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Matt J




Location: Durham, NC
Joined: 18 Aug 2015

Posts: 63

PostPosted: Wed 27 Jul, 2016 5:41 pm    Post subject: Viking Era "Magic"         Reply with quote

Hey,

My question is a little arbitrary, but I wanted to ask anyway. I've regularly heard the term shaman to refer to religious/spiritual practitioners of vikings, or those from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark during the dark ages. I've also heard sorcerer; and I'm wondering if maybe there are other terms I have not heard.

Again, I know this is a fairly arbitrary question, but what exactly were the words used to describe these pagan practitioners? Historically speaking, is Shaman and Sorcerer synonymous (when used in the context described above)? Or was there a distinction between shamans and sorcerers among viking culture?
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R. Kolick





Joined: 04 Feb 2012

Posts: 111

PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 12:28 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

historically speaking neither would apply to viking age religious people in Scandinavia except parts of northern Finland

shamanism is a specific religious practice from a large portion of siberia and Mongolia in fact the word shaman is from this region (I'm not sure which language or group it is from) today we use the term shamanism/shamanic/shamans to refer to any group that practices spirit worship or animistic beliefs even if they aren't shamanic. the viking priest and priestesses were called Gothi and Gyšja and were usually also the local chieftain or a Jarl.

as to the sorcerer part there were those who were believed to have control of magic, that did not make them a gothi nor did being a gothi give you magic powers. there are many words for magic users in old Germanic languages all relating to what kind of magic it was and how you used it even the morality of the person.

im not sure those who practiced the nordic religions at the time called themselves any specific title like Christians or Muslims i could be wrong i know people claim it was asatru but i don't know of any specific written example that supports that the word is anything but modern. for the most part theirs was a religion like any other they had their own names for different things and titles, most of the people who took part in the religions were regular people even the priest. it was just part of their everyday lives. the only problem for us is that they didn't write much down so we know next to nothing about it
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Matt J




Location: Durham, NC
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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 5:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

But, I'm not sure why you're using the term priest, as that's a christian term, unless you are just using it ambiguously.

From my understanding, the vikings had female fortune tellers/healers who would travel around and make a living off of fortune telling and herbal healing. You are right that their religion is much like any other mythology, with lots of stories and explanations of natural events, deities, afterlives, etc, etc, but they also had something which I'd argue is absent in many religions. They have magic, called Seidr, I believe. Are the magic users that you are talking about the ones who used Seidr?

Do know the difference between a "true" shamanic belief and ancestral worship/animistic beliefs? Basically, is it fair to consider them shamans, or is it a misnomer?
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Alan E




Location: UK
Joined: 21 Jan 2016

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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 7:55 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"Priest" is an english term, not a christian one. Originating from Middle English presthed, presthod, Old English prēosthād its modern meaning is well established as "a person whose office it is to perform religious rites, and especially to make sacrificial offerings". It is a generic term applicable to such a person of any religion with such rites.

As R. Kollick said, a shaman is quite simply a priest of shamanism; that is the dictionary definition. As for what shamanism is, well here's one believer's definition: http://shamanic-healing.org/?page=what_is_shamanism.

Member of Exiles Medieval Martial Arts.
Currently teaching Fiore's art in Ceredigion
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Matt J




Location: Durham, NC
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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 8:17 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm not sure where you're getting that information about the word priest from, as it contradicts what I've found.

As for shamanism, I have been to that link before. Kollick's definition of shamanism does seem to fit what I've learned about viking magic users. Things such as astral projection, ancestral/spiritual communication, etc.

Does anyone have any reliable sources regarding historical viking magic and magic users? I'd like to be sure that what I've learned about them is correct. What alleged sorcery was used?
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T. Kew




Location: Cambridge, UK
Joined: 21 Apr 2012

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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 10:21 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Summarising, because I don't have time to write a long essay on the subject:

Separating "magic" and "religion" basically isn't possible*. However, you can sort of make a distinction between more exoteric/community practices that can probably be called religious, and more esoteric/individual ones that fit better with ideas about magic.

