Seidr Magic in Viking Culture
Seiðr, Anglicized as seidr, is the most widely-attested type of magic in Norse literature. In stories of both the gods and mortal affairs, seidr often played an important role.
The exact ways in which this magic was practices are not detailed, but the clues given in poetry and sagas help us to understand what seidr was.
It was a type of magic that was concerned with influencing and interpreting fate. While normal people had no knowledge of the fate that had been woven for them, the völvas and seiðmenn who knew seidr magic could both see fate and manipulate it.
Seidr was practiced among the gods, particularly by Freya and Odin, but it also formed a common part of daily life. Wandering wise women and established religious leaders used seidr to both help and harm others.
To some people, however seidr represented a major taboo. Although it was used by gods and religious figures, seidr could also lead to distrust and even persecution.
Seidr appears in Norse texts as a type of magic that was practice by both the gods and humans.
Freya was thought to be the most powerful practitioner of seidr among the gods. She taught this magic to the Aesir so all had some proficiency even if they rarely practiced it.
In her knowledge, she was only rivaled by Odin.
One of Odin’s defining characteristics in his myths was his constant pursuit of new sources of knowledge, often at great personal expense. This was typically knowledge of seidr magic, such as the magical properties of runes or knowledge of the future.
Humans could practice seidr as well. Many legends include people with the ability to use this magic and archaeological records indicate that supposed seidr practitioners were relatively common in the Viking Age.
There were many types of magic that were associated with seidr. These often centered around manipulation of the world through magical means.
The incantations used in seidr, for example, could create love spells or protective charms. They could also be used to bring down hexes and curses upon one’s enemies.
These uses of magic altered the world around them. They could influence humans toward certain actions or cause events that would not have happened without magical influence.
Another major use of seidr was in divination.
This is the most commonly-used form of seidr in most myths. Odin, for example, travels to Hel to meet a dead woman who was skilled in seidr divination to learn about Ragnarók.
Simple auguries were not unusual in the ancient world but sources imply that the divination of seidr users was more complicated than these simpler forms of soothsaying. Sedr could bring knowledge of the future that was more precise and often highly detailed.
Many modern interpretations claim that seidr divination was marked by a trance-like state, perhaps brought on by the use of hallucinogenics. This separated the magic user from the mundane world and allowed them to glimpse a more metaphysical plane.
One thing the manipulative magic and divination of seidr had in common was a link to fate.
In Norse belief, fate was an intricately woven pattern of threads. The Norse sat by the roots of Yggdrasil and created a complex tapestry of the fates of every living creature.
Ordinary people could not see these fate, but masters of seidr could discern meaning in the patterns. Through manipulative magic, they could even subtly move the threads to change fate.
Because of this, one of the most common attributes of a practitioner of seidr was a distaff. Used in spinning wool or flax, this tool also marked out seidr as a feminine pursuit.
Norse society valued gender roles that were seen as fundamental to the culture even if they were not strictly enforced.
The masculine ideal was the display of bravery, strength, and a forthright attitude. Seidr, dealing with secrets and mysteries, was seen as unmasculine.
There was another form of magic, usually associated with battle, that was seen as more masculine. Calling on supernatural powers to give yourself more strength or strike fear into an enemy was seen as acceptably masculine for the warriors of the Viking Age.
Most users of seidr, therefore, were women. The völva, or seeress, appears often in legends and is a figure that commands respect.
Völvas, however, still seem to have lived on the fringes of society. While they were valued for their knowledge, they were also feared for their ability to hex and curse others.
They are often shown in legends as itinerant figures that rarely spent more than a few days in any location. They traveled between settlements throughout the Norse world trading charms and divination for lodging, food, and gold.
The völvas were not the only users of seidr in the Norse world. Despite its feminine connotations, there were men who used this type of magic.
These men were called seiðmenn and, like their female counterparts, often traveled to ply their magical trade.
They were often the sons of völvas who had been taught incantations and rituals by their mothers. A few set out to learn the skills of their own accord, but there was a good reason that few men chose seidr if they weren’t born into the tradition.
Men who used seidr magic were often treated with less respect than women, however. By choosing a traditionally feminine artform they were derided as argr, unmanly, and could face derision and persecution.
Even as religious leaders seiðmenn were considered anathema to Viking Age ideals. Although they played a valued role in society, they were still looked down on by the more ideally masculine warriors, craftsmen, and farmers.
This could even be true for gods.
Odin was considered to be the foremost practitioner of seidr. He went to great lengths to gain magical knowledge and often traveled the world of men dressed as a sage.
The chief of the Aesir gods, however, was still not exempt from the taboo of being seen as argr. Legends of his pursuit of seidr magic sometimes use feminized language and show Odin as weaker than he appears in other stories.
In one saga, Odin is even openly mocked as being argr by Loki. While the trickster himself often went against Norse gender norms, even giving birth to a horse while in the form of a mare, the practice of seidr drew his derision.
Most people, however, would not dream of insulting Odin’s masculinity so openly.
While Odin mastered seidr, he was also a practitioner of battle magic and a strong ruler. These hyper-masculine traits balanced his use of seidr, perhaps making his mastery of feminine types of magic more palatable.
Seidr was the most widely-cited form of magic in the Norse World.
It was a type of magic largely concerned with fate. Those who knew seidr’s secrets could both see the threads of fate and subtly manipulate them.
Those who knew seidr were thus said to have the power to divine the future. They could use their knowledge of fate to both help, in the form of charms or protective spells, or hurt with curses.
Because of this and their itinerant lifestyle, seidr users were sometimes viewed with distrust. Women who used seidr, however, were typically treated with respect.
This was not necessarily the case for men, however. Seidr’s secrecy aligned it with the feminine in Norse society, so men who practiced seidr were often treated with scorn for breaking gender taboos.
This was even occasionally the case for the gods. Odin was considered the most skilled seidr user in history and, despite his otherwise masculine traits, was sometimes derided for using a feminine power.