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.