Weaving the Dead: Völvas and Their Analogues in Europe

Updated on May 31, 2020
A volva with her staff.
A volva with her staff.

Defining the Völva

In ancient Norse myth and legend, the volva featured prominently. Yet, for as impressive as the figures are, remarkably little is known about this profession. The etymology of the word Völva is “wand woman” or “one who carries a wand.” They also were described as “fjolkunning” or “knowing plenty.” This definition may fit in with a similar figure in Anglo-Saxon lands “wicce” (witch), which may mean “wise woman.” Many believe that the word wicce may originate in the Proto-Germanic word wikkjaz “necromancer.” Either definition could prove fitting for the witch or Völva.

Volva in Erik the Red's Saga

Völvas were known to practice types of witchcraft known as spá and seidr. Spá is a cognate of the Old English spæ (one who can see). Seidr, on the other hand, shares etymology with the old Germanic word saite, which means “string.” Various theories exist on why this word shares such origins. However, considering that the distaff (wand) was the primary tool of the Völva, it is likely that spinning/cord working or related female activities were associated with seidr, and subsequently, the associated magical art. The most quoted reference of seidr comes from the Saga of Eric the Red:
“At that time, there was a great dearth in Greenland; those who had been out on fishing expeditions had caught little, and some had not returned. There was in the settlement the woman whose name was Thorbjorg. She was a prophetess (spae-queen) and was called Litilvolva (little sibyl). She had had nine sisters, and they were all spae-queens, and she was the only one now living. It was a custom of Thorbjorg, in the wintertime, to make a circuit, and people invited her to their houses, especially those who had any curiosity about the season, or desired to know their fate; and inasmuch as Thorkell was chief franklin thereabouts, he considered that it concerned him to know when the scarcity which overhung the settlement should cease. He invited, therefore, the spae-queen to his house, and prepared for her a hearty welcome, as was the custom where-ever a reception was accorded a woman of this kind. A high seat was prepared for her, and a cushion laid thereon in which were poultry-feathers.”

Eric the Red in a 17th Century Manuscript
Eric the Red in a 17th Century Manuscript

Volvas as Sibyls of the North

From the aforementioned quote, much can be discerned. Explicitly, the Völva is known to be adept in Sibylline arts. The equation between the Volva and the Sibyl proves to be quite interesting. While the Sibyl was initially described as singular, for a considerable period, there were known to be ten. This number equates to how Thorborg was said to have nine sisters (thus making ten total). The Greeks stated that there were nine proper (Persian Sibyl, Libyan Sibyl, Delphic Sibyl, Cimmerian Sibyl, Erythraean Sibyl, Samian Sibyl, Cumaean Sibyl, Hellespontine Sibyl, Phrygian Sibyl) and the Romans added a tenth (Tiburtine Sibyl). It is possible that this esoteric Norse art mimicked the classical Sibylline tradition. It is just as likely that the art form was indigenous and that both traditions stemmed from an Indo-European model. The equation of völvas with Sibyls is evidenced further in the Prose Edda wherein Snorri Sturluson wrote: “a prophetess called Sibyl, though we know her as Sif.” Sif was a Spakona, which is but a type of Volva specializing in prophecy. Another interesting similarity concerns Hyndla (a volva) who is said to have lived within a cave, not unlike Cumaean Sibyl, as well as the Sibyl at Delphi.

