The Religion of the Northmen
EXPLORING THE FUTURE; DIVINATION
Those who made a source of gain of their supposed gift of prophecy, willingly took refuge in the magic arts in order to increase their fame. Incantations, witchcraft, transformations, nocturnal sittings, and similar magic performances were the means by which they made the people, and perhaps themselves, believe that they received their revelations. All such arts were believed to cause no trifling exertions to the one who practiced them, and they had, therefore, to be well paid for. The Finns, both men and women, were also regarded as especially skilled in penetrating the future.
Of those among the Northmen of Antiquity who made a business of foretelling the future, the most remarkable were the so-called Valas (Vala or Völva, plur. Völvur), or the Spæ-wives (Spákonur), on account of the extraordinary honor they universally enjoyed. The Valas are mentioned in the poems of the Older Edda, and the most remarkable of these poems is ascribed to such a prophetess whence it is name----Völuspá, the Prophecy of the Vala---is derived. It appears that they were sometimes called Norns, and regarded as a kind of superior, semi-godlike beings, as bodily revelations of the subordinate Norns, which, according to the Asa-faith, were sent out from the three great Goddesses of Fate at Urdar's Fount, to measure out the life of individual men and appoint their fate, which they consequently were able to announce beforehand. But so high a conception of the Norns was hardly maintained during the heathen ages, especially in the latter years; yet they were always looked upon as most remarkable beings, who at least were considered to be under the special protection of the great Norns, and to receive revelations from them. Men, therefore, not only listened with eagerness to their prophecies, but they also rejoiced at their good wishes and feared their curses; for to both had been ascribed extraordinary power. For this reason people took all possible pains to make the Vala, whom they wished to consult, incline propitiously towards them and their house. The Vala wandered by invitation from house to house, and everywhere people vied with each other in doing honor to her while she staid, and in bestowing rich gifts upon her at her departure. Her dress and address were calculated to attract attention. A seat of distinction was ready for her wherever she came, and magic performances, such as seiðr and galldr, were practiced as preliminary measures for opening her prophetic vision.
The Saga of Eirik the Red contains a very detailed account of a Vala and her proceedings, during her visit to Thorkel, a distinguished chieftain among the Norwegian settlers of Greenland in the later heathen times. "At that time," it is stated, "there was a great famine in Greenland. Those who had gone to the wild districts (hunting and fishing), had met with little success, on account of storms and bad roads. Some had never returned. There was a woman living in the settlement, whose name was Thorbjörg; she was a Spae-wife, and was called the little Vala or Prophetess (litil-völva). She had had nine sisters, of whom she was the only survivor. Throbjörg was in the habit of going round to the festivals, and she was invited chiefly by those who wished to learn their fate and the coming seasons. As Thorkel was the best man of the settlement, it seemed to be incumbent upon him to gain some information when the prevailing famine should cease. Thorkel therefore invites the Spae-wife to his house and prepares for her a good reception, such as was customary when a woman of her standing was expected. A cushion was prepared for her; it had to be stuffed with hen-feathers. It was laid upon the high-seat in the evening, when she came in with the man who had been sent out to receive her. She was dressed on this occasion as follows:---She wore a blue cloak with fastenings of cords (tyglarmötull), set with stones around the border from top to bottom (alt í skaut ofan). Around her neck she had glass beads; upon her head a black lambskin hood (kofri), lined with white catskin. She carried a staff mounted with brass, with the head inlaid with stones. She was girded with a young bearskin belt (húnskan linda), and to this hung a large pouch in which she kept the instruments of magic belonging to her occupation. On her feet she wore shaggy calfskin shoes with long, heavy thongs, on the ends of which were large brass buttons (látúns knappar). She had catskin gloves upon her hands, white within and shaggy. When she entered, every one felt it a duty to greet her with reverence; she returned their salutations according to what she thought of each one individually. Thorkel took the wise woman (vísinda konunni) by the hand and conducted her to the seat prepared for her. He requested her to cast her eyes over (renna augum yfir) his herds and property and house. She said