The Völva – The Norse Witch

The Völva – The Norse Witch

“All witches [völur] are descended from Widening Wolf 
All transsexual sorcerers [Seiðberendr] from the Tree of Intent 
All sorcerers [Seiðmennir] from Black Head”
(Hyndluljóð, st. Poetic Edda)

Wed to the Wand” – the Völva, a Norse Witch


“Then came the völva Gróa there, wife of Aurvandil the Bold. She sang her galðr [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 honor…”
Snorri Sturluson, Skaldskáparmál, Prose Edda

All free Norse and Germanic women were expected to be versed in magic, but some women more so than others. Most of the Germanic tribes, as well as the Vikings, nurtured groups of wise women, witches or priestesses who usually lived unmarried (though not necessarily in celibacy), and who could, it appears, travel alone wherever they liked without fear. A woman who carried the wand of the witch would never be harmed. They were allied with the fate goddesses and thus wielded the greatest of powers. In the Viking Age Norse context, these women were called the völur, singular völva. The literal translation of this title is “Wand-Wed” or “Staff-Carrier”. In this book I will often refer to them as just “witches”, since that is in my opinion the best description.

This was a time and age when witches were honored and revered and sought as wise women, healers, prophets, oracles, shamans and priestesses. Sagas show that if a witch came to visit, the lord and lady of the house would give up the high seat to her, a very powerful way of indicating that the witch had higher authority. The sources also make a point out of how the witch can talk or not talk to anybody at whim, regardless of their status – which means that she was outside and above the normal hierarchy of society. The primeval witch was the goddess Freyia, who introduced the art of seiðr [fate-magic, shamanism] and the art of conquering death to men and women, and in the first instance even to the gods.[1]

I choose not to refer to the völva as “priestess” because that gives a different association, even if she sometimes leads ritual like a priestess. Priestesses in the old Norse settings were called blótgyðiur[sacrificial priestesses] or hóvgyðiur [temple priestesses]. In the cult of Freyr, a high priestess would live as a wife to the god. These women were not traveling witches but usually homebound practitioners, often of high status within the clan. Again, the goddess Freyia serves as role model to the female practitioner, as Snorri in his Heimskringla identifies her aso as a blótgyðia among the gods. Apparently, the division line between a witch and a priestess is unclear, and the two functions may be overlapping.

The practicing völur appear to have been buried with the wands they had wielded in life, a fact hinted at in some sagas and confirmed by archaeological finds. Witch or priestess burials from the Germanic Iron Age and from the Viking Age testify to the high status such women could achieve in life.

Many burials that appear to have been royally endowed were the graves of wand-carrying witches, such as that of the Oseberg ladies. These two high-standing women were in the year 834 A.D., Norway, laid to rest in a ship burial accompanied by more than 20 horses and several other animals, alongside incredible riches unequalled of the Viking Age. The burial contents clearly points towards a religious cult, complete with a witch´s wand, tapestries showing hanging sacrifice and cart processions, magical amulets and pouches filled with cannabis seeds, wagons and sledges of exquisite craftsmanship suitable only for ceremonial use, countless artistic references to the world of the gods, to the dísir [female powers such as norns, valkyrias and giantesses] and to the underworld, to the Sacred Marriage ritual and to the art ofseiðr.[2]


The Maiden in the Tower: German Oracles and Matrons

“…it now seems correct to speak of an actual widespread cult which emphasized reverence for astaff-bearing prophetic goddess [in Western and Central Europe during the Iron Age]…The connection between women and various peculiar looking staffs and containers goes back at least that far in European prehistory [as La Tene, 450 B.C. Switzerland]…
The rich female grave of the fifth century B.C. contained a large number of amulets…a staff with hanging chains and a peculiar Ringgefäss [a ceremonial mead vessel]
…has rightly opted for “cult staff”…such staffs “are always found in very rich female graves” and scholars appear to be agreed that “a cultic meaning must also be ascribed to them”. But the exact significance of the staff is unclear. It obviously serves no practical purpose but must nonetheless have had a symbolic association with leading women…”
(Michael Enright, Lady with a Mead Cup, chapter IV)

