[This month’s ev0king the Moon comes to us courtesy of Morgan Daimler. A scholar and witch, Daimler here draws on their research for Pagan Portals: Freya to discuss the ancient practice of seidhr.]

My spirit moves
Inside my skin
Seething, seething, seething
Breaks free, bursting
Out beyond flesh
Shifting, shifting, shifting
My shape changing
Wearing wings, wild
Soaring, soaring, soaring
Clothed in feathers
Clothed in light
Straining, straining, straining
Down to the roots
Of the tree, of the world
Searching, searching, searching
Questions echoing
Answers waiting
Seeing, seeing, seeing

-M Daimler 2014

Freya is a fascinating deity and one who has remained popular across time, a primal Vanic goddess who found a place among the civilized Aesir, a complex figure connected to fertility, sex, war, and magic. In particular Freya is associated with a kind of magic called seidhr, a practice that is both powerful and also somewhat controversial both in the pre-Christian heathen period and today, but which cements Freya’s association with witches and more widely witchcraft. It is also, perhaps, one of the most profound things that Freya is said to have shared, a transformational power that she brought from her world and people to those outside.

Seidhr is a uniquely Norse approach to magic, although what we know of it today is reconstructed from hints in texts and archaeology. While it is referenced in various stories, details of the actual practice are scanty and mostly implied rather than explicitly given. The word itself is Norse and has an uncertain meaning, with one older theory favouring ‘seething’ while newer lines of thought tie it to a proto-Indo-European word for binding or tying; it is often simply translated as witchcraft, or less commonly as shamanism (I favour the witchcraft translation although neither is really a good English descriptor for what seidhr encompasses). According to Ynglinga Saga seidhr workers were said to be able to control the weather by stilling the ocean or turning the wind, could put out fires, shape shift by sending their spirit out in the form of an animal, could tell the future, could speak to the dead (a practice called utisetta or out-sitting) and could bring death, ill luck and illness, or life, good luck and health. Seidhr could be practiced in various ways including trancework and chanting, sometimes referred to as galdr. The Voluspa mentions the seidhr worker’s ability to influence the minds of other people and to use magic charms, and Eric the Red’s Saga talks about spirit communication and oracular work. In Eric the Red’s Saga a woman who practices Seidhr is said to have travelled from village to village, staying at wealthy farms, and conducting a ceremony to foretell the community’s fate.

We know from the available material that seidhr was something of an outsiders practice, often equated in later material to witchcraft, and that it was primarily understood as a women’s practice with men who worked seidhr seen as being ergi or ‘unmanly’, a term often associated with homosexuality.  Despite this reputation it was a practice of both men and women and was also attributed to the god Odin. Seidhr itself was originally, according to the lore, a practice of the Vanic gods and in Anglo-Saxon sources was connected with the elves who had a form of magic called ‘aelfsiden’ that is very similar to the magic of seidhr performed by humans. This may suggest an interesting connection between elves and the Vanir more generally or at the least that the elves learned the art of this magic from them, if not from Freya herself. Seidhr generally had a questionable reputation (arguably as it still does today) in part for involving practices that can be seen as manipulative of other people to various degrees; possibly for this reason the oracular or predictive aspects of seidhr tend to be the most commonly discussed and emphasized today.

Oracular seidhr had been reconstructed and is practiced among some heathens across various modern communities. There are two main, very different, approaches to this although both involve the seidhr worker seeking to connect to spirits which can provide answers to questions. Those spirits often include the human dead as well as various deities. In one form the worker will gain the information by travelling out, in spirit, to a liminal space or to the gates of the afterlife (Helheim) while in the other the worker will call spirits to themself to answer questions. In both historic and modern practices seidhr workers doing this kind of predictive work would often work with others, for example in Erik the Red’s Saga the seeress requires someone to chant special songs to draw the spirits to her so she can speak to them while in trance. 

Another seidhr practice is called sjonhverfing, or “deceiving of the sight”. This is a focused mental practice where you make others see or perceive what you want them to instead of what is really there. An example of this type of seidhr magic is seen in Eyrbyggja Saga where a seidhr worker tries to save her son who is being chased by a group trying to kill him by making the men chasing him see only a household object where the man is sitting. While the attempt ultimately fails it initially succeeds, with the men being deceived in the moment and leaving because they believe the woman is alone – oblivious to her son who is right there in the room.

A final well known seidhr practice is utisetta, or sitting out. Utisetta is done to contact the spirits of the dead by sitting out on a grave or burial mound wrapped in a cloak. Utisetta in the lore could be very dangerous as it represented intentionally breaching the boundaries between the living and the dead, but could also offer many rewards, especially through new knowledge and prophecy, which the Norse believed could be given by the dead. There are various accounts of people approaching seers, including dead ones, through either this practice or a similar concept; we can see examples in Freya’s journey to the dead Jotun seeress or in Odin’s visit to the seeress who related to him the eventually end of the world.

For many people it is considered common knowledge today that Freya taught Seidhr to both the Aesir and to humans but as with most things the lore is a bit more complicated than that. Ynglinga Saga tells us that it was Freya who taught this form of magic to the Aesir, which is fairly straightforward. However the idea that she taught humans as well, while fairly well known today, is less certain. There’s nowhere in any story that explicitly says that, rather it’s a being named Gullveig, later called Heidhr, who the Voluspa tells us went among humans practicing seidhr; however many scholars including Simek and Lindow have theorized that Gullveig/Heidhr was Freya under a different name, and so credit Freya with the actions attributed to the other named figures. Through this understanding we expand our view of Freya out into a deity who not only had this powerful form of magical practice but who shared it with other Gods (the Aesir) as well as among humans, especially human women. 

Freya is a deity who is connected to much more than the popular views of her tend to look at, and her role as a practitioner of seidhr and as the one who taught this potent magic to others should be appreciated for the powerful act that it was. Seidhr is a transgressive practice, a form of magic that manipulates reality, pierces the veil between present and future, and draws the dead into the realm of the living or brings the living to the dead. Rather than keeping this power to herself or for her own people Freya chose to share it with others, both giving it to the Aesir who she had gone to live among and – as Heidhr – to travel the mortal world and share her knowledge and power with human women. This positions her very directly standing with human witches and empowering people in their own quest for magic and for greater control in their lives, making Freya a goddess who is both engaged with those who seek her as well as intriguing to those who study her. 

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