A Völva (also "Vala", "Spákona") is a priestess in
Norse paganism, and a recurring motif in Norse mythology.
Possiblyhuh related concepts are those of the "Seiðkona", women practicing
seiðr, i.e. sorceresses or witches.
Names and etymology
The Völvas and their male counterparts were referred to by many names. The Old Norse word "vǫlva" means "wand carrier" or "carrier of a magic staff", [Mercatante & Dow 2004, II:893.] and it continues
Proto-Germanic*"walwōn", which is derived from a word for "wand" (ON "vǫlr"). [http://runeberg.org/svetym/1169.html Hellquist 1922:1081] ] "Vala", on the other hand, is a literary form based on "Völva".
A "spákona" (with an Old English cognate, "spæwīfe") is a "prophetess", from the the ON word "spá" refers to prophesying and it continues Proto-Germanic "*spah-" and the PIE root "Unicode|*(s)peḱ", and it is consequently related to Latin "speccio" ("sees") and
Sanskrit"spáçati" and "páçyati" ("sees", etc.). [ [http://runeberg.org/svetym/0939.html Hellquist 1922:851] ]
A practicioner of "
seiðr" is a "seiðkona" (female) or a "seiðmaðr" (male).
Völvas practiced seiðr, "spá" and
galdr, practices which encompassed shamanism, sorcery, prophecy and other forms of indigenous magic.dubiousSeiðr in particular had connotations of " ergi" (unmanliness), although there were male practitioners.
Historical and mythological depictions of Völvas show that they were held in high esteem and they were held to possess such powers that even the father of the gods,
Odinhimself, consulted a Völva for 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". Examples of Völvas in Norse literature include the seeress Heidi (alt. Heith) in " Völuspá", Gróain " Svipdagsmál", Thorbjörg in the " Saga of Eric the Red" and Huldin for instance " Ynglinga saga".
The goddess who was most skilled in magic was
Freyja, and she was not only a goddess of love, but also warlike divinity who caused screams of anguish, blood and death, and what Freyja performed in Asgard, the world of the gods, the Völvas tried to perform in Midgard, the world of men.Harrison & Svensson 2007:55] 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, (see the section wands and weaving, below).
The earliest descriptions of such women appear in Roman accounts about the Germanic
Cimbriwhose priestesses were aged women dressed in white. They sacrificed the prisoners of war and sprinkled their blood (see Blót), in order to prophesy coming events. [ Straboin Geographica 7.2.3]
Commentarii de Bello Gallico(1, 50) Julius Caesarwrites 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 reasonndash 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."
Tacitusalso writes about female prophets among the Germanic peoplesin 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.
Jordanesrelates in his " Getica" (XXIV:121) of Gothic Völvas called " Aliorumnas". They were driven into exile by King Filimer, when the Gothshad settled in Oium( Ukraine). The name is probably a corruption of a Gothic "Halju-runnos" [http://www.harbornet.com/folks/theedrich/Goths/Goths1.htm] , meaning "hell-runners" or "runners to the realm of the dead" (which refers to their shamanistic experiences during trance). These Völvas were condemned to seek refuge far away and, according to this account, engendered the Huns.
The Lombard historian
Paulus Diaconus, who died in Southern Italy in the 790s, was proud of his origins and wrote on how his people once had departed from southern Scandinavia. He tells of a conflict between the early Lombards and the Vandals. The latter turned to Odin ("Godan"), while Gambara, the mother of the two Lombard chieftains Ibor and Aio, turned to Odin's spouse Frea (Freyja/Frigg). Frea helped Gambara play a trick on Odin and thanks to the Völva Gambara's good relations with the goddess, her people won the battle.Harrison & Svensson 2007:74]
A detailed eyewitness account of a
human sacrificeby what may have been a Völva was given by Ahmad ibn Fadlanas part of his account of an embassyto the Volga Bulgarsin 921. In his description of the funeral of a Scandinavian chieftain, a slave girl volunteers to die with her master. After ten days of festivities, she is stabbed to death by an old woman (a sort of priestess who is referred to as 'Angel of Death') and burnt together with the deceased in his boat(see ship burial, Oseberg).