We don't know what they called their religion (and most of our sources about it are either by outsiders, or post-Christianisation). We do know that a 'goši' (pl. gošar) was a social role that floated somewhere between priest and chieftain, although it comes to simply mean a secular leader after Christianisation. Gošar are typically men. From what we do know about religious practices, they seemed to include sacrifice and communal feasting/sharing of meat (particularly horsemeat), along with appeals for gods to act in the world. Overall, it seems to fit fairly well into the broad category of religious behaviour now normally called 'paganism'

Magic is more mysterious - while we have a few more terms, we have much less information about specific practice. 'Seišr' has already been mentioned, and could be translated as 'witchcraft' or 'sorcery'. The main term for practitioner of seišr is seiškona, and they're typically women: while occasional men are recorded, there seems to have been a social taboo against it. We have very little information about specific practices here, although from the few hints from sagas and the 'poetic edda', there seem to have been methods for divination and manipulation of events.

Beyond that, there's other things we could now call magic as well: swords which were reputed to give unhealable wounds unless their lifestone was applied to the blade, for example. It's probable that smiths had a social role that was in some way magical/mystical, but perhaps the distinguishing feature of 'magic' is that it is esoteric, so records are scarce. It's fairly clear that it wasn't part of the normal religious life of communities, though. Saying that Norse religion was different because it also had magic is simply incorrect.

'Shamanism' doesn't seem accurate, though - that term is normally applied to spiritual/magical practices based on spirit worlds and spirit interaction, which doesn't really fit with the stuff we know about Norse religion or magic.

*Well, this is untrue. It's quite possible, but requires a lot of careful thought, and the lines often get blurry. We don't really have enough information about Norse mystical practices to clearly classify them in ways that definitely fit how the terms are normally used now.

Instructor and scholar, Cambridge HEMA
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R. Kolick





Joined: 04 Feb 2012

Posts: 111

PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 11:06 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If you want a Nordic account of their magic read the prose Edda and the poetic Edda as well as the sagas they are the closest thing we have to a written Nordic first hand accounts of their religion and magical beliefs and they were written in the 11 or 1200s. Everything eles is modern speculation or written by a curious outsider (ibn Fadlan) or an outright fabrication by (usually) Christian or Muslim sources whose only interactions with the nordic peoples was at the end of a viking raid.

seidr is one of the Nordic types of magic but when we say magic that doesn't always mean the same thing to us as it did to our ancestors. We like to think of the high fantasy ideal of someone bending the laws of nature to their will or throwing lighting or fire at their enemies. Most of what they called magic is to us mundane things such metalurgy, medicine, or writing. To us with the benefits of industrialization and public schools these are common but the implications of theses "mundane" skills to the early medeival person were huge. If you were a master smith you Did bend nature to your will by taking rocks and turned them into plows pots knives swords or armor. If you could write you could make words permanent that could travel hundreds of miles or hundreds of years and not change

With the rest, it seems to be becoming a discussion of what is the meaning of the word "shaman" which people use it differently than both its original definition of the religious leaders of siberian tribal cultures and even many different modern ways people use the word. Personally I go with its siberian religious leader meaning rather than as a general descriptor for any animistic belief


Last edited by R. Kolick on Thu 28 Jul, 2016 11:11 am; edited 1 time in total
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Matt J




Location: Durham, NC
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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 11:07 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

T. Kew, perhaps you have some sources I could look at? Where does most of the information come from? Scattered across lots of sagas? How have you learned about it?

It seems to me that you contradicted yourself, and then sort of corrected it with the asterisk at the bottom. How could magic and religion be impossible to separate when later you say that it is incorrect to claim that norse religion was distinct because it involved magic.

I may have chosen my words poorly, but I have no interest in trying to divide norse religion from magical practices. What I am most curious about is what actual specific things the vikings did, or witnessed, that were considered magic. And then, I'd like to figure out which term is the most appropriate to describe their practices.

I dislike the term pagan as it is somewhat subjective. It's a fairly large umbrella term to refer to people who do not belong to the main world religion, but that are also pantheistic. Vikings may have been pantheistic, and I am not arguing that they are not pagans, but the word is too general, it is not exclusive.

It's clear to me that there is limited information out there for what I'm searching for, but you seem to have a different impression of the practices of viking seidr-users. From my own research, which is admittedly unreliable, I have found that what they call magic is very similar to what we call shamanism. Where do you advise I go to get a better understanding?

