Galldr and Seiðr: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Gender & Identity in Viking Magic

By Robert Berlet

Scandinavian mythology is rife with magical occurrences both great and small. Heroes and sorcerers carve runes and cast charms to improve their lot or strike at their enemies. Potent ales that cause forgetfulness or increase courage, spells that sicken or cause love, illusions and malevolent curses, invulnerable armor and cups to detect poison are just a few examples of the various magics that were used.

Within the general category of magic, however, there were two main types. The first was runic magic, which was often wielded by powerful warriors, great kings, and knowledgeable bards. Skill in the runes was considered a hallmark of success, for they were often taught by supernatural beings, such as the Valkyries, to worthy individuals, and practitioners of rune magic were held in high esteem. The second category, seiðr, was a different magic altogether. Considered “the domain of women”[1] it was often associated with sexual perversion, and thought “a magic so obscene that for a man to be associated with it tainted him with ergi, emasculation.”[2] These two disparate types of magic intertwine throughout the lore of the Vikings, creating what at first glance seem to be diametrically opposed forms of magic that at the same time manage to share some similar traits.

The Vikings were not known for their manners, and many flytings, or insult contests, took place both in their sagas and in their lives. Often these were engaged in preparatory to combat, perhaps as an attempt to unnerve or anger their opponent, although a nasty disposition or too much wine could just as easily have been the cause as well. In The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, Sinfjolti, Helgi’s second in command, and Guthmund, second in command of the opposing army, get into such a contest, a fragment of which is reprinted here:


“ (Sinfjolti said:)

A witch wast thou [Guthmund] on Varins Isle,/

didst fashion falsehoods and fawn on me, hag:/

to no wight wouldst thou be wed but to me,/

to no sword-wielding swain but to Sinfjolti/

Thou wast, witch hag, a valkyrie fierce/

On Saga Ness full nine wolves we/

Had together—I gat them all./

(Guthmund said :)

“[Sinfjolti] Wast Grani’s brideon Bravoll Field,/

for the race readywith reins all golden;/

full many a space I spurred thee on,/

slender ‘neath saddle, til thou slunk’st downhill.”[3]


Similar insults can be found in the Lokasenna, or Flyting of Loki:


“ Othin Said:

Thou [Loki] winters eightwast the earth beneath,/

milking the cows as a maid,/

and there gavest birth to a brood:/

were these womanish ways, I ween./

Loki Said:

But thou, say they,on Sams Isle once/

Wovest spells like a witch:/

In warlock’s shapethrough the world didst fare:/

Were these womanish ways, I ween.”[4]


Despite the commonality of these flytings, particular insults, such as connotations of being sexually submissive, either with men or animals, were considered especially severe and the law “condoned the victim's slaying of the slanderer or penalized the utterance of [such] insults with outlawry”[5] as seen in the Gulaþing Law of Norway:

“Um fullrettes orð. Orð ero þau er fullrettis orð heita. Þat er eitt ef maðr

kveðr at karlmanne oðrom at hann have barn boret. Þat er annat ef maðr

kyeðr hann væra sannsorðenn. Þat er hit þriðia ef hann iamnar hanom

við meri æða kallar hann grey æða portkono æða iamnar hanom við

berende eitthvert.

Concerning terms of abuse or insult. There are words which are

considered terms of abuse. Item one: if a man say of another man that he

has borne a child. Item two: if a man say of another man that he has been homosexually used. Item three: if a man compare another man to a mare,

or call him a bitch or a harlot, or compare him to any animal which bears

young.”[6]

The reason for the severe nature of the punishment becomes clearer when it is realized that they are more than mere allegations of homosexuality, they are also connected with seiðr. Sannsorðenn comes from “sorðinn, past participle of ON serða, a word denoting male penetration in intercourse… the accusation is treated in the laws as though it is invested with a kind of seiðr itself, able indeed to change the nature of a man.”[7] Furthermore the above passages also make clear connections between seiðr, witchcraft, and feminine ways especially in the Flying of Loki. Thus seiðr is at the least intimately connected with women if not also with sexual acts, particular ones considered perversions by general Viking society.

The power of seiðr, however, cannot be denied. It was “Freya... [who] first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people.”[8] The magic mentioned in the passage is “seiðr, the magic Freyja used.”[9]

Despite the stigma attached with male practice of the art, Odin himself, the head of the Norse pantheon, was also well versed in its use. It says in the The Ynglinga Saga:

“Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged,

and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic. By

means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men,

or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck,

or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person

and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such

weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to

practise it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art.”[10]

There can be no doubt that seiðr is meant here and not runic magic. First the reference to witchcraft and secondly the statement that it was taught not to men but to priestesses, both of which reinforce the idea of seiðr as a woman’s magic.

