“Seiðr as shamanistic practice: reconstituting a tradition of ambiguity”; Jenny Blain

[Edited 9/14/14: I did contact Jenny and heard back from her that the material in this paper isn’t copyrighted, and that she’s fine with me posting it. She did, however, point out that her book, Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic–which I also have listed in my Resources section, and is also available here–contains most of that same material. She says that she will try to send me links to newer articles as well.]

I am slowly (but surely) uploading my hoard of Heathen resources. Tonight I dug out an academic article by Dr. Jenny Blain, formerly of Sheffield Hallam University in the UK; and currently, iirc, on the staff of Chapel Hill Seminary.

I met Jenny when I was a grad student. We were both pagans in academia–me a student, her a professor–and ended up together on the same panel for a conference appropriately entitled “Going Native”. We got to talking about Heathenry, and I asked her for a copy of the paper she had given at a conference not long prior. I’ve kept it all these years, and it’s still one of the best resources about seiðr that I’ve found.

This is a revised and expanded version of an academic paper that Jenny Blain presented at the Conference on Shamanism in Contemporary Society in Newcastle, June 1998. It’s thirty-four pages of dense academic text and analysis of relevant quotes from various sagas. As far as knowledge of seiðr goes, Jenny’s work has both serious academic credibility (having taught at various colleges and universities throughout her career) and substantial experiential knowledge. She’s one of the few people who has this combination of high level of academic research and training and experiential knowledge of the seiðr technique.

(In other words–she knows what she’s talking about, so if you are interested in seiðr, it is definitely worth braving the dense academic verbiage!)

Here’s the paper’s official abstract:

The Saga of Eirik the Red describes a seeress, who sat in a specially prepared High Seat to foretell events for a Greenland community of 1000 years ago. She used a technique known as seiðr, calling on ‘powers’ to help her see further. Seiðr magic was chiefly performed by women, with male practitioners disparaged as ‘ergi’. Today members of reconstructionist ‘heathen’ communities in North America are drawing on such accounts in establishing seiðr as shamanistic practice, involving trance or shapeshifting, for foretelling and healing. This article examines constructions and contestations of seiðr within communities of past and present.

I have the abstract and article posted in the “Online Articles” section of my blog, here

Polytheist meme, #2

Here’s the second question from Galina Krasskova’s polytheist meme:

2. What does your tradition do to increase the power and flow of blessings?

Heathen/Norse folks have a variety of strategies within our tradition to help community members out. Here are the ones I see most often (not listed in order of importance or frequency):

1. We pray. I.e., we tell the Gods what’s going on and explicitly ask for their help. I’ve always considered myself blessed to be part of a spiritual group that gets to hear the Gods talk back, in one way or another. (Rant warning: It never ceases to amaze me how a certain subset of Heathens have a knee-jerk reaction to anyone mentioning prayer. It’s quite possibly the most ludicrous attitude I’ve seen in Heathenry, and I’ve seen some doozies. Typically it’s the tough-guy, I’m-a-f*cking–Viking, we-don’t-bow-to-nobody types are the ones who have this reaction. Of course we pray, you dolts. What do you think we’re doing at a blot or sumbel when we honor the Gods, tell them what’s going on, and thank them for their help? Get rid of that Christian resentment crap already and get on with the business of being a Heathen. End rant.)

2. We galdr over people. When I think of galdr, I think of it as something we do as a community on someone’s behalf. That’s not the only way it is used, however; in fact, pretty much anything that involves using runes in magical context will likely be augmented with some gadring. Galdr is the ritual chanting of the runes with the express purpose of invoking their power–to heal, lend strength, draw something to you, whatever–also, historically, to cast “battle fetters” upon an enemy. (Isn’t “battle fetters” a cool term? I can just see a bunch of crazy Norse women standing directly behind the battle line, chanting and sending out negative woo against their enemies.)

3. We make bindrunes. Bindrunes are two or more runes, which, when combined, blend the energy of the runes involved. This is a very useful tool, as the runes often need to be used in conjunction with one another to narrow their focus to your specific need. They also concentrate the power of these runes and become a good focal point for your intent. There are a wide variety of theories as to how one should be created; to me, it makes most sense just to combine the runes to tailor them to your specific goal. Other people write out a word in runes and then combine those runes into one bindrune. (I’m not a fan of this approach because it looks messy, and it also seems to me to just be a Norse-ified version of numerology.) They can be drawn on objects or people, and as I stated above, are often combined with galdering. A common bindrune is this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 8.39.48 AM

This is Gebo (X) plus Ansuz (the thing that looks like an F with downward-angled diagonal lines). On a literal level, Gebo means “gift” or “exchange”, and Ansuz indicates breath, “the Gods”, or Odin specifically. So, the goal of this bindrune could be to ask the Gods to bestow luck (gifts) on the wearer.

You have to have a very clear intent while making bindrunes, imho. Aside from looking messy, even if you only put two runes into your bindrune, it will likely end up looking like every other bindrune in existence. People who see your bindrune will probably have this type of reaction: “So, er, this is two Raidhos put together, facing each other. You’ll be traveling soon, I take it?  Hmm, no, wait–it’s Othala plus Isa. Way to chill out the family drama over your grandparents’ will. Oh, it’s Tiwaz plus Gebo, you say? You’re going to court soon to get paid back for your share of the damages? My bad.” There’s only so many ways straight lines can combine.

Also, each rune covers a variety of (sometimes completely unrelated) concepts. For example, Uruz (upside-down, angular capital U) in the Icelandic rune poem is all about rain showers and ruined harvests. But the Norwegian Rune poem tells us this about Uruz: “Dross comes from bad iron; the reindeer often races over the frozen snow.” To which you can reasonably respond, WTF? Finally, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem gives us the definition that is the most commonly accepted interpretation nowadays–aurochs (extinct species of giant bovine)–great physical strength and endurance. So, do your research and be very clear about which meaning you’re aiming for. This is not a time to be sloppy with your magic or spell-casting.

4. We ingest the runes. Back in the day, this was done by inscribing the runes on some tree bark and then scraping that bark into your mead or food. Personally, I like to use baked goods for this purpose, inscribing runes into the dough. At feasts, sumbels, or blots, people often draw or galdr runes over food and then imbibe it.

5. We are hospitable. I’m not entirely sure if this fits within the scope of the question, but Old Norse and Germanic cultures (as well as many others) had very strict cultural norms around how to be a good guest and how to be a good host, and the consequences that would befall you if you fail at either. I think the reverse is also true; being the generous, good host will earn you the favor of the Gods, and they will give you blessings accordingly.