The practices of divination, prophecy, and magic were common in the pagan North, but a distinction was drawn between lawful and unlawful magic. The deities wrought magic, but this was reflected upon them from human practice.
Magic songs, spells, incantations — spjall, galdr, ljodh — were used to effect the magic act. These were also called runes (rún, OHG rûna, AS rún), though this word betokened magic signs engraved on something and producing magic power. After being engraved, they were coloured. Hence the verse in Havamal:
The colouring was made with blood, and this increased the power of the runes.
The Norse word rún was used in two senses. The primary meaning was “a mystery” or “mysterious knowledge.” It also signified a letter of the alphabet, such as was used before the Roman letters came into use. The unlearned, who were the majority, would regard letters as a mystery; hence the word rún was applied to them. These runes had a magical significance besides an alphabetic value, and apparently some magical runes were not letters in the ordinary sense. In using them, besides engraving them on some object, there was a necessary ritual which gave power to them. This seems to be referred to in Havamal, where, besides cutting, interpreting, and colouring
them, there are mentioned invocation, offerings, and the right method of slaughtering the victim.2 The runes could not be used unless one knew their meaning, and there was danger in an ignorant use of them.3
Runes were ascribed to the gods, and Havamal also tells how Odin came into possession of them. He wrote them for the gods, as Dainn for elves, Dvalin for dwarfs, and Alsvith for giants. Another verse of Havamal shows that not only was advice given to Loddfafnir in the hall of Odin, but that there runes had been spoken and their meaning declared.4
Each rune had a name which represented a particular object, and, through this, good or evil magic was wrought. Hence to produce the magical result, the magic power of each rune must be known. Examples of imparting this knowledge are given in the Edda. Thus Sigrdrifa taught runes to Sigurd — victory, ale, birth, wave, branch, speech, and thought runes. Victory-runes are to be written on the sword-hilt and other parts of the sword, the name of Tyr (the name of the rune for the letter T) being uttered twice. Ale-runes, by which the wife of another will not betray a man’s trust, are to be written on the drinking-horn and the back of the hand, the sign Naudr (the runic N) being written on the nail. Birth-runes, to relieve a woman in child-birth, are to be written on the palm of the hand and on the joints, while the Disir are called on to help. Similar explanations are given regarding the other runes. The poem then tells how Odin stood on a hill with Brimir’s sword, his helmet on his head: then Mimir’s head first spoke words of truth and wisdom. There follows a curious list of mythical and actual things on which runes were commanded to be written — the shield of the sun, the ear of Arvak, the hoof of Alsvith (steeds of the sun), the wheel of the car of Hrungnir’s slayer, Sleipnir’s teeth, the straps of a sledge, the paw of a bear, Bragi’s tongue, a wolf’s claws, an eagle’s beak, bloody wings, the end of a bridge, the reliever’s hand and the healer’s foot, glass, gold, amulets, in wine and beer, on favourite seats, on Gungnir’s point, or Grani’s
breast, on the nails of the Norns, and on the beak of the night-owl.5
Some of the actual objects on which runes in this list were to be written resemble the miscellaneous things found in Scandinavian graves — bones of a weasel, teeth of a horse, claws, vertebrae of a snake, etc.6
The poem continues by saying that runes thus engraved were scraped off and steeped in mead and cast far and wide. Some are with the gods, some with the elves, some with the wise Vanir, and some with men. There are beech-, birth-, and ale-runes, and the excellent magic runes for him who knows them rightly and reads them truly: they will benefit until the gods perish.7
Whether all the verses describing these runes are in a true series or drawn together from various sources is not clear. The account of the objects, mythical and actual, on which they are written seems to belong to an old myth of the value of runes, telling how they had been used. The scraping of the runes into mead and casting them abroad, so that they are now with gods, etc., is mythical, but it may be based on actual practice — drinking mead into which runes had been scraped from wood or bone. Havamal also speaks of runes being with gods, elves, dwarfs, etc.8
The enumeration of runes is preceded by a verse telling how Sigrdrifa gave Sigurd a magic drink:
As Sigrdrifa taught runes to Sigurd, so in Rigsthula Rig taught them to the first jarl, and his son in turn learned to use them — life-runes, everlasting runes; now he could shield warriors, dull the sword-blade, and calm the seas.10
Odin carved and coloured runes before speaking with a dead
man on the gallows, and he touched Gerd with a piece of bark on which spells (runes) were written, inducing frenzy in her. Grimshild carved runes on the cup from which Gudrun drank and by which he forgot Brynhild.11 Runes were carved on a cup to destroy a poisoned drink within it, as Egil cut them on the cup which queen Gunnhild gave him. At once it broke. They were also carved on the insulting-pole which he set up.12 Saxo tells how the giantess Hardgrep cut magic runes (carmina) on wood and placed them under a dead man’s tongue, making him speak.13
The list of magic songs (ljod) in Havamal already cited in Chapter IV shows the different purposes for which they were used.14 In Svipdagsmal the dead Groa chants charms at her son’s request, while she stands at the opening of her barrow on a stone. These charms will help him in his dangerous quest of Menglod. The first is that which Ran taught to Rind. The second will guard him by means of the bolts of Urd. The third will make dangerous rivers fall away before him. The fourth will deliver his foes into his hands. The fifth will burst all fetters. The sixth will prevent wind and wave from harming his boat. The seventh will protect him against deadly frost and cold. The eighth will protect him from the curse of a dead Christian woman — perhaps a pagan view of the potency of a Christian’s curse. The ninth will give him words and wit in a word contest with a giant.15
These different lists in Sigrdrifumal, Havamal, and Svipdagsmal show several points of contact. All three have charms which give power of speech and wit, such as Odin gave to his favourites.16 All three have charms to still tempests and to give victory. Two have charms to break fetters and charms for healing. It is interesting to compare the fetter-breaking charm with the similar magic of the Idisi in the Merseburg charm. The power-giving spells of Odin in Havamal correspond to the magic ascribed to him in the Ynglinga-saga, and the passage in the Saga may be a paraphrase of the stanzas in the poem.17
Cursing spells were used, and an example of these is found in Atlamal where Vingi pronounces a conditional one on himself. He devotes himself to giants or to the gallows if he breaks his oath.18
Various names were used for magic. One of these, seidr, which, according to the Ynglinga-saga, owed its origin to Freyj a, usually refers to harmful magic, though sometimes also protective magic. Gullveig practised it and so also did Odin according to Loki.19 In using seidr a special seat was necessary, and the magician held a staff. Magic songs were sung to effect the result. The male magician was called seidhmadhr, the female seidhkona. Deadly results were ascribed to seidr — killing others, causing tempests, creating delusions. The seidhkona, while sitting on the seat, could send her soul out of her body in another form, while her body remained on the seat. If the soul was wounded or killed, the body of the witch showed similar wounds or fell dead.20 This, as well as other kinds of magic, is regarded in the Sagas as a natural accomplishment of the Finns or Lapps, and often a magician was one of these. But it is improbable that all Norse magic came from Finland.
