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Seid

Seid

Seid or seiðr is an Old Norse term for a type of sorcery or witchcraft which was practiced by the pre-Christian Norse.

Sometimes anglicized as "seidhr", "seidh", "seidr", "seithr" or "seith", the term is also used to refer to modern Neopagan reconstructions or emulations of the practice.

Terminology and etymology

Seid involved the incantation of spells (galðrar; sing. galðr). Practitioners of seid were predominantly women (völva, or seiðkona, lit. "seid woman"), although there were male practitioners (seiðmaðr, lit. "seid man") as well.

Old English terms cognate with seiðr are siden and sidsa, both of which are attested only in contexts which suggest that they were used by elves (ælfe); these seem likely to have meant something similar to seiðr (Hall 2004, pp. 117-30). Among the Old English words for practitioners of magic are wicca (m.) or wicce (f.), the etymons of Modern English witch.

Old Norse literature

In the Viking Age, seid had connotations of ergi ("unmanliness" or "effeminacy") for men, as its manipulative aspects ran counter to the male ideal of forthright, open behaviour. Freyja and perhaps some of the other goddesses of Norse mythology were seid practitioners, as was Odin, a fact for which he is taunted by Loki in the Lokasenna.

Sagas

As described by Snorri Sturluson in his Ynglinga saga (sec. 7), seid includes both divination and manipulative magic. It seems likely that the type of divination practiced by seid was generally distinct, by dint of an altogether more metaphysical nature, from the day-to-day auguries performed by the seers (menn framsýnir, menn forspáir).

In The Saga of Eric the Red, the seiðkona or völva in Greenland wore a blue cloak and a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white cat skin; she carried the symbolic distaff (seiðstafr), which was often buried with her; and would sit on a high platform. In Örvar-Odd's Saga, however, the cloak is black, yet the seiðkona also carries the distaff (which allegedly has the power of causing forgetfulness in one who is tapped three times on the cheek by it).

Mythology

The goddess Freyja is identified in Ynglinga saga as an adept of the mysteries of seid, and it is said that it was she who taught it to Odin: 'Dóttir Njarðar var Freyja. Hon var blótgyðja. Hon kenndi fyrst með Ásum seið, sem Vönum var títt' ('Njörðr’s daughter was Freyja. She presided over the sacrifice. It was she who first acquainted the Æsir with seiðr, which was customary among the Vanir').

In Lokasenna Loki accuses Odin of practicing seid, condemning it as an unmanly art. A justification for this may be found in the Ynglinga saga where Snorri opines that following the practice of seid, the practitioner was rendered weak and helpless.

One possible example of seid in Norse mythology is the prophetic vision given to Odin in the Völuspá by the völva, vala, or seeress after whom the poem is named. Her vision is not connected explicitly with seiðr, however: the word occurs in the poem in relation to a character called Heiðr (who is traditionally associated with Freyja but may be identical with the völva: see McKinnell 2001). The interrelationship between the völva in this account and the Norns, the fates of Norse lore, are strong and striking.

Another noted mythological practitioner of seiðr was the witch Groa, who attempted to assist Thor, and who is summoned from beyond the grave in the Svipdagsmál.

Origins

Shamanism is a tradition which has been maintained widely throughout the world and it is probably of prehistoric origin. Since the publication of Jakob Grimm's socio-linguistical Deutsches Wörterbuch (p. 638) in 1835, scholarship draws a Balto-Finnic link to seid, citing the depiction of its practitioners as such in the sagas and elsewhere, and link seid to the practices of the noajdde, the patrilineal shamans of the Sami people. However, Indo-European origins are also possible (for references see Hall 2004, 121-22). Note that the word seita (Finnish) or sieidde (Sami) is a human-shaped body formed by a tree, or a large and strangely shaped stone or rock and does not involve "magic" or "sorcery"; there is a good case, however, that these words do derive ultimately from seiðr (Parpola 2004).

Belief in witchcraft has been part of Germanic religion from earliest times. Jordanes in his Getica (24) gives an account of the origins of the Huns from the union of witches with "unclean spirits". These witches are said to have been expelled from the army of the Goths by king Filimer (fl. late 2nd century). Jordanes gives the Gothic name of these magae mulieres as haliurunnae (sg. *haljaruna). Old English has hellrúna (f. hellrúne) "witch", Old High German has hellirúna "necromancy".

Contemporary reconstruction

Diana Paxson and her group, Hrafnar, have attempted reconstructions of seid from available historical material, particularly the oracular form. Jan Fries traces seid as an inspiration for his "seething" shamanic technique, though he is less concerned with precise historical reconstruction. See further Blain 2002, which discusses different ways in which seidr is being re-constituted today, in Scandinavia, the UK and the US.

Within British Heathenry, seidr according to Blain (2002) is becoming an intrinsic part of spiritual practice. This is not necessarily 'reconstruction', but may relate more to associations of people, land, and spirits.

It has been suggested that during seances the seiðkona would enter a state of trance in which her soul was supposed to "become discorporeal", "take the likeness of an animal", "travel through space", and so on. This state of trance may have been achieved through any of several methods: entheogens, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, for instance. To galdra, that is, the chanting of galdrar was also involved in creating the state of trance.

References

  • Blain, Jenny. 2002. Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism (London: Routledge)
  • DuBois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), ch. 6.
  • Hall, Alaric Timothy Peter. 2004. 'The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England' (Ph.D. University of Glasgow).
  • McKinnell, John. 2001. 'On Heiðr', Saga-Book of the Viking Society, 25, 394-417.
  • Parpola, Asko. 2004. 'Old Norse SEIÐ(R), Finnish SEITA and Saami shamanism', in Etymologie, Entlehnungen und Entwicklungen: Festschrift für Jorma Koivulehto zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by Irma Hyvärinen, Petri Kallio & Jarmo Korhonen, Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki, 64 (Helsinki: Société Néophilologique), pp. 235-273.
  • Karlsson, Thomas. 2002. Uthark - Nightside of the runes. (Ouroboros)
  • Jan Fries, Seidways

See also

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