To be specific, I have read that seidr involved traveling through spirit worlds, communicating with ancestors, and witnessing events of the future, past, or present (present, but of another location), among other things.
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Alexander H




Location: Austria
Joined: 17 Apr 2016

Posts: 5

PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 11:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matt J wrote:

Are the stories about myths and heroes about mortals, not gods? Like Beowulf or The Odyssey. I ask because I often run into stories of norse magic that is almost entirely talking about Odin and the other gods.


The poetic Edda comes in two parts, one deal with the Gods and one with the Heros like Helgi and Sigurd (Siegfried, same person as in the Nibelungenlied)
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Mikael Ranelius




Location: Sweden
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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 1:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Scandinavian shamans were common among the Saami where they were/are known as noaidie. It's questionable whether there was much Saami religious influence on the Germanic-speaking Norse though.

As already pointed out, godar (m) and gydjor (f) performed ritual sacrifice, but shaman-like practises seems to have been performed by female völvor (pl.) - "staff carriers" (In fact, some of these staves or wands have survived). The völva was said to be able to foretell the future and use magic by falling into a trance-like state. They could also cast (or rather sing) spells and incantations known as galdrar (pl.) In general the practice of magic (seišr) was intimately associated with women in Norse society, but in later Scandinavian society both men and women were consulted as seers and practioners of magic.
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T. Kew




Location: Cambridge, UK
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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 3:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Basically, I learned about this by taking my degree in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian history and archaeology.

Some good initial primary sources on Norse beliefs:

The 'Poetic Edda'. There's an excellent English translation by Carolyn Larrington. This is pretty much the only source that's (at least in part) from pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Snorra Edda (the Prose Edda). The Faulkes translation is good. This is not a pre-Christian source, and it's clear that the information presented has been filtered through a Christian worldview, but it's very useful regardless.

Sagas are an excellent resource also. Penguin Classics has a good accessible edition of quite a few sagas published as "Sagas of the Icelanders". Note that as with Snorra Edda, all of our recorded sagas are post-Christianisation, normally by several generations. However, many are set before the Christianisation of Iceland, and so there are still bits of information about various mystical practices referenced.

There's also a few other sources out there, such as the Gesta Danorum. Importantly, these are written by outside observers, and so tend to have a very different agenda.

Beyond that, you're mostly into secondary literature. I don't have seminar reading lists to hand, but you can genuinely do worse than consulting the academic bibliographies of relevant Wiki articles as a starting point.

Matt J wrote:
It seems to me that you contradicted yourself, and then sort of corrected it with the asterisk at the bottom. How could magic and religion be impossible to separate when later you say that it is incorrect to claim that norse religion was distinct because it involved magic.


This gets into comparative religion, which is outside my field (see also below). However, you said "they also had something which I'd argue is absent in many religions. They have magic, called Seidr". This is a somewhat misleading statement, because it implies two things: firstly that seišr was directly incorporated into regular religious practice, and secondly that other religions (contemporary or current) don't have related esoteric practices.

1. The evidence we do have suggests that seišr ('magic') was practiced relatively separately to the main business of religion. Different people lead practices, with different activities and different community status. Gošar were normally men, relatively important, and they lead public rites featuring sacrifice and feasting. Völvar/seiškonar were normally women, relatively more marginalised - when they feature as saga characters, they often are physically isolated from their local community - and their practices don't seem to have been public events as much.

2. However, if you do treat them as two sides of the same wider belief system (which one assumes they probably mostly were), this certainly isn't absent from e.g. medieval Christianity. Not only do you have 'folk magic' of various types throughout Europe, which normally draws on aspects of Christian belief, but you also have explicitly Christian esoteric practices of demon-summoning and so on.

In short, you end up with one of two problems with your statement. Either we can separate seišr and religion, or we can't - but if we can't we also can't separate magical and religious practice throughout much of Europe for much of the Middle ages. In neither case is Norse religion unusual for having a related magical system.

Interesting on the general subject of magical traditions is Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, 2014 (CUP).

Matt J wrote:
I dislike the term pagan as it is somewhat subjective. It's a fairly large umbrella term to refer to people who do not belong to the main world religion, but that are also pantheistic. Vikings may have been pantheistic, and I am not arguing that they are not pagans, but the word is too general, it is not exclusive.

It's clear to me that there is limited information out there for what I'm searching for, but you seem to have a different impression of the practices of viking seidr-users. From my own research, which is admittedly unreliable, I have found that what they call magic is very similar to what we call shamanism. Where do you advise I go to get a better understanding?


