Wednesday, 15 November 2006

That old time religion

An edited version of this is published in Amazon's book reviews.

Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism by Jenny Blain

Most people (mis)understand Norse ("Viking") religion as wooden idols and human sacrifice where the gods are an Ikea version of the Roman/Greek pantheon: Odin = Jupiter, Thor = Poseidon etc. But an important part of belief concerned fortune-telling and shamanistic possession. In the saga Arrow-Odd, we find this:

[Odd is the foster-son of Ingjald, a wealthy land-holder.] Odd cared little for sacrifices to the gods, but trusted to his own strength [...]

There was a witch-woman called Heid who had second-sight so with her uncanny knowledge she knew all about things before they happened. [Heid and her followers are invited to a feast by Ingjald, against Odd's wishes.] After the meal was over, people went to sleep, but the prophetess and her company went to carry out their night-rituals.

[The following morning Heid calls up all in the household.] She told each of them what the future held for them, and they were all pleased with their prospects. Then she predicted the weather for the following winter and more that was not previously known.

[Then, against his protests, Heid predicts Odd's life and death.] "Damn you for making this prophecy about me," said Odd. And as soon as she'd finished speaking, he sprang up and struck her so hard on the nose with a stick that the blood gushed onto the floor. [Odd states that he does not believe any of this and leaves Ingjald's farm. The prophecy, however, comes true in all details.]

The story of Odd indicates many issues covered by the book: prophecy as a slightly suspect practice, but one that the pragmatic Norse included in their beliefs. The fact that its practitioners were mostly female and that warriors tended to be hostile towards it. Very little is known about the practice, so those who are seeking their Pagan roots have to "re-create" the religion - they have to make it up. Oh dear!

Now read Gautrek’s Saga, and we find this:

[The raiding expedition of a warlord named Vikar has been becalmed. The wise men say that Odin requires a human sacrifice from the warriors but when lots are drawn Vikar always gets the short straw, so everyone retires for the night to consider their options.]

Then just after midnight Grani, nicknamed “Horsehair” [a respected land-holder], woke up his foster-son Starkad [the warlord’s most trusted man] and asked him to come along with him. They got a small boat, and rowed over to another island, […..] where a large group of people was gathered for a meeting. There were eleven men sitting on chairs but a twelfth chair was empty. Starkad and his foster-father joined the assembly and Grani Horsehair seated himself on the empty chair. Everyone present greeted him by the name Odin

[… Odin and another man identified as Thor then prophesy (negotiate?) Starkad’s future. Odin promises great successes, Thor qualifies or limits them. Odin speaks for the aristocracy, Thor speaks for the peasants.]

Then the judges decreed that all that had been declared should come about. [The meeting breaks up.]

“You should repay me well, foster-son” said Grani Horsehair, “for all the help I’ve given you.” “That I will,” said Starkad. “Then you must send Vikar to me,” said Grani Horsehair.

[Starkad then agrees to treacherously kill his commander, thus “sending him to Odin”. Before and after this incident Grani is just another Viking with no hint of any divine powers. All that has been prophesised for Starkad comes true.]

What's going on here? Is this shamanistic possession, role playing, priesthood in the Voodoo tradition of "divine horsemen" mounting their priests. It's nothing familiar to us in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. So who were the Norse gods: “aspects of the divine”, “spirits”, “alternate personalities", “acted-out Jungian archetypes”?

The example given in Arrow-Odd is the theme of the book: oracular seidhr - foretelling the future. The matter covered in Gautrek’s Saga has only a few brief mentions. The writer is a modern Pagan and seidhr practitioner but has little to say from personal experience. The best accounts are given by others, in fact just a handful of experienced and articulate seidh-workers. The book would have been better if it was a series of in-depth interviews with these people.

There are frequent references to seidhr as originating with the shamanism of the Sami people (known to most of us as the Lapps) and there is a whole chapter devoted to the shape-shifter Gunnhildr, the famous witch-queen of Norway, then later of York, who learned her skill from the Sami. A lot of ink is spent debating whether or not seidhr is shamanism, but since anthropologists cannot agree on what shamanism is (and don't like it much anyway), this seems wasted effort, as does the extensive argument developed from Queer Theory, but perhaps that's what you have to do these days in US universities. There are only a few quoted examples from the sagas and one particular example is worked to death.

One big unanswered question is "how good is it at telling the future?" But the interviewees use weasel words like "healing" and "insight" when describing their experience. So modern seidhr seems no more than another meditative technique. If you put your head under a blanket and cut off the supply of oxygen to the brain, you'll have visions, especially if you are chemically assisted as some practitioners are.

Written for an academic audience, this book has all of the good and bad points that we associate with that. It's well researched, but the text tends to be very dense and a bit of a hard slog. Its conclusions are cautious and supported by the evidence, but not exciting. This does have a place on my bookshelf, but you might be better off reading the sagas instead.

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