Shamans, The Gotho-Hunnic War, and Proto-Norse Magic
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. The conflict included not only warriors and mounted archers, but also Haliurunnae who were Proto-Norse conjurers of Vanir rune magic and seiðr (seidr) on the Gothic side, and shamanic sorcerers and fortune-tellers known as qam (“noble warrior priests”) on the side of the attacking Hun confederation.
Sagas, myth, and legends always seem to include notions of magic and shamanic practices, the supernatural, and spirit worlds. This holds true for Norse, Gothic, Slavic, and Scythian cultures, to name a few. In fact, shamans predate all organized religions, as made evident by a buried woman in her 40s discovered in the Dolní Věstonice archeological site of the Czech Republic in the 1920s. Her grave is the earliest known undisputed burial of a shamaness and dates back to 30 000 BCE.
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-swirling Scythian Enarees, and the drum-beating dances of Hunnic shamans. 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 was 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.