Wisdom of the North ; Seiðr, spá and spae-craft Part 1

The fairest of the soul-crafts of old, and the one which had most to do with the worship of Norse forebears, is spae-craft (Old Norse spá) – the skill of seeing that which is unseen to others and of telling what should come to pass. Many of the goddesses are known as having this skill: in Lokasenna 21, Óðinn says that Gefjon knows all ørlögs as well as he himself, and in stave 29, Freyja says of Frigg that she knows all ørlögs, though she does not speak of them. Snorri tells us in the introduction to Snorra Edda that Þórr found a spákona in the northern half of the world, ‘er Síbíl hét, er vér kllum Sif’ (who is named Sibyl, which we call Sif); though his derivation of ‘Sif’ from ‘Sibyl’ is, to say the least, dubious, it is possible, given the knowledge that Frigg and Gefjon are both notable and worthy of special respect for this skill, that the reference springs from a real tradition of Sif as a spae-wife.

Among the Ases, we see Óðinn himself as dependent upon the spae-craft of women; both in Völuspá (‘Spae of the Völva’) and Baldrs draumar, he must ask a völva about what shall become. The word völva itself comes from a root meaning ‘magical staff’; the same root appears, for instance, in the name (or title) of the second century Semnonian seeress Waluburg (Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, pp. 370-71). As Eiríks saga shows us, the staff does indeed appear to have been characteristic of the völva even towards the end of the Heathen period. 

Völva is a looser word than spákona or seiðkona, being used indiscriminately for both: in practice, it appears to indicate a professional seeress or female magician, who may be a seiðkona, a spákona, or even a practitioner of galdr-magic (we may also compare the valkyrja-name Göndull and corresponding Óðinsheiti Göndlir, both meaning ‘wand-bearer’).

In that time there was a very bad season in Greenland: those who went hunting got little game, and summer did not come afterwards. There was a woman named Þórbjörg dwelling there; she was a spae-wife and was called Little-völva. She had had
nine sisters, and all were spae-wives, but she alone still lived.
It was Þórböjrg’s habit to go to feasts that winter, and most men who were curious to know their fates or harvest-expectations invited her home; and among those Þórkell was the greatest farmer, who wished to know what should come to him, how soon the bad harvest which oppressed him should end. 

Þórkell invited the spae-wife home, and she was well received there, as was the custom when someone should take this woman up on her habit. A high-seat was prepared for her and a cushion laid under her; that had to be (stuffed with) henfeathers.
But when she came in the evening with the man who had been sent to meet her, then she was so readied, that she had a blue mantle fastened with strings, and stones were set all in the flap above; on her neck she had glass beads, a black lambskin hood on her head with white catskin inside; and she had a staff in her hand with a knob on it; it was made with brass and stones were set above in the knob; she had a belt of touchwood, and on it was a large skin purse, and there she kept safe her talismans which she needed to get knowledge.

She had on her feet shaggy calfskin shoes with long thongs and large tin knobs on the ends of those. She had on her hands catskin gloves, and they were white inside and shaggy.
When she came in, it seemed to all people that seemly words should be chosen for her…Þórkell the farmer took her by the hand and led her to that seat which was prepared for her… 

The tables were taken away in the evening, and it is to be said what was prepared for the spae-wife’s meal. Porridge was made for her out of kids’-milk, and a dish prepared from the hearts of all living creatures which were available. She had a brass spoon and a knife made of tooth mounted with a double ring of copper, and the end was broken off…
But the next day, at sunset, she made the preparations which she needed to have to carry out seiðr. She also asked for those women who knew the wisdom (chant) which was necessary for seiðr and was called Varðlokur. But those women could not be found. Then the folk dwelling there were asked if anyone knew it.
Then Guðríðr said, ‘I am neither magically skilled nor a wise-woman, but Halldís, my foster-mother, taught me that chant in Iceland which she called Varðlokur’…The women made a ring around the seat, and Þórböjrg sat up on it. Then Guðríðr recited the chant so fairly and well, that it seemed to no one that they had heard the chant spoken with a fairer voice than was here. The spae-wife thanked her for the recital and said (that) many of the powers were now satisfied and thought it fair to hear when the chant was recited so well… “And now many of those things are shown to me which I was denied before, and many others”
In the earlier days of our folk, the most honoured female leaders of the tribes were the spae-women who advised the war-chiefs concerning their battles with Rome. The most notable of these women was the Veleda, who fore-saw the victory of the Batavi and gave rede for the tribe to rise against the Romans in 69 C.E. Of her, Tacitus says, ‘She was a maiden from the tribe of the Bructeri who possessed great powers, according to the old custom of the Germanic peoples to regard many women as seeresses, and in an extended superstition to consider them even to be goddesses’ (Histories IV, 61). Just as Hermann the Cheruscan is often given worship today as the embodiment of early Teutonic manhood and warrior-might, the first of our great heroes, so the Veleda is given a like worship as the embodiment of early Teutonic womanhood and deep soulwisdom, the first of our great heroines.

