Home Norse Völva, a Shamanic Seeress

Völva, a Shamanic Seeress

by Bernadette Weyde

A Völva or Vǫlva is a shamanic seeress in Norse paganism and a recurring motif in Norse mythology. The Old Norse word vǫlva means “wand carrier” or “carrier of a magic staff”. Collectively they are known as Völur.

A spákona or spækona is a “seer/one who sees“, from the Old Norse word ‘spá’ or ‘spæ’ referring to prophesying and which is cognate with the present English word “spy”.

Völur practiced ‘seiðr’, ‘spá’ and ‘galdr’; practices which encompassed shamanism, sorcery, prophecy and other forms of indigenous magic.

Historical and mythological depictions of Völur show that they were held in high esteem and believed to possess such powers that even the father of the gods, Odin himself, consulted a Völva to learn what the future had in store for the gods. Such an account is preserved in the Völuspá which roughly translates to “Prophecy of the Völva”. In addition to the unnamed seeress (possibly identical with Heiðr) in Völuspá, other examples of Völur in Norse literature include Gróa in Svipdagsmál, Þórbjörgr in the Saga of Eric the Red and Huld in for instance Ynglinga saga.

The Völur were not considered to be harmless. The goddess who was most skilled in magic was Freyja, and she was not only a goddess of love, but also a warlike divinity who caused screams of anguish, blood and death, and what Freyja performed in Asgard, the world of the gods, the Völur tried to perform in Midgard, the world of men. The weapon of the Völva was not the spear, the axe or the sword but instead they were held to influence battles with different means, and one of them was the wand.

The earliest descriptions of such women appear in Roman accounts about the Germanic Cimbri whose priestesses were aged women dressed in white. They sacrificed the prisoners of war and sprinkled their blood in order to prophesy coming events.

In his ‘Commentarii de Bello Gallico‘, Julius Caesar writes in the course of clashes with Germanic tribesmen under Ariovistus (58 BCE):

“When Caesar inquired of his prisoners, wherefore Ariovistus did not come to an engagement, he discovered this to be the reason – that among the Germans it was the custom for their ‘matrons’ to pronounce from lots and divination whether it were expedient that the battle should be engaged in or not; that they had said, “that it was not the will of heaven that the Germans should conquer, if they engaged in battle before the new moon.”

Tacitus also writes about female prophets among the Germanic peoples in his book Histories 4, 61 – notably a certain Veleda:

“…by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity.”

In Viking society, a Völva was an elderly woman who had released herself from the strong family bonds that normally surrounded women in the Old Norse clan society. She travelled the land, usually followed by a retinue of young people, and she was summoned in times of crisis. She had immense authority and she charged well for her services.

In addition, many aristocratic Viking women wanted to serve Freyja and represent her in Midgard. They married Viking warlords who had Odin as a role model, and they settled in great halls that were earthly representations of Valhalla. In these halls there were magnificent feasts with ritualized meals, and the visiting chieftains can be likened with the ‘einherjar’, the fallen warriors who fought bravely and were served drinks by Valkyries. However, the duties of the mistresses were not limited to serving mead to visiting guests, but they were also expected to take part in warfare by manipulating weaving tools magically when their spouses were out in battle. Scholars no longer believe that these women waited passively at home, and there is evidence for their magic activities both in archaeological finds and in Old Norse sources, such as the Darraðarljóð.

It is difficult to draw a line between the aristocratic lady and the wandering Völva, but Old Norse sources present the Völva as more professional and she went from estate to estate selling her spiritual services. The Völva had greater authority than the aristocratic lady, but both were ultimately dependent on the benevolence of the warlord that they served. When they had been attached to a warlord, their authority depended on their personal competence and credibility.

The ‘Saga of Eric the Red’ relates that the settlers in Greenland c. 1000 were suffering a time of starvation. In order to prepare for the future, the Völva Þórbjörgr lítilvölva (the little Völva) was summoned. Before her arrival the whole household was thoroughly cleaned and prepared. The high seat, which was otherwise reserved for the master and his wife, was furnished with down pillows.

The Völva appeared in the evening, dressed in a foot-length blue or black cloak decked with gems to the hem. In her hand she wielded a wand, the symbolic distaff (seiðstafr), which was adorned with brass and decked with gems on the knob. In Örvar-Odd’s Saga, the seiðkona also wears a blue or black cloak and carries a distaff (a wand which allegedly has the power of causing forgetfulness in one who is tapped three times on the cheek by it). The colour of the cloak may be less significant than the fact that it was intended to signify the otherness of the seiðkona.

The Saga of Eric the Red further relates that around her neck she wore a necklace of glass pearls, and on her head she wore a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white cat skin. Around her waist she wore a belt of amadou from which hung a large pouch, where she hid the tools that she used during the seiðr. On her feet she wore shoes of calfskin and the shoelaces had brass knobs in the ends, and on her hands she wore gloves of cat skin, which were white and fluffy inside.

As the Völva entered the room, she was hailed with reverence by the household, and then she was led to the high seat, where she was provided with dishes prepared only for her. She had a porridge made of goat milk and a dish made of hearts from all the kinds of animals at the homestead. She ate the dishes with a brass spoon and a knife whose point was broken off.

The Völva was to sleep at the farm during the night and the next day was reserved for her dance. In order to dance the seiðr, she needed special tools. First, she positioned herself on a special elevated platform and a group of young women sat down around her. The girls sang special songs intended to summon the powers that the Völva wished to communicate with. The session was a success, because the Völva was permitted to see far into the future and the famine was averted.

Scandinavian archaeologists have discovered wands in about 40 female graves, and they have usually been discovered in rich graves with valuable grave offerings which shows that the Völvas belonged to the highest level of society.

One example is a grave in Fyrkat, Denmark which turned out to be the richest grave in the area. She was buried in a wagon from which the wheels had been removed. She had been plainly clad in what was probably only a long dress. Around her toes, she had toe rings, which suggests that she was buried without shoes or only in sandals so that the rings showed. At her head, she had a Gotlandic buckle which may have been used as a box, and she also owned objects from Finland and Russia. At her feet, she had a box which contained her magic tools, comprising a pellet from an owl as well as small bones from birds and mammals, and in a pouch she had the seeds of henbane. If such seeds are thrown into a fire, they produce a hallucinogenic smoke which causes a sense of flying. In the grave there was also a small silver amulet that represented a chair made from a stump. When such small silver chairs are discovered in graves, they always belong to a woman, and it is possible that they represented objects such as the platform where the Völva performed her rituals and Hlidskjalf from which Odin watched across the world.

(full article can be found at wiki and it’s well worth the read; artwork ‘Words from the Dead’ by Mepold)

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