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 *(s)peḱ, and it is consequently related to Latin speccio ("sees") and Sanskrit spáçati and páçyati ("sees", etc.).
A practicioner of seiðr is a seiðkona (female) or a seiðmaðr (male).
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, Odin himself, 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, Gróa in Svipdagsmál, Thorbjörg in the Saga of Eric the Red and Huld in 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. 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 Cimbri whose 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.
When Caesar inquired of his prisoners, wherefore Ariovistus did not come to an engagement, he discovered this to be the reason 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."
[...] by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity.
Jordanes relates in his Getica (XXIV:121) of Gothic Völvas called Aliorumnas. They were driven into exile by King Filimer, when the Goths had settled in Oium (Ukraine). The name is probably a corruption of a Gothic Halju-runnos , 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.
A detailed eyewitness account of a human sacrifice by what may have been a Völva was given by Ahmad ibn Fadlan as part of his account of an embassy to the Volga Bulgars in 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 addition, many aristocratic Viking women wanted to serve Freyja and represent her in Midgard. They married Viking warlords who had Odin as 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. 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.
The Saga of Eric the Red relates that the settlers in Greenland c. 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 amadou from 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 porridge made 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, the origin of Thor's wife Sif is detailed, where she is said to be a spákona. Snorri contextually correlates Sif with the oracular seeress Sibyl on this basis.
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.
One example is a grave in Fyrkat, Denmark which 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 Finland and 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. 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 Hlidskjalf from which Odin watched across the world.
Another notable grave was the Oseberg ship burial 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 cannabis plant 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. 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.
In 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. They had probably served Freyja and Odin, two gods of war, and he had done so with his spear and she with her wand.
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 Hundingsbane and twinned his fate as a hero, and it is possible that these Norns were not divine beings but Völvas. 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 Freyja had started the first war, it was on the part of the Völva to decide when to start wars by practicing magic. This is probably why Harald Bluetooth, who was at war with the Holy Roman emperor apparently kept a Völva at Fyrkat.
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, Odin is 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. 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.
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. The king had him burnt to death inside a house with a large group of fellow male practitioners.
"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 heathendom and forbid wilweorthunga (fountain worship), licwiglunga (incantations of the dead), hwata (omens), galdra (magic), man worship and 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.
"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."