Depiction of Cumaean Sibyl
Depiction of Cumaean Sibyl

Witches of the Goths

When looking to Germanic history for evidentiary support for indigenous origins of the volva, one locates a relevant passage from Jordanes’ History of the Goths
“But after a short space of time, as Orosius relates, the race of the Huns, fiercer than ferocity itself, flamed forth against the Goths. We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae after their departure from the island of Scandza, --and who, as we have said, entered the land of Scythia with his tribe, --found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. (122) There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, --a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech. Such was the descent of the Huns who came to the country of the Goths.”
This passage very likely depicts a native tradition, not all that different from what is described in Eric the Red’s Saga. Expressly, Jordanes defined them as “witches.” While many currently think of witches as spell casters and potion makers, divination and prophecy are not unknown among the witch’s arts. The word Haliurunnae has two possible theoretical origins. Some advocate the notion that it means “Hel Runners,” which tends to evoke the idea of a shamanistic priestess who can travel to the Norse/Germanic land of the dead “Hel.” Another possible etymological origin of the word is Hailu –Hel- (Death) Runnae –Rune- (Secret) or “Those who know the secrets of death.” However, the Norse/Germanic people loved double meanings, and these need not be mutually exclusive. Rather, the word may mean both. In that case, we have a shamanistic group of “witches” who can traverse the worlds and know the secrets of death.
Further evidence supporting this supposition is a quote from The Lay of Svipdag. “Wake up Groa, wake up good woman, I rouse you at the doors of the dead, hoping you remember that you bid your son come to the burial mound.” This passage is essentially describing a type of necromancy where the son of Groa (Svipdag) raises his mother from the dead to obtain advice and protection. This passage further depicts his mother as a Volva and seems to indicate Svipdag himself had gained his mother’s abilities to where he might be a Seidmadr (male sorcerer) himself. Further, with his mother already being deceased, she acts as an intermediary between and her son and the otherworld.

Depiction of Northern Barbarians (Germanic People).
Depiction of Northern Barbarians (Germanic People).

Raising the Dead

The previous definitions and quotes are further bolstered by a passage from Eric the Red's Saga:
"And when the (next) day was far spent, the preparations were made for her which she required for the exercise of her enchantments. She begged them to bring to her those women who were acquainted with the lore needed for the exercise of the enchantments, and which is known by the name of Weird-songs, but no such women came forward. Then was search made throughout the homestead if any woman were so learned. Then answered Gudrid, "I am not skilled in deep learning, nor am I a wise-woman, although Halldis, my foster-mother, taught me, in Iceland, the lore which she called Weird-songs." "Then art thou wise in good season," answered Thorbjorg; but Gudrid replied, "That lore and the ceremony are of such a kind, that I purpose to be of no assistance therein, because I am a Christian woman. "Then answered Thorbjorg, "Thou mightest perchance afford thy help to the men in this company, and yet be none the worse woman than thou wast before; but to Thorkell give I charge to provide here the things that are needful. "Thorkell thereupon urged Gudrid to consent, and she yielded to his wishes. The women formed a ring round about, and Thorbjorg ascended the scaffold and the seat prepared for her enchantments. Then sang Gudrid the weird-song in so beautiful and excellent a manner, that to no one there did it seem that he had ever before heard the song in a voice so beautiful as now. The spae-queen thanked her for the song. "Many spirits," said she, "have been present under its charm, and were pleased to listen to the song, who before would turn away from us, and grant us no such homage. And now are many things clear to me which before were hidden both from me and others."
Within this passage, it is evident that the Völva is in communication with spirits. While not sufficiently descriptive of the type, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are of either the land of the dead or are of some other realm of existence. It is questionable if the songs are required to achieve a trance state or whether they are strictly to benefit the disposition of the spirits. However, irrespective of whether the songs were needed, the volva did indeed communicate with spirits.

A coven of Witches (possibly similar to Thorbjorg and her sisters).
A coven of Witches (possibly similar to Thorbjorg and her sisters).