In the literary sources, Norse witches have their predecessors in the German tribes described by Roman authors such as Tacitus in his Histories and in hisGermania. Most German tribes nurtured groups of women known to the Romans as matronae – “mothers”. These “mothers” traveled with the warbands and the armies and gave strategic counsel to the war-leaders based on oracular divination. They also performed sacrifice and other religious services. There are also description of particular women who were used as oracles, much like in the ancient Greek and the Roman traditions [i.e. the Oracle of Delphi]. One such woman was Veleda of the Bructeri, who two thousand years ago led her people in revolt against the Romans through her prophecies. It is now generally thought that Veleda is not actually a name, but a title, meaning “seeress”. According to Tacitus, she had divine status among the Germans. How much power she had in her own right and how much she was the pawn of tribal leaders who needed a religious legitimizing of their actions is not known. Veleda performed her divination while seated in a high tower, much like the Norse witches were described as seated on high platform during their séances.[3]

The Cosmic Völva

I remember giants born before time:
Those who in the olden days had me fostered!
Nine worlds I remember; Nine witches within wood!
The Mead-Tree like a thorn in the ground.
Völuspá st.2 Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda collection begins with the famous poemVöluspá, literally meaning “The Prophecy of the Völva”. In this poem, a völva, the speaker of the verses, divines the entire history of the universe from beginning to end – and then some. The fact that the poem is a prophecy spoken by the witch means that the entire poem is an example of a séance of seiðr, the art of oracular divination.

In the poem, we first learn that the god Óðinn has requested the séance, and that his wish is to know her “ancient message” as she remembers it. The second stanza, quoted in the textbox here, reveals that the witch is so old that she remembers the time before time itself. We learn that the witch was fostered among pre-time giants and that the World Tree (the “Mead Tree” [mjötvið – could also translate as Wisdom Tree]) was nothing but a seed.

She remembers nine worlds before this one, identified as nine iviði.. This word is the plural form of iviðia,literally translating as “In-Wood” but referring to a sorceress, völva or giantess (hence my translation: “Witches within wood”). We will be discussing the subject of the original witch and the nine sorceresses in chapter 5. For now, it is important to note that the völur, the witches, have a mythical ancestress who is older than the present universe itself, and that her divination about the past is in fact a memory.

The importance of the mythical witch-ancestress in the history of the universe that she is relating becomes obvious as she spends several stanzas relating how the original witch came into the world of Aesir and of men as an operating völva  after a trial of initiation, teaching the art of seiðr to human women, and later to the male gods.[4] A lot of space is given to the consequences of the Aesirs´ greed for her knowledge – warfare and the loss of wisdom, all events leading to Ragnarök, the apocalypse, are the results. The connection between the old cosmic völva and the younger völva who enters the world of men is strong to the point of identification, and the younger völva is most certainly identical to Freyia, who is the divine counterpart to a human witch.

It is extremely common – almost a given – among shamanistic cultures to revere an “ancestral shaman,” the first shaman who may have been a human being but who has gained divine or semi-divine status. This shaman created the path and opened the dimensional doors for other shamans to follow, and will often turn up to guide fledgling shamans. Sometimes the first shaman was divine or supernatural to start with.[5] In shamanistic societies, the shaman is the intermediary between normal human beings and the supernatural world, just like the völva was an intermediary between humans, gods and the all-powerful fates. The shaman, thus, is a very important religious personage. The mythology of these people is transmitted by the shaman and is strongly influenced by shamanistic experience. The ancestral shaman gains a prominent place in shamanistic mythology, and is often identified as the ancestor not only of the shamans, but of all the people, and is sometimes the same as the creator deity.

The völva might very well be the Norse equivalent of a shaman – even her wand has its equivalent in female Siberian shamans´ staff.[6] Thus both Freyia and the ancient völva who lived before time may represent the “ancestral völva” who created the path of the witch, with her seiðr, galðr [spell-songs] and other magical arts.

