Results 1 to 3 of 3

Thread: Norse Theology

  1. #1
    Stefanus's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Blog Entries
    Total Downloaded
    477.1 KB
    Rep Power

    Default Norse Theology

    Norse Theology

    “Balder’s Death” by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1817) As far as we know, the Vikings never formulated their views on the divine in the abstract, conceptual language of theology or philosophy. Instead, they used the concrete imagery and narrative form of myth to portray divinity as they saw it. As unique and powerful as those mythical portrayals are, they leave us wondering how the Vikings perceived divinity as such – in other words, what it means to be a god, not merely what specific gods do and have done.

    Luckily, we can answer that question, at least to some degree. For while the Norse have left us no explicit theology, there is an implicit theology in those very myths. Formulating a Norse theology is therefore a matter of teasing out the theological implications of the depictions of the gods in the myths.[1]

    The Numinous

    Before we get to the specifically Norse conception of divinity, let’s define what we’re talking about in the first place. While divinity is notoriously impossible to adequately express in words of any sort – mythical, theological, or otherwise – some descriptions come much closer to the mark than others.

    The best description of the divine to date is surely the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto’s classic 1917 book The Idea of the Holy. For Otto, the divine – or, to use his preferred term, the numinous – is something that presents itself as being “wholly other”[2] than the things that we experience in our everyday, mundane lives. It seems to come from a different plane of existence altogether. Confronted with it, one experiences oneself as being “but dust and ashes,”[3] utterly insignificant and inconsequential in the face of something immeasurably greater. It has a majestic, daunting, even terrifying aspect, which Otto calls the mysterium tremendum (“awe-inspiring mystery”), as well as a blissful, comforting side, which he calls the mysterium fascinosum (“alluring mystery”) or simply fascinans.[4]

    The Norse gods were – in addition to all of the other things they were – images of this universal, inscrutable force that were drawn from the particulars of the Viking world, which made them especially fitting ways of imagining and connecting with the divine in that time and place.

    Some deities represented specific aspects of the numinous more than other aspects. For example, Odin, the mighty but devious chieftain who ruled through arcane wisdom and magical power, would have naturally evoked the sublime but frightening side of the divine. Tyr or Freya, by contrast, were much more straightforwardly beneficent, prosocial, and comforting, which made them particularly effective images of the “lighter” side of the numinous.

    The Pillars of the Cosmos

    The most widely-used Old Norse word for “god” was áss (pronounced “OWS”), or æsir (pronounced “EYE-seer”) in the plural (“gods”). Its corresponding feminine form for “goddess” was ásynja (pronounced “ow-SIN-ya”), or ásynjur (pronounced “ow-SIN-yur”) in the plural (“goddesses”). When referred to as a collective that included both gods and goddesses, the masculine plural æsir was used. These words are all derived from one of two Proto-Germanic roots: *ansaz, “pole, beam, rafter,” or *ansuz, “life, vitality.”[5]

    This powerfully suggests that the Vikings thought of their gods as the “poles” or “vital forces” that held together and sustained the cosmos and its order.
    And, indeed, this is exactly what we find in their myths. The gods were very much a part of the cosmos rather than beings who merely manipulated it from the outside. When the cosmos arose, they arose with it as part of the same process. And when the cosmos will fall, as the Norse believed it would at Ragnarok, the gods will fall with it.

    But even though the gods were part of the cosmos, they weren’t just ordinary members of it. The structure of the cosmos was seen as analogous to the Norse social hierarchy, with the gods and goddesses as the rulers (Old Norse regin, pronounced roughly “RAY-gen,” another common word for the gods) who established and enforced the order of the cosmic system as a whole, to which any and all other inhabitants of the cosmos were subject.
    The gods reigned over other beings, but just as any medieval ruler was obligated to protect his or her people from foreign aggressors, so too were the gods obligated to protect the cosmos from the forces of chaos – the giants – who wished to destroy it.

    Language, myth, and social practice all complemented and reinforced each other here, which points to this having been one of the most central parts of the implicit Norse theology.