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.Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. 1998:81]
In addition, many aristocratic Viking women wanted to serve Freyja and represent her in
Midgard.Harrison & Svensson 2007:69] They married Viking warlords who had Odinas 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.Harrison & Svensson 2007:74] 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.
Flateyjarbók", toward the end of " Norna-Gests þáttr", Norna-Gest details that "spákonur traveled around the country-side and fore-told the fates of men." [ [http://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/nornages.htm The Tale of Norna-Gest] ]
The Saga of Eric the Red" relates that the settlers in Greenlandc. 1000 were suffering a time of starvation. In order to prepare for the future, the Völva Þórbjörgr 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 and she was dressed in a blue or black
cloak, which was decked with gems to the hem, and it reached down to her feet. 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
amadoufrom 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
porridgemade 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.
In the prologue of the
Prose Edda, related by a Völva, [Mercatante & Dow 2004, op. cit.] the origin of Thor's wife Sifis detailed, where she is said to be a "spákona". Snorri contextually correlates Sif with the oracular seeress Sibylon this basis. [ [http://www.heimskringla.no/original/snorre/prologus.php The prologue of Heimskringla] ] [ [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18947/18947-h/18947-h.htm#foreword The prologue of Heimskringla in translation] ]
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.Harrison & Svensson 2007:56]
One example is a grave in
Fyrkat, Denmarkwhich turned out to be the richest grave in the area. She had been 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 Finlandand Russia. At her feet, she had a box which contained her magic tools and they comprised a pellet from an owl as well as small bones from birds and mammals, and in a pouch she had the seeds of henbane.Harrison & Svensson 2007:57] 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 Hlidskjalffrom which Odinwatched across the world.Another notable grave was the Oseberg shipburial in Norway that revealed two women who had received a sumptuous burial. One of the women was most likely a high-ranking lady who knew how to practice the seid, as she had been accompanied with a wand of wood. In the grave, there were also four seeds from the cannabisplant which probably had been in the pillows that supported the corpses. Moreover, additional cannabis seeds were discovered in a small leather pouch. Since the pouch contained too few seeds to have anything to do with the cultivation of cannabis, they were probably used for something else. If the queen who had been buried in Oseberg had smoked these seeds, she would not only have sensed a feeling of weightlessness and happiness, but she would also have had a distorted experience of time and space.
Around 1000 BCE, a Völva was buried with considerable splendour in Hagebyhöga in
Östergötland, Sweden.Harrison & Svensson 2007:58] In addition to being buried with her wand, she had received great riches which included horses, a wagon and an Arabian bronze pitcher. There was also a silver pendant which represents a woman with a broad necklace around her neck. This kind of necklace was only worn by the most prominent women during the Iron Age and some have interpreted it as Freyja's favourite necklace, the Brísingamen. The pendant may represent Freyja herself, the most prominent Völva of them all.
Birka, a Völva and a warrior were once buried together. Above them, a spear was positioned in order to dedicate the dead couple to Odin.Harrison & Svensson 2007:62] They had probably served Freyja and Odin, two gods of war, and he had done so with his spear and she with her wand.
Wands and weaving
:main|Wand|Weaving (mythology)In theory, invisible fetters and bonds could be controlled from a loom, and if a lady loosened a knot in the woof, she could liberate the leg of her hero.Harrison & Svensson 2007:72] But if she tied a knot, she could stop the enemy from moving. The men may have fought on the battle field in sweat and blood, but in a spiritual way, their women took part. It is not by coincidence that archaeologists find weaving tools and weapons side by side.