The Cult of Wodan and the Prophetesses

“Njorð´s daughter was Freya, she was a sacrificial priestess, she was the first to teach the Aesir the art of seiðr, a practice of the Vanir.”
Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga, Heimskringla, chapter 4

The Viking Age Oseberg burial is the last in a number of Germanic priestess-graves of a kind that dates back to the early Iron Ages in Europe.     From about the 5th century B.C there is ample evidence for “widespread reverence for a prophetic, staff-bearing goddess” as well as countless female burials in which high-standing ladies were buried with magical amulets, the sacred wand, and the ceremonial and practical equipment, useful for the practice of a mead-offering ritual that evidently was practiced among German as well as Celtic tribes during the Iron and Viking Ages. The Norse witch-goddess Freya and her human völur seem to be direct descendants of this ancient European “cult”.

The ancient connection between the wand-witches and the ritual serving of mead is interesting to us, as the male initiation ritual I am going to explain in the second and third part of this book has the mead-offering ritual as a climactic, consecrating event. This indicates that priestesses and/or witches participated in the initiation rituals undergone by males.

Wodan, and early name for Óðinn seems to have had his predecessor in the Bronze Age Scandinavian spear-god, one in an assembly of three male gods and their Sun Maiden. Some scholars, however, believe that the Wodan figure was developed during the Iron Age and that his character was inspired by one or more certain german chiefs who fought the Roman empire – three of whom were known to be one-eyed.

Whatever the case, Wodan came to be an important god among many tribes during the Iron Age. The oldest Wodan temples known shows Wodan as a deity living in Sacred Marriage with a staff-carrying, prophetic goddess, a replica of the Celtic-Roman cult of Roman Mercury and Rosmerta [“The Great Provider”], a goddess of Celtic Origin.[7] The identification of Mercury with the Germanic Wodan was a given, whereas Rosmerta in all important respects resembles both a typical Germanic and Celtic witch-priestess, as well as a proto-image of Freya, with her witchcraft, her wand, her necklace, her sacred mead and her Sacred Marriage.

Through the Sacred Marriage, Wodan is the god-king. Wodan was a warrior god who received human sacrifice, mainly prisoners of war who were thus “honored” by hanging and stabbing. It seems that loss in battle was in itself a sacrifice to the god, who would receive those who died in battle as well as those who were sacrificed by hanging, in his particular hall in Heaven, Valhöll [“Valhalla” – the Hall of the Chosen Slain].

The staff-carrying goddess with whom Wodan was depicted is shown as a woman who serves drink in a cup. Thus the theme of the “precious mead” in connection to the Sacred Marriage between the mead-serving lady and Wodan the archetypal king and war-leader, is ancient and basic to the mythology ofÓðinn, and seems to reflect an already ancient tradition of wand-wielding witches and the mead-offering ritual.

The Gothic Haliurunnae

“Then the Hunnish people fell in over the Goths, and they were more terrible than everything terrible. Thus we hear from ancient times about their oldest origins. The Gothic King Filimer, son of Gadaric the Great, himself the fifth Gothic king after they took off from the Skandza island, traveled with his people into Scythia [Present day Ukraine, Russia, Iran etc.], like we have told before. Then he was aware of some sorceresses – he called them haliurunnae in his mother tongue. He thought that they were not to be trusted, and so expelled them far away from the army: There they wandered around in the wilderness. Then unpure spirits saw them, as they were walking in the deserted regions, and they took them and lay with them, and then they gave birth to that barbarian tribe [the Huns].”
Jordanes, History of the Goths (551 A.D.) chapter 24

According to their own legends, the Goths were one Germanic tribe that had emigrated from Scandinavia (probably Gotland in Sweden) during the first century B.C. They soon came to bully all their neighbours into submission and dominated large parts of Central and Eastern Europe. But when the Mongolian or Turkic Huns invaded Europe during the fourth century A.D., the Goths met with even bigger bullies than themselves. The Goths were reduced to living either as vassals to the Huns or in refugee camps at the borders of the Roman Empire.