    There Was No Norse “Supreme Being”

    While the power of the Norse gods was extreme, it wasn’t total. There was no “supreme being” in the Norse religion. Instead, even the gods were subject to limitations. These limitations basically fell into two categories.
    First, since the Vikings worshiped many gods, each of which had a personality and role distinct from the others, no one deity possessed all of the powers that were attributed to the gods as a whole. Some gods were better warriors than others; some were wiser than others; some were more skilled than others at blessing lands, crops, livestock, and people with prosperity and fertility; and so forth.

    Perhaps the most telling example of this is Odin, who was famed for his almost unmatched knowledge and wisdom. Yet even he had to go on numerous trying quests to learn that lore; it wasn’t simply innate within him. (See, for example, the tales of Odin’s Discovery of the Runes, Why Odin Is One-Eyed, and The Mead of Poetry.)

    The second way in which the gods’ power was limited was that even they couldn’t escape being subject to fate. They, too, were doomed to have various misfortunes befall them, to suffer, and ultimately, at Ragnarok – Old Norse Ragnarök, “Final Fate of the Gods”[6] – to die.

    The Relationship Between the Gods and Humans

    By this point, it should go without saying that the Norse thought of their gods as highly anthropomorphic beings – that is, they were very much like humans, just writ large. Even their spiritual nature didn’t separate them absolutely from humans, or, for that matter, from the rest of the physical world. Just as humans had a material part and a spiritual part or parts, the gods, though spiritual, manifested themselves in various physical phenomena. In the lingo of philosophy of religion, this is called a “theophany” (the manifestation of a god) or a “hierophany” (the manifestation of the sacred).

    For example, Thor, whose very name meant “Thunder,” was not so much the “god of thunder” as he was the god thunder – the divinity whose presence the Vikings felt in the thunder. His wife, the goddess Sif, was known for her long, luscious, golden hair that seems to have symbolized fields of ripe grain.[8] Sif would therefore have been the goddess grain, and the storms fertilizing the vegetation would have been practically a ritual enactment of the consummation of the marriage of Thor and Sif.[9]

    This wasn’t exactly pantheism, the idea that all of nature or the physical world is divine. There’s no indication that the Norse thought that the physical world in its entirety manifested the gods. But parts of the physical world certainly were thought to embody them. (It’s extremely doubtful that there was ever a firm list of which parts did so; the Norse seem to have treated this as more of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing.)

    Since the gods were imagined to have human characteristics, and since they regularly manifested themselves in, and intervened in, the affairs of the world, it was possible for humans and gods to interact with each other. Such interactions were an essential part of Norse religiosity.

    This occurred in countless different ways, the most intimate of which was the belief that the gods copulated with humans in order to found royal and heroic families.[10][11]
    The most common interaction between the gods and humans happened through ritual sacrifice, the cornerstone of Norse religious practice. The pragmatically-minded Norse didn’t only worship their gods out of a sense of wonder or love. They also usually wanted to get something in particular from the gods.

    In human interactions, if you want to get something from someone – at least in a way that maintains a healthy relationship between the two of you – you have to give that person something in return. Since the gods were so much like humans, when humans wanted something from the gods, they had to give them something of value, too. This was the logic of sacrifice: by piously offering the gods a gift, their human worshipers hoped to receive gifts from them.

    This reciprocity between the gifts of the gods and humans mirrored the more strictly human reciprocity between a Viking warrior and his chieftain. The warrior who fought bravely and loyally for his chieftain would be rewarded with his share of whatever spoils were taken in the battle or raid. Despite the unequal status between the warrior and his chieftain, and the unequal status between humans and gods, both parties in these transactions had obligations to the other that they were expected to fulfill. The warrior had obligations to his chieftain, who in turn had obligations to him; and humans had obligations to the gods, but the gods in turn had obligations to them.[12] When human worshipers performed the appropriate sacrifices, they could legitimately expect the gods to bless them with victory in battle, bountiful harvests, sexual fertility, or whatever it was they sought.