A distaff possessed magical powers, and in the world of the gods, the
Norns twinned the threads of fate. In " Helgakviða Hundingsbana I", Norns arrive at the birth of Helgi Hundingsbaneand twinned his fate as a hero, and it is possible that these Norns were not divine beings but Völvas.Harrison & Svensson 2007:73] Many of the wands that have been excavated have a basket-like shape in the top, and they are very similar to distaffs used for spinning linnen. One theory for the origin of the word "seiðr" is "thread spun with a distaff", and according to this theory, practicing magic was to send out spiritual threads. Since the Norsemen believed that the Norns controlled people's fate by spinning, it is very likely that they considered individual fates to be controllable with the same method.
It is not a coincidence, that women are called "peace-weavers" in "
Beowulf", and since Freyjahad started the first war, it was on the part of the Völva to decide when to start wars by practicing magic.Harrison & Svensson 2007:74] This is probably why Harald Bluetooth, who was at war with the Holy Roman emperor apparently kept a Völva at Fyrkat.
exual rites and drugs
Nowadays, it is generally accepted among scholars that fertility was essential in Viking society, and the most famous find that testify to such rites is a small statuette that was found in Rällinge in Sweden in the early 20th century.Harrison & Svensson 2007:75] The aspect of this statuette indicates that it was related to fertility rites and it is usually interpreted as Freyja's brother
Freyr. Moreover, Adam of Brementells of the phallic statue of Freyr in the Temple at Uppsalaand of the racy songs that were song during the rituals. In " Völsa þáttr", there is an account on how a horse's penis was worshipped by a pagan family, an account that has connections with an old Indo-Aryan sacrificial rite.Harrison & Svensson 2007:75-78] In Ibn Fadlan's description of the burial of a Scandinavian chieftain on the Volga, a slave girl who was to be sacrificed had to undergo several sexual rites.Harrison & Svensson 2007:79] First, she had sex with some of the men in the chieftain's retinue, then when the chieftain had been put in the ship, she went from tent to tent where she visited warriors and traders. Every man told her that they did what they did for their love to the dead chieftain. Lastly, she entered a tent that had been raised on the ship, and in it six men had intercourse with her before she was strangled and stabbed. The sexual rites with the slave girl show that she was considered to be a vessel for the transmission of life force to the deceased chieftain. [Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. 1998:89]
All wands that have been excavated can not be associated with distaffs, but instead they appear to represent a phallos, and moreover the use of magic had close associations with sexuality in Old Norse society. In the eddic poem "
Lokasenna", due to his interest in seid, Odinis depicted as being ergi, which suggests that he was perceived as unmanly, cowardly and accepting the female role in sexual intercourse. As early as 1902, an anonymous German scholar (he did not dare publishing in his own name) wrote on how seid was connected with sex. He argued that the wand was an obvious phallic symbol and why should magic otherwise be considered taboo for men. It was possible that the magic practices included sexual rites. As early as 1920, it was noted that the name of the male magic practitioner Ragnvald Rettilbein referred to such practices, as "rettilbein" means "straight member".
The Völvas were known for their art of seduction, which was one of the reasons why they were considered dangerous.Harrison & Svensson 2007:79] One of the stanzas in "
Hávamál" warns against sexual intercourse with a woman who is skilled in magic, because the one who does so runs the risk of being caught in a magic bond and also risks getting ill. Freyja, who is the master of seid, has a free sexual life that gives her a bad reputation in certain myths.
One of the methods for seducing men may have been the use of drugs. In
Fyrkat, the grave of a Völva revealed the use of henbane, a drug which does not only give hallucinations, as it can also be a powerful aphrodisiac. If Freyja was the goddess of love in Asgard, the Völva was her counterpart in Midgard.
