The Viking Way

Book review

Laguna Woods, Calif.

During the Viking Age, a notable woman was invited to a great feast at a rich man’s home in Greenland. She was treated as a guest of honor and escorted to a high seat set up on a specially built platform in the longhouse, where all the guests could see and hear her. Her job that night was to foretell the future for the gathered audience. The story of her séance is told in detail in The Saga of Erik the Red. She was a volva, “a staff-bearer,” or in our language, a sorceress. That night she was performing seiðr (pronounced “sayther”)an ancient practice in Scandinavia that was highly regarded by the Viking ancestors of today’s Scandinavians.

Seiðr and other forms of Viking Age sorcery and magic are the subject of Neil Price’s detailed and well-illustrated book, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2013). Price, a famed expert on the Vikings, holds a post as distinguished professor of archaeology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. The book is primarily intended for a professional audience, not a popular one; but if you are a Viking aficionado, you might still find it fascinating, though it is not an easy read.

Price uses both archaeology and early medieval texts like the sagas to explore the meaning, purpose, and importance of sorcery and magic in Viking Age Scandinavia. The key point is that to Scandinavians of that time sorcery and magic played a significant role in their lives, both at home and on the battlefield. It did not occupy the dark edges of society, rather it was an openly prominent part of their lives. 

Most of the practitioners of seiðr, one of the most common forms of sorcery and magic, were women, and many of these practitioners or volur (plural of volva) were born into nobility. Price, interestingly, makes a strong argument that the regal queen who was buried with the Oseberg Viking ship was also a volva or sorceress. It is no accident that Odin himself learned the art of seiðr from Freyja, the most renowned goddess in the Norse pantheon.

A number of graves from the Viking Age have been identified as the last resting places of high-born volur. Price’s book provides beautiful reconstructions of these burials at the very moment when these ancient graves were sealed. These women were often placed in their graves seated, either holding their unique iron staffs or with them close at hand. Vertical, elliptically shaped baskets of small curving rods usually topped these long staffs. The presence of these peculiar iron rods with the buried women is thought to identify them as having been volur. 

A second typical artifact that often accompanies these women is a necklace with various small amulets. One of the most popular of these special amulets is a miniature silver chair with a rounded back, perhaps representing the chairs that these Viking sorceresses occupied when giving their prophecies or conducting other magic.

The complex of practices known by the term seiðr could be used for good or bad. According to Price, seiðr rituals could be used “for divination and clairvoyance; for seeking out the hidden, both in the secrets of the mind and in physical locations; for healing the sick; for bringing good luck; for controlling the weather; for calling game animals and fish.” 

But these rituals could also be performed “to curse an individual or an enterprise; to blight the land and make it barren; to induce illness; to tell false futures and thus set their recipients on a road to disaster; to injure, maim and kill, in domestic disputes and especially in battle.” And Price spends a good portion of the book on the importance of battle magic among the Vikings, which was practiced by both men and women to gain advantage for their side in the uncertain and bloody melees of the time.

Although Price’s book centers on seiðr, he also describes other kinds of magical practices that were employed by the Vikings in their daily lives. He carefully compares Viking sorcery and magical practices with those of their northern neighbors, the Sámi, who were admired by the Vikings for their skill in the magical arts. 

As mentioned, the book could prove a difficult read for those looking for a light overview of Viking sorcery and magic, but it is, nevertheless, brilliantly researched and thorough in its coverage of the topic. The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia is published by Oxbow Books.

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.