Just like later Icelandic Vikings a thousand years later brought nine völur with them in their emigration to Greenland,[1] so the Goths, like all Germanic tribes, brought with them their collective of witch-priestesses. According to 6th century A.D. Jordanes, these were called haliurunnae in the Gothic language. I am certain that this must be a Latinized version of a Germanic word derived from heliu[genitive form of Hel] and rúnar [runes]. Thus we are speaking of women who are associated with the “runes” – that is, the secrets, the whispers and the magical symbols[2] of Hel, the Underworld as well as its mistress.

The Goths were the first Germanic tribe to persecute their witches – in this case by expelling them from the tribe. We do not know why, but apparently they were in conflict with the king, Filimer. This is by no means the first or last time in history that a powerful priesthood have been in conflict with royalty. In this case, royalty won, but probably to the horror of many among the Gothic people. The ancestral, sacred position of witch-priestesses in Germanic societies probably meant that the persecution and expulsion of the witches could have been considered a great sacrilege by the pious pagan. The people lost their spiritual guides and mentors.

The Goths swiftly developed a new sort of religion in which the king (not surprisingly) was exalted and in which one primarily worshipped the ansir – the ancestors. The Goths were also among the very first tribes to accept Christianity and convert. In fact, Christian Goths were the very people who destroyed the Mystery temple of Demeter in Eleusis in 392 A.D.

But the expulsion of the witches may have been deeply traumatic to the Goths, an event remembered in myth and legend. When the Huns, almost five centuries later, swept in and crushed the Goths, people still remembered the Haliurunnae and believed the Huns to be their offspring ,and their invasion the curse and revenge of the witches upon the people who had disrespected them.

The Völva´s Initiation

In my thesis, I explored the many details of the incredibly important theme of ritual inititation in the Poetic Edda. The initiation rituals described in these sources are the rituals of males, even if witches and female superpowers played an important part in them as teachers and guides. An office such as that of the völvamust obviously have required initiation rituals as well, but the sources we are left with leave very few clues. These Medieval sources were written by men, for men and in a time when women´s experience was considered of no importance whatsoever. Another reason for the lack of female initiation stories could be that these were actually secret to men, whereas women obviously participated in men´s rituals. The exclusion of men in the women´s mysteries may be a reason why these were not “remembered” by those male poets who through metaphor and parable described the rituals and mysteries of male initiates.

In the Edda Völuspá poem, the völva Gullveig/Heiðr, identified as Freyia, submits to a trial of burning and stabbing, as related in the article “Burning the Witch” I focused on the possible historical symbology of this myth – as the story of the encounter between the Megalithic, matriarchal cultures of the Stone Age, and the Indo-European invaders in Scandinavia. But there is another and more important layer of meaning in this myth: It follows the basic formula of initiation in every detail.

In the story, the woman is hoist on spears and burned in the Hall of the High One – that is, in the Hall ofÓðinn. This god´s name actually means “Spirit”, so metaphorically, we could say that she is burned “in spirit”. Another possible solution is the fact that the High Hall is also known to belong to Hel, the mistress of the dead. In any case, the young witch undergoes a severe trial in which she experiences being stabbed and burned. If we recall the initiation experiences of shamans in the previous chapter, in which being boiled, dismembered and in many ways totally obliterated was an important part of the initiation.

The next step is her triumph, where the young woman displays her death-conquering feat: She is reborn and restored from the fire three times – a magical number reflecting the three roots and wells of the World Tree, the three aspects of Fate and the three aspects of the creator god(s), Óðinn[Spirit]Vili [Will, Intent – also represented by Hloðurr=Heat] and [Awe, Sanctuary, also represented by Hænir, who gave the gift of intelligence and thought to human kind][1].

After her rebirth, Gullveig takes a new name, Heiðr, and starts her life as a traveling völva, performing herseiðr, and helping and teaching others. The entire story is in complete accordance with an actual ritual of initiation, and could very well be the one detailed account of a female initiation ritual for the völvaprofession left to us in written sources.

