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Traditions of the Nordic Völva

Samantha Catalina Sinclair

Wise Women, Witches and Intergalactic Crones

Dr. Randy P. Conner

April 13, 2011


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Introduction: Nordic Roots

A year ago, I had a dream in which my maternal grandmother

appeared and said, “You have an inheritance. It is yours and yours alone. It

is your birthright and there is nothing you must do to obtain it; it is already

granted.” When I awoke, I felt surprised to have received such a

paradoxically clear yet enigmatic message. My grandmother, who passed in

2008, died penniless. What sort of inheritance was bequeathed as a

birthright yet required no effort to obtain?

Last fall as part of a women’s spirituality class ritual, I drew the

goddess tarot card, Skadi which was befuddling, as I had never heard of her.

I came to learn that Skaði is a goddess and giant (in Icelandic giant is

‘jötunn’) associated with bow hunting and skiing said to be the

personification of the geographical region of Scandinavia. My father who is a

6’4 blue-eyed blond could easily be cast as a Viking in a Hollywood film, so I

have always assumed that we had Nordic roots. Since Nordic peoples have

historically been cast as raping, pillaging, human sacrificing marauders, I had

never been particularly interested to learn more about them. Instead I

focused on the stories about my maternal ancestors who were believed to be

of Cherokee lineage and studied their pre-Christian nature-based spiritual

traditions, idealizing them as the nobler side of the family.


3

As I continued to research genealogy on our distaff1 side –an old

English saying for ‘mother’s side of the family,’ I reached a dead end at

Nancy Jane Lovelace, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who

was rumored to be Cherokee Indian. In order to confirm Native American

blood, I had my mitochondrial DNA sequenced and discovered that I am of

Mesopotamian heritage. My mtDNA haplotype is J2b1, which is virtually

absent in European populations, except for a 60% concentration in

Azerbaijan.2 Did my Mesopotamian ancestresses pass through this region en

route to the frontier in Tennessee? There was a huge swath missing from my

genealogical quilt. My father underwent DNA testing for both his X and Y

DNA, which confirmed what we had already guessed-R1b and H haplotypes

characteristic of Northern and Western European ancestry, particular of Celts

and Anglo-Saxons.3 My maternal uncle took the DNA test on behalf of my

deceased grandfather, and also tested positive for R1b.

Inspired by the subaltern research modalities of Lucia Birnbaum,4 I

began looking into my own story for clues to potential submerged wise

women histories. Starting with Azerbaijan, I soon came upon the work of Thor

Heyerdahl, a Finnish archeologist who postulated that Azerbaijani ancestors

1
Merriam-Webster. "Distaff - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster
Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. http://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/distaff (accessed April 12, 2011).
2
Logan, Jim and participating partners by agreement. "The Subclades of mtDNA Haplogroup
J and Proposed Motifs for AssigningControl-Region Sequences into These Clades." Journal of
Genetic Genealogy. http://www.jogg.info/42/files/logan.htm (accessed April 12, 2011).
3
Sykes, Bryan. Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: the genetic roots of Britain and Ireland. New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
4
Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Black madonnas: feminism, religion, and politics in Italy. Boston:
Northeastern University Press, 1993.
4

traveled by papyrus boats to Finland through a strait between the Caspian

and Black Seas.5 Consulting my deceased ancestresses, as an unverified

personal gnosis research method,6 I intuited that my distant relatives

migrated from Mesopotamia through Yemen to Azerbaijan, then via raft to

Finland, down to the Celtic British Isles, finally immigrating to the United

States. My psychic hunch prompted me to delve into Scandinavian cultural

history, particularly the magico-religious practices of the Nordic völva , a

wise woman, priestess and healer.

The Nordic Völva

By Nordic, I refer to Northern Europe; Greenland, Iceland, Norway,

Denmark, Sweden, Gotland, Finland, Scotland, the Faroes, the Orkney Isles,

Shetland, parts of the Baltic, and Germany.7 It is important to note that

surviving medieval accounts of Nordic paganism were written mostly by

biased, conquering Christians whose aim was to divide magic into binary

categories of good and evil.8 Non-Christian magic was associated with the

devil while Christian magic and miracles were purported as “natural” magic

created by Yaweh, the singular deity of the Abrahamic traditions.

