Irminsul Ăttir

What is Sei­?

(Originally posted to the Shaman-L mailing list and the Asatru-L mailing list by the author).

At the risk of stating the self-evident, I will begin by stating that Seid is a word and a word is (always?) part of some language. The first question therefore is: What language(s) does the word Seid belong to? Everyone will no doubt agree that it belongs to the group of nordic languages. Yes. So far so good. But the next question is trickier: Does it belong to any of the modern nordic languages? At this point some people will most likely start to feel a little uncertain. But a quick check shows that it is indeed listed in e.g. a modern norwegian dictionary. However, you do not often run into this word either in newspapers, on television or in modern litterature. Not even in fairytales and other folklore. The point here is that it is a word that has reentered the language from Old Norse, and is today mostly used in modern renderings of old sagas and verse. To substantiate this, let me look up the word in the authoritative Riksmalsordbok of 1947. It says:

Seid, -en, (recently taken from ON seidhr) 1) about old norse conditions, lower species of trolldom (magic) that was performed under certain (offensive) ceremonies and powerfull conjurations, usually by women, to gain knowledge about the future or to cause death and disaster (cf. galder): o/ve seid [to excercise seid]/ is it true Thorolf, that your father sat three nights in a womans frock with the gyver [female troll] ... and boiled seid, before he dared take on the duel with Jo/kul? (Ibsen, The Warriors.., 64)/ seid and galder reigned at the pact of gods and giants (Welhaven, II, 167) 2) literature, poetry, trolldom: without glitter and courage, the forrest steps up along the mountain side, as if someone had thrown seid at its root (Bjo/rnstjerne Bjo/rnson, S.D. II, 245)

Also, let me check a more recent dictionary, Nynorsk- ordboka(1991): seid m1 (taken up again from ON seidhr) in old norse times: a kind of trolldom (with song).

Now that the word has been determined as properly belonging to the old norse language, the next question will be how to determine its meaning as precisely as possible. Unfortunately, there do not exist any old norse dictionaries that were compiled when the language was still in use. The old norse dictionaries existing today are of a newer date. So all we can do is to trust the opinions of the more recent compilers. I will quote Heggstad, Norro/n Ordbok (4th edition 1990): seidhr m. I. (-s and -ar) A kind of trolldom (with song), seid; efla (seidha) seidh, to perform such trolldom, to seid.

Evidently that did not get us much further. Obviously then, the only way to find a more precise definition of the word is to collect all those places in the still extant old norse litterature, where the word has been used, and try to proceed from there by deductive methods, where context and comparison would constitute the main methods. Fortunately this task has already been done by several researchers during the last hundred years or so, and their conclusions and opinions may be found in many monographs and articles that deal with the subject. But the question is whether they all agree with one another. For it lies in the nature of the subject that disagreement would exist to some extent. It all depends on how precise a meaning those who used the word a thousand years ago or so, attributed to the word, and how much of this is reflected in the surviving litterature. To make a long story short, I will now quote two modern Swedish researchers and their opinions about the meaning of the word Seid. First Ake Hultkrantz:

Seid. The shamanistic trolldom that in Norden primarily was performed by women (volver). Also some of the gods such as Odin and Fro/ya, practised it. Because of his seiding, Odin was accused of being unmanly. Seid had the same character as the Siberian and Samic shamanism. The seidwoman would fall into a trance, while a choir of other women would evoke her guardian spirit to come to her aid. I her inspired state the spirits would inform her concerning the things she had been asked to ask; about what the weather was going to be, about events that would occur, about happiness and misfortune for man, acre and cattle. It also happened that her soul travelled to other worlds to fetch knowledge while the body lay lifeless. As a goddess of the Vanir, Fro/ya introduced the art of seid with the Aesir, and it is said that it was she who had taught this strange art to Odin. When seiding Odin could see into the future and affect people with disease, lunacy, misfortune and death. It seems as if he changed his sex when seiding.

Finally, I will quote Ohlmark:

Seid. The especially nordic form of heathen shamanism. The art of seid has not been borrowed from the high arctic Lapp 'real' shamanism, with drum-dance and cataleptic trance, but it has been developed from a - most likely Scythian-Sarmatic - southeastern subarctic 'small-time-shamanism'. In the viking age the northern seid (Icelandic seidhr, origin unknown) was performed almost exclusively by women, sometimes by women and men together. The classic description of a seid seance is found in the saga of Eric the Red; the seance took place on Greenland in the tenth century. During a period of protracted distress the chief Torkel at Herjolfsnes summoned a spakvinne (divineress) called Torbjorg Lillvolva, the last surviving of several sisters who had all been volver (shamankas). She wore a blue mantle, ornamented with stones, even on her skirt, necklace of glass beads and hood of black lambskin, lined with white catskin. Around her waist she had a belt with tinder and a pouch containing magic charms, on her feet calfskin shoes with shoestrings ending in brass buttons, on her hands gloves lined with white catskin. Under respectfull greetings Torbjorg was accompanied to a high seat with chicken feather pillow. For food she got goats milk, as well as the hearts of all animals on the farm, and she ate with her own brass spoon and a broken knife with a bone handle. After having slept one night at the farm, the next day she asked two women who could sing the 'vardlokksong' to call her helping spirits.The girl Gudrid was the only one who knew the song, and after Torbjorg had climbed and sat down on the mans tall 'seidhjell' (ON hjallr, large wooden frame, especially for drying fish) Gudrid sang the spiritcalling song beautifully and well. The seeress thanked her and said that many beings had now found their way there who had not wished to come before. Now Torbjorg also saw many things that had been hidden before, and predicted that the bad year would soon end, and that Gudrid would gain great fame on Iceland. After that everyone on the farm went forward to Torbjorg, one by one, and were foretold concerning what they wanted to know. Even in other sagas (Vatndo/lasaga, Hrolfssaga, Gange-Rolfs saga, Ynglingasaga) the sayeress sits still on a high seidframe and falls into a light, half-conscious trance, gapes and rattles. Skuld, who seids for the death of Rolf Krake, sends out her helping spirits in the shape of a big grey hog as well as resurrected dead. In Orvar-Odds saga the Vardlokk song is sung by a whole chorus of 30 persons, 15 boys and 15 girls. According to Snorre, it was Fro/ya who introduced seid among the Aesir, after she had been handed over to them as a hostage at the end of the war with the Vanir. Also Odin knew the art of seid, but stopped because it was considered as unmanly and perverted; Loke once reproached him for having performed seid in earlier days on the island Samso/ and 'having beaten a drum/shamanic drum/ that volves use'. A woman knowledgable in seid was called 'volve' (woman with magic wand), 'seidkona' or 'seidvulva', while her helping spirits were called 'varder' (valnader), 'natures', 'mares' or 'an army'; they often appeared in animal shapes. It was only much later that the word 'seidr' became confused with 'seydi' (cooking fire) and 'seidr' was imagined as a witches brew consisting of various disgusting ingredients.


Tue, 19 Mar 1996

Irminsul Ăttir