By: Radböd Įrtisson
It is well known that various different types of magics were known and practiced by our ancestors. The application of these skills was never the way of the majority of people, but there were enough practitioners that the abilities of practitioners were well known. Today, as an outgrowth of the Reawakening, one finds a certain number of individuals within the Heathen community who attempt to revive the crafts so that they may play an rōle in our modern Heathenry just as it did for our forefathers.
Our ancestors knew of a variety of magics including: rśncręft (rune-workings), galdR (the singing of magical songs or reciting of poems, presumably based on runic knowledge), the building of the nišstang (cursing pole), spį (prophesy) hamfarir (traveling outside the body in animal form), utiseta (mound-sitting to gain knowledge from the dead), and seišR (evil runes, witchcraft).
Wait! the reader may be thinking, Ive known people to practice seišR so that we could speak to a god through him/herand it wasnt evil. It is this misconception that will be addressed in this paper.
The Edda indicates that seišR involves some sort of influence over the minds/souls of others. In Völuspį 22, HeišR seiš hón leikinn (deluded with seišR), she is described as ever the delight of evil women.
From the statement in Heimskringla
that Freyja was the first in ĮsgaršR to practice seišR comes the mistaken
conclusion that Freyja is the same as Gullveig. Gullveig is called HeišR when
she comes among men, and it is she who teaches the art to Freyja. Hyndluljod
tells us that HeišR is the daughter of the jötun, Hrimnir. In Volusungasaga
we find that Hrimirs daughter is a maidservant of Frigg, who plays as
important an rōle as Loki is in the corruption of Order.
This brings us to the common assumption that Freyja Sżr taught seišR to Óšinn. Nowhere in the lore is it stated that Freyja taught seišR to Óšinn; this is simply the logical conclusion drawn from the fact that she brought the craft to the Ęsir.
Very little is preserved in the lore regarding the methods used by a seiškona (female practitioner, usually translated as witch; also seišmašr) or by the more rare seiškarl (male practitioner). But we do know of three important details: (1) the use of a platform or high seat during the performance of enchantment; (2) the recitation of chants to enlist the aid of spirits; and (3) activities which were considered ergi (sexually shameful, esp. passive homosexuality). It is these three characteristics that have caused many writers to compare seišR practices to the shamanism of other nations. This is an incorrect assumption. Although some elements of the shamanic complex are present in the lore, most notably faring forth in animal form to gain information or to do battle, they are specifically not associated with seišR. Egils Saga accuses GunnhildR of being a hamhleypa (body-leaper) when she comes in swallow-shape to distract Egil from his poetry (ch. 59), but not of practicing seišR.
The word seišR is never used in conjunction with any sort of shape-shifting or out-of-body travel, let alone for journeys to one of the other worlds. Further, seišR is never used for healing, soul-retrieval, or guiding the dead; nor is there any evidence that a seiškona underwent any sort of traumatic initiation typical of shamanism. Moreover, practitioners of seišR fail to demonstrate the amazing physical capabilities characteristic of shamans: the ability to avoid injury by extreme temperatures; resistance to cuts by knives or pins; or the ability to demonstrate incredible feats of physical control.
The purpose of the high seat, called a seišhjallR, is not explained in any of the surviving lore. But we could speculate that its use may be similar to that of the žular stóll (thule seat) on which the worker applies all the might of his/her abilities, suspended between MišgaršR and the other worlds. Such a seat may also make it easier for the practitioner to detach from the ordinary world and from the people around him/her.
The use of chants, called varšlokkur, was used to attract spirits to the working. A lone seiškona hardly ever appears in the sagas. Troupes up to 80 are mentioned (Haralšs Saga ins Hįrfagra), although some had to make due with available family members. The individuals performing the chant apparently required no magical skill or spiritual enlightenment.
