June 21, 2020 — Most have read or heard of the all-powerful Gods that once watched over their worshippers or the Greek Titans that protected the Earth. But why are all those mythical “shamans” that predate known organized religions rarely mentioned?
Evidence of their existence was unearthed in the 1920s, when the burial site of a shamaness, believed to be in her 40s, was discovered in the Czech Republic’s Dolní Věstonice archeological site. Researchers dated the site back to 26,000 BCE, making it the earliest-known, undisputed burial of a shamaness. This helps explain why sagas, myths, and legends always seem to include notions of magic, shamanic practices, and spirit worlds.
The Icelandic Saga of Hervör and Heidrek (Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks) describes the war between the Goths and the Huns that plausibly took place in the Gothic realm of Aujum near the Black Sea. Legend has it the conflict included not only warriors and mounted archers, but also Haliurunnae who were Proto-Norse necromancers of Vanir rune magic and seiðr (seidr) on the Gothic side, and shamanic sorcerers and fortune-tellers known as qam/gam/ch’am (“noble warrior priests”) on the side of the attacking Hun confederation.
The nature-based magic of ancient Scandinavia around the time of the Gotho-Hunnic wars was known as seiðr and resembled shamanic practices of nomadic cultures in the East. Those included the rituals and chants of the whip-lashing Scythian shamans known as Enarees and the drum-beating dances of bone-burning Hunnic qam. Not unlike Eastern shamanism, Norse seiðr was intuitive and required the practitioner to enter into an almost unconscious state of trance through psychoactive substances that caused alterations in perception, cognition, and mood.
At the height of the Viking Age, around 450 years after Attila’s Hunnic Empire had collapsed and roughly 700 years after the first Gotho-Hunnic war, two types of magic were practiced in Scandinavia — seiðr and “Odinic” galdr. Seiðr was commonly performed by women, and in the Viking Age, it was viewed as “womanish” and especially shameful if carried out by a man. Galdr, however, was considered honorable and manly, contrary to the somewhat mainstream belief that magic and foretelling were almost exclusively carried out by women in Norse culture. This is made apparent in the saga of Egil Skalla-Grímssonar, who was a highly skilled rune magician, skaldic poet, and loyal follower of Óðinn. Unlike seiðr, galdr seems more analytical, conscious, willed, and ego-oriented. Typical of galdr would be the enactment of a “magical persona,” or alter ego, for working the will.
Galdr is derived from the verb gala, which means “to crow, chant,” and was used to verbally invoke a spell or a ritual charm through speech or “singing.” According to medieval Icelandic literature from the 1400s and 1500s, Óðinn was considered the natural master of galdr and was referred to as Galdraföður, meaning “father of galdr.” In the Hávamál, there is a boasting song in which Óðinn recounts the magical feats he can perform. The sagas also tell of Óðinn learning the arts of seiðr from the Vanir goddess Freyja — although the reverse is not clearly stated in the Old Norse sources. However, it is known that women also practiced galdr.
Though rooted in ages long gone by, the practice of ancient nature magic has not vanished entirely. Contemporary folklore enthusiasts have revived both galdr and seiðr to various degrees. Also, an onslaught of successful folk music artists has helped revive ancient chant and singing traditions. Most of them hail from the Scandinavian countries, while some come from France, Russia, The Netherlands, and Scotland, to name a few places. This new generation of highly talented artists is actively exploring seiðr-chants, galdr, and throat-singing. In doing so, they are reaching worldwide audiences through millions of music streams, indicating a growing interest in the nature-based sound and wisdom of the past.