Patreon Topic 50: On Völur Past and Present

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From Emily comes this topic:

“What was a volva and what being a volva would encompass today.”

The word völva means ‘staff-bearer’ per Neil Price in The Viking Way. This is a spiritual specialist who engages in seiðr and/or spá. Seiðr and spá are a galaxy of practices, among them being what we would readily recognize today as spiritwork, divination, prophecying, and various kinds of magic including curse work, protection, empowerment, and enchantment. What is most striking to me is that the staff referred to is both itself an instrument of power for directing spirits and energies, and a symbol of office. The wand or staff has a number of forms, including that of an iron distaff, a plain staff of iron or wood that is about as high as a walking cane, and a large staff that is made of iron or of wood, the latter carved and embellished. Price has an excellent overview of these in The Viking Way.

Völur (plural of völva) occupy an interesting area in Late Iron Age religion. As near as I can tell, between reading translations of the sagas and books on the subject, including the excellent The Viking Way by Neil Price and Nordic Religions in the Viking Age by Thomas DuBois, they were both admired and treated with fear. It is key to note that we have little to nothing from before this period, what is coloqially called The Viking Age, and almost all of it is filtered through Christian lenses from the period. So what were they? They were seers, witches, people you went to for spiritual work and spiritual advice. They were people who were to be respected. They were people to be feared. If you were a völva you walked a road between that of the people you served and the spirits.

In the Eiriks saga rauða, the Saga of Erik the Red, the völva is an itinerant spiritual specialist that speaks with and/or works with the spirits. At least with the example provided in this saga through Þorbiörg, she did not act alone. She required “a chorus of women and at least one assistant familiar with a magic song or incantation called varðlokkur” (DuBois 124). The use of a varðlokkur, a spirit calling song, is required as part of her seiðr ritual. I have seen this song referred to as an enticement song, a spirit calling song, and a warding song. Singing, chanting, incantations, and the like form or are part of at least a few of the varieties of seiðr as well as galdr.

Both books provide comparison and contrast between the accounts of seiðr, seiðkona, völur, and Sámi naidevuohtta (shamanism) and Finnish shamanism and rituals. Are völur shamans? In the sense that they provide many of the same ritual and societal functions, yes. However, a noaide is not a völva or seiðkona, and vice verse.

It is fairly clear that there was a lot of contact and sharing between the ancient Nordic, Sámi, and Finnish peoples. Each engaged in kinds of spirit contact. In some cases this involved singing, chanting, and/or trance induction through heavy or rapid breathing and/or ‘yawning’. Both DuBois and Price note that the seiðkonur, noaide, and Finnish shamans had mixed reputations for being both potentially helpful and harmful. They were called on to protect, to heal, to harm. In some cases the Sámi and Finno-Ugric peoples were pointed to as being sources of learning seiðr (DuBois 129). Far from being the only connection points, DuBois (71-73) and Price point out the vibrant trade in goods, as well as grave goods, similarities in treatment of and honoring of the dead, ancestor veneration, and so on that are expressed differently within these cultures yet still share touchstones with one another.

To be clear: the words shaman and shamanism are what amounts to academic loanwords in these books for similar spiritual specialists and phenomena. Where we can, I find it better to use words appropriate to the culture we are talking about. I encourage Heathens to use words appropriate to our religions/cultures, such as völva, seiðkona, and the like. When we do not have the words I encourage Heathens to work with newer terms like spiritworker and neologisms like vaettirvirkr (spiritsworker) formed from Old Norse or whatever language is appropriate to the culture background you are engaging with.

Some of the major differences between historical völur and modern völur is that 1) it seems a lot of them traveled a great deal between villages and towns in order to do their spiritual work, and 2) there were people who were expected to be able to perform the varðlokkur, so there was a groundswell of people within the community who had to be familiar with the rites. Eiriks saga rauða provides a very clear overview of a völva, and features of it and other seiðworkers can be found in the archaeological record. DuBois notes that though the practice is nebulous in what it is and how it is performed, it has a fairly consistent picture across time and stories (128).

“Within this array of pagan rituals, seiðr appears to respond primarily to situations of crisis and is undertaken by a religious specialist (usually a woman) at the request of a client and within the context of a communal gathering. The ritual appeals to some sort of spirit helpers, either for divinatory information or help in controlling the minds and wills of others. Typical is the detailed account included in the thirteenth-century Eiríks saga rauða, in which an itinerant seiðr practitioner named Þorbiörg is invited to a Greenland farmstead to help the community discover whether its current run of ill luck will continue.”

Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, DuBois 123

The lack of experience with seiðr, both in terms of familiarity with the subject itself in Heathenry more broadly, and with specific practices within it, means that völur and other seiðworkers have to do a lot of work to revive this practice. The saga accounts, grave goods, what surviving folks practices we may look to, and conjecture from academics only do us so much. A lot of modern völva work is going to have to just be done. In a way, this lack of concrete bounds for modern völur and other seiðworkers means that we are free to cocreate new ways of being these things in modern contexts alongside our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. While there has been a lot lost with these traditions, it means that our roles and rites can move with the requirements of our Ginnreginn and communities.

This is where especially The Viking Way is a treasure trove, both in how it lays out the information and in the sheer breadth of information it has available in it. The kinds of magic Price writes about alone is helpful because it helps expand our lexicon for kinds of magic and magical practice such as gandr, fjǫlkyngi, and ljóð, which could be combined with seiðr or performed separately, a kind of seiðr such as kveldriða (cold-rider, Price 77). Since a given völva could well perform any or all of these things, or just stick to one specialty, eg gandr or spá in general, becoming more familiar and working with these terms also means we develop a more specifically Heathen way of working with the sources as inspiration and information. Because a given völva is not limited to one practice it is perhaps better to think on how we use these terms to describe the job of being a völva just as the various -riða terms such as kveldriða describe seiðworkers engaging in magical work on others.

What is a modern völva in Heathenry? A völva is a Heathen spiritual specialist, a seer who works with the spirits to gather and share information, and to enact change. Where a seiðworker may do a variety of things, including spá, a völva’s primary job for whatever community or communities she is part of is to speak and work with the spirits, gather information from Them and/or with Them, and enact change with Them. The way I understand modern völur is that their job is to work for/on behalf of their communities with the vaettir. Since we no longer have any living memory of varðlokkur I think that it is a good thing for anyone wanting to do this work to find or ask for inspiration from the vaettir to gain such a song. Maybe it has words, maybe it is a melody; whatever it ends up being, it is a song that works to bring the vaettir to the völva so the work can begin, and be maintained.

Being a völva is, like every other spiritual specialty, a job. It is taking on Work. Maybe you come to it through being grabbed up by a Goddess, eg Freyja. Maybe you went to Her and asked Her to bring you into the work because you feel called to the Work itself. Whatever your inroad, initially you train, engage in good spiritual discipline, and develop yourself and your relationships so you can effectively do the spiritual work of the job. Then, you do the work of being a völva while continuing to train, engage in good spiritual discipline, and developing yourself and your relationships so you can keep being more effective as you go on. Ideally, you would have a spiritual mentor, as well as at least 1-3 people you can go to for divination so you can keep yourself on an even keel. To this end I highly recommend Jim Two Snake’s Spiritual Accounting PDF.

Since becoming a völva is beyond this post, how would we contrast a modern Heathen völva with a person being a seiðworker? I look at völur as a communal role whereas seiðr is fairly accessible to anyone willing to put the work in. You might work with seiðr to make a taufr, an enchanted physical object (Price 36), in crochet or knitting, eg crafting a blanket for warmth and protection. You might do seiðr to work with vaettir to just gather information for your own purposes, such as through a gandr ritual using a gǫndull, a wand or staff for gandr, and/or a ‘yawn’ or the use of breath such as song, chant, or croaking (Price 184) in where you push the vaettir to give you information. You might work with a spá ritual in a light trance where you commune with the vaettir to that end. All of these are accessible modes of operation to both the völva and the average seiðworker. Now, perhaps a given seiðworker is not comfortable working with völva as a term because it is definitely feminine-gendered, and this is where we need to develop more terms or work with neologisms. In my own case I am fine with the terms vaettirvirkr and seiðmaðr (a seiðr-man) for the moment, as I do spiritswork as a spiritual specialist, with seiðr as part of that work.

The difference between a völva and a seiðworker is that, for our purposes here, völur are spiritual specialists whose job it is to work with/on behalf of a community where a given seiðworker may be working on their own. We develop these meanings, work, and community together. What really makes the difference between a völur and seiðworker in the end is whether the word clicks for you, describes what you do, and if you are serving a community what words that community calls you. Being a völva today is not much different in that regard than what it was centuries ago: you serve a community, connecting them with the spirits to speak with them, gather information and to work with Them to change things.

Patreon Song/Poem/Prayer 21 -For Freya

If you want to submit a request for a prayer, poem, or song to be written to you privately or to be posted on this blog or my Patreon for a God, Ancestor, or spirit, sign up for the Ansuz and above level here on my Patreon. This prayer was requested from Maleck Odinsson for Freya.

Seiðkona Who shakes in the throes of vaettir

Spákona Who hears the vaettir speak

Ginnregin Who embodies power

Whose mouth is full of blood

Whose hand hold the sacrificial knife

Whose spear is keen and wet

Whose sword is fierce and eager

Whose hair is braided for battle

Whose eyes pierce the foe

Whose wings cut the air

Whose words stir Urðr