One of the more difficult questions to answer is why the practice of seišR seemed to imply sexual shame for men. The fact that this so is attested to by a wide spread of references: not only Ynglinga Saga, but also in Gķsla Saga, where ŽorgrimR carries out his seišR meš allri ergi ok skelmiskap (with all femininity and devil working). And, of course, the oft-cited quote from Lokasenna where Loki matches Óšinns accusation that Loki has lived as a woman and borne children with the proportionately serious counter that Óšinn has practiced seišR. Some have theorized that the practice of seišR could have involved some sort of passive sexual reception, or that the entering of trance implied a loss of self-control that the Norse considered unmanly. Others have concluded that the practice of seišR may have included some sort of cross-dressing or transgender activity to stimulate the workers psychic abilities; or that the use of seišR in lieu of weapons to deal with adversaries was considered unscrupulous.
The tenth-century Korpbron stone bears a carved inscription, made of encoded runestaves inside a cross that reads, siža ŽurŽórR performed seišR. This connection of ŽórR with seišR is particularly interesting in regards to the association of seišR with ergi. One of ŽórRs most notable adventures, as described in Žrymskviša, involves dressing as a bride to retrieve Mjöllnir, which makes him concerned that the Ęsir might consider him argr (womanish). This suggests that there is much more to the mysteries of ŽórR than meets the eye!
The only sources in which we see references to seišR are in the Old Norseand all of these portray the art as malicious. Today, however, the art of seišR is often confused with that of spį. This is most likely due to the fact that in Orvar-Odds Saga and Hrólfs Saga Kraki, two later and less reliable sources, the seeresses are referred to as seiškonur. However, the work of spį, whose foretellings stem from inner knowledge or žśl-cręft which relies on the ability to bring forth the wisdom of the dead, is very different from that of seišR, as a form of mind-control.
On occasion, seišR can have an implication of prophecy similar to spį. An example would be in Ynglinga Saga ch. 7:
Óšinn knew that accomplishment which is called
seišR, and from that he could know the ųrlög of men and things that had not happened, and also thus cause the deaths or loss of hamingjur or loss of luck of men, and also thus take from one man wit or hamingja and give it to others.
However, this is not the general depiction of seišR, which is more often used as a means of malevolence.
Visbur was the son of Valandi. Visbur had a son,
Domaldi whose stepmother worked seišR to inflict ill luck
on him. SeišR was worked so that his father could be slain. Huld, the völva, then told them that she would work such seišR, but that ever after there would be slaughter among kinsmen in the Scylding family.
So it goes that Gunnhild worked seišR and worked it such that Egil Skallagrimsson would never live peacefully on Iceland until she had seen him
Another apparent use of seišR occurs when Freyja Sżr is nearly given to the giant, Grep. Freyja is put under a spell (Völuspį 25). In Belis hall she is unconscious, listless, and wasting away for love. She longs for her husband, OšR (Svipdag), but cannot raise her eyes to meet his. She is returned to ĮsgaršR--through the efforts of UllR and FreyR--in this condition. In time the spell is broken by true loves kiss. Gullveig is burnt for the third time for this.
In the opening lines of Skķrnismįl, Ingunar-FreyR is found to be under a similar spell. He is listless and wasting away for love, which leads to the wooing of GeršR through Skķrnir. The cause of freyRs condition is likewise his future mother-in-law, Aurboša (another name for Gullveig).
A third mythic example is that of Óšinn and Rind. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Rind insulted Óšinn three times, and on the third he touched a piece of bark upon which he had carved spells. She immediately fell sick, and, dressed as her nursemaid, Óšinn had his way with her in order to father Vįli (Saxos Bous). A passage in Skįldskaparmįl 9 informs us that seišR Yggr til Rindar, Yggr-Óšinn worked seišR on Rind. This is the same event referred to in Lokasenna 24.
We know next to nothing about the procedure our ancestors used in the performance of seišR; and we know even less about the reasons for those techniques. We do know that seišR was practiced as a means of interfering with the mind/soul complex of ones enemies. And, while it was not socially acceptable, its practice was never strictly forbidden either.
As for those who claim to practice seišR today? Some may be true to their crafts (hamfarir, spį, &c.), but are guilty of failing to call that craft by its appropriate name. Others may be performing mere witchery patterned after the traditions of other cultures or attempting to use runic formulas for woe-working ends. But nobody today practices true seišR in a fashion anything like what our ancestors did. Unless the secrets are somehow rediscovered, no one will ever practice seišR again.
Return to Contributions file