The divine origin of seiðr as practiced by a goddess and that it was taught to priestesses implies that it was acceptable for women to have this skill. This may have to do with its use, because with the exception of divination, “this art appears to have been mostly employed for doing injury.”[11]

In the Viking culture of honor and warfare where revenge is carried out by male relatives, although often at the behest of their female relations—“Icelandic women were able to force their reluctant male relatives to take vengeance by taunting them with the head of the slain… [or the] bloody clothing of the corpse or with the bloody weapon,”[12] “a ritual allowing the secret manipulation of another's will would violate ideals of proper masculinity... Such trickery [while] typical of Ódinn... [is] more problematic for his male disciples.”[13]The cowardice of using seiðr to kill without risk to oneself stands a good chance of banning not only the slain, for they did not fall in battle, but also the user from entering Valhalla.Thus the use of seiðr by men can therefore be seen as not just a breaking of social conventions but also as a violation of religious mores.

The use of seiðr is also documented in the sagas. In Grettir’s saga for example, he sees Thorbjorn's foster-mother in a boat and exclaims “ ‘I know that some evil will befall me from her and her spells. She shall have something to remind her of her visit here’… [Whereupon] he took up an enormous stone and threw it down into the boat,”[14] breaking her thigh. After recovering from her wound she casts a curse on Gettir:

“she hobbled on by the sea as if directed to a spot where lay a great

stump of a tree as large as a man could bear on his shoulder. She

looked at it and bade them turn it over before her; the other side

looked as if it had been burned and smoothed. She had a small

flat surface cut on its smooth side; then she took a knife, cut runes

upon it, reddened them with her blood and muttered some spells

over it. After that she walked backwards against the sun round it,

and spoke many potent words. Then she made them push the tree

into the sea, and said it should go to Drangey and that Grettir should

suffer hurt from it.”[15]

Later in the saga the log is found and brought to Grettir to use as firewood, “Directly the axe touched the tree it turned flat and glanced off into Grettir's right leg. It entered above his right knee and pierced to the bone, making a severe wound.”[16]While this is bad enough, a few days later after “the flesh had grown together and the wound was almost healed…Grettir said his leg was hurting him.”[17] Upon examining“the wound [they] found it swollen and blue as coal… Grettir said: "We must be prepared for it. This illness of mine is not for nothing; there is witchcraft in it. The old woman has meant to punish me for the stone which I threw at her."[18] Here seiðr is being used to actively harm someone by bringing about ill health.

Another aspect of seiðr is “sjónhverfing, the magical delusion or "deceiving of the sight" where the seið-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are.”[19] An example of this occurs in the Eyrbyggja saga. Katla, a seið-kona, who wishes to protect her son Odd from the men hunting him, has him stay next to her. When the men arrive to look for him they only saw “how Katla span yarn from her rock, and they searched through the house and found not Odd.” After they left they begin to wonder "Whether now has Katla cast a hood over our heads, and was Odd her son there whereas we saw but a rock?"[20] Upon returning they are fooled by her magic a second and third time with her disguising Odd as “a he-goat of hers, [and later as a] house-boar that Katla owned, which lay under the ash-heap.”[21] It was not until they had enlisted the aid of Geirríðr, “another woman skilled in seiðr and a bitter enemy of Katla”[22] that they were able to see through Katla’s illusions and capture Odd.

In the Ynglinga saga the malevolent aspect of seiðr is again encountered. In the saga Driva paid the witch Huld to bewitch Vanlande, her husband who had left her for ten years after promising to come back in three, to return to Finland, or kill him.

