Seiðmaðr and Earl – The Male Sorcerer or Shaman

“From these miracles he [Óðinn] became famous, his enemies feared him but his friends trusted him and believed in his magical power, and in himself. Most of his arts he taught to his sacrificial priests, and they were next after him in wisdom and sorcery.”
 
Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga – Heimskringla, chapter 7
 
 

“Óðinn often changed his shape; then his body lay as if dead or sleeping, while he himself was a bird or a four-legged animal, fish or serpent, and traveled in swift movement to faraway countries, either on his own behalf of on the behalf of others. He could also do many other things: Only with words could he quench fire, calm the ocean and turn the wind as he wanted; and he had a ship called Skibladnir, with which he travelled across great oceans, but which he could also fold together like a little tablecloth.

Óðinn had with him the head of Memory [Mímir], and this told him tidings from the other worlds; sometimes he woke dead people up from the earth or sat beneath a hanged man, this is why he was called the King of Spirits [draugadrottinn] and the Lord of the Hanged [hangadrottinn]. He had to ravens, that he had taught to speak, and they flew widely across the lands and told him many tidings, and from this he became very knowledgeable.

All these arts he taught to others, with runes and with a kind of song called galðr [spell-songs], this is why the Aesir are called Verse-Smiths.

Óðinn knew that art which brings the highest power, and he practiced it himself: It was called seiðr, and from it one could know people´s destinies, and things that had not yet happened, he could give death and accidents or bad health to people, he could take the wits and the energy from some and give to others. But this sorcery led to so much unmanliness that men cannot practice it without shame, and this is why they taught this art to the priestesses.

(Earlier in the same saga, Snorri makes a different account; “It was Freyia who taught the Aesir how to perform seiðr, as the Vanir used to”. In theVöluspá it is also Freyia who teaches the women this art.)
 

Óðinn also knew about all earth-dug treasure and where it was hidden; and he knew songs that could make everything open up for him; earth and rock and mounds and stones, and he bound with words those who lived within, entered and took what he wanted. From these miracles he became famous, his enemies feared him but his friends trusted him and believed in his magical power, and in himself. Most of his arts he taught to his sacrificial priests, and they were next after him in wisdom and sorcery.”

Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga – Heimskringla, chapter 7

 

Compared to the völva, where we have several detailed description of her practice and her reception in society, we have very few saga descriptions of the workings of the male seiðr-practitioner [sorcerer/shaman], and those we have are almost all negative and usually end very badly for the sorcerer/shaman, who is presented as an evil man, prone to “shameful” behavior (as seen above). Exceptions are found in the Poetic Edda, although the sorcerer is hardly ever actually said to be a sorcerer/shaman, we know that he is because of the arts he practices.

It is important to note that this negative attitude may be a result of Christian and continental influence. After all, the texts were written down well after Christianity was introduced, and whereas it took several centuries before the concept of women meddling with magic was thought of as “bad”, the demands on masculine behavior were much more harsh from an early stage. It is my impression that even before the Conversion, Christians played on inherent ideals of manliness in order to put paganism in a bad light. During pagan times, the general masculine ideal could be transcended by sorcerers who would move in both masculine and feminine spheres (whether they were masculine or feminine themselves). A certain “unmanliness” was always associated with sorcery and divination, for various possible reasons. Some sorcerers seem to have been transgendered or gay, sorcery being a realm in which people who did not fit into the hetero-norm could thrive. Transgender behavior may have been regarded as unusual but magical and sacred. Male sorcerers who were not gay, transgender or particularly feminine would still be seen as operating within a subtle, hidden, mysterious sphere that was “unmanly”, manliness being associated with openness and direct confrontation rather than the performing of secret spells.

In the Edda poem Grípisspá [Grípir´s Prophecy], the young hero Sigurd seeks the counsel of his maternal uncle Grípir [The Grasping One], who according to the poem is “wiser than everyone else and prescient.” Like Völuspá [The Völva´s Prophecy] the entire poem is a description of the divinatory revelation of a séance of seiðr.From the way Grípir, called “the gracious king,”, the”lord of men,” and his realm are described, and even from his name, it is not difficult to make out that Grípir is a disguise for the great god of seiðr, Óðinn himself.  Sigurd arrives at his hall, presents himself as the son of Sigmund and of Hiördís [Goddess of the Herds], Grípir´s sister. A guard then presents Sigurd to his uncle for the first time, and the young man is warmly greeted. The two talk for a while, until Sigurd humly asks his uncle if he would be so kind as to tell him his destiny. The wise man complies and explains to Sigurd the course of his life – primarily the course of the initiation that is to come. Sigurd learns of the obstacles he will encounter before he finds the magical lady who sleeps, but who upon awakening will teach him about the runes, healing, medicine and eloquence. Finally, he is warned of the dangers of oblivion – of forgetting his true connection to the lady, a valkyria.