To understand wise women in Nordic cultural history, it is critical to

understand their sociological function in pre-Christian, pre-Enlightenment

5
Heyerdahl, Thor (1995). "The Azerbaijan Connection: Challenging Euro-Centric Theories of
Migration", Azerbaijan International, 3:1 (Spring 1995), 60–61.
6
MacMorgan, Kaatryn. Wicca 333: advanced topics in Wiccan belief ; part one of a master
class in Wicca. Revised ed. Buffalo, N. Y.: Covenstead Press, 2007.
7
Mitchell, Stephen A. Witchcraft and magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
8
Conner, Randy P. The Pagan Heart of the West. Forthcoming. Page 17. Quote from Quell.
5

society. A common misconception regarding magic occurs when we project

contemporary social mores onto proto-Scandinavian culture and assume that

the practice of magic was outré. The magic arts were practical, not fanciful

and were the precursor to science. Magic evinced a desire to exert power

over a perceived cause to produce an effect.9 Magic was a way to mitigate

the circumstances of life; to choose the gender of a child, to cause fertility of

fields and livestock, to heal disease, to control the weather, to predict the

future, and to consult deceased ancestors. Magic was also a way to enact

retribution, to exact justice, and to impose some sense of order. The Norse

mythos provided the ideological filter through which life could be

understood. Life was fragile for Nordic rural subsistence farmers during

medieval times. Seeking wise woman counsel gave households a sense of

control over the precarious razor’s edge upon which they lived, assuaging

fears, and inciting stability in settlements.

Divinities such as the goddess Freyja, the Norns, and the Valkyries

wielded their magical powers in the nine worlds of Yggdrasil while Nordic

wise woman mastered the vocation of witchcraft in order to serve the

community and attain status here on the earthly plane of Middgard. The

Nordic wise woman was revered for her “deeper knowledge of Nature, the

stars, and …plants”10 that could prevent famine, draught, disease or war,

and she was prized for her mysterious powers.11

9
Mitchell, Stephen A. Witchcraft and magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
10
Conner, Randy P. The Pagan Heart of the West. Forthcoming. 17.
11
“ “ 18
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Although there were many Nordic wise women who practiced magic

arts, the völva held a special position as the community high priestess and

medicine woman.12 In Old Norse, the word völva means "wand carrier" and

refers to the distaff, an instrument used in spinning that völur (plural)

appropriated for the spinning of vord (Old Norse for guardian or helping

spirit) urd (as in Urd, the name of a fate spinning Norn) or wyrd (Old English).

Wyrd is defined as fate; “destiny intertwined between the weaver and the

woven.”13 A distaff is a tall spool of wound flax fibers to be drawn into cloth

while being spun. Distaff is also a euphemism for women’s work.14 Dísir

(plural, dís singular is Old Norse for lady) were female ancestresses who

could be summoned by the völva to intervene on behalf of the clan. The

distaff (Dís + staff = lady wand) was the primary talisman of the völva.

Perhaps the distaff was literally spun as part of the völva’s ceremonial

shamanic practice.15

Seidr or seiðr is Old Norse for an array of magic arts such as shamanic

journeying, prophecy, healing, necromancy, shape shifting, dream

interpretation and rune spell casting practiced by seiðkonas (female) and

seiðmaðr (gender diverse men).16 The etymology of seidr seems related to

12
Fries, Jan. Seidways: shaking, swaying and serpent mysteries. 2nd Impression with
appendix ed. Oxford: Mandrake, 2009. 76.
13
“ “ 77.
14
Merriam-Webster. "Distaff - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster
Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. http://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/distaff (accessed April 12, 2011).
15
Kodratoff, Yves . "Feminine magic in the Nordic myths ." Nordic Magic Healing: runes,
charms, incantations, and galdr. http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/feminine.htm (accessed
April 13, 2011).
16
Conner, Randy P. The Pagan Heart of the West. Forthcoming. 18.
7

