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Posts Tagged ‘seidhr’

Discuss both the role of seers within at least one Indo-European culture and the relationship of seers to other members of the society, including in that discussion how seers or visionaries would have supported themselves or how they would have been supported by their people. (minimum two paragraphs)

The implication in Scandinavian and Germanic societies is that seership is a woman’s art (born out by other references to seership, and by Loki’s calling Odin “unmanly” for practicing seidhr), and that even in the age of Christianity, women still knew and practiced the art of seeing. Leif Eriksson’s Saga (ch. 4) states that Thorbjorg was one of 10 sisters, all of whom had the gift of prophecy, and she traveled from farm to farm, looking into the spirit world and into the future for people. Clearly she is held in great esteem, and her position puts her “above” the rest – she sits on a high seat to see into the spirit world.

It was clearly highly valuable in the society, as the seeress was treated with great respect and given a place of honor at the farm. As well, Odin himself consults a seer (a volva) to find out what the fate of the Gods will be in the Voluspa. Most of these seeresses seem to be older women who are somewhat outside the bounds of society – they are no longer raising children or helping husbands – but the women who help them can be of any age. Freyja, who is said to be the one who teaches Odin the art of seidhr, is similarly a woman outside of society – her husband is gone, and she is clearly mistress of her own affairs. While the majority of women probably had mundane jobs and only occasionally helped with seeing, at least in Thorbjorg’s case she seems to spend a lot of time traveling from farm to farm, exchanging food and shelter for her skills in prophecy. This may be a purely practical concern (it would be hard for a woman with a house full of small children to devote any time to a practice that required trance work or substantial travel), and it makes some amount of sense that any woman who was devoted to spending a large amount of time on seership would need to be supported by her community, or she would quickly starve.

In other stories, seers get brought back from the dead in order to continue their work of seership (Odin with Baldr’s Dream, Odr’s Saga), which implies that they are valued for their gifts, and also that they are valued for being “outside” of society. If the best way to get a good seer is not to go to the one down the street, but to raise one from the dead, they are clearly a specialized group. (This does not take into account the possibility of them receiving greater knowledge from having passed into the Otherworld, or that their “otherworldliness” is part of what sets them apart as talented seeresses.)

According to Tacitus, divination of a more mundane sort (by casting of lots) was done by a priest or the father of the household (Germania 10), so there may be a division in the society by gender (or perhaps Tacitus’ bias is showing).

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Within the context of a single paleo-pagan Indo-European culture, discuss three different forms of divination or seership, and give an example of each. (minimum 100 words each)

Working from Tacitus, the Sagas, and the Poetic Edda, I’ve found three different forms of divination used by the Germanic culture group, which includes the Scandinavian and Icelandic cultures. While it could be argued that these three cultures are separated by both time and geography, their similar language, alphabet, cosmology and mythology is more than enough for me to be comfortable talking about them as a group together.

First, there’s a documented form of trance-like seership called seidhr. In Leif Eiriksson’s Saga (ch. 4) a seeress named Thorbjorg is featured who is highly honored by the farm she visits. She is brought there during a difficult time for the farm, and she spends a night there, honored by the various guests and given special food (milk porridge and animal hearts). After some reluctance (ostensibly due to being Christian) the women of the farm come and form a circle around her, and sing the ward songs, and she is visited by the spirits, who tell her that the hardship will last no longer. As well, she sees great reward for the woman who sang the ward songs. This type of divination is also seen in the Voluspa, and is perhaps the most formal and ritualistic type of seership among the Germanic and Norse cultures.

In Tacitus Germania, there is a reference to divination by something which sounds a great deal like it would be runecasting. A little bough is chopped off of a tree and cut into small pieces, which are given certain markings. They are thrown at random over a cloth, and then either the priest (or the head of the family) chooses three of them and finds meaning according to the marks. This is extremely similar to most modern practices of runecasting (Germania 10). Also, later sources (Egil’s Saga, Ch 44) show runes being used for magic, and Thorsson believes that runes were “born from a magical tradition, not a purely linguistic one” (5). Between the rune’s associations with magic and their predating Tacitus’ encountering them among the Germanic tribes (Thorsson states as early as 200 BCE (12)), I am comfortable considering runic divination, at least in terms of the casting of lots inscribed with magically meaningful marks, a divination tradition among the Germanic and related cultures.

In Svipdagsmal (Poetic Edda, Hollander) young Svipdag is given a terrible task by his evil step-mother (proving that Evil Stepmothers existed from quite a ways back). In order to get help and learn how he can complete his task, he goes and sits outside on his mother Groa’s grave, a practice called utiseta or “outsitting”. Groa comes through for Svipdag, and he not only learns how to complete his terrible task, but also is granted nine magical spells. This practice was also used in the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, when Thorgeirr (who was chosen to moderate the conflict between the Pagan Icelanders and the Christian forces from Norway) sits out for a day and a night under a skin in order to determine the fate of religion in Iceland. This practice of outsitting is a way of getting information and help, often specifically from the ancestors, and divining the future with their aid.

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