Sunday 4 March 2012

Seidr Magic - Katherine Langrish

When I was writing ‘Troll Blood’ (the third book of my Viking trilogy ‘West of the Moon’), one character stubbornly refused to come to life. She was a young woman, Astrid, wife of the rough seafarer ‘Gunnar One-Hand’: and for ages I couldn’t find out who she was. Was she shy, timid and quiet? Tough and adventurous? Proud and stiff? Nothing seemed right, till one day as characters finally do she took scornful pity on my efforts, leaned in close and breathed in my ear, ‘There’s troll blood in me.’ At once I knew who she was. Manipulative, damaged, vulnerable, difficult Astrid became someone I really loved. Here’s where my heroine Hilde meets her for the first time:

Hilde turned, nearly bumping against a tall girl standing next to her, muffled in an expensive-looking dark blue cloak with the hood up. A brown and white goatskin bag was slung over her shoulder on a long strap, which she clutched with long thin-wristed hands. She had ice-maiden skin, so white and thin that the blue veins glistened through, wide grey eyes, a neat straight nose like a cat’s with little curling nostrils, and pale closely-shut lips.
Their eyes met. For a second Hilde felt she was looking into the eyes of a deer or a hare, a wild animal who glares at you before bolting.

And Astrid has - literally - a whole bag of tricks. She is a seidr-worker.

Seidr (pronounced roughly: ‘saythoor’, the d isn't a d but the letter ð) was a variety of Northern magic involving the arts of prophecy, spirit journeys, healing (or causing harm) and illusion. The word may come from the same root as the English verb ‘to seethe’ which means ‘to boil’ – like Shakespeare’s three witches boiling up spells in their cauldron.

Seidr was thought of as female magic; men might practise it but they endangered themselves and their reputations if they did. A woman skilled in seidr was regarded with awe, respect and a tinge of fear, as a prophetess or priestess. In Erik the Red’s Saga, there’s a famous passage in which such a woman is invited to the house of Eirk’s son Thorkel:

There was a great famine in Greenland; men who had gone out fishing caught poor catches and some never came back. There was a woman there in the Settlement whose name was Thorbjorg; she was a seeress … so …to find out when these hard times would cease, Thorkel invited her to his home. A high-seat was made ready for her, and a cushion laid down in which there must be hen feathers.
When she arrived in the evening, together with the man who had been sent to escort her, this is how she was dressed: she was wearing a blue cloak with straps which was set with stones right down to the hem; she had glass beads about her neck, and on her head a black lambskin hood lined inside with white catskin. She had a staff in her hand with a knob on it, it was ornamented with brass and set around with stones just below the knob. Round her middle she wore a belt made of touchwood, and on it was a big skin pouch in which she kept those charms she needed for magic. On her feet she had hairy calfskin shoes with long thongs… on her hands she had catskin gloves.

Thorkel and his family greet her with anxious courtesy, offering her special food - ‘porridge with goat’s beestings’ and ‘for her meat the hearts of all living creatures available there.’ Thorkel asks how soon she’ll be able to give them the news of the future which they are hoping for, but she calmly responds that she’ll have ‘nothing to announce till next day’ after a good night’s sleep.

Finally, however, the prophetess gives the show she’s made them wait for (and thus appreciate better). Seated on her high seat, surrounded by the women and aided by spirits called up by chanting, she reassures Thorkel and the settlers that the famine will not last beyond the winter, that spring will bring good things; and she answers the questions of all the men who approach her: ‘She was free with her information, and little indeed of what she said failed to come about’.

Reconstruction of a Viking house at Brattahlíð, Greenland.  To such a house Thorkel would have welcomed the seidr worker.

It’s a rare glimpse of a pre-Christian Norse priestess (although the saga specifically names a couple of Christian Greenlanders who feel uncomfortable with the proceedings, it’s clear that most of the settlers are only too grateful to have their worries set to rest by such an awe-inspiring figure). In other sagas, though, we can see the ‘witch’ element coming more to the fore in descriptions of such women, as Christian views became more widespread.