Old High German for cord, snare, string, or halter (seidr used in verse 15 of

the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa in this context).17 This could correspond to

the practice of cord magic, a type of sorcery prepared in advance by

enchanting knots that released spells when untied. The charmed distaff was

involved in spinning wyrd for those who sought the völva’s counsel.18

Additionally, seidr could refer to seething, as when a pot boils, evocative of

the völva’s ecstatic state during trace.19

The spinning metaphor could refer to the exoteric state of

consciousness required of völva “fare forth” or send out a “fylgia” or helping

spirit20 as she traveled to astral and etheric planes during séance (from Old

French, seoir = to sit).21 The völva also received spirits into her psyche

esoterically. This may be why feminine (ergi) characteristics are so closely

associated with sorcery, and why Odin was taunted by Loki for being argr

(sexually receptive) when he performed magic uncharacteristic of his

gender, which he learned from the goddess Freyja.22

In Norse cosmology, the Norns are goddesses who spin the destinies of

the inhabitants of nine worlds of Yggdrasil. In the Middle Ages destinies were

also woven by völur who could imprison an enemy by enchanting the loom
17
Andren, Anders , and Kristina Jennbert. Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives:
Origins, Changes & Interactions . Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006. 164.
18
Thorsson, Edred . Witchdom of the True: A Study of the Vana-Troth and the Practice of
Seidr. Smithville: Runa-Raven Press, 2011.
19
Fries, Jan. Seidways: shaking, swaying and serpent mysteries. 2nd Impression with
appendix ed. Oxford: Mandrake, 2009. 77.
20
Gerrard, Katie . Seidr the Gate is Open. London: Avalonia, 2011.
21
"Seance - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and
Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/seance
(accessed April 13, 2011).
22
Conner, Randy P. The Pagan Heart of the West. Forthcoming. 23.
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with binding magic or could free an ally by loosening the weave. Weaving

alludes to a web and the possibility of ensnaring or attracting a

desideratum.23 An example is the following charm from Merseberg, “Once

the Idisi (disir) sat, sat here and there, some hefted fetters, some stopped

the host, some loosened the fetters. Jump the bonds, escape from the

enemies!”24

Eldar Heide believes that the mind can be cast like a net as a mind

emissary that moves forces such as wind and sea as well as subtle

energies.25 In a Sami myth, a woman is able to use magic to pull her

husband back to her when he is away. In a Sami poem, The Son of the Sun,

the goddess Maadteraakha is responsible for creating new souls by tying

three wind knots that when released cause a woman to become pregnant

with a newly conceived soul. The Valkyries, (Old Norse = chooser of the

slain) winged Norse goddesses who choose who will die in battle, “weave on

the grotesque loom of men’s body parts” in the Old Norse skaldic poem

Darraðarljóð.26 During the Middle Ages, spinning or ‘woolen work’ was

thought to invoke supernatural power such as rendering invisibility.

Nordic witches were also known as spákona in Old Norse, or spækona

or spæ-wife in Old English, which refers to spae, or “truth speaking”

23
Andren, Anders , and Kristina Jennbert. Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives:
Origins, Changes & Inter actions. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006. 167.
24
Kodratoff, Yves . "Feminine magic in the Nordic myths ." Nordic Magic Healing: runes,
charms, incantations, and galdr. http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/feminine.htm (accessed
April 13, 2011).
25
Andren and Jennbert. 167.
26
Magnusson, Magnus. Njál's saga. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960.
9

associated with prophecy.27 19th century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill

Dennison defines the spækona as having “…all the supernatural wisdom,

some of the supernatural power, without any of the malevolent spirit of

witches.” He goes on to say that the spækona was “skilled in medicinal and

surgery, in dreams, in foresight and second-sight, and in forestalling the evil

influence of witchcraft. Such women were looked upon with a kind of holy

respect.”

