In the Norse world, seiðr (pronounced “sayth-‘r”) was a term used for magic or sorcery of a peculiar kind. It was associated with the goddess Freya and was considered distinct from the type of magic practised by Odin, which was known as galdr (though he was also said to have practised seiðr). It was a type of magic looked upon with suspicion in Norse society, because it was associated with trickery and cursing, generally falling under what would in later times become known as ‘black magic.’ Yet, practitioners of seiðr were still sought out and appreciated from time to time, as they were also associated with prophecy and fortune-telling, as well as being able to enchant animals. This particular type of magic was mostly associated with women, and men who practised the art were looked upon with suspicion and disgust.
The types of practices involved in working seiðr have often been compared with shamanism, yet upon closer inspection, the more specific meaning (which is of unclear origin, though may have a proto-Indo-European origin meaning ‘to bind’) refers to mind control and attacking the subconscious, much more akin to what would be thought of as ‘witchcraft.’ Yet, the Old Norse word cognate to the English word ‘witch,’ witki, does not necessarily have the same negative connotations as in English. Indeed, many modern-day practitioners of herbalism and ‘natural magic’ may refer to their practices as ‘witchcraft,’ but without the implication of black magic. In this sense, the concept of ‘witchcraft’ in the original sense of the word and the Norse cognate witki could be better identified with what we consider ‘magic’ in a more general sense.
Another way to describe seiðr would be as ‘enchantment,’ which carries more connotations of mind control and casting illusions. One of the most essential poems of Old Norse literature, the Völuspá, or “prophecy of the völva (“seeress”)” describes a woman named Heiðr who is attributed with prophesying (spá), casting spells (gandr or using a wand) and the use of seiðr to “bewitch” others or “mess with their minds” (different translations use different terminology). She was described as dear to “ill” (evil) women, which implies that these sort of practices were detested by Norse society in general, presumably because the concept of ‘enchantment’ interferes with the free will of others.
Yet, seiðkonur (women who practised seiðr) were not always seen as a terror to be avoided, as the seiðkona known as Thuriðr syndafyllir (“sound-filler”) was praised by Icelandic villagers in the Book of Settlements for bringing fish into the sound by singing to them. This implies that she managed to manipulate the collective mind of the school of fish to come into the sound where they otherwise would not go. This demonstrates one of the ways in which ‘black magic’ was tolerated if it was seen as beneficial, but in most cases it was not. This was more often the case with regards to cursing others and disguising oneself (usually as an animal, but sometimes as an inanimate object such as a distaff).
The mechanisms by which such feats were achieved is difficult to comprehend for modern man, since it defies reason and even what one could consider the ‘laws of Nature.’ However, for the Norsemen, seiðr and its effects were very real, but it seems to have had to do with exercising an unnatural amount of control over the minds of others and causing harm to them through indirect means such as cursing objects or invading their mind and attacking them there. It is for this reason that the use of seiðr by men in particular was deemed ergi, a terms that translates to “perverted,” not just because the use of seiðr was thought to have implied homosexuality or ‘gender-bending,’ but perhaps more importantly because it was seen as an affront to Aryan ideals of honour and forthrightness which would involve confronting others directly, as opposed to skulking in the shadows and attacking one’s enemies on the astral plane.
It may have been that this sort of behaviour was more tolerated among women simply because of their relative physical weakness compared to men, and so they were considered not as capable of defending themselves in battle, despite the fact that some women clearly did (as there have been burials unearthed where such women were buried with their weapons). However, other burials of women show a different set of paraphernalia, with one burial exhibiting items such as henbane (a hallucinogenic plant used for divination, shape-shifting and other purposes), owl pellets and bird bones. Clearly, if this woman was not necessarily a seiðkona, she would have most certainly been a spákona or völva, though figures such as Thorbjörg from the Saga of Erik the Red were noted for engaging in all such practices, implying that the division between them could certainly be blurry.
So then, where would such practices originate? In Skáldskaparmál in the Prose Edda, it is said that the Vanir taught seiðr to the Æsir following the war between them. However, the Ynglinga Saga states that Vanaheim was located along the Don River in Russia, meaning that the events described in the Norse sources seem to have been based on events which took place far from Scandinavia. Is it then possible that the Æsir-Vanir War represented a conflict between the Eastern and Western Hunter-Gatherers at the beginning of the Mesolithic? While no archaeological remains have been found from the Don area dating from this period, many samples have been found along the Dnieper River in Ukraine which show a mixture of Eastern and Western-Hunter-Gatherer genetics, a pattern which has also been observed in Latvia, Sweden and Norway.