People with the power to see into the unseens, the power of foresight, both women and men, appear often in the sagas. We can find one of the few identifiable differences between spae-craft and seiðr: spae-folk are highly respected and considered valuable members of the community even by christian sagamenn long after the conversion, while seið-folk are more marginal figures. There was clearly, in the minds of our forebears, a meaningful difference between spae-craft and seiðr: the one was usually prophetic and usually weal-working, the other was usually a magical craft and often woe-working.

Some of the Norse spae-folk who got much honour for their work include Þórhallr spámaðr, of whom it was said that he was ‘madr frodr ok miog framsynn’ (Flateyjarbók I, p. 419), and who was given the greatest respect by his friend and patron Hallr; the völva Heiðr who tells Ingimundr inn gamli what has happened to his silver pouchidol of Freyr; and Þórböjrg litilvölva the Greenlandish spae-wife (of whom more is said below, as she also practiced seiðr). ‘Spae’ is also used as a descriptive for helpful wights: spámaðr is also used for a landwight in Þórvalds þáttr víðförla, and Sigmundr’s spiritual protectresses are called spádísir in Völsunga saga.
Spae-craft is associated directly with the Norns in Nornagests þáttr (Flateyjarbók I, láfs saga Tryggvasonar). Nornagestr says that;

‘fóru þá um land völur, er kallaðar váru spákonur, ok spáðu mönnum ørlög, því buðu margir menn þeim heim ok gerðu þeim veizlur ok gáfu þeim góða gripi at skilnaði’
(völur, which were called spákonur, fared about the land then and prophesied the ørlögs of men, wherefore many men invited them home and prepared feasts for them and gave them good treasures when they parted)

… and later refers to the three spae-women as ‘norns’. Here they appear as not only speaking, but shaping Wyrd for the newborn child: when the youngest norn is treated disrespectfully, she gives Nornagestr a life no longer than it takes the candle to burn down, whereafter the oldest norn immediately puts the candle out and tells the baby’s mother to take good care of it (Nornagestr lives three hundred years, and ends his life by burning the candle at Oláfr’s court). These spae-wives very much resemble the lesser norns, mentioned by Snorri in the Prose Edda, who come to each child at birth to shape its ørlög. These lesser norns are clearly dísir; it is quite possible that there may have been a relationship between idises and spae-craft.

The practice of spae-craft varied in the old days. Sometimes it seemed to call for special trancetechniques, as in the case of Þórgeirr the Lawspeaker who went ‘under the cloak’ for two days before deeming Iceland’s religious future (and made the decision which preserved the religious lore of the North until it could be written down; had christianity been enforced in Iceland rather than accepted quietly, we would almost certainly have lost all the tales and elder lays of our god/esses). Other times, as in Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls (Flateyjarbók I, pp. 418-21), where the words hyggja (to intuit) and bjoða (to bode) are used by Þórhallr spámaðr to describe his premonition, spae-craft seems to have been a matter of psychic sensing with no special effort made. The matter was clearly a question of both personal character and the situation at hand: Þórgeirr had a specific problem which he needed to resolve, whereas Þórhallr sensed the doom hanging over the upcoming Winternights festivities.

Both types of spae-craft are highly useful. One can grow in the latter by careful attention to fore-bodings – by considering one’s feelings, especially before large happenings and holy feasts, and writing them down, then waiting to see what comes of them. Close attention paid to personal feelings and outside omens, and their following consequences, at the three greatest feasts of the year (Yule, Ostara, and Winternights) and those on which divination is traditionally done in the North (Waluburg’s Night and Midsummer) – can also help one recognise and develop one’s own spae-craft, if one has the root talent.


