“Then came the völva Gróa there, wife of Aurvandil the Bold. She sang her spell songs over Thor until the piece of stone loosened from his flesh. When Thor noticed this, and understood that there was a good hope that she would be able to completely remove the byrnie-piece, he wished to reward Gróa for her healing by doing her an honour…” – Snorri Sturluson, Skáldskáparmal, Prose Edda.
From the quote above, it is easy to see that even the gods revered and respected the völur (plural of völva) – the Norse witches who travelled from place to place, prophecising future events and casting spells to heal and sometimes curse people.
Although all free Norse and Germanic women were expected to be versed in magic, the völur possessed far greater powers.
Most Germanic and viking tribes nurtured groups of wise women, witches or priestesses who usually lived unmarried (although not always in celibacy). These women were free to travel alone in the knowledge that no one would dare to harm a witch who carried her wand or staff so that her powers could be recognised by all who saw her.
There is evidence in the sagas to show that if a völva came to visit, the lord and lady of the house would give up the high seat to her, to show their respect and acknowledgement of the woman’s higher authority.
In order to be initiated into the völur, it is believed that a woman would have to undertake some form of ritual. Sources are unclear as to the exact nature of these rituals, although the general concensus is that a prospective völva must experience some form of rebirth.
In mythology and even in some historical accounts, this rebirth is literal – tales of women being burned alive, and emerging from the ashes as a born-again witch, simultaneously proving their powers and rewarding them with even more potent magic. Remember, during these times witches were not as terrifying, nor as persecuted, as they were in later periods. Prior to the Christianization of Europe, witches were respected and welcomed, not feared.
Probably the most realistic depiction of a völva initiation is in ‘The Old Poem of Gúdrun’. Gúdrun, the widow of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, experiences a spontaneous initiation at the death and burial of her husband.
“The night appeared dark to me, better if I was devoured by wolves, or if my bones were burned like twigs of birch”.
In her grief, Gúdrun curses her brothers (who killed Sigurd in greed and jealousy), and enters the wilderness. The young woman “lives among the wolves” for some time, before going to live with a group of other solitary women. While there, they weave picture tapestries which depict future battles. Gúdrun had weaved a battle in which her brothers paid for their treachery, but in order to avert a civil war, the leader of group offers Gúdrun a magical drink. The drink was said to “draw the powers of the earth, the strength of the cold sea, and the blood of the boar”. The elixir, served in a horn engraved with runes, forced Gúdrun to forgive and forget. This story is reminiscent of the Three Norns, who sit in the roots of Yggdrasil weaving the fates of men… But I will explore them more in a future post!
So we have learned that the völur had to experience a symbolic form of rebirth. But what else did they have to experience?
Well for starters, it seems that the völur lived very lonely, solitary lives. Most of their time was spent travelling, so there was unlikely to be much time to form lasting friendships or relationships – not that this really mattered as they weren’t permitted to marry, and rarely had (or at least rarely kept) children. Their lifestyle certainly wasn’t suitable for raising children, anyway.
I think the key thing to note is that a völva, although devoid of any offspring or spouse, was a keen businesswoman – a rarity in most cultures during those times. They were free to come and go whenever and wherever they pleased; most importantly, they were rewarded handsomely for their talents, and were treated to a warm welcome and at least a taste of an opulent lifestyle when they visited their clients, who were almost always in the higher echelons of society.
So, what sort of magic did a völva practise? To be an efficient member of the völur, women needed to be able to perform the following:
• seidr (shamanism – reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with the spirit world)
• spá (sorcery – the use of rituals, symbols, actions, gestures and language with the aim of utilising supernatural forces)
• galdr (prophecy – predicting the future, and being in contact with the divine, in this case the Norse gods)
Once their talents started to wane, and inaccuracies started to occur, they were pretty much finished – news travelled fast, even long before the advent of the postal service/social media!
It seems that the legendary völur finally disappeared in around the 10th century. The Roman Catholic church had laws enacted against them, meaning that their work was either no longer required, or the newly converted Christian rulers of Scandinavia/Europe would have had them captured and killed if they didn’t keep a low profile.
But despite these events, and the centuries that have since passed, I truly do not believe that the völur simply ceased to exist. Perhaps the stories and folklore surrounding them is exaggerated, but there must be at least some truth in them. Even if they didn’t perform ‘magic’ in the sense that we imagine it today, maybe they were just deeply spiritual people who were able to use their vast knowledge of the world around them to help ply their trade.