The Völvas could also employ drums during their sessions, like the Sami shamans.Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. 1998:82] All Völvas were not surrounded by the same retinue and preparations as Þórbjörgr, but she could also perform the seiðr alone, which was called "útiseta" (literally, "sitting out"). [Blain 2001:61ff] [Keyser 1854:275] This practice appears to have involved
meditationor introspection, possibly for the purpose of divination. Blain (2001) sees it as an aspect of seidhrreminiscent of Shamanism. The term is derived from a 13th century Icelandic lawwhich outlawed "útiseta at vekja tröll upp ok fremja heiðni" "sitting out to wake up trolls and practicing heathenry". Although the theoretical punishment for this offense foreseen by the law was death, nobody was convicted under it until a minor witch crazereached Iceland in the 17th century. [Blain 2001:62] Keyser (1854) describes it as "a peculiar kind of sorcery [...] in which the magician sat out at night under the open sky [...] especially to inquire into the future".
Men who practiced sorcery or magic were not received with the same respect, because they were dealing with a practice that was held to be in the domain of women. The "
Saga of Eric the Red" relates that Ragnvaldr Rettilbein, one of Harald Fairhair's sons by the Sami woman Snöfrid, was a seiðmaðr.Harrison & Svensson 2007:65] The king had him burnt to death inside a house with a large group of fellow male practitioners.
Their disappearance was due to the
Roman Catholic Churchwhich along with civil governments had laws enacted against them, as in this Canon law:
"If any "wicca" (witch), "wiglaer" (wizard),
false swearer, " morthwyrtha" (worshipper of the dead) or any foul contaminated, manifest " horcwenan" ( whore), be anywhere in the land, man shall drive them out."
"We teach that every priest shall extinguish
heathendomand forbid wilweorthunga( fountain worship), " licwiglunga" (incantations of the dead), " hwata" ( omens), " galdra" (magic), man worshipand the abominations that men exercise in various sorts of witchcraft, and in " frithspottum" ( peace-enclosures) with elms and other trees, and with stones, and with many phantoms." (source: 16th Canon law enacted under King Edgar in the 10th century.)
They were persecuted and killed in the course of
Christianization, which also led to an extreme polarization of the role of females in Germanic society.
Resurgence of the traditions of Völva are apparent in Europe and the United States within Heathen reconstructionism and the Christian community. Women and men of Scandinavian heritage are finding their tribal roots through the practice of Völva. Modern American contributers to this movement are Yngona Desmond in the Southeastern US, Diana Paxon on the West Coast, and Kari Tauring in the Midwest.
The term Spaewife was used as the title for several fictional works:
Robert Louis Stevenson's poem "The Spaewife"; John Galt's historical romance "The Spaewife: A Tale of the Scottish Chronicles"; and John Boyce's "The Spaewife, or, The Queen's Secret" (under the pen-name Paul Peppergrass).
Francis Melville describes a spae-wife as a type of
elfin "The Book of Faeries".
"No taller than a human finger, fairy spae wives are usually dressed in the clothes of a peasant. However, when properly summoned, the attire changes from common to magnificent: blue cloak with a gem-lined collar and black lambskin hood lined with catskin, calfskin boots, and catskin gloves. Like human spae wives, they can also predict the future, through
runes, tea leaves and signs generated by natural phenomena, and are good healers. They are said to be descended from the erectors of the standing stones."
*Blain, J. (2001): "Nine Worlds of Seid-magic". Routledge ISBN 0415256518
*Harrison, D. & Svensson, K. (2007): "Vikingaliv". Fälth & Hässler, Värnamo. ISBN 978-91-27-35725-9
* [http://runeberg.org/svetym/ Hellquist, E. (1922): "Svensk etymologisk ordbok". C. W. K. Gleerups förlag, Lund.]
*Keyser, R. (1854): "The Religion of the Northmen"
*Mercatante, Anthony S. & Dow, James R. (2004): "The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend", 2nd edition. Two volumes. Facts on File, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7394-8616-0
*Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. (1998): "Människor och makter i vikingarnas värld". ISBN 9173245917
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