'Pagan' is pretty much the best term available, unless you want something relatively cumbersome like 'pre-Christian Scandinavian belief systems'. We don't know enough about specific practice to be hugely specific, sadly.

Shamanism as a practice and a term doesn't come into European culture directly until post-Viking-age. Depending on which context you're using it in, and what specific set of statements you're reading about seišr, it may or may not be arguably relevant, but it's definitely not an appropriate contemporary term. We do know what they call magic, though: it's seišr.

Edit: My final objection to using 'shamanism' to describe seišr is that Norse culture does have contact with (probably) shamanic belief systems/practices through Finland and Russia, as noted in the previous post. By describing seišr as shamanic as well, you risk implying parallels/connections between these which weren't there historically.

If you're interested in appropriate terminology in general, I'd suggest digging into secondary sources about the development of religion in Europe, and comparative religious practice more generally. I don't have the experience to suggest a reading list here.

Instructor and scholar, Cambridge HEMA
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Jeffrey Faulk




Location: Georgia
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PostPosted: Thu 28 Jul, 2016 5:03 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matt J wrote:
Are the stories about myths and heroes about mortals, not gods? Like Beowulf or The Odyssey. I ask because I often run into stories of norse magic that is almost entirely talking about Odin and the other gods.


I think that's a cultural difference there. Greco-Roman mythology was largely about mortals interacting with the gods in some fashion, the Odyssey being a good example-- while it's mostly about Odysseus, it starts because he angers Poseidon, and he encounters several minor divinities along the way. By contrast the Norse approach was more separate stories of the gods on the one hand, the mortals on the other (notably in the Eddas), and rarely did the two interact, apart from the classic Sigurd/Siegfried story. The Scandinavians seem to have been more about independent self-reliance, getting things done for oneself with little or no help from the gods, who were similarly uninterested in humanity for the most part but were willing to recognize the outstanding examples thereof.

The Greco-Roman ethos managed to take over much of Western culture for a long time thanks to the spread of Christianity, which had the side effect of oppressing local beliefs and mythology and either transplanting their stories into that context (King Arthur would be an excellent example of a local mythology transformed into a Christian morality tale) or simply eradicating them wholesale.
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Matt J




Location: Durham, NC
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PostPosted: Fri 29 Jul, 2016 5:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you a ton, T. Kew. I won't make you write anymore Razz You've given me plenty to read up on. I did glance at the prose Edda yesterday. Is the Poetic Edda hard to read? I mean, confusing or vague because it's a poem? I specifically targeted the prose version as I assumed it would be easier for me to understand and digest, but I did not realize that there was such a distinct difference between christian influence for the two versions. I've got my self a wish list Big Grin
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T. Kew




Location: Cambridge, UK
Joined: 21 Apr 2012

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PostPosted: Fri 29 Jul, 2016 6:13 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matt J wrote:
Thank you a ton, T. Kew. I won't make you write anymore :p You've given me plenty to read up on. I did glance at the prose Edda yesterday. Is the Poetic Edda hard to read? I mean, confusing or vague because it's a poem? I specifically targeted the prose version as I assumed it would be easier for me to understand and digest, but I did not realize that there was such a distinct difference between christian influence for the two versions. I've got my self a wish list :D


They're two different sources, with different intentions. It's kinda like comparing Beowulf to a book which tells you the story of Beowulf.

A good translation is very readable (although translating poetry is always tricky). The thing to remember is that it's not written as an explanation of a belief system, it's simply a series of poems about myths and heroes. Snorra Edda is an explanation of myths (but from a Christian perspective).

Instructor and scholar, Cambridge HEMA
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Matt J




Location: Durham, NC
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PostPosted: Fri 29 Jul, 2016 7:21 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've been reading the google preview for Magic in the Middle Ages and I love it! This is exactly what I've been looking for, though, the focus is not on the Norse (I think there is a chapter on them).

Are the stories about myths and heroes about mortals, not gods? Like Beowulf or The Odyssey. I ask because I often run into stories of norse magic that is almost entirely talking about Odin and the other gods.
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Ken Speed





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PostPosted: Sun 31 Jul, 2016 5:03 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Although other sagas have been mentioned one saga that also has some reference to magic in it is Egil's Saga. It's been years since I read it but I seem to remember something about him writing runes on the headboard of a bed to cure an illness but I think there were some other mentions of him performing magic as well.
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