The Volva and Spakona, prophetess and spaewife, were mainly soothsayers (like the German prophetesses mentioned by Tacitus and Dio Cassius), practised in the art of divination, though some of them used the most hurtful seidr. The Volva travelled through the land with a retinue, especially during the winter nights when spirits were abroad. She visited one house after another, where she was well received, and a meal put out for her.21 In Orvar-Odds-saga Heidr travelled with fifteen youths and fifteen maidens. The retinue sang the magic songs by which the Volva fell into a trance and learned the future. The power of the Volva was gained by sitting out for several nights. By this sitting out, uti-seta, spirits of the dead or other supernatural powers were conjured up and gave revelations to the Volva.22 Even when dead the Volva could still supply hidden knowledge, when conjured up by the
proper spells. Odin called up a dead Volva to enquire of her about Balder’s dreams, and possibly the utterance of the Volva in Voluspa was made to Odin by a dead seeress.
The aerial flight of witches and sorcerers to a nocturnal gathering is found in widely separated regions. Only in the later Middle Ages and under theological influence was it attributed to direct diabolic agency. In pagan Scandinavia this flight was practised by the Tunnrida, who sat on roofs or hedge-enclosures of a homestead to destroy it, or rode and sported in the air, usually after shape-shifting (tun, “a hedged place” or “farm”). One of the charms described by Odin in Havamal was used to discomfit these “House-riders”:
The witch’s soul has left her body, assuming another form, and in that, as a result of the charm, she must wander about.23
Other Eddic names are Myrkrida and Kveldrida, “Darkrider,” “Night-rider,” both names referring to the riding about at night. Odin used much seductive craft with Night-riders, and in the Eyrbyggja-saga the following lines occur:
Geirrid said this to Gundlaug in order to keep him from going home at night But he set out, and was found senseless, bruised, and the flesh torn in lumps from his bones. Men thought that Geirrid herself had ridden him. She was summoned to the Moot as a Dark-rider and for causing Gundlaug’s trouble. But on her oath that she was not responsible for this, the case was quashed.24
In Helgakvitha Hjorvardssonar Atli says to the monster Hrimgerd:
The witch-ride was performed on a gandr or “staff” — the gandreid. Witches, troll-women, and demoniac beings also rode a wolf bridled with snakes, and the wolf was called “the troll-women’s steed,” “the dusky stallion on which the Night-rider fareth.”28 The distinction between spirits or demons of a dangerous kind and the night-faring witches is not clearly sustained.
Examples of the witch-ride and of nocturnal gatherings occur in the later Sagas. Thus in the Thorsteins-saga (fourteenth century), Thorstein overheard a youth call to his mother in her burial-mound: “Mother, give me staff and gloves, for I am going to gandreid.” These were thrown out of the mound. The youth put on the gloves, rode on the staff, and went off. Thorstein now repeated the same formula, received gloves and staff, and rode after the youth to a mountain where many people sat drinking round a king and queen. Thorstein, whose staff made him invisible, took a ring and a cloth, but at the same time dropped the staff, and, becoming visible, had to ride off from the throng on the youth’s staff.29
In the Ketils-saga we learn how Ketil was awakened by a great noise in a wood, and saw a troll-woman with hair waving behind her. At his question she told him that she was going to the troll-thing. To it the troll-king, Ofoti, Thorgerd Hölgatroll, and other mighty spirits were coming.30 An earlier glimpse of the witch-gathering is seen in the Salic Law of the Franks (c. 600 A.D.), which condemns in a fine anyone who calls another herburgium or “cauldron-bearer” for the Striae or witches.31
Cattle which were troubled by a disease of the spine, causing palsy, were supposed to be troll-ridden.32 Witches also caused disease in cattle and death. This was supposed to be done by an invisible arrow, the hœgtessan gescot of an Anglo-Saxon charm already cited.33 They did harm to crops and caused tempests. In the Gisla-saga Audbjorga went round a house widdershins, sniffed to all the points of the compass, and drew in the air. The weather changed and there came driving sleet, floods and snow, which caused the death of twelve people.34 To the witch was also ascribed the power of blunting weapons and taking away a warrior’s courage.35
Icelandic and Norwegian laws condemn these different practices, including the use of runes and spells, and one of these laws speaks of the troll-woman who, if proved guilty of riding a man or his servants, was fined three marks.36