but little concerning all this. In the evening the tables were set, and now it shall be told what dishes were made ready for the Spae-wife. There was groats, made of goats' milk (kiða mjólk); but her food was prepared from the hearts of every kind of animal that there was in the neighborhood. She had a brass spoon, and a knife of copper with a shaft of walrus-tooth and a double sheath (knif tannskeptan tvíhólkaðan af eiri); the point of it was broken off. When the tables were cleared, Thorkel Bondi goes up to Thorbjörg and asks what she thinks of the house and the appearance of the people, and also how soon she will have a revelation concerning the things he has asked her about and which the people are all anxious to know. She answers that she cannot make this known before morning, after she has slept there over night. Early in the morning all the arrangements were made for her which belong to the incantations of Seiðr. She then asked them to furnish her with women who knew the magic formulas (fræði) of that ceremony, and who are called Varðlokur, i.e., the Watch-guard; but none could be found who knew it, although inquiry was made at all the neighboring houses. Then Guðrið, a young girl who was present, said, 'I am not skilled in magic nor any wise woman; but my foster-mother in Iceland taught me a formula, which she called Varðlokur.' Thorkel said, 'Thou art wiser than I thought.' Guðrið answered, 'This formula and the proceedings connected with it are of such a character that I cannot be present to assist with them; for I am a Christian.' Thorkel replied, 'Thou couldst help us in this matter without harming thyself thereby; I should be glad to furnish Thorbjörg with whatever is necessary.' He then persuaded Guðrið so long that she at length promised to fulfill his wishes. Now Thorbjörg sat upon the witch-seat (seiðhjallr), and the women formed a circle around her. Guðrið sang the song so beautifully and so well, that no one of the bystanders thought they had ever heard a fairer song. Even the Spae-wife thought the song was beautiful to hear, and thanked her for it when it was done. 'Now,' says Thorbjörg, 'I have reflected on the matter, how it will be both with the sickness and with the seasons; and much has now been made clear to me that before was hidden from me and from others.' She then foretold that the famine and sickness which were raging, should both disappear in the spring. To Guðrið she prophesied, in return for the services she had rendered, a very happy fate in the future, and also that a renowned family (the Sturlúngs of Iceland) should be descended from her. Afterward all the company went one after the other to the Spae-wife and consulted her about the future matters which they wished to know; and she gave them definite answers. Soon afterwards she was invited to another house, and went thither; but her prophecies concerning the coming events of the year were entirely fulfilled." (5)
The truth of this description is confirmed by the accounts---more imperfect, it is true---which are recorded of the Valas in other Sagas. Thus Örvar-Odd's Saga relates of Heið, a Vala and Witch of Norway, that she wandered around to the festivals attended by fifteen boys and fifteen girls. She foretold the peculiarities of the seasons and the destiny of men. When she came by invitation to the house of Ingjald, he went out with all his attendants to meet her. After the evening meal, when the house-folk had retired to bed, the Vala and her companions set about their nocturnal vigils (fór til náttfarsseiðs.) In the morning, the people of the house came in one after another before her seat and listened to her prophecies. After a sojourn of three days she departed with rich gifts. (6) We here see that it was customary to practice seið during the night, before the solemn prophecies were to be uttered in the morning. The boys and girls who accompanied Heið were, doubtless, to form the circle around the witches' seat and to sing the enchanting song. A Vala's train in Norway could of course be far more splendid and awe-inspiring than in the poor and thinly-settled Greenland. The Vatnsdæla Saga represents the Icelandic Spae-wife Thordis as being so highly esteemed, that even at the assemblies she was chosen arbitrator in the most important cases. Her dress was a black hooded-cloak (kufl), and her staff Hangnuðr was believed to have the power to impart forgetfulness to any man who was touched by it three times upon the left cheek, but it would restore his memory when he was struck by it three times upon his right cheek. (7) The staff (seiðstafr, völr) appears, on the whole, to have been the Vala's most important mark of dignity, which was even to accompany her into the grave. Some have also supposed that the name Vala stands in connection with völr, a stick.
Something remains to be said, in conclusion, concerning the heathen Northmen's belief in dreams and omens.