Sigurd asks a lot of questions about his initiation and his subsequent life, his marriage and how to avoid the dangers he has been warned about. The uncle, through his divination séance, answers him, counsels him and blesses him on his way home, asking him to accept his fate. The poem not only relates a séance of divinatory seiðr, but also instigates Sigurd´s initiation journey, showing again the importance of this magical art in the rituals of initiation in the Norse tradition. The story could very well reflect a typical course of events in a real-life initiation journeys, and the fact that the seiðmaðr in this case is identifiable as the Great God himself may indicate the connection and possible identification between practitioners of seiðr and the “ancestral shaman.” In the case of males, this would be Óðinn.

The story of Grípir´s divination also gives us a hint as to the ancient importance of the maternal uncle in the spiritual education of young men. In the initiation story of Óðinn, he learns his “great songs” from his maternal uncle during initiation.[1] According to Tacitus, who wrote his Germania a thousand year before the Edda was written, most Germanic people considered the maternal uncle responsible for his sister´s children and their education, and that in some tribe the mother´s brother was more important in the upbringing of children than the biological father.

The Vanir were said to marry their own siblings, thus Freyr and Freya, themselves clandestinely engaged at some point, are the children of a brother and a sister. In the Volsunga Saga, Sigmund, the father of the Sigurd we have discussed above, had another son by his own sister, Sinfiötli, a son whom he taught his magical arts.

Sigmund Volsung, a descendant of Freyr and an exciled prince, lives like an animal in the forests of Norway when one day he is approached by a völva, who stays the night in his den. The völva is in reality his own sister, who has been forced to marry the king who usurped the throne of their people. She gives birth to a son, Sinfiötli, who, the child of sister and brother, is particularly gifted. And particularly weird.

As Sinfiötli grows, his mother takes him to his father´s den, where his father, who is also his uncle, teaches him hos to change shape into that of an animal, how to handle poisonous serpents, have no fear of death, how to understand the speech of animals and how to heal. For a long period of time, the father and son (or uncle and nephew) lives in the shape of wolves, howling like wolves and learning their language. Wolves are symbols of death and mortality, so this is yet another echo of the initiation experience.

Sinfiötli becomes a powerful sorcerer who accompanies his father/uncle Sigmund as this one is restored to society as the king he really is. But so many bad memories are connected to his realm (the mother of Sinfiötli and sister of Sigmund dies in a fire) that the king and his son-nephew venture south into Sweden or Denmark, where Sigmund marries and begets Helgi. When Sinfiötli dies of poisoning, Sigmund his father/uncle carries his corpse to the river of  Hel and almost joins the “Ferryman”. All these elements resemble shamanism in every respect – one of the major tasks for a shaman is to help the dead souls to cross over to the other side.

After the deaths of his sons Sinfiötli and Helgi, Sigmund travels further south to France and marries Sigurd´s mother-to-be. As we shall see in the third part of this book, we meet the same Sinfiötli in the Poetic Edda as the older brother as well as the teacher of Helgi Hundingsbani. At this point, he is a fully-fledged shaman, guiding his younger brother through his initiation. His specialty is very much to move between worlds and deal with otherworldly monsters. One curious revelation takes place in the story of Sinfiötli: During a word-duel it is revealed that Sinfiötli is a gelding, a eunuch, castrated “in the Gnipa-Grove by Troll-Maidens at the Peak of Thor.”[2]

The formula seems ritual – groves were used as temples, troll-maidens could refer to priestesses or witches, and the Peak of Thor could either be an actual place dedicated to the god, or refer to the man´s penis. We could very well be presented with a ritual castration taking place during initiation. An accusation of homosexual behavior in which Sinfiötli was the submissive part is also made. Sinfiötli makes no attempt to counter the statements other than to assert that he surely was the dominant party. Could this be an indication as to the kind of “unmanliness” which was associated with male practitioners of seiðr?

Another seiðmaðr that seems to appear in the Edda is Atli, the son of the Earl of King Hiörvard in the poem of the first Helgi.[3] Atli listens to birds talk in a sacred grove, carries messages from the other world to the king, spends a winter in “The Land of Sleep”, seeks visions on mountaintops, by rivers, in groves and through dreams. He aids his king, Hiörvard, at his initiation and is himself initiated at the same time, and later aids the prince, young Helgi, on his journey of initiation. Atli, like Sinfiötli, seems to play the role of a royal priest-shaman at the king´s side and is obviously very much honored. Like Sinfiötli, it is revealed that he has been castrated, and like Sinfiötli he does not deny this revelation, but asserts that he is still tremendously powerful and magically virile.[4]

The concept of a royal shaman – a priest-like shaman figure at the side of the king – turns up three times in the Edda. The first is in the poem Skírnismál, where the shaman-figure is Skírnir, a “servant of Freyr”, who makes the underworld journey on behalf of the king in order to prepare the way for his initiation.[5] The two other times are those referred to above – in the figures of Sinfiötli and Atli. It would seem that this literary formula could reflect an old Viking Age practice of kings and princes associating with a shaman-like person, indeed a royal seiðmaðr, whose role it was to be a messenger between the worlds and a guide on the path of initiation.