“When this witch-work was going on Vanlande was at Upsal,

and a great desire came over him to go to Finland; but his

friends and counsellors advised him against it, and said the

witchcraft of the Finn people showed itself in this desire of his

to go there. He then became very drowsy, and laid himself down

to sleep; but when he had slept but a little while he cried out,

saying that the Mara was treading upon him. His men hastened

to him to help him; but when they took hold of his head she

trod on his legs, and when they laid hold of his legs she pressed

upon his head; and it was his death.”[23]

The Mara Vanlande mentioned is an attack by the witch Huld. It is referenced in other instances and described as feeling “as if a great weight fell over you, most frequently as though rolling on one from down at one's feet. At times it seemed as if someone were trying to stop up one's mouth and nose, sometimes as if one were being squeezed so tight that it was quite impossible to make the slightest movement.”[24]

The manipulation of emotion, shown in Vanlande’s desire to return to Finland, is another ability of seiðr and also occurs in the saga of the Volsung’s. King Gjuki is married to “Grimhild, a woman well versed in magic,”[25] meaning seiðr, and when Sigmund comes to visit he is given a magical ale made by Grimhild and “because of that drink could not remember Brynhild,”[26] his wife. He then ends up marrying Gudrun the daughter of King Gjuki. Later in the saga the ale is again blended for Gudrun and this time there is given a description of its making: “the drink was mixed with the strength of the earth and the sea and the blood of her son, while the inside of the drinking horn was carved with all manner of runes, reddened with blood.”[27] This is similar to what Thorbjorn's foster-mother did when she prepared the log to curse Grettir.

Seiðr was a very active magic; its practitioners could bring harm to others, deceive senses, shift emotions, and foresee the future. Its users were for the most part regarded with suspicion, and if male were usually actively condemned by the community. In direct contrast to this is galldr, more commonly known as runic magic. Considered a noble and proper pursuit of men, runic magic was reactionary, almost passive, in nature.

The name galldr may “be derived from gala, to sing, [and it] denoted a kind of sorcery that was performed by magic songs (gala or kveða galldra)… [and] the magician, while singing his incantations, mostly marked or scored certain runic characters corresponding to the effects which were desired from his sorcery.”[28] The runic characters themselves were also used as a written language and were often taught to nobles. In the Saga of the Volsungs the young prince Sigurd was trained in such a use by Regin his foster father, who “taught Sigurd sports, chess, and runes.”[29] It is unclear whether this included the magical knowledge of the runes or only their practical use, but later on in the saga, after he frees the Valkyrie Brynhild from her enchanted sleep, she offers to “teach [him]… about runes,”[30] and these are quite clearly of a magical nature:


“ It is full of charmed verse
And runes of healing

Of seemly spells

And of pleasing speech.


Victory runes shall you know

If you want to secure wisdom

And cut them on the sword hilt…

And name Tyr twice


Wave runes shall you make

If you desire to ward

Your sail-steeds [ships] on the sea…


Speech runes shall you know

If you want no repayment

In hate words for harm done…


Ale runes shall you know

If you desire no other’s wife

To deceive you in troth, if you trust…

Aid runes shall you learn

If you would grant assistance

To bring the child from the mother…

Branch runes shall you know

If you wish to be a healer

And to know how to see runes…


Mind runes shall you learn

If you would be

Wiser than all men


These are cure runes

And aid runes

And all ale runes

And peerless power runes

For all to use unspoiled

And unprofaned

To bring about good fortune,

Enjoy them if you have learned them

Until the gods perish.”31

This list, while not complete, Odin mentions a total of eighteen in the Hávamál, The Sayings of the High One, gives a good idea of the uses of runic magic. Protection, healing, wisdom, and eloquence are all mentioned. This is quite a contrast to the often violent and aggressive abilities granted by seiðr, such as harming others or manipulating their will. Indeed, the stanza at the end of the catalogue, “for all to use… to bring about good fortune,”[31] implies that runic magic should only be used beneficially, perhaps because to use it otherwise risks involving oneself in seiðr.
The lines mentioning pleasing speech and containing the invocation to Tyr also reinforce the idea of runic magic as containing both spoken and written elements. This is reinforced in Svipdag’s saga when his mother “chants for him nine spells which are to aid him in his dangerous undertaking.”[32] These charms are of a similar nature to the ones Brynhild mentioned, protection from certain dangers, eloquence when speaking with giants, and the ability to free oneself from fetters. In fact in all of the eighteen runes contained in the Hávamál, not one deals with causing harm or aggressively manipulating others, that sort of magic was reserved for seiðr.

Egil’s saga contains several examples of how runic magic was used. At a feast Egil is brought a poisoned cup of ale, suspicious he

“drew his knife and pricked the palm of his hand. He took the horn, scratched runes thereon, and smeared blood in them. He sang:

'Write we runes around the horn,
Redden all the spell with blood;
Wise words choose I for the cup
Wrought from branching horn of beast.
Drink we then, as drink we will,
Draught that cheerful bearer brings,
Learn that health abides in ale,
Holy ale that Bard hath bless'd.'

