Weaving the Dead: Völvas and Their Analogues in Europe

Updated on July 4, 2017
A volva with her staff.
A volva with her staff.

Defining the Völva

The volva figures quite prominently within the corpus of Norse mythology, and legend. Yet for as prominent 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 may fit in with a similar figure in Anglo-Saxon lands “wicce” (witch), which may mean “wise woman.” It is also thought that the word wicce might 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 may have been 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 winter time, 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. Specifically, the Völva is equated with the Sibylline arts. This equation proves to be quite interesting. One thing that must be considered is that while initially the Sibyl was singular in nature, for a great period of time there were known to be ten Sibyls, very similar to how Thorborg was said to have nine sisters (thus making 10 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 Norse art was mimicking the construct of the classical Sibyline 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 is that Hyndla (a volva) is said to have lived in a cave, not unlike the 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 an interesting 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. Specifically, they are noted as being “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. There are those that advocate the notion that it means “Hel Runners” which tends to evoke the idea of a shamanistic priestess who is able to 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 in order to obtain advice and protection. Not only does this passage further depict his mother as a Volva, but it also seems to indicate that Svipdag himself had gained his mother’s abilities and may in fact 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 buttressed 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 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 fully 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 in order to achieve a trance state or whether they are strictly to benefit the disposition of the spirits. However, irrespective of whether the songs were required to achieve such a state, the volva was able to 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/spells appear with regular frequency with respect to Völvas. Another example of this is the Völva who healed Thor. Her name was Gróa “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 also 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 gives advice to 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 gallow-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.

It is notable that 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 unheard of in the Norse world. Certainly, there were men who also practiced magical arts. In fact, Odin himself was said to have been initiated into the art by Freya herself. However, the practice by men was thought to be shameful, often being described as Ergi (unmanly). 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.” In fact, 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”. There is the possibility that seidr was thought of as unmanly 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 is the case, and if the distaff is any indication, the fiber arts may have been thought to be intimately associated with seidr. This is possibly why the art was considered unmanly, as this domestic activity was seen as being a female activity.

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

A Loom of Death

When considering how the art of seidr might have become associated with spinning and weaving, there are two possibilities that are prominent. First, repetitive activities are known to bring individuals into altered states of consciousness. Such altered states are common to divinatory and magical practices. Another possibility can be found in the Saga of Njal. 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 who were Valkyries as intimately associated with a grisly loom which was made from the heads and entrails of men. Norns, Valkyries, and Völvas were titles that were often used interchangeably. Therefore, it is possible to see in this passage, the workings of a coven of Völvas. This also might show the metaphorical meaning behind the weaving of the Valkyrie women, they were weavers of fate and the destiny of men, hence why Valkyries and Völvas were closely associated with the norns (grand architects of fate). If this is correct, then seidr at least in part involves being cognizant of wyrd (fate or destiny), if not having the ability to manipulate it.


Sacrificial Rites of the Seeresses of the Cimbri

The awareness or control over the fate of men 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,58 clad in white, with cloaks of carbasus59 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 involved inspecting the entrails. As time passed, it could easily be seen how such rituals might be interpreted in the manner of Njal’s saga wherein the loom of innards is made.

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 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 withdraw.” Further Tacitus goes on to state 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 position that was elevated above others. 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

One of the most interesting piece of lore relating to the Völva is found within the Poetic Edda. This section of the work is known as Voluspa or “The Wise Woman’s (witches) prophecy”. In this tale, Odin seeks knowledge from this unnamed Volva. She details how the world was created, 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 either must go back into her grave or some subterranean dwelling (cave?). This again harkens back to the Sibyls of Classical lore.

An entire book can be written 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 it was that the Völvas saw and knew of the world, but the Eddas and Sagas have certainly given us a sneak peek into the world wherein the Völva lived.


Shamanism and Volvas

Did volvas practice a type of shamanism?

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

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