Another female initiation story is detectable in the Edda legends of Burgund Queen Guðrún, the widow of Sigurd the dragon-slayer (see p….), in which Guðrún seems to experience a spontaneous initiation at the death and burial of her husband Sigurd. In the “Old Poem of Guðrún”[2], Guðrún laments:

The night appeared dark to me 
when I sat in sorrow with the corpse of Sigurd 
 Better if I was devoured by wolves 
 if my bones were burned  
like twigs of birch.

After lamenting the death of her husband and the betrayal of her own brothers, who killed Sigurd in order to claim the kingly power for themselves, and thus overthrowing an obviously matrilinear tradition among the Burgunds [Sigurd was the King of the Burgunds through marriage with the Queen´s daughter, while her sons were considered below Sigurd in rank], Guðrún curses her brothers for their greed and their cruelty, and leaves the safety of the royal house in favor of the wilderness.

The young woman traverses the forests and the wilderness alone, “lives among the wolves” until she finally descends from the mountain in order to live in “The High hall of Half.” There she sits with a certain Tora Hákon´s daughter for seven half-years. Tora gives golden embroideries to Guðrún, “southern-red halls and Danish swans.”

In this mysterious place, they weave picture tapestries, and while Guðrún is there it is woven how the men should fight. Guðrún weaves a battle between her brothers and the Huns in order to avenge her husband against her traitorous brothers. Guðrún´s mother, Queen Grimhild of the Burgunds, is a wise and cunning woman. She sits by the weaver herself when she “sees” how Guðrún is “weaving”, that is, plotting a disastrous war, in the other place. In this curious and obviously magical way, the old Queen also learns where Guðrún is and what she is about. In horror, she “throws her weave” and calls her sons to her. She demands that they make amends for Sigurd´s murder and attempt to placate their sister Guðrún. The sons, accompanied by their mother and several influential men, immediately set out to seek Guðrún in her hiding place in order to beg her forgiveness.

Guðrún refuses to forgive her brothers until Grimhild offers her a magical drink that “draws from the power of earth, the strength of the cold sea and the blood of the boar.” The drink is served in a horn engraved with runes. It makes Guðrún forget and forgive.

No sooner than Guðrún is healed from her hatred against her own brothers, she is pushed into marriage with the Hunnish King Atli [the historical Attila]. Guðrún´s own “weaving” has caused the Hunnish King to wage war against the Burgunds in order to avenge the death of his sister Brynhild, who killed herself at Sigurd´s funeral because she regarded herself as his true wife. To saver her brothers, Guðrún accepts marriage with King Atli, a marriage which serves as a truce with the Huns. Later, when Atli has her brothers executed, Guðrún avenges them by making him eat their sons before killing him with his own sword, and burning his hall with all his men. While later sources attempt to either soften this story or condemn the woman for such actions, the Edda hails and praises her as “the last bride in byrnie”, that is, the last warrior woman. Despite her cruelty, to all Viking Age standards she had performed her sisterly duties to perfection.[3]

More important to us in this section is the fact that Guðrún´s story like many legends hides a structure of initiation. When the Burgund princess is first presented, we learn that she, like Sigurd, has drunk from the magical blood of the serpent Fafnir and thus understands the language of birds.[4] The drinking of the blood was a part of Sigurd´s initiation, as we shall see in Part Three of this book, and indicates that Guðrún was initiated, like her husband. But it was not until the death of her husband that Guðrún really undergoes her transformational journey.

From being a passionate and nnocent young woman who “shares all the gold with her brothers”, she becomes a seclusive, silent woman. She cannot express her sorrow through weeping like other women, but sits in silence at her husband´s corpse. Her feeling of utter darkness, a pain worse than being torn to pieces by wolves and burned, indirectly describes a death-experience: Wolves are the creatures of Hel and always hint to death and mortality, whereas the burning theme indicates a funeral pyre, or cremation (the way her husband is to be cremated). The following stay in the wilderness among the wolves symbolized a death journey.