The horn burst asunder… and the drink was spilt.”[33]

The spell Egil cast bears a striking similarity to the seiðr spell cast by Thorbjorn's foster-mother. Both carved runes and infused them with power through blood and both chanted over the object. In Egil’s case, however it was a work of galldr, used to detect poison, the other used seiðr to bring harm to Gettir.

In a later part of the saga Egil is asked to help Helga, daughter of Thorfinn, who has lain sick for a long time. He discovers a “piece of whalebone whereon were runes.”[34] Upon reading them Egil mars the runes and burns the whalebone and sings:

“ 'Runes none should grave ever
Who knows not to read them;
Of dark spell full many
The meaning may miss.
Ten spell-words writ wrongly
On whale-bone were graven:
Whence to leek-tending maiden,
Long sorrow and pain.' ”[35]

Egil carves new runes and Helga recovers from the inflicted illness. The youth who carved the runes “thought to grave for her love-runes, but he did not understand them aright, and graved that wherefrom she took her sickness.”[36] Now using magic to cause ill health in a person is one of the powers that belongs to seiðr, yet the youth intended to cast a love spell, one of the runic powers mentioned in the Hávamál. This suggests that the difference between seiðr and galldr lies in the intended use or outcome of the magic, not something intrinsic to the magic itself. Egil hints upon this when he says that runes should only be carved by those who know them well else “of dark spell full many the meaning may miss.”[37] Dark spells are the domain of seiðr not galldr and if one can accidentally do seiðr while trying to cast a runic spell it implies that the two systems are not as different as they appear.

Indeed if one only looks at how seiðr and runic magic is used in Egil’s and Grettir’s saga and not at the result of the spell there are few if any differences to be found. This fact, combined with the admonition Egil offers as to the use of runic magic, and the demarcation between the two types in their usage, suggests that galldr and seiðr use the same rituals and differ only in the intent of the spell. Thus seiðr and galldr are not two separate types of magic but one magic divided into two groups, one used mainly by men and the other mostly by women, varying only in the intent and outcome of the spell.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Pg. 140 “Dirty Magic: Seiðr, Science, and the Parturating Man in Medieval Norse and Welsh Literature”
[2] Pg. 138 “Dirty Magic: Seiðr, Science, and the Parturating Man in Medieval Norse and Welsh Literature”
[3]Pg. 186-187 Poetic Edda
[4]Pg. 95 Poetic Edda
[5] Online “Homosexuality in Viking Scandinavia.”
[6] Pg. 76, 83 “Nordic Níðvisur: an Instance of Ritual Inversion?”
[7] Pg. 139 “Dirty Magic: Seiðr, Science, and the Parturating Man in Medieval Norse and Welsh Literature”
[8]Online Ynglinga Saga Chapter 4
[9] Online Freyja : Goddess Of Life And Death
[10]Online Ynglinga Saga Chapter 7
[11]Online The Religion of the Northmen Chapter 24
[12] Pg. 43 Lady with a mead cup
[13]Pg. 137Nordic religions in the Viking Age
[14] Online Grettir’s Saga Chapter 78
[15] Online Grettir’s Saga Chapter 79
[16] Online Grettir’s Saga Chapter 79
[17] Online Grettir’s Saga Chapter 80
[18] Online Grettir’s Saga Chapter 80
[19] Online “Women and Magic in the Sagas”
[20] Online Eyrbyggja Saga Chapter 20
[21] Online Eyrbyggja Saga Chapter 20
[22] Online “Women and Magic in the Sagas”
[23]Online Ynglinga Saga Chapter 16
[24]Pg. 318 "The Conception of the Nightmare in Sweden."
[25] Pg. 75 Saga of Volsungs
[26] Pg. 79 Saga of Volsungs
[27] Pg. 94 Saga of Volsungs
[28] Online The Religion of the Northmen Chapter 24
[29] Pg. 56 Saga of Volsungs
[30] Pg. 67 Saga of Volsungs
31Pg. 68-70 Saga of Volsungs

[31] Pg. 68-70 Saga of Volsungs
[32] Pg. 140 Poetic Edda
[33]Online Egil’s Saga Chapter 44
[34]Online Egil’s Saga Chapter 75
[35]Online Egil’s Saga Chapter 75
[36]Online Egil’s Saga Chapter 75
[37]Online Egil’s Saga Chapter 75

 

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