Closely akin in function to the womanly word völva, but not used as loosely, is the manly word thule (Old Norse þulr). The word comes from the same root as þula, ‘to speak’; it also appears as the Anglo-Saxon þyle, a title used for Unferth in Beowulf and glossed as ‘orator, jester’. Unferth appears as Hrothgar’s champion, though he battles with words instead of weapons; he is clearly a highly valued member of the court, for he has a place beside the king even though he killed his own brother. The word was current as a religious title for human speakers in Old Norse, as shown by the famous Snøldelev stone which honours ‘Gunvald, son of Roald, thule on the Sal-howes’ (Moltke, Runes and their Origins, pp. 165-166). The word þulr is also used for the etin Vafþrúðnir, who tells Óðinn of the end of the worlds (Vafþrúðnismál 9); the dwarf Reginn, foster-father of Sigurðr Völsung (Fáfnismál 34), and Óðinn himself, who goes by the name of Fimbul-Þulr (the Great Thul). In Hávamál, he says,

Mál er at þylia þular stóli á, Urðar brunni at; sá er ok þagðac, sá ec oc hugðac, hlýdda ec á manna mál; of rúnar heyrða ec dma, né um ráðom þgðo, Háva hllo at, Háva hllo í, heyrða ec segia svá

(It is time to speak as a thule, on the thule’s seat, at the Well of Wyrd; I saw and was silent, I saw and thought, I listened to the speech of folk; I heard deeming of runes, and they were not silent of redes, at the halls of the High One, in the halls of the High One, thus I heard tell).

It is clear that the thule, like the spae-wife and seiðkona, has a special seat prepared for him from which he speaks inspired words – words that stem from the Well of Wyrd: when he sits upon his hallowed seat, he is in the stead where all the ørlögs of the worlds are deemed. We note that the two uses of Fimbul-Þulr for Óðinn are both in seemingly formulaic phrases speaking of the holy/magical uses of the runes:
A special characteristic to the thule’s seat, which he shares with the holy kings of our elder tradition, is that it may often have been set upon a burial mound: in his commentary on the Snøldelev stone, Moltke notes that ‘Tulshøj, “thul’s mound”, is quite a common place-name’ (Runes and their Origins, p. 166). In ‘At sidde på Höj’, Olrik specifically compares the kingly practice of sitting on a mound to the use of a platform or high-seat and interprets it as a sign of the holy character of Norse kingship. There are a tremendous number of references to kings doing precisely this (vg. Grundy, ‘The Cult of Óðinn’, II, 2.2); the royal dead in the mound seem to be the source of a king’s spiritual authority, so that he speaks his greatest degrees from the howe: in fact, many Migration Age howes were flattened on top and may have been crowned by stones for just this purpose

(Lindqvist, þeim er gorðo ginregin ok fáði fimbulþulr
(which the Ginn-Regin made and Fimbulthulr coloured);
er fáði fimbulþulr ok gorðo ginnregin ok reist hroptr rgna
(which Fimbulthulr coloured, and the Ginn-Regin made, and Hroptr of gods risted).
‘Ynglingaättens Gravskick’, p. 93; H.R. Ellis, Road to Hel, pp. 110-11).

That this was not merely practical – much more than a means of getting the king or thule up where he could be seen and his voice heard, or a mere reminder of the authority of royal descent – is shown by, among other references, Völsunga saga ch. 1, where Rerir sits on a mound to pray for a child and is given an apple there by Óðinn’s adopted daughter, and Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, where Helgi is given his name and the drive to do heroic deeds by the dís Sváva as he sits upon a howe. The Penzlin bracteate from Mecklenburg (Hauck, Goldbrakteaten, Tafeln I, pp. 179-80) also probably shows a king or thule upon a mound: the size of the supine figure as contrasted to the sitter suggests his greater power – the might and wisdom of the hallowed dead who speak through the living – and the bird behind the sitter also suggests a possible relationship with Wodan.
The craft of the thule can be practiced either directly, if one lives where one can sit upon a gravemound dwelt in by a wight with whom one is on good terms, or indirectly, through the addition of shamanic soul-faring techniques to bring one to the mound. The latter was obviously not practiced by our forebears, because they had no need for it: one can hardly walk in Northern Europe without tripping over a howe. However, America is another matter. If necessary, such a soul-faring can be undertaken either by first making the faring to Hel and looking about for a howe in the realm of the dead (you are likely to find one of your forebears in this manner), or by faring directly to the homeland and looking for an earthly howe upon which you may sit in spirit.

Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Ynglingaättens Gravskick', ; H.R. Ellis, Road to Hel, Runes and their Origins, Moltke, Gundarsson, Spae-craft, Hávamál, Lokasenna,  Flateyjarbók I, Prose Edda, Poetic Edda 

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