    There was an element of unconditional fealty present in the chieftain-warrior relationship as well, exemplified by the expectation that an honorable warrior would sooner die by his chieftain’s side than flee and live. But this was largely subsumed by the sense of mutual obligation; a Viking warrior could choose to whom he offered his mortal loyalty, and leave one chieftain for another if he thought that another would treat him with more generosity.[13]

    As chieftains became kings and Christianity triumphed in the later part of the Viking Age, the emphasis was reversed. The relationship between the king and his fighters – which had necessarily become much more impersonal with the great increase in the number of fighters each king commanded – was spoken of in terms borrowed from Christian language. No longer did humans and gods have reciprocal obligations to one another, in which both parties participated more or less voluntarily and held a dignified position despite their immense inequality. In the same way that medieval Christians were supposed to serve God unconditionally as his “slaves and thralls,” so, too, were a king’s men supposed to serve him.[14] What had previously been a contract or a bargain was replaced with decree, fiat, commandment.

    [1] For the terminology of “explicit theology” and “implicit theology,” I’m indebted to Jan Assmann. See:
    Assmann, Jan. 2001. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton.
    [2] Otto, Rudolf. 1958. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John W. Harvey. p. 25-30.
    [3] Ibid. p. 9.
    [4] Ibid. p. 12-40.
    [5] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 20-21.
    [6] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 259.
    [7] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 429.
    [8] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 84.
    [9] The term for this basic idea, common to many ancient religions, is a “hierogamy” (“divine marriage”), which typically takes place between a sky god and an earth goddess. See, for example:
    Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 145-146.
    [10] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 56, 70.
    [11] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4-13. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [12] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 143.
    [13] Ibid.
    [14] Ibid.

  2. #2
    Stefanus's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Blog Entries
    Total Downloaded
    477.1 KB
    Rep Power

    Default Norse Theology - Shamanism


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    What is shamanism, and to what extent was it present among the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples?

    “Shamanism,” like “love,” is a notoriously hard word to define. Any meaningful discussion of an idea, however, depends on the idea first being clearly defined so that everyone understands exactly what is being discussed. For our purposes here, shamanism can be considered to be the practice of entering an ecstatic trance state in order to contact spirits and/or travel through spiritual worlds with the intention of accomplishing some specific purpose.[1] It is a feature of countless magical and religious traditions from all over the world, especially those that are tied to a particular people and/or place.

    The pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples teems with shamanic elements – so much so that it would be impossible to discuss them all here. Our discussion will have to be confined to those that are the most significant. We’ll start with Odin, the father of the gods, who possesses numerous shamanic traits. From there, we’ll examine shamanism in Norse magical traditions that were part of the female sphere of traditional northern European social life, and then move on to the male sphere of the berserkers and other “warrior-shamans” before concluding.

    Odin and Shamanism

    Odin, the chief of the gods, is often portrayed as a consummate shamanic figure in the oldest primary sources that contain information about the pre-Christian ways of the Germanic peoples. His very name suggests this: “Odin” (Old Norse Óðinn) is a compound word comprised of óðr, “ecstasy, fury, inspiration,” and the suffix -inn, the masculine definite article, which, when added to the end of another word like this, means something like “the master of” or “a perfect example of.” The name “Odin” can therefore be most aptly translated as “The Master of Ecstasy.” The eleventh-century historian Adam of Bremen confirms this when he translates “Odin” as “The Furious.”[2] This establishes a link between Odin and the ecstatic trance states that comprise one of the defining characteristics of shamanism.

    Odin’s shamanic spirit-journeys are well-documented. The Ynglinga Saga records that he would “travel to distant lands on his own errands or those of others” while he appeared to others to be asleep or dead.[3] Another instance is recorded in the Eddic poem “Baldur’s Dreams,” where Odin rides Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse typical of northern Eurasian shamanism,[4] to the underworld to consult a dead seeress on behalf of his son.[5]

    Odin, like shamans all over the world,[6] is accompanied by many familiar spirits, most notably the two ravens Hugin and Munin.