That she finally descends from the mountain and arrives at the mysterious “High Hall of Half” is noteworthy. The poetical formula “High Hall” refers to either the hall of Hel or the hall of Óðinn, Valhalla. In either case, we are presented with a typical (for initiation rites) “world of the dead scenario.”  The owner of the hall is obviously a metaphor for someone – probably either Óðinn or Hel, both known to be divided in two in some way (Óðinn´s lost eye, his name Ialk, which means “castrate,” or the divided face of Hel, half young maiden and half rotting corpse).  This afterlife “hall” is through its attributes closely associated with the sphere of the norns and/or the valkyria.

Guðrún´s lady friend, Tora, gives her “threads of gold and southern-red swans,” symbols of fate-spinning and the norns themselves, who, like the valkyrias, have swan-hides and are described as “southern” and often as “red” or “golden.” In the hall, they weave and embroider, and what they weave are obviously the destinies of men and peoples.

Threads, embroidery and weaving are known symbols of the norns and the valkyrias´spinning of fates from the Poetic Edda: In Brynhild´s Hel-Ride we learn that the valkyria, a “goddess of gold,” is assigned to weave in Valland. In the First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani we learn that the norns throw their threads of fate to the east and to the west beneath the Earth, and that the one thread pointing to the North is made out of pure gold. In The Song of Völund, southern-red valkyrias spin “precious linen” and “fulfill their fate”.

Since Ásgarðr with its Valhalla is said to be situated in this sphere, and this hall is crammed with valkyrias who spin the destinies of warriors, it seems safe to say that Guðrún is actually a resident in Valhalla, although she could also be in the hall of the norns. In either case, she is learning to weave fates as if she is to be a norn or valkyria herself.

That Guðrún, a human woman, is learning the art of the fate-goddesses in another dimension of reality, after a typical underworld journey, resembles the typical shamanistic structure of initiation in all respects. That she learns the art of weaving fate is specified. Knowing that the art of seiðr is, basically, about altering fate [so-called “operative divination”, in which fate is altered by the divination itself, a common interpretation of what seiðr was really about[5]] we must conclude that Guðrún, through initiation, is becoming a master of seiðr and thus, potentially, a völva. But like many a noblewoman, Guðrún was not allowed to pursue this profession despite the fact that she learned the secret arts. She was called upon to marry a king, Atli, in order to prevent war.

But she was not to marry before she had received the magical potion of mead from her mother – a typical element of the consecration stage of the initiation ritual.

This could actually reflect an ancient reality: As has been indicated before, a woman, especially an important woman such as a queen or any mistress of a great household, was to represent Freyia in her household – a role that included knowledge of magic and rituals. The marriage itself not only tells the story of how Guðrún had to leave her aspirations of a witch in order to become a queen. At the same time, the story seems to also be telling a complete story of initiation culminating in a Sacred Marriage – with a god.

Through several other poems, it becomes clear that the Atli of the Edda is identifiable with the god Óðinn.The journey of the bridal procession is quite unusual – and highly mythical. Guðrún and her company have to traverse seven days “over chilly land,” and another seven “over the waves”, before, at the “third week” they come to dry land. The hall of Atli is described as a “High Hall” and is described as a place in which the “horn is played by the watchman” [Heimdallr and his Gjallarhorn] and in which “shield maidens” [valkyrias] reside. It would seem that, after the initiatory death-journey, the learning of esoteric arts and the drinking of mead led to the final stage: Marriage – in this case to the crafty god-king. As saw above, there is a strong connection between witches and the god Óðinn, and a mythical Sacred Marriage between him and the proto-witch Freyia. Just like, as we shall be seeing in parts two and three of this book, men experienced a Sacred Marriage with the Goddess, so perhaps the female practitioners experienced a Sacred Marriage to the God. After all, they are named after and wed to the völ [Stallion´s Penis], their wand, which symbolizes the world tree Yggdrasill – Óðin´s horse.

The remains of a female initiation ritual are also detectable in the saga of Bosi and Herraud,[6] where we learn about a queen who owns a pagan temple, and who is a great master of seiðr. Through this divinatory magic she has learned that she will not live for much longer, and has magically traveled east to the “Crystal Fields”[7] where she has found a princess, Hleiðr[] who is supposed to inherit the Queen´s position as a temple priestess, and who is now under her apprenticeship.