This would imply that the origin of seiðr is very ancient, and indeed it seems as if the use of seiðr by Heiðr constitutes part of the reason for the Æsir-Vanir War, as her appearence in the Völuspá is followed by a brief description of the war. Heiðr was analogous to a figure known as Gullveig, whose name means something akin to ‘gold-digger,’ who was killed by the Æsir and burned three times, each times rising from the ashes and on the third time becoming Heiðr. The meaning of this text is esoteric and obscure, but if taken to reflect real events, it certainly implies that the Æsir found Gullveig/Heiðr’s behaviour objectionable and presumably went to war with her folk over it.
Aside from the practice of seiðr, other things which seem to have marked out the Vanir as distinct from the Æsir include the approval of incest, as the Vanic god Njörðr was said to have fathered his children, Freyr and Freya (who were lovers themselves) by his own sister. This behaviour was outlawed by the Æsir, and indeed, genetic evidence shows that the ancestors of men carrying haplogroup I1 (the most common male haplogroup in Scandinavia, though it has only been found in one Mesolithic sample from Götland off the coast of Sweden) experienced a severe population bottleneck at some point. This would imply that, possibly for environmental reasons that led to isolation, inbreeding was common among the populations whose men carried this haplogroup.
In contrast to the Eastern Hunter-Gatherers (who were more or less restricted to what is now Russia and were characterized more by paternal haplogroups like J, Q1a, R1a and R1b, which mostly attest ancestry shared with American Indians), the Western Hunter-Gatherers were descended from Upper Palaeolithic Europeans, who were once known as ‘Cro-Magnons’ after such a site in France. These cultures are associated with cave paintings and ‘Venus figures,’ of which the latter are assumed by archaeologists to have been associated with fertility. It is these cultural peculiarities that I would associate with the Vanir, who seem to represent the majority of European hunter-gatherers. Haplogroup I seems to originate in the Middle East, so the culture of this people can perhaps be compared with what is found there.
At the same time, the tradition of the Vanir seems somewhat specific to Europe and so the best parallels should be sought in the ‘witchcraft’ tradition there. Many of the negative aspects associated with witches in the medieval and early modern periods would count as seiðr, which is not surprising considering how these times followed the Viking Age when seiðr was still widely practised and completely believed in. Nevertheless, we can tell that it was during the Viking Age that the first steps to suppress such practices were enacted, such as with the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who had seiðmenn captured and tied to posts in the sea, where they were slowly drowned by the rising tide. It is notable that the increase in suspicion against seiðr coincided with the adoption of Christianity in Scandinavia.
The reference to the burning of Heiðr shows that the concept of ‘witch-burning’ was not new to Europe, and indeed could be thought of as one of the most ancient ways of ‘solving trouble’ caused by such problematic persons. Though there are many today who claim to practice seiðr for either neutral or benevolent ends (such as finding lost or stolen objects or exorcism), this is not implied in the Norse primary sources, which almost always suggest a destructive and selfish meaning to seiðr. In contrast, terms such as galdr (casting spells and incantations), spá (fortune-telling) and útiseta (literally “sitting out,” referring to journeying in other worlds and sometimes to necromancy) have no necessarily positive or negative connotations, presumably because they could be used to either curse or heal (in the case of galdr), were voluntarily given (in the case of spá) or only affected the practitioner (in the case of útiseta).
Because of this, seiðr is probably something which should be treated with more caution than it is within certain fields of Neopaganism, though there will always be individuals who will attempt to use it for their own ends. Besides, this type of magic is not something which is easily recognizable in the modern world, though it is still prevalent among less developed nations under different names. Rather, it is more likely that most forms of ‘psychic attack’ will be unconscious in nature, as the techniques of doing so deliberately are obscure and unknown to most, never mind being at odds with the modern mindset. Nevertheless, the forces which in olden days worked through humans using seiðr are still present on the astral plane. Therefore, the best way to counter such attacks is to fortify oneself, to reject suggestions from outside in favour of one’s own inner knowing and to recognize the ways in which one’s own subconscious could be trying to harm others. There is nothing wrong with practising magic, but it needs to be done deliberately and for the right reasons.