    The shaman must typically undergo a ritual death and rebirth in order to acquire his or her powers,[7] and Odin underwent exactly such an ordeal when he discovered the runes. Having done so, he became one of the cosmos’s wisest, most knowledgeable, and most magically powerful beings.

    He is a renowned practitioner of seidr, which he seems to have learned from the goddess Freya.

    Shamanism in Seidr

    Freya is the divine archetype of the völva, a professional or semi-professional practitioner of the Germanic magical tradition known as seidr. Seidr (Old Norse seiðr) was a form of magic concerned with discerning the fated course of events and symbolically weaving new events into being in accordance with fate’s framework.[8] To do this, the practitioner, with ritual distaff in hand,[9] would enter a trance and travel in spirit throughout the Nine Worlds accomplishing her intended task. This generally took the form of a prophecy, a blessing, or a curse.
    The völva wandered from town to town and farm to farm prophesying and performing other acts of magic in exchange for room, board, and often other forms of compensation as well. The most detailed account of such a woman and her doings comes from The Saga of Erik the Red,[10] but numerous sagas, as well as some of the mythic poems (most notably the Völuspá, “The Insight of the Völva“) contain sparse accounts of seidr-workers and their practices.

    Like other northern Eurasian shamans, the völva was “set apart” from her wider society, both in a positive and a negative sense – she was simultaneously exalted, sought-after, feared, and, in some instances, reviled.[11] However, the völva is very reminiscent of the veleda, a seeress or prophetess who held a more clearly-defined and highly respected position amongst the Germanic tribes of the first several centuries CE.[12] In either of these roles, the woman practitioner of these arts held a more or less dignified role among her people, even as the degree of her dignity varied considerably over time.

    Such was not usually the case for male practitioners of seidr. According to traditional Germanic gender constructs, it was extremely shameful and dishonorable for a man to adopt a female social or sexual role. A man who practiced seidr could expect to be labeled argr (Old Norse for “unmanly;” the noun form is ergi) by his peers – one of the gravest insults that could be hurled at a Germanic man.[13] While there were probably several reasons for seidr being considered to fall under the category of ergi, the greatest seems to have been the centrality of weaving, the paragon of the traditional female economic sphere, in seidr.[14] Still, this didn’t stop numerous men from engaging in seidr, sometimes even as a profession. A few such men have had their deeds recorded in the sagas. The foremost among such seiðmenn was none other than Odin himself – and not even he escaped the charge of being argr.[15][16] We can detect a high degree of ambivalence seething beneath the surface of this taunt; unmanly as seidr may have been seen as being, it was undeniably a source of incredible power – perhaps the greatest power in the cosmos, given that it could change the course of destiny itself. Perhaps the sacrifice of social prestige for these abilities wasn’t too bad of a bargain. After all, such men could look to the very ruler of Asgard as an example and a patron.

    Shamanism in Warrior Magic and Religion

    In any case, there were other forms of shamanism that were much more socially acceptable for men to practice. One of the central institutions of traditional Germanic society was the band of elite, ecstatic, totemistic warriors. Some of the warriors in these warbands were berserkers. These were no ordinary soldiers; the initiation rituals, fighting techniques, and other spiritual practices of these bands[17] were such that their members could be aptly characterized as “warrior-shamans.”

    The divine guide and inspiration of such men was the same as for the seidr-workers: Odin. The Ynglinga Saga has this to say about them:

    Odin’s men went armor-less into battle and were as crazed as dogs or wolves and as strong as bears or bulls. They bit their shields and slew men, while they themselves were harmed by neither fire nor iron. This is called “going berserk.”[18]

    Or in the astute and evocative words of archaeologist Neil Price:

    They run howling and foaming through the groups of fighting men. Some of them wear animal skins, some are naked, and some have thrown away shields and armour to rely on their consuming frenzy alone. Perhaps some of the greatest warriors do not take the field at all, but remain behind in their tents, their minds nevertheless focused on the combat. As huge animals their spirit forms wade through the battle, wreaking destruction.[19]

    This combat frenzy (“going berserk”) was one of the most common and most potent forms that Odin’s ecstasy (óðr) could take. In such a battle-trance, these hallowed warriors bit or cast away their shields, the symbolic indicators of their social persona,[20] and became utterly possessed by the spirit of their totem animal, sometimes even shifting their shapes to become a bear or a wolf. By extension, they achieved a state of unification with the master of these beasts and the giver of this sublime furor: Odin.