In the Saga of Eric the Red, written around 1000 C.E., Þórbjörgr is the

last surviving völva in a family of nine sisters who had all been völur. 28 The

völva’s habiliments are distinctive; she is dressed in a floor length blue or

black cloak trimmed with precious stones sewn into the hem, evoking the

cloak of Odin.29 She walks with a jewel encrusted distaff (Old Norse =

seiðstafr), and wears a crystal necklace as spectacular in its own way as

Freyja’s dwarf-forged gold Brisingamen. The hood of Þórbjörgr’s garment is

black lambskin trimmed with ermine fur. On her waist, she wears a pouch

that conceals her magical implements. She wears calfskin slippers with

brass knobs and wildcat skin gloves lined with ermine fur.

The franklin (free man) Thorkell sends for Þórbjörgr because of hard

times in the clan, and she is welcomed heartily and served a special dinner

of kid’s milk and an assortment of animal hearts. Afterward, the spae-queen


27
Fries, Jan. Seidways: shaking, swaying and serpent mysteries. 2nd Impression with
appendix ed. Oxford: Mandrake, 2009. 77.
28
"The Saga of Erik the Red - Icelandic Saga Database." Home - Icelandic Saga Database.
http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en (accessed April 13, 2011).
29
Fries, Jan. Seidways: shaking, swaying and serpent mysteries. 2nd Impression with
appendix ed. Oxford: Mandrake, 2009. 77.
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is escorted to a high seat (Old Norse uniseta) cushioned with goose down

pillows from which she can cast seidr. One way the völva casts spells is by

singing falsetto incantations called galdrars with an assembly of others.

Though historians cannot be sure exactly how the songs were sung, some

suggest that they may have been howled.30 Although assumed to be oral

traditions, I propose that galdrars might have been transcribed as magical

stave songs. The contemporary definition of stave is a set of five horizontal

lines upon which music is written.31 In the Middle Ages, Icelandic staves were

magical symbols of combined runes that formed an incantation. These

symbols may have been the written form of a galdrar. Here is an image of a

draumstafir magical stave, an enchantment to evoke the realization of your

heart’s desire.32

These galdrars discharged magic spells when howl-sung that were

intended to tip the scales in favor of a desired outcome. In the Saga of Eric

30
Kodratoff, Yves . "Feminine magic in the Nordic myths ." Nordic Magic Healing: runes,
charms, incantations, and galdr. http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/feminine.htm (accessed
April 13, 2011).
31
"Staves | Define Staves at Dictionary.com." Dictionary.com | Free Online Dictionary for
English Definitions. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/staves (accessed April 13, 2011).
32
"Icelandic magical staves - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free
encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_magical_staves (accessed April 13,
2011).
11

the Red, preparations for the völva to perform magic are incomplete until a

quorum of women is found to sing the wyrd galdrar (songs).

“And when the day was far spent, the preparations were made for her

which she required for the exercise of her enchantments. She

(Þórbjörgr) begged them to bring to her those women who were

acquainted with the lore needed for the exercise of the enchantments,

and which is known by the name of Weird-songs, but no such women

came forward. Then was search made throughout the homestead if

any woman were so learned.”

When a young woman name Gudrid admits to having learned the wyrd/weird

songs from her mother back in Iceland, but is hesitant due to being a devout

Christian, Thorkell and Þórbjörgr convince her albeit reluctantly to join in the

circle casting. Þórbjörgr praises Gudrid for her assistance saying, “thou art

wise in good season.”

“The women formed a ring round about, and (the spae-queen

Þórbjörgr) ascended the scaffold and the seat prepared for her

enchantments. Then sang Gudrid the weird-song in so beautiful and

excellent a manner, that to no one there did it seem that he had ever

before heard the song in voice so beautiful as now. The spae-queen

thanked her for the song. “Many spirits,” said she, ‘have been present

under its charm, and were pleased to listen to the song, who before

would turn away from us, and grant us no such homage. And now are
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many things clear to me which before were hidden both from me and

others.”

The importance of wyrd songs cannot be understated. Clearly the old

galdrars must be sung in order to charm the spirits and coax them into

interceding on behalf of the völva. After Þórbjörgr divines the prophecy for

the clan, she blesses Gudrun for her participation.