Singing of the Dead

Songs and spells appear with frequency regarding Völvas. An example of this comes from the Eddas, where a Völva healed Thor: “Then came the Völva Gróa there, wife of Aurvandil the Bold. She sang her galdr (spell songs) over Thor until the piece of stone loosened (from his flesh). When Thor noticed this and understood that there was a good chance that she would be able to remove it, he wished to reward Gróa.” Again, this shows how the Volva may have had mastery over Galdr (spell songs) to use in ritual or healing. However, this isn’t the only time that Gróa makes as appearance. Within the Lay of Svipdag is the Chant of Gróa (Gróagaldr). In this work, Gróa advises her son, and more importantly, she sings spells to protect him.
“I sing to you the first spell,
which is most useful,
the one Rind sang to Ran:
that you throw off all
which you deem to be evil;
be your own master.
I sing you the second spell
in case you must travel
roads against your will,
then may Urd’s bonds
hold you on all sides,
while you are on the way.
I sing you the third spell,
in case mighty rivers
threaten you with death,
then may Horn and Rud
meanwhile revert to Hel
and ever dwindle for you.
I sing you a fourth spell,
in case battle-ready foes
meet you on the gallows-way
then may they change their minds,
become friends with you,
intent on making peace.
I sing you the fifth spell,
in case fetters will
restrain your arms and legs:
then shall Leifnir’s flames
be sung over your leg,
and your limbs be liberated,
your feet unfettered.
I sing you the sixth spell,
in case you must travel an ocean
greater than men have known:
then man the calm and the sea
join together in the quern,
and ever grant you a peaceful journey.
I sing you the seventh spell,
in case you meet with
frost on a high mountain:
then may not the corpse-cold
destroy your flesh,
and may your body keep its limbs.
I sing you the eighth spell,
in case you are caught outside
by night on a gloomy road:
that you may avoid
being harmed by
a Christian dead woman
I sing you the ninth spell,
in case you must exchange words
with the spear-noble giant:
may you then be given,
from the heart of Mimir
sufficient words and wit.
Notably, there are nine songs in this passage (nine being a sacred number for the Norse).


Male Sorcerers and their Shame

The possibility that Svipdag himself was seidmadr wouldn’t have been out of the realm of potential in the Norse world. Indeed, some men also practiced magical arts. Odin himself was said to have been initiated into the art of Seidr by Freya herself. However, men who practiced this esoteric art were often described as Ergi (unmanly) by contemporary chroniclers. In Lokasenna, Loki taunts Odin by saying, “But you, they say, were of Sams Isle, and drummed for the wights with the Völvas, like a wizard (vitki) through the world you passed, which I thought was an unmanly (ergi) thing to do.” It is due to this unmanliness that the craft was found primarily among women. In Heimskringla, Snorri states that “But in promoting this sorcery, unmanliness (ergi) followed so much that men seemed not without shame in dealing with it, the priestesses were therefore taught this craft.” Seidr may have had unmanly connotations due to its association with femininity and fiber crafts. However, this is supposition. As mentioned previously, seidr may mean “Cord, string, or snare.” If this proves true, and if the distaff is any indication, the fiber arts may have been a central focus of seidr. Subsequently, the technique might then have been considered unmanly, as this domestic activity was under the female domain.

Male Seidr practitioners who were killed for practicing the art.
Male Seidr practitioners who were killed for practicing the art.

A Loom of Death

Two possibilities are prominent when considering how the art of seidr might have become associated with spinning and weaving. First, repetitive activities are known to bring individuals into altered states of consciousness. Such trance states are common to divinatory and magical practices. Another possibility is located within Njal's Saga. Within this tale Dörrudr watched Valkyries (choosers of the slain) work on a loom:
"See! warp is stretched
For warriors' fall,
Lo! weft in loom
'Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
'Neath friends' swift fingers,
Our grey woof waxeth
With war's alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corseblue.
"This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hardweighted
With heads of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.
This passage depicts women (Valkyries) associated with a grisly loom made from the heads and entrails of men. Norns, Valkyries, and Völvas were titles that Skalds used interchangeably. Therefore, it is possible to see in this passage, the workings of a coven of Völvas. This passage also might show the metaphorical meaning behind the weaving of the Valkyrie women. They were weavers of fate and men's destiny, hence why Valkyries and Völvas were closely associated with the Norns (grand architects of fate and fortune). If this is correct, then seidr at least partially involves being conscious of wyrd (fate or destiny), if not having the ability to manipulate it.