    Given the prominence of shamanism in other traditional northern Eurasian societies, it would be shocking if it were absent from traditional Germanic society. So it’s hardly surprising to find, instead, that the established social customs of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples brimmed with shamanic elements.

    It’s just as important, however, to stress the uniquely Germanic form of these elements. At the center of the Germanic shamanic complex is the “Allfather,” Odin, who inspires the female seidr-workers and the male “warrior-shamans” alike with his perilous gift of ecstasy, granting them an upper hand in life’s battles as well as communion with the divine world of consummate meaning.


    [1] This is nearly identical to the definition proposed by Åke Hultkrantz: “we may define the shaman as a social functionary who, with the help of guardian spirits, attains ecstasy in order to create a rapport with the supernatural world on behalf of his [sic] group members.” (1973. A Definition of Shamanism. In Temenos 9: 25-37. p. 34.)
    [2] Adam of Bremen. c. 1080. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated by Francis Joseph Tschan. p. 207.
    [3] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 7. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [4] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 380.
    [5] The Poetic Edda. Baldrs Draumar.
    [6] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 6.
    [7] Ibid. p. 14.
    [8] Heide, Eldar. 2006. Spinning Seiðr. In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 166.
    [9] Ibid. p. 166-167.
    [10] Eiríks Saga Rauða 4.
    [11] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 279-328.
    [12] Enright, Michael J. 1996. Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age.
    [13] Dubois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. p. 135-137.
    [14] Heide, Eldar. 2006. Spinning Seiðr. In Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 167.
    [15] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 7. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
    [16] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna 24.
    [17] Kershaw, Kris. 2000. The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbünde.
    [18] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 6. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga. My translation.
    [19] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 394.
    [20] Tacitus, Cornelius. Germania 13.

  3. #3
    Stefanus's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Blog Entries
    Total Downloaded
    477.1 KB
    Rep Power

    Default Norse Theology - Magic


    Norse Mythology for Smart People

    John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_Circle.jpg In the modern world, magic is ostensibly relegated to a ghetto of cheap, non-durable paperback books read by gullible teenagers in the midst of a rebellious phase. “Magic,” like “myth,” is usually used as something of a derogatory word denoting barbaric superstitions best forgotten.

    This shouldn’t be surprising. Our modern, mechanistic worldview, which likes to explain phenomena purely in terms of linear, deterministic cause and effect relationships, has no place for magic. Magic has been expelled from the modern world so thoroughly – at least in theory – that very few people even understand what magic is anymore. Most people think of magic as being a sort of deus ex machina (“god in the machine”) that miraculously contravenes the “laws” that govern matter and energy. This is, after all, precisely what magic is portrayed as being in popular culture, such as in the Harry Potter series, for example. It makes perfect sense that people whose only (mis)information concerning magic is that which is spoonfed to them by modern culture would think of it as being whatever these sources tell them it is.

    When one looks to other, more knowledgeable sources, however – and the Norse Eddas and sagas are as good a place as any to start – one finds that magic is something very different from what it’s usually claimed to be nowadays, and that, within the framework of some worldviews that are very different from our own, magic is an entirely comprehensible and even, in a sense, ordinary thing.