“And thee, Gudrid, will I recompense straightway, for that aid of thine

which has stood us in good stead; because thy destiny is now clear to

me, and foreseen. Thou shalt make a match here in Greenland, a most

honourable one, though it will not be a long-lived one for thee, because

thy way lies out to Iceland; and there, shall arise from thee a line of

descendants both numerous and goodly, and over the branches of thy

family shall shine a bright ray.”33

Þórbjörgr, even among Christians is sovereign, and exhibits the dignified

demeanor of a spiritual leader in her grace and character. From her

beneficent intersession on behalf of Thorkell, to her auspicious blessing of

Gudrun, Þórbjörgr exhibits the regal air of a queen.

The völva was a profoundly important figure in proto-Scandinavian and

Scandinavian territories. Seidr practitioners such as Diana Paxson, Jan Fries

and Yngona Desmond as well as many others have attempted to reconstruct

the old traditions and carry the spiritual knowledge forward to successive
33
"The Saga of Erik the Red - Icelandic Saga Database." Home - Icelandic Saga Database.
http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en (accessed April 13, 2011).
13

generations. Although initially ashamed of my Nordic roots, I have now

come to appreciate the contributions of my wise ancestresses, the dísir, who

have guided me along this journey. At the end of his life, Thor Heyerdahl

postulated that Azerbaijan was the primary spreading center for Europe.

Finland and Gobustan share identical Paleolithic rock drawings of boats. I

have recently learned that I am related to King Fornjotur of Kvenland

(Finland- b. 160; d. 250) on my maternal grandmother’s father’s side of the

family. It is a strange coincidence that the only European populations of

J2b1’s are in Azerbaijan. Snorri Sturluson 13th-century historian says, "Odin

came to the North with his people from a country called Aser."34 Heyerdahl

believed that Aser referred to Azerbaijan as well as the mythological Aesir,

from which Odin came. Heyerdahl’s last book Jakten på Odin, (The Search

for Odin)35 chronicled his excavations in Azov, Azerbaijan, northeast of the

Black Sea as he searched for physical evidence of the Norse god Odin’s

existence. Since Sturluson euhemerized Odin, describing how he led the

Æsir tribe from Saxland, to Fyn in Denmark and Sweden, Heyerdahl believed

Odin had been based on a living Nordic king. Between the genealogical,

genetic evidence and my unverified personal gnosis, I feel there is a strong

chance that Heyerdahl was correct in asserting that Finland was populated

by immigrants from Azerbaijan.

34
Stenersens, J. (trans.) (1987). Snorri, The Sagas of the Viking Kings of Norway. Oslo:
Forlag, 1987.
35
Heyerdahl, Thor, and Per Lillieström. Jakten på Odin: på sporet av vår fortid. 2. oppl. ed.
Oslo: Stenersen, 2001
14

I have recently learned that J2b1 haplotypes have been studied

extensively for their resistance to cellular oxidation, which contributes to

longevity. I have come to be proud of my Ango-Saxon, Nordic, Azerbaijani-

by-route-of-Mesopotamian ancestry; particularly the strong line of Nordic

wise women whose DNA and histories wove their threads into mine. And as

for my birthright, the inheritance which is intrinsically mine: I believe it is

twofold: the gift of communication from my ancestresses, and the gift of

longevity bequeathed by my maternal grandmothers in my genes. For

these treasures I give the deepest sacrament of thanks from the core of my

being as I journey toward intergalactic cronedom. Ashé

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2006.

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in Italy. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.

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15

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Heyerdahl, Thor, and Per Lillieström. Jakten på Odin: på sporet av vår fortid.
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Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_magical_staves (accessed


April 13, 2011).

Kodratoff, Yves. "Feminine magic in the Nordic myths." Nordic Magic Healing:
runes, charms, incantations, and galdr. http://www.nordic-
life.org/nmh/feminine.htm (accessed April 13, 2011).
Logan, Jim, and Partners Scientist. "The Subclades of mtDNA Haplogroup J
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Clades." Journal of Genetic Genealogy.
http://www.jogg.info/42/files/logan.htm (accessed April 12, 2011).

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16

"The Saga of Erik the Red - Icelandic Saga Database." Home - Icelandic Saga
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Thorsson, Edred . Witchdom of the True: A Study of the Vana-Troth and the
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