Seiðstafr: The Norse Shaman’s Staff of Power
Shamans have always functioned as intermediaries between our ordinary human world and other beings. These could include the denizens of nature as well as the many other spirits. This work was accomplished by traveling between these worlds in a state of trance. A shaman’s work benefits the human community while keeping harmony with the environment, the ancestors and other beings. It is humankind’s oldest spiritual tradition.
The threads of this earliest way of relating to spirit persisted in northern Scandinavia. Agriculture was slow to spread into the region as the more ancient way of living though hunting and gathering remained a viable survival solution for far longer than in the south. Due to this, the older ways of knowing the world connected to that lifestyle persisted as well. Remnants of shamanic spirituality survived in the folk traditions of the Scandinavians because the inhabitants lived at the northern fringes of Europe. Yet, while places like Siberia, Central Asia and the Arctic preserved intact shamanic culture up to the 20th century, Christianity finally displaced most of the shamanic practices in northern Scandinavia during the late period of the Viking age.
Women in ancient Norse society were the ones who primarily practiced shamanism or seiðr. A woman who practiced this art was known as a seiðkona or völva. During the Viking Age, practitioners of seiðr were often described as women past their childbearing years. These women also did not carry clan or lineage names. Unlike other women of their time, they were not identified as “belonging” to a father or chieftain. They had a unique position in society and operated outside of the ordinary way of life.
Like their Paleolithic and Neolithic sisters, these women carried the tools of their trade into death. Various charms such as keys, charm rings, small statues, and animal bones, teeth or claws were often found in their burials. A völva buried in Fyrkat, Denmark was buried with a box containing her talismans or taufr. These included an owl pellet, small bones from birds and animals as well as henbane seeds. When thrown on a fire, henbane seeds can produce a hallucinogenic smoke that gives those who inhale it a sense of flying which may have enhanced the völva’s trance. The völur who were buried in the Oseberg ship were similarly outfitted with a pouch of cannabis seeds for their journey beyond life.
Völur were also buried with a staff, not only a shamanic implement but also an insignia of their profession. The Old Norse term völva has been widely translated to mean a woman “wand carrier” or “magical staff bearer”. Many shamans use a ceremonial staff as an object of spiritual power. Held during the visionary ritual of seiðr these seiðstafr or völ, may have been representation of the World Tree as is common among shamans from the Arctic to Asia and down to the Peruvian Amazon. Since the spiritual principle uniting the spirit worlds for the Norse was the Great Tree, Yggdrassil it makes sense that völur would carry a staff. Being able to travel into the realms of the spirits is a critical requirement for any shamanic practitioner. The wand or staff would function as a connection to all the realms of spirit as well as another kind of tether to help a völva return to this world.
Burials of völur contain longer wooden staffs and also unique, iron short staffs. The shape of this sort of seiðstafr resembles a spinner’s distaff. A distaff is a device that holds combed fibers that are ready to be spun into yarn or thread. When one is using a hand drop spindle, a distaff about a meter long is held upright in the crook of the arm on the opposite side of the body as the hand holding the spindle. From that position, the fleece or other loose fibers are pulled a bit at a time onto the twirling spindle. This action literally spins the fuzzy filaments into a smooth, usable thread or yarn that can be either knitted or woven into cloth for making garments. Several surviving examples of seiðstafr that were found in burials are iron and brass representations of these kinds of distaffs. Far too heavy to be used for the spinning of fibers, these staffs were clearly used for another purpose.
Spinning is one way of representing the manifestation of reality. The action of taking formless fluff and spinning it into usable thread is a marvelous metaphor for the transformation of formless potential into physical reality. It is a magical act of creation. Since the völva also sang and spoke her journey, we could also say she was “spinning a tale” of her interactions with the spirits.
Distaff-like, iron seiðstafr also had iron rings, jingles and charms. Like Siberian Nenet iron shaman staffs, these völva staffs may have been shaken by the practitioner as an additional support for maintaining a shamanic trance or to direct the rhythms of the seiðr chants or varðlokur that were typically sung by a chorus of women supporters.
While no records of original varðlokur songs were preserved, they were most likely repetitive, singsong melodies that supported the expansion of consciousness. Any repetitive stimulus can contribute to attaining an altered state and trance. The brain entrains itself to repetitive stimuli such as pulsing lights, dancing, drumming, rattling and chanting. One who has been trained and has practiced working with this alteration of consciousness can supportive stimuli such as these to intentionally shift into a visionary state. Since much of the völva’s vocation had metaphoric parallels to the practices of spinning and weaving, it is easy to see the varðlokur songs in this light. The songs would have been used to “spin” the threads of shamanic reality for the seiðkona and to direct the weave of her ritual work.
(This piece is a brief excerpt from Evelyn’s book, The Norse Shaman, which is being published by Inner Traditions/Destiny Books in autumn of 2016.)
©2016 Evelyn C. Rysdyk