    A Definition of Magic

    What, then, is magic? The best definition to date is almost certainly that of one of the twentieth century’s leading writers on magic, Dion Fortune, who defined magic as “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.”[1]

    Magic produces change by working directly with consciousness. Its effects often spill over into the physical world, but this occurs only indirectly. This is, in an important sense, the exact opposite of what modern science does. Science causes changes in the physical world in accordance with the “laws” of the physical world. Magic and science not only work by different means; they also work toward different ends, and, in fact, this difference in ends accounts for the difference in means. This is why practitioners of magic don’t conduct laboratory experiments, and why scientists don’t intone chants before altars inscribed with emotionally powerful symbols. The apologists for the conventions of our own age often claim that magic is a “primitive,” immature groping toward science, and now that science has arrived, magic is obsolete. But science and magic are different enterprises altogether. Neither can entirely supersede the other. Indeed, as will be discussed below, magic is as alive and well in the modern world as it’s ever been – it’s just been brilliantly disguised.

    The final clause of Fortune’s definition is “in accordance with will,” which refers to both the will of the person or people working the magic and the person or people upon whom the magic is worked. The elucidation of this principle in the 1590 work On Bonding in a General Sense by the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno remains the most thorough to date. In this treatise, Bruno details the role of bonds – simultaneously in the sense of “relationships” or “closeness” and “fetters” or “constraints” – in magic. His central thesis is that in order to bind another – that is, to transform the desires of another so that they aid the fulfillment of one’s own desires – one must work with the other’s existing desires. To get someone to believe or to do something in accordance with one’s own will, one must present the belief or action in such a way that the person feels it to be in accordance with his or her own will, thereby satisfying the desires of both the enchanter and the enchanted.[2] Whether this ends up helping or harming the person upon whom the magic is worked is beside the point here; either can be the case depending on the context. The point is that magic can only be successful if it satisfies the desires of all involved in the working. The historian of religion Ioan P. Couliano has rightly discussed On Bonding in a General Sense as a broader, more existential, and ultimately more ambitious counterpart to Machiavelli’s The Prince.[3]

    Magic in the Pre-Christian Germanic World

    You’re likely thinking at this point, “Okay, but that only works on humans, right? What about influencing the weather and the behavior of animals and plants, activities with which sorcerers, shamans, and the like from all over the world are credited?”

    It’s a perfectly valid question, and it can be answered by pointing out that this sort of magic typically takes place in a cosmological context that’s very different from our own. The pagan Norse and other Germanic peoples believed that spirit could be found in countless things throughout the world, rather than exclusively belonging to mankind. This included even things that we today would consider to be nonliving, inanimate objects. And if something has a spirit, then in some sense it is conscious and has a will of its own. Thus, humans weren’t the only beings who could be influenced by magic. Inasmuch as a storm, or a cat, or a ship partook of spirit, it, too, was subject to the workings of magic.

    For the ancient Germanic peoples, magic was a fairly normal part of the fabric of everyday life. The practitioner of magic worked with the basic principles that were thought to underlie the workings of the cosmos rather than against them. If he or she was set apart from other people in any way, it was in his or her level of knowledge concerning the cosmos in general and those upon whom he or she was working. It’s worth pointing out that this is something Bruno emphasizes as well: the person who binds most successfully is the person who knows the beings to be bound and their desires the most thoroughly.[4]

    The Old Norse vocabulary of magic revolves around conceptions of knowledge. As Professor Catharina Raudvere, a specialist in Norse magic, explains, “the verb kunna, meaning both ‘to know, to understand, to know by heart’ as well as ‘to have insight in the old traditions and lore’…is at the core of this semantic field.”[5] The most common and general word for “magic” is fjölkyngi,[6] which is derived from kunna and means “great knowledge.”