Sacrificial Rites of the Seeresses of the Cimbri

The control witch figures exerted over men's fate can be further evidenced in the work of Strabo.
"It is reported that the Cimbri had a peculiar custom. They were accompanied in their expeditions by their wives; these were followed by hoary-headed priestesses, clad in white, with cloaks of carbasus fastened on with clasps, girt with brazen girdles, and bare-footed. These individuals, bearing drawn swords, went to meet the captives throughout the camp, and, having crowned them, led them to a brazen vessel containing about 20 amphoræ, and placed on a raised platform, which one of the priestesses having ascended, and holding the prisoner above the vessel, cut his throat; then, from the manner in which the blood flowed into the vessel, some drew certain divinations; while others, having opened the corpse, and inspected the entrails, prophesied victory to their army. In battle, too they beat skins stretched on the wicker sides of chariots, which produces a stunning noise."
As one can see, the previous passage discusses how the Cimbri (a Germano-Celtic people) had priestesses who were orchestrators of death rituals. The divinatory act described in the last passage involved inspecting entrails. As time passed, it is not hard to understand how weaving could come to be a metaphor for divining by examining intertwining entrails. The loom in Njal's saga is a prime example.

Panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron (found in proximity to the Cimbri homeland), featuring a sacrificial or initiation scene.
Panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron (found in proximity to the Cimbri homeland), featuring a sacrificial or initiation scene.

Classical References to the Germanic Priestesses

The promotion of women as priestesses, seers, and users of sorcery isn't new within the Germanic/Norse culture. Tacitus mentioned in his work Germania that "by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity." This idea is further evidenced by Julius Caesar, who mentions in his work The Gallic Wars: "German custom required that their matrons must declare on the basis of lots and divinations whether or not it was advantageous to give battle." Similarly, Caesar also wrote of Gaulish women (who may or may not have been partially Germanic): "it was for the matrons to decide when troops should attack and when to withdraw." Further, Tacitus states in Germania that "They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels or make light of their answers. In Vespasian's days, we saw Veleda, long regarded as a divinity. They venerated Aurinia and many other women".

Veleda has another similarity with later Völvas; she was elevated physically above the common people. In Eric the Red's saga, the Völva takes her position in the "high seat," an honored place, elevated above the populace. Similarly, Veleda resided "at the summit of a lofty tower" It should not then be surprising to hear that Odin too had his high seat. It would seem customary for someone that knew seidr to have a high seat. "Odin possesses that dwelling. The gods made it and thatched it with sheer silver, and in this hall, is the Hliðskjálf, the high seat so-called. Whenever Allfather sits in that seat, he surveys all lands."

Odin in his High Seat (Similar to a Volva's High Seat).
Odin in his High Seat (Similar to a Volva's High Seat).

Voluspa and the End of Days

The Poetic Edda contains one of the most exciting pieces of lore relating to the Völva. This section, known as Voluspa or “The Wise Woman’s (witches) prophecy, is pertinent to the discussion. In this tale, Odin seeks knowledge from this unnamed Volva. She discusses the creation tale, how history unfolded, and the trials and tribulations that exist ahead of the Gods. Towards the end of Voluspa, the Völva states that “but now must I sink,” indicating that she must go back into her grave or some other subterranean dwelling (cave?). This passage again harkens back to the Sibyls of Classical lore.
One could write an entire book about völvas and the associated arts that they practiced. However, this bit of collected history evidences the ancient history behind the Völva and shows possible cultural relatives as found in the Gaulish and Sibylline traditions. We may never understand what the Völvas saw and knew of the world, but the Eddas and Sagas have certainly given us a sneak peek into the world where the Völva lived.


Shamanism and Volvas

Did volvas practice a type of shamanism?

See results

Greenland: Home of the Little Volva (Erik The Red's Saga).


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