Who were the Volva?
The Viking Volva (or Völva) was a powerful seer and a highly respected practitioner of Seidr magic. Meaning “wand-wed” or “staff-carrier” in Old Norse, their staff or rod was an essential part of their craft as seeresses, shamans and practitioners of Seidr magic and, like weapons from warriors, their instruments were buried with them.
In the sagas and stories, the Volva are often described as old Viking witches that would wander from town to town or farm to farm, delivering prophecies and performing magic in exchange for shelter, food and other forms of compensation.
Despite their role outside of the normal structure of society, the Volva were treated with great respect in Viking society. Visiting Volva were given honor seats at the dining table and were free to speak to or ignore whom they pleased, regardless of social rank.
Volvas were almost always women. There were male seers and practitioners of Seidr magic, but in general these were considered feminine arts despite the fact that Odin himself is a god of both war and magic. Male practice was largely considered taboo. Even Odin, a practitioner of Seidr magic, was criticized by Loki for being unmanly as a result.
But then again, Loki’s major area of expertise was to antagonize and criticize everyone…
Powers of the Volva
The power of the Volva stemmed for the practice of Seidr magic. This type of Viking witchcraft was linked with ideas of fate, and enabled the user not only to read fate and tell prophecies, but also in some cases to manipulate it. Seeing the future often required a shamanic ritual that involved a group of young girls singing a spirit invocation while the Viking witch entered a trance that allowed her to commune with the spirits and the gods.
As the incantation came to an end, the seeress was caught between two worlds, and at this point in the ritual the Volva could predict the future and provide prophecies those nearby.
But this was not the limit of the Viking witch’s power. The magic of Seidr, which means “to bind” in old Norse, also allowed the Volva to do things such as raise storms, cast love spells, and send nightmares to kill someone in their sleep. The Volva were also believed to be able to take on animal form, probably using this shamanic power to fight or to travel long distances.
The Volva also appear to have had powers of healing. According to one story, when Thor was injured while traveling through Jotunheim, the Volva Groa attempts to use her witchcraft to heal the deity. The Volva were probably also considered healing shamans among the Vikings.
Volva Tools of the Trade
It is likely that a 9th century burial found near the ring fortress of Fyrkat in Öland was the burial of a Volva. It was a rich burial, with the woman placed in a horse-drawn carriage, indicating that she was a person of importance. It also contained an 82 cm long iron staff with bronze details, a Volva shaman’s Seidr rod.
Volva's Magic Rod
The Viking witch was finely dressed in a blue and red dress, and headscarf with golden thread along its edge. It is thought that both female and male Volva shamans would have used these bright colored dresses.
The buried Volva also wore numerous toe rings, many made from silver, a sign of both wealth and difference within Viking society.
Alongside her Volva staff, she was buried with a variety of other items that might have been tools of her trade. The Volva had a silver brooch plated in gold that contained white lead powder, a toxic substance that may have been used in rituals.
She also had a small purse containing poisonous henbane seeds. When rubbed onto the skin as a salve these can cause hallucinations. The Volva was also found with bowls and animal bones, all of which may have been used in the practice of witchcraft.
Origins of the Volva
According to Norse legend, the Volva that lived in Midgard during the Viking age probably learnt their art from the goddess Freya, the Vanir goddess of love, beauty and sexuality.
The Aesir and Vanir gods warred for many years, but eventually came to a truce agreement that involved the exchange of hostages. Freya was one of the Vanir gods sent to live among the Aesir. There, she taught the art of Seidr magic to the Aesir gods and to the women of Midgard, creating the Volva.
Of the Aesir gods, it was Odin who became the master of Seidr magic. His interest in the practice, despite its feminine associations, seems unsurprising since he was famously thirsty for all knowledge and would pay any price to acquire it.
The Norns, the Norse fates, are also commonly associated with Volva magic. The three Norns that live at the base of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, may have been Vanir goddesses well versed in Seidr magic. There are also references to other less powerful Norns. Perhaps this was another way of referring to powerful Volva witches.
The Voluspa poem, the title of which means “Prophecies of the Völva” was probably composed by an Icelandic author in the 10th century, and then added to over the centuries. The versions that come down to us today only survive from the 13th and 14th centuries and reflect significant Christian influences.
According to the poem, Odin uses his powers to summon a Volva from the dead to share her wisdom with the gods.
This particularly ancient Volva then recounts the entire history of the Norse cosmos from creation, and gives prophecies of the inevitable destruction of the world at Ragnarok.
The fact of Odin summoning the Volva from the dead demonstrates the enormous level of respect the seers commanded at the time.
At the end of the Viking age, the rise of Christianity saw the persecution of the Volva as dangerous magic practitioners of the old religion. In fact, the use of the types of staffs and rods that the Volva carried were strictly outlawed by the church.
It is interesting to note how different attitudes of the Norsemen and Christians to witchcraft, magic and seeresses. Viking witches were honored and respected, while under Christianity, we all know hat happened.
This persecution against the old ways brought the official end of the Volva witches.
However, it does not matter how hard is tried, an idea cannot be killed. Today, Ásatrú or Ásatrúarfélagið (the Norse religion) is strong and well. The Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland was “founded” on the First Day of Summer 1972, granted recognition as a registered religious organization in 1973, allowing it to conduct legally binding ceremonies and collect a share of the church tax.