    In addition to the knowledge of magical techniques and knowledge of the beings involved in the working, another form of knowledge at the heart of traditional Germanic magical practice is the knowledge of fate. In Raudvere’s words:

    The importance of destiny must not be understood to mean that the Norsemen held purely fatalistic beliefs. Rather it must be understood in terms of knowing the future, in order to keep it under some kind of control. Divination rituals and the performance of seiðr [a type of Norse magic discussed below]… were expressions of ways of finding the keys to hidden parts of reality and measuring what was given. The results of divination marked the limits of individual free will and after the divination ceremony strategies could be made for acting within these limits. Hence, prophecies, dreams and dream interpretations, and curses were treated with the greatest concern. … They reveal a tension between freedom and dependence. Nevertheless, there can seem to be a contradiction in terms: the conceptions of destiny could also be viewed as a definition of personal freedom. On the one hand, the limits are set and it lies within the human condition to identify them and act within the given space; on the other, choices and their consequences over a longer period of time is an important theme in the sagas. …
    Destiny was in one sense given, but there were still opportunities for developing different strategies… in connection with the fundamental structure of the perception of time.[7]

    Magic, therefore, is (amongst other things) the ability to discern fate and work with it to accomplish one’s purpose.
    When modern people speak of magic, they often make a distinction between “white magic” and “black magic,” the former being “good” magic and the latter being “evil” magic. This is as common in anthropology as it is amongst the general populace. Such a taxonomy, however, is nowhere to be found in the conceptions of magic held by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, who had radically different moral standards than those of what we today call “morality.”
    Were there any truly indigenous categories or divisions within Germanic magic, then? There were, but we know frustratingly little about them today. The only type of Norse magic that is clearly marked off from other kinds of magic in Old Norse literature is seidr, a form of “high” ritual magic practiced only by women and “unmanly” men such as the god Odin. Men who practiced magic typically delved into the amorphous complex of “warrior shamanism” practiced by initiatory military societies. The Old Norse word galdr, derived from galan, “to crow,”[8] denotes magic that centrally involves the use of runes and incantations, and may have referred to another particularly organized magical system, but, due to the absence of sufficient evidence, this must remain an intriguing speculation.

    Magic in the Modern World

    Magic was an integral part of the Western world up to and including the Renaissance. However, that “Rebirth” of Classical culture, arts, and sciences was crushed beneath the boot of the fearfully pious and reactionary elements of the European society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which included the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the Witch Trials. Out of understandable concern for their own safety, philosophers and scientists – formerly among the most likely to be avid practitioners of magic – stripped their crafts of anything that might seem “magical,” rebranding them as the study of inert, mechanistic phenomena. This brought their disciplines into harmony with the dominant strains of Christian theology, wherein the visible, tangible world is an unthinking, unfeeling artifact created by a god who is utterly separate from his creation. Consciousness was dismissed from the world – except, conveniently, from the human mind, but even the workings of the human mind were reframed in mechanistic, as opposed to animistic, terms. Magic had been banished from the world – and, it should be noted, for purely ideological reasons.[9][10]

    Or, at least, polite society demands that we speak as if this revolution had actually been successful in removing magic from Western civilization.

    Politeness aside, however, the “mechanistic philosophy” of René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and their ilk has utterly failed to erase magic from the modern world, or even to diminish its influence. Magic occupies as prominent a place in modern society as it ever has. We just prefer to call it things like “psychology,” “sociology,” “advertising,” “marketing,” and “personal development” rather than “magic.”


    [1] Greer, John Michael. 2012. The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil.
    [2] Bruno, Giordano. 1998. On Bonding in a General Sense. In Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: and Essays on Magic. Translated and edited by Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca. p. 143-176.
    [3] Couliano, Ioan P. 1987. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Translated by Margaret Cook. p. 89.
    [4] Bruno, Giordano. 1998. On Bonding in a General Sense. In Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: and Essays on Magic. Translated and edited by Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca. p. 143-176.
    [5] Raudvere, Catharina. 2002. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. p. 88.
    [6] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 65-66.
    [7] Raudvere, Catharina. 2002. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. p. 96-97.
    [8] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 98.
    [9] Abram, David. 1991. The Mechanical and the Organic: on the Impact of Metaphor in Science. In Scientists on Gaia. Edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston.
    [10] Couliano, Ioan P. 1987. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Translated by Margaret Cook.

Similar Threads

  1. Norse mythology
    By Stefanus in forum Skandinawiese en Nordiese lande en kultuur
    Replies: 1
    Last Post: 18th March 2019, 16:11



Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts