Volva: The Seeress
A couple of notes:
**When it comes to Norse/Germanic magick, it is important to understand a bit of terminology to help you grasp what is what. Traditionally, “volva” was the term used for a “prophetess”, a “sybil”, or otherwise a “wise-woman”. Likewise the term “Thul” meant “wise-man”, “sage” and “bard”. Under these names, there were subsets to describe the type of magick they were most adept in. “Seidkona/Spakona” is the term used to refer to a woman who practices seidhr. “Seidhmadhr/Spamadhrmadhr” is the male version of this. I tend to just stick to the word “volva”, though I will use seidkona on occasion to make a clear point**
** I’d also like to point out that while there were men who practiced Seidhr, the volva role traditionally was saved just for the women. This is due to a variety of things- one being that culturally it was not acceptable for men to practice this, as it was a magick supposedly learned from Freya (a strong goddess of love and sexuality) and that men who practiced this were thought of as unmanly. (“When we find hints that seidhr was also practiced by men, we are reminded of the ceremonies (said to be shameful) associated with Freyr. One of Harold Fairhair’s sons was said to have worked with seidr with a company of eight followers.. His descendant Eyvind also practiced seidhr. However, it is clear that there was great hostility against these two men and both were killed by members of their own family.”(Davidson))
Traditionally, the word volva was derived from Old Norse and meant “staff carrier”/ “wand carrier”. A volva was a woman shaman, a prophetess, a seeress, a priestess, and a magician in her own right. She divined with spirits and deities in order to learn the answers to questions through divination, provide those answers to the community, and otherwise work with spirits. She was supposed to look into the orlog (luck, karma) and wyrd (fate) of certain people, as well as work with the Norns to perceive and manipulate a person’s wyrd/orlog and untangle any “knots” that were in them. Volvas practiced a variety of magick: Oracular Seidhr, Galdr, and Spae-craft. (I am in the process of writing articles over these types of magick, but figured I should start off explaining who actually practiced these things).
The volva did not live in a community, often she removed herself entirely from society and lived in the woods on her own. This was to keep her from influencing or being bonded through family ties, community bonds, and such- for her work, she needed to be free of all of that. She was a wanderer, and traveled the lands, stopping by villages and such occasionally to do her workings. Sometimes there were women who followed certain volva, or hopeful students. Traditionally, the volva was covered in catskins and animal furs as clothing.
She wore jewelry, with as much amber as she could get. (Amber and catskin are both symbolic of Freya.) The volva carried a staff, or Stav, with her- which was very similar in working to a normal Stang. It was a vertical line, a key pole, and symbolic of the trunk of Yggdrasil- the world tree. A tein, or wand-stick, was also carried with this. The tein was carried in the dominant hand, and the stav in the other. The volva also knew how to weave, as the Norns weave wyrd and it was thought to be symbolic to this.
The volvas were well respected. Throughout historical literature and mythological references, the volva is portrayed to be a very powerful influential woman. They were professionals, wise in their craft, in history, in the runes, in magick. The story of Volsupa, which means “Volva’s Prophecy”, centers solely around Odin specifically consulting a (dead) volva in order to learn about his orlog, the future, wyrd, and such. Odin, the Allfather, actually gave this volva gold for her work- showing that even he respected her workings. A very detailed description of the volvas come from the Saga of Eric the Red. It describes a volvas visit in great length, how she dressed, what she spoke, what she ate, where she went, how she was treated, and how she did the work she performed.
Once the church came through, the volva role took a different approach. The volvas were persecuted and killed off in the process of Christianization, and the roles of said females completely flipped. Some of the literature from surviving volvas who practiced has been found in historical black books, known as Svartebok, as well as in folk and oral stories passed down through tradition. (One such striking song is “Kjerringa med Staven,” commonly sung even today at language camps and the bygtedans. The “dear woman with a staff” describes the völva living outside of the community using magical chants to churn butter, talk with rabbits and fight mountain trolls.- Kari Tauring )During this time period, a volva who was known to practice was called a “troll woman/witch” and not as accepted- thus, they often would take jobs as midwives and nurses of a sort. All of this is used today to reconstruct the practice.
When they traveled into town, the people immediately flocked to her and allowed her to get to know the town/people and such. As an offering, people could kill a variety of nearby wildlife and beasts, then serve the volva the hearts of all of these animals. It was a form of sacrifice, in which the volva ate the hearts in order to understand the land better. The people of the town would set up a high seat which had a cushion (often filled with feathers) placed atop it. The volva would sit on the cushion to do her work. She covered herself with a blue-tinted cloak, glass beads, and usually a cap made of lambskin or animal fur. Galdr was used to help the volva get into trance. Either the volva herself, a woman she was close to, or women from the village would sing a song that was called the vardhlokur. The purpose of this was to call upon the spirits, as well as help guide the volva into the state of mind she needed to be in to receive messages, divine, pathwalk and journey.
This practice is being brought back to life, so to speak. It can be seen in Northern European/American Heathen reconstructionalist communities. The three leading women on it, thus far, seem to be Diana Paxson, Yngona Desmond, and Kari Tauring. I am exploring this practice, slowly, and thus it is one focus of my current studies. Hopefully, I’ll have time to write articles on the entire procedure of a volva ritual, how the staff and wand are used in magick, how seidhr-galdr-spaecraft all work, and such.
The Hrafnar Seidh Ritual can be read here, to get an idea on how it works in modern times: http://www.hrafnar.org/seidh.html
The Return of the Volva: Recovering the Practice of Seidhby Diana L. Paxson
Volva Stav Manuel by Kari Tauring
Voluspa: Seidhr as Wyrd Consciousness by Yngona Desmond