of the Norse Goddesses by Alice Karlsdottir.)
What Seidhr Can Do
- Seidhr can save the life of a sick infant in an ICU unit by convincing the ancient soul in her to remain in this body and battle to fulfill her fate in this era rather than fleeing consciousness within a cold and alien sea of life support tubes.
- Seidhr can heal draugr from a brutal war, freeing the tortured unquiet dead from the shame of dying, clearing the battle site of their pain and poisonous hatred– and allowing the living to go on, free from being haunted by them.
- Seidhr can restore balance to a place where the ancestors have been paved over and ignored for the financial interests of tourism by opening a gate for hundreds of people to pass over into the afterlife, allowing new life to flourish.
- Seidhr can drive off destructive beings from the underworld raised by unholy magics.
- Seidhr can give you forgotten rituals and myths directly from the Gods.
- Seidhr can change the entire course of your fate to one you’d never even dreamed of.
Seidhr births new things into the world, and helps those outworn things which need to move on to do so.
Is Seidhr Evil?
Are the runes evil? There’s your answer.
It is, however, very dangerous without proper magical cleanliness, inner balance, moral scruples, knowledge of safe ritual work, and a strong connection to the Gods and spirits! The very first person you are likely to harm from badly done seidhr… is yourself. You also may not recognize the consequences of this for some time. Unfortunately, an unbalanced seidhr working can open up a group or place to lasting problems as well, so it is the responsibility of seidhr folk to see that this art is taught properly, and to train our community about it. A veil of secrecy and fear does no one good; it is more likely to allow unsafe practices to continue to harm both seidhr workers and the innocent.
So what’s the balance? In my experience, a healthy wariness of entering into seidhr trance or caution about attending a divination session as a beginner is warranted. Seidhr workers and teachers should show healthy proof of their characters, displaying confidence, stability, compassion and a healthy respect for humans, Gods and the environment.
When done properly, however, seidhr is extraordinarily worthy. It’s vital to both our ancestral heritage and modern-day power to reclaim this once greatly revered art.
A Few Common Misconceptions
Contrary to dreary attitudes about seidhr, there is only one strictly negative Poetic Edda reference to seidhr and even that is suspect. Voluspa, the very first poem of the Eddas,is recited by a volva, a seidhr-working seeress summoned by Odhin. In the course of recounting both the history and future of the universe, the seeress mentions an ancient woman called Gullveig (literally “Golden Power Drink” aka the sacred mead of inspiration, according to Maria Kvilhaug), almost undisputably recognized as Freyja by both scholars and Heathens.
Gullveig is portrayed in translations laden with heavily Christianized, atheist or political sentiments as the archetypal wicked witch− or innocent and wrongly punished, depending on who you ask. What is known is that Gulveig is sacrificed by stabbing and burning, then reborn three times. She wanders around teaching seidhr, and a war erupts after her arrival, whether or not she caused it.
As Maria Kvilhaug points out, witches were not burned in ancient Scandinavia, but highly honored, so punishment for the “crime” of seidhr is puzzling. No one thinks Odhin was hung as a witch upon the World Tree when he won the runes! Nobody thinks he was tortured by hanging for being promiscuous or seducing anyone, either.
Please keep in mind that another volva is describing Gullveig and those she teaches… so is she herself wicked for using the same kind of magic? Does it even make sense for her to describe women who practice seidhr as “wicked”, rather than “playful”, as many versions of the Prose Edda ambivalently word it? Internally, that makes no logical sense.
This is one of the problems with scholars relying on later dim attitudes from a different faith to inform their very specific choice of wording ancient texts where several meanings might be available. (I invite you to read several versions of the Eddas, rather than relying on one text to see just how much the wording choice can vary!)
Most people– magicians or not– have, at some point in their lives, performed an aspect of seidhr. It is a natural part of the workings of the human spirit and imagination. Unless we have somehow been crippled (in this era, the pineal gland is actively being destroyed by diet, conditioning, pharmaceutical dependency and water pollution across the population) most humans should have the ability to do some of this, even if they never embark on a trance journey.
If you have ever had a lucid dream or trance, one in which you actively participated, or in which you have experienced an event “from the inside” as if you were another person, you’ve performed aspect of seidhr. I’m betting you didn’t do that to take over somebody’s mind, right? Or even think you did?
Seidhr is not inherently manipulative, either. This concept comes from a translated line about Gullveig ‘playing with people’s minds’… or it can also be understood as Gullveig being playful as she taught seidhr! Seidhr is no more manipulative than the act of writing itself, carving runes or gardening. Are you terrified of authors? Martial arts instructors? Computer engineers? Do you think they are an evil group out to control your mind?
Seidhr is a technique. How you use it is your responsibility. But being a technique of extreme empathy that relies upon built up relationships with powerful spirits– who can withdraw those relationships and your magical gifts if you abuse them– I wouldn’t recommend trying it for selfish means.
Practicing seidhr doesn’t make a man “gay” or “perverted”, and it’s not only for women. But women are more “naturals” at seidhr! Skirnismal tells of Frey/Skirnir’s seidhr trip, using the high seat to look out on the worlds. Odhin is also a famous master of it. Loki borrows female power objects to perform it, which implies that men performing seidhr is much rarer.
Women have more natural affinities to fate workings in historical record, mythology, modern practice, and my own experience. On the other hand, fit, magically aware men are often better warders due to stamina, so it’s not a question of one being “better” than the other!