We do not know when or if there was a change from the age-old German and Scandinavian practice of keeping priestesses at their side to keeping a male practitioner instead. Both options may have been possible, although it is interesting how the seiðmaðr in two out of three stories seems to have ritually and/or symbolically lost his manhood, as if he needed to be more “like a woman” – perhaps a seiðberendr with a magical womb - in order to be taken seriously as a practitioner of seiðr. The societal power and spiritual gratification could have been worth this possible sorce of “shame,” especially for those males who were not as “manly” as the culture demanded. It could also be possible that these royal priests or shamans identified with the god of seiðr, Óðinn, who among many other names of which he proudly boasts, bore the name Ialkr – the Castrate.

Finally, we need to take into account the title of our shaman-character Atli. He is said to be the “Earl´s son,” later (after initiation and the acquiring of a supernatural bride) an earl in his own right. The title of earl – iarl in old Norse – is derived from the proto-Norse word erilaR, as found in rune-inscriptions in which it is revealed that the erilaR was used to describe someone versed in spells, magics and runes – a priest, rune-master and magician. The earl, traditionally, is at the king´s side, one of the highest nobles. It would seem that his original position was that of a royal shaman.

The Unmanliness of Seiðr

“Óðinn knew that art which brings the highest power, and he practiced it himself: It was called seiðr, and from it one could know people´s destinies…But this sorcery led to so much unmanliness that men cannot practice it without shame…”
 
Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga saga, Heimskringla, chapter 7

Magic and ritual, especially seiðr, was primarily the realm of women, but there were obviously many male practitioners too. Men could also be priests and lead rituals and sacrifice, and there were several rituals in connection to the male domain of warriors. Men who practiced magic and sorcery, however, were considered a bit unusual. It seems that men who were not “manly” enough for their time could resort to witchcraft, which required a certain “unmanliness”. One of the titles of a male practitioner of seiðr is seiðberendr, which means “seiðr-womb” [that is, a womb (or vagina) acquired through the magical art of seiðr].

This gender ambiguity in connection with magic could also be present in female practitioners. Burials show that men and women who were buried with magical gear, often were buried with objects that usually belonged to the opposite sex.[1]  The wand of the witch was called völ, which actually refers to a stallion´s penis. That she wields this wand as a sign of authority points to gender ambiguity. In this way, people who did not fit into the usual hetero normative gender roles could in the realms of ritual and magic find an accepted avenue within the otherwise rather gender divided society. To possess the qualities of both genders could be seen as magical in itself and a sign of power. The god Óðinn and the Edda character Loki both possess such gender bending qualities – always in connection to magic, and as we shall see, a certain ritual gender bending seems to be in place during rituals of initiation.

When the sagas were written down during the 13th century AD, Christian medieval scholars may have found themselves somewhat embarrassed by this less “manly” aspect of their ancestral heritage. This embarrassment may have begun even during the late Viking Age, as the sagas point to some persecution of male practitioners on the grounds of them being ergi – shameful. The number of male practitioners and the fact that the highest god himself was one of them testifies, in my opinion, to a more accepting and respectful pagan attitude to ritual gender ambiguity.[2]

READ A MORE IN-DEPTH STUDY OF TRANSGENDER MAGIC IN THE NORSE TRADITION



[1] Solli

[2] See Appendix VI



[1] Hávamál, st.   “And I received nine powerful songs from the famous son of Bolthorn, Besla´s father. Besla is Odin´s mother, her father´s son is thereby his maternal uncle.

[2] Helgakviða Hundingsbani I, st.40, Poetic Edda

[3]  Helgakviða Hjörvardssonar, Poetic Edda

[4] See Part Three, Chapter 4

[5] See Part Three, Chapter 2

5 Responses to Seiðmaðr and Earl – The Male Sorcerer or Shaman

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  4. Michael K. says:

    Hello Freyia,
    I wonder if you have researched Siberian shamanism. Among some tribes, a male shaman was believed to become either gender neutral, or even feminine. I do not know if this was a passing phenomenon, or one of antiquity and tradition, but it bears an interesting resemblance to the sparse sources regarding seidhr.
    I have not found this phenomenon in other cultures that employed shamans.
    What is interesting is that shape changers could be seidhrmadhr, or not, yet this ability was linked to warriors, when used in combat.
    Could it be that the reality of the trance itself was seen as an otherworldly, and thus not fully human activity?
    Perhaps it was the receptivity required to contact the spirits that was deemed a feminine trait?

  5. There’s certainly a lot to know about this topic.
    I love all the points you made.

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