The temple itself is described very much like the world of the dead is described in the Edda poetry. A huge eagle guards the door, just like in Valhalla, and no one can survive the onslaughts of this eagle: Again, the eagle is a metaphor for death. This eagle is also brooding on an egg, an egg which the heroes of these stories are supposed to fetch. The heroes manage to subdue both the eagle and the old crafty priestess, and finally encounter a closed room where the young princess is seated in a chair, a captive bound by her hair and with an iron lock around her waist. The hero frees her when she promises to marry him.

The story is reminiscent of the other stories related earlier, but distinguishes itself by being the one story in which the captive princess is said to be an apprentice witch of a pagan temple. She is about to be initiated into the position of high priestess, and the symbols of death and her being seated and bound within the temple could very well be hinting towards real practices in this respect. Apart from the outspoken apprenticeship of the young woman, this story could also vaguely reflect a myth of the Sacred Marriage between a king and a priestess representing the land and the people. This saga, with its medieval background, is obviously very hostile towards the paganism it is describing, and let us know that the princess is more than happy to leave her aspirations to become an evil monster witch like her predecessor, and marry the hero instead.

Lotte von Motz suggests that all the legends referred to above not only reflect male initiation rituals, but female initiation at the same time. The legends relate a combination of the male and female initiation scenario, where the male has to undergo trials of courage whereas the female has to be secluded by herself in order to “wake up” to her new life as a married woman.[8] I agree that this is possible, although if the stories reflect real-life ritual, the females in these stories usually take the role of an already wise woman, and the marriages are often not happening even if sex is enjoyed. Thus the initiation into marriage – a simple seclusion before the groom comes and whisks her away after an initiation of his own – is a possible scenario reflected in the “captive princess” theme, but does not cover the entire message of these legends, in which fully fledged teaching witches seem to be rather more prominent than pubescent girls. It is of course possible that the secluded apprentice girl “wakes up” to her true powers as a teaching witch during these initiations.

[2] Poetic Edda: Guðrúnarkviða hin gamla, st.12

[3] The story of Guðrún is very old and builds on legends from the Iron Age in Europe. The real “Attila the Hun” died around 451 A.D. and it was rumored that a German princess, “Ildico” [probably Hildegunde] killed him on their wedding night in order to avenge her brothers, whom he had massacred along with most of her clan. This rumor, if true, was silenced since the Huns – and indeed the Romans too – did not wish to admit to such a humiliating end to a great king. The death of Attila, in any case, led to a swift decay of the Hunnish Empire, freeing countless German tribes after a century if submission. There would be no wonder if the woman who killed Attila was praised in poems and legends for centuries after. However, in the German 13th century novel Niebelungenlied, the story has become rather confused, and the heroine Kriemhild, Guðrún´s counterpart, is not hailed for her warriorship at all, but promptly beheaded after killing her enemies because “no woman should ever be permitted to kill a man.” Comparing the Edda source and the later Medieval sources gives an interesting insight into how the views on women and clan belonging changed with the new religion.

[4] The first poem of Guðrún, prose introduction, Poetic Edda


[6] Bósa saga ok Herrauds

[7] Glasisvollir, a sort of paradise

[8] Motz, Lotte (1993), p.55,64

[1] According to Eigils saga Rauda there had been nine völur in the Norse settlement of Greenland.

[2] The meaning of the word rún is “secret”, “whisper” and “letter”. It was used to denote all these things even if most moderns know them as the particular kind of letters used by Vikings.








[1] Snorri Sturlusson Heimskringla, Ynglingasaga 4

[2] Solli, Ingstad, Røthe

[3] Enright, Tacitus

[4] Völuspá, stanza 21-22, Poetic Edda. Snorri Sturluson Heimskringla (Ynglinga Saga) See also page, and page NB!

[5] Dioszegi

[6] Dioszegi: Female shamans in Siberia often choose to use a staff rather than a drum. The staff is a symbol of the shamanistic world tree among the Siberians.

[7] Enright

The entire article/writing was found here:


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