How seidhr got this gay stigma is a complicated mess, and involves the shifting attitudes towards a single Norse word used for male seidhr workers: ergi. Ergi implies difference from the norm (all magicians are different than “normal” folk.) much in the same way as queer, with a very similar shift in connotation.
As attitudes changed, calling a man ‘ergi’ became a mortal insult.
Start with some Christian fear, add changed attitudes towards homosexuality and throw in Saami shamanic trappings being misunderstood or vilified by another increasingly Christian culture. Spice with historical associations with wombs and childbirth and associated embarrassment (because why would a guy be mimicking going into trance for a far less painful labor?) and cook up the erosion of the importance of women as the primary wielders of healing and fate magic and you suddenly have ancestral practices like seidhr being despised. When women’s magic became shameful instead of honored, men who practiced it were especially looked down upon.
Nobody, historical or modern, writes with the same loathing of women performing rune magic or galdr, which men are better known for!
Yes, there are uncomplimentary poetic portrayals of seidhr in the form of insults slung at men or male Gods for performing seidhr in Lokasenna and Harbardsloth. The strongest thing that proves is that seidhr was heavily associated with women, and some gender-bending in terms of being a magical vessel was required for men to practice it properly in a society with sharply defined sex roles. A powerful, very manly man taking on female dress and attributes for a short time, or being turned into a woman temporarily, is an ancient motif in myths from Greece to Iceland, from Akilles to Odhin. It’s what heroes do when something makes them not be active heroes, like a murderous dad in childhood or a jerk of a king asking you to fight an unjust war. Usually, they are somehow tricked back into revealing their masculinity.
So, if you think Odhin is gay for doing seidhr, when in Harbardslodh he brags to Thor about all the honeys he’s loved and chides his son for killing giant ladies instead … well, what can I say?
Maybe the original insult, and the joke of old Longbeard (Harbard) being a seidhr master was that other men thought seidhr men were hanging around with women back home to score with them, instead of engaging in manlier warrior pursuits, like Thor.
In my actual experience, I have seen very straight men, secure in their masculinity, perform seidhr quite well. But the energies and spirits they call have a different flavor to them. Perhaps men and women typically performed seidhr for different reasons in the past. As we have more seidhr workers available, we’ll know.
What Seidhr Isn’t
Seidhr itself is not one of “the mysteries”, but a vehicle to directly experiencing and comprehending them. The journeying form of it is openly recorded in the Eddas (including what not to do, which I’ll cover later), in the poems Skirnismal, Svipdagsmal, Hyndlajodh, Havamal, Baldrs Draumr and more, demonstrated as a full, induced divinatory trance in the Voluspa. Another, human version from Greenland is given in the Saga of Erik the Red.
Seidhr is also not strictly “Norse shamanism”, nor modern neo-shamanism. It is both deeply personal and cosmic in nature rather than being connected primarily to personal healing, tribal needs and nature beings as shamanism is commonly understood. But perhaps that’s because anthropologists aren’t describing shamans’ greater work on those levels, focusing instead on their observations of sessions with particular clients, theatrics and exotic medical knowledge of native herbs and minerals.
I have used the term shamanism in the past, because it’s what many moderns understand spirit contact to be, however, I feel that it’s not an accurate description of true seidhr work. While anthropologist Mircea Eliade describes many things you can experience during seidhr and gives an overview of it, none of the non-Norse cultures surveyed in his landmark book ‘Shamanism’ describe how you should go about performing seidhr. You need to read the Eddas for that.
Historically, seidhr is not recorded, that I know of, in connection to many of the techniques of modern “core shamanism” such as soul retrieval, soul dismemberment, or discovering animal spirit helpers and “spirit guides”. These techniques are largely borrowed from the experiences of indigenous peoples outside of Europe.That’s not to say you will never encounter them within seidhr, as those are profound spiritual experiences in themselves, just that they are not what seidhr is about– just as core shamanism usually doesn’t deal with divination or re-weaving fate.
Rather than only being within the auspices of shamanistic religion, seidhr techniques occur to different degrees in beliefs and practices as disparate as kabbalism, medieval Christian visions and transcendental meditation.
As touched on earlier, seidhr techniques are not exclusive to the Norse. (The Odyssey, among other things, seems to be a record of trance journeying, visionary accounts and meetings with Gods, mixed with physical travels, including descriptions of Hellenic magic.) However, the Norse developed a special term for it and had specialist seidhr-working priestesses, the volur, showing the importance of this practice to their culture.
Historically, the study of seidhr is connected with visiting the Saami, and there is evidence that the Oseberg priestess of the famous burial ship was herself Slavic. Rather than the fear and loathing of some later saga accounts, staff carrying women had rich burials and the poetic accounts, particularly Voluspa, align with the great honor shown to the traveling volur visiting the halls.
Aspects of seidhr are performed around the world by magicians and in traditional religions. It simply was not actively taught in a way easily recognizable by English-speaking Heathens stumbling about in the 20th century as we tried to revive what our ancestors knew.
Now that we’ve cleared the air, how do you go about seidhr, then?
That’s another post.
Image credit: Faroese postage stamp of a volva by Anker Eli Petersen, courtesy of Wikipedia.
- The Poetic and Prose Eddas
- Shamanism Mircea Eliade
- Seed of Yggdrasil by Maria Kvilhaug
- Volva Stav Manual by Kari Tauring
- Multiple works by Hilda Ellis Davidson
- Magic of the Norse Goddesses by Alice Karlsdottir
- Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic by Jenny Blain