Thursday, 30 August 2012

Origin of Witchcraft - Seiðr Magic

Scandinavia... It sounds mystic for me and I remember that I used to be interested in Scandinavian mythology when I first got to know about it at school. Yet I don't know much about this historical region of northern Europe. I am sure there is a lot to explore about magic in Scandinavian culture.
Mythology is a huge and important part of every culture, especially in the origins of it. I'd like to go beyond term Scandinavia and explore witchcraft in Norse culture which will include not only Sweden, Denmark and Norway, but Germany, Iceland and Faroe Islands.
The very first term I happened upon while searching was Seiðr, a type of sorcerywhich was practiced in Norse society during Late Scandinavian Iron Age Seiðr relates to the Norse paganism, and according to the archaeological facts the beginning of Norse paganism can be attributed to 2300-500 BCE. The practitioners of this magic were called vǫlurseiðkonur and vísendakonaThe theme of Seiðr  appeared in sagas like Eric the Red and others later.
Seiðr was associated with the god Odin a deity who was responsible for war, poetry and sorcery... quiet diverse fields of influence. In many sources Seidr is considered to be a shamanic type of magic, where practitioners of it get inspiration from visionary journeys (b).
Three horns - a symbol of Odin
The etymology of the word Seiðr is unclear, however some of the authors of the book about Norse paganism give the following versions. According to the suggestion of this book the etymology goes to the Old High German and Old English and has equivalents in such words as "cord, string" and "snare, cord, halter" (b)    
The book explains very well with many examples from the Icelandic, North European folklore and mythology the thought behind such connection. With a cord one can not only bind things but also attract it and this is a characteristics of Seiðr. In Icelandic Seiðr tradition for example. Further thinking of the author leads to the assumption that the shamanic character of  Seiðr allows its performer's mind to be regarded as something spun like a thread or rope, something what a performer could send forth (b)
The author then explores the possibility of connection Seiðr magic with the concept of spinning. He says that it is widespread that magic wind can be a sorcerer's mind. "One's mind is one's breath". Then the author takes  the  examples from Saami (Northern Norway) legend, in which a woman who's husband sailed away didn't return by Christmas. The woman then went to the seashore and started spinning her distaff while saying the wind to turn and bring her husband back.
The magic of spinning a thread relates to Seiðr. Though the texts the author uses for proving his point of view are later than the High Middle Ages, however the theory of spinning in Seiðr magic finds its support in Viking's burial tradition. The Vikings used to bury their women with distaffs, some of them, as the author says, can belong to ones of the Seiðr. Hence mostly the practitioners of Seiðr were females because spinning was most characteristic women's work (b). 
 I shall add that the element of spinning, we can consider weaving too, is one of the ancient concepts. It can be found in many fairy tales and folklore stories (Sleeping beauty, Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave).
a distaff beside the bed of Sleeping Beauty

1 comment:

  1. Thanks I really enjoyed reading this! I agree with the suggested etymology about cords etc. - in Old English the term siden would seem to directly translate seidr, which carries a meaning of "silken thread". I believe that lines of influence from one person to another, for good or ill, can be seen clairvoyantly as a sort of silken thread, so this is the explanation I favour.