In ‘The Saga of Grettir the Strong’, an old woman cuts runes on a floating tree trunk, smears them with her own blood, walks round it widdershins – against the sun – and tells Grettir’s enemies to push the tree into the sea so that it will float to the island where Grettir has taken shelter, and bring him harm.

In ‘Eyrbyggya Saga’, a woman called Katla uses seidr magic to save her son Odd from a band of his enemies. On seeing them approach the house, she tells her son to sit next to her as she spins her wool. Though Arnkell and his men search the house, they don’t see Odd, only Katla’s distaff with the clump of wool on it. They leave, but suspect they’ve been tricked and come back a second time. Katla is combing Odd’s hair, but to the war band it looks as though she is grooming her goat. The third time, though Odd is lying on a pile of ashes, the men ‘see’ only Katla’s boar asleep there. Each time they leave the house, the men realise they have been fooled by Katla’s magic arts. Not until they enlist the help of another woman skilled in seidr, Geirridr who hates Katla, do Odd’s enemies succeed in capturing him. (Of course this story also illustrates how normal it was in those days for people to share their living space with large domestic animals.)

Stories such as these from the sagas should remind us that our modern, twenty-first century sceptical viewpoint is not really up to the task of understanding the world of early medieval people. To do so, we need to suspend our disbelief. Men like Thorkell and his neighbours, Arnkell and his warband, not only believed in seidr but shared their physical world with malevolent ghosts like Glam of Grettir’s Saga, and trolls, and wizards and sendings. Such things were not delightful tales to them, but fearsome realities. Fantasyland was real.

I think we often forget that ‘reality’ is something we construct. So much depends on our beliefs. Just as schoolchildren know for sure, via playground lore, that the dishevelled house on the corner, the one with the peeling paint and lopsided windowframes, is inhabited by a bloodstained ghost (and will often invent odd little placatory rhymes and rituals to be used if they have to go past it), so our ancestors’ concerns and actions were coloured by their perceptions and beliefs in creatures which, to us, are unreal fantasies. We can hold such beliefs at arms’ length, a tacit wink passing between author and reader as we congratulate ourselves on knowing better than our poor deluded characters, or we can immerse ourselves and our readers in the perceptual world of the historical past. I make no apology for preferring the second option.


catdownunder said...

I much prefer the second option too!

K.M.Lockwood said...

Thank you for this post - seidr magic is inspiring. As a reader, I most appreciate writers who allow me to enter their worlds fully - and as a writer, I hope to create such worlds from within.

Linda B-A said...

This is such a foreign world to learn about. Truly fascinating. And I love your concluding paragraph. Reality is a construction and constructing someone else's reality is something that fiction does best.

I must also admit that, after posting on European cat cruelty, amongst other things, a couple of days ago, I was struck by the passage from Erik the Red’s Saga in which the woman wears a catskin hood and gloves. I wonder if this refers to the domestic cat or something bigger.

Kit Berry said...

Ooh - this post made me shiver! Brilliant, thank you. I have "West of the Moon" sitting in my room waiting for me to be free to read it, and am eagerly anticipating a magical read. I love the whole concept of seidr magic. I also subscribe to your theory about the construction of reality, and there's inevitable prejudice when others can't understand my reality. I get labelled as "weird" and "whacky" and other similar things which I can but take as compliments really. A crow with a white tail feather landed in my garden the other day, and this filled me with huge excitement. She ended up in my writing of course, which is why she visited me, I'm sure. The world is a very magical place if we open our eyes to other realities, and try to glimpse the different layers. Thanks again for an inspiring post.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Excellent! I wanted to explore Viking magic more fully in my third Viking novel, but I've had to turn my pen to other things for now. It struck me how many Icelanders still believe in hidden people and magic today. The landscape also lends itself so well to it.
I LOVE the picture of the longhouse reconstruction. That looks more impressive than any of the ones I saw in Iceland.

Cathrin said...

I learn so many things through your writing, Katherine. I'm currently rereading your viking trilogy, so I'm immersed in this world, which makes this post even more delicious.