To all dreams that appeared in any way unusual they gave a meaning, and the people who were thought to possess special gifts in interpreting them were called draumspekingar, i.e., Dream-wise. But the interpretation was mostly very arbitrary, and it is, indeed, probable that the greater part of the significant dreams which the Sagas can give account of, were invented, or at least greatly embellished, after the event which they are said to have foreboded had already taken place. The significant revelations in dreams made by the Fylgjur have been already mentioned. (8)
There was often a great diversity of opinion concerning the manner in which a dream should be interpreted; an example may show how uncertain the interpretations mostly were. An Icelandic chieftain named Thorkel Silfra dreamed, on the night before he expected to be chosen Goðin in Vatnsdal, that he rode through the valley upon a red horse so swiftly that the horse's feet scarcely touched the ground. He interpreted the dream to refer to the new dignity which he had in expectation. But his wife was of another mind. "A horse," said she, "is called by another name, mar; but mar signifies also a man's Fylgja, and that which is bloody appears red." From this she explained the meaning to be, that Thorkel would be killed at the meeting, which also happened. (9) It was also a very ancient superstition that people did not have equally significant dreams in all places. What was presented to one when he slept in a new house, was thought deserving of special attention. Some, again, used to sleep in a pig-sty in order to obtain revelations in their dreams. The history of King Hálfdan Svarti, who in this manner received information of the future greatness of his family, is well known. (10)
Concerning omens (fyrirburðir), which appear to have been presented to people in a waking state, both in vision and by other means, there are likewise many accounts in the Sagas. Certain omens, it was believed, were repeated before events of a corresponding character. Thus it was thought to denote a near-approaching violent death when a person saw his own Fylgja bloody. The wise Icelandic chieftain Niál said to his workman Thord, when the latter seemed to see a goat lie bleeding in his yard: "That is neither a goat nor anything else, but thou art a doomed man; thou hast seen thy Fylgja." (11) The same was the case when any one seemed to see blood upon the table instead of food, or when the portion of food assigned to him vanished. It was a universal belief that as an omen of a near approaching bloody battle, blood sometimes dripped from axes, swords, or spears, or that there was a loud singing in those weapons when men were taking them up to arm themselves. With this class of omens may be reckoned the so-called Urdar Moon (urðarmáni) which was believed to forbode a great mortality in the place where it appeared. This appearance is described in the Eyrbyggja Saga: "One evening as the people of Frodá (an estate in western Iceland) were sitting around the fire, they saw a half-moon upon the wall. All who were in the house could see it. This moon passed backward from the sun around the house, and did not vanish so long as the people sat by the fire. Thorodd, the master of the house, asked Thorir Tréfót what this could indeed mean. Thorir answered that it was Urdar moon, and that it foreboded death. On every evening during a whole week this moon made its appearance." (12) The name Urðarmáni seems to indicate that it was regarded as a sign from the Norns, or from the highest Norn Urður.
There were other omens which were believed to be peculiar to certain remarkable events. Such are repeatedly mentioned in the Sagas, and it mostly belongs to the history of every event of more than usual importance in public or private life, to have some omen brought up as going before it. Sometimes there are accounts of the revelations of supernatural beings, who by significant but enigmatical songs announced what was to happen, while at other times the omens consisted only of strange sights in the air or upon the earth.
Finally, they often perceived omens in quite natural occurrences, which were expounded by certain established rules, according to the circumstances of the case. Thus when they marched out to battle it was considered a good omen if they saw a raven flying in the same direction, or if they perceived two men standing in conversation, or heard a wolf howl; but if any one stumbled in going out to battle, it was thought to forebode evil. When a man was slain by arms and fell forwards, it was accepted as an omen that he should be avenged; and the vengeance, it was believed, would strike the one who stood directly before him when he fell.
5. Saga af Eiriki Rauða, 5. [Back]
6. Orv. Odds S. 2. [Back]
7. Vatnsd. S. 2. [Back]
8. Chap. XVIII. [Back]
9. Vatnsd. S. 42. [Back]
10. Snor.: Hálfd. Sv. S. 7. [Back]
11. Niáls S. 41. [Back]
12. Eyrb. S. 72. [Back]