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Völvas

from

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 394-402

.

 

Prophetic sibyls—Great reputation of some Volvas—Ceremonies attendant on their prophecies - Payment to the sibyls—Their descent— Incantations—Cats favourites of the sibyls.

The utterances of the Volvas or sibyls, (1) Who could tell the past and the future, were given to the people as coming from the gods; and by special preparations and conjurations they made men believe that they were placed in such a state that they could see into the decrees of fate, or, as they themselves expressed it, had been informed of things winch were previously secret.

Some Volvas had a greater reputation than others, and in time of great calamity people sent for them, in order to know the decrees of impending fate. When the Volva came a seat of honour was assigned to her, a separate feast (2) prepared, and among the dishes one made of the various hearts of animals.

When the principal question was to be answered, special preparations were required. Seid (3) was to he performed. A Seid-hjall, or platform consisting of a flat stone, was laid upon three or four posts, and women were to be found who knew how to recite or sing the so-called Vardlokur. (4) When all this was ready, and the Volva on the platform, the women formed in a circle round it, and the effective song was chanted while the seeress, with the strangest gesticulations, made her conjurations and received her revelations. (5)

 

**1. In Orvar Odd we see that the Volvas performed the foretelling ceremony with fifteen boys and fifteen girls. It seems that night was the chosen time. The boys and girls do ubtless stood in a ring round the platform; and sang incantations. They had a stick, with which they struck the cheek of a man, and brought oblivion on him, and then, by striking him on the other cheek, gave him back his memory.

**2 Eirik the red, 5.

**3. Boiling "seid," or the witches broth, was the chief art in witchcraft.

**4. Only found in Thorfin Karlsefni.

**5. Vatnsdćla, 3, 10; Thorfin Karlsefni, 3; Orvar Odd, ch. ch. 2, 3.

 

The two brothers Hálfdán and Fródi were kings (in Denmark). Fródi slew Hálfdán, but could not find his sons Helgi and Hróar, and therefore invited Sśvil jarl, who was married to their sister Signý, to a feast, as Fródi suspected that the boys were staying with him.

"A Volva called Heid was there; Fródi asked her to use her art, and try what she could tell of the boys. He entertained her splendidly, and seated her on a high seid-platform. The King asked what tidings she saw, for I know that many things will pass before thy eyes now, and I see great luck on thee ; and answer me as quickly as thou canst, seid— woman. ' She then threw open her jaws and yawned much, and a song came out of her mouth:

'Two are inside,
I trust neither of
The handsome ones
Who sit at the fires.'

" "The King asked : ' 'Is it the boys, or those who saved them?' She answered:

'It is those who long
Were in Vifilsey
And were called there
With the names of dogs,
Hopp and Hó.'

"At this moment Signý threw a gold ring to her she became glad at this gift, and now wished to change what she had told. She said ' Why was this so ? All that I t old was a lie, and now all my telling is gone astray.' The King said 'Thou shalt be tortured to tell it.' . . .

. He shook the seid—woman hard, and asked her to tell, the truth, if she did not want to be tortured ; she yawned much, and the seid-telling was difficult. She sang :—

' 'I see where sit
The sons of Hálfdán,
Hróar and Helgi,
Both unhurt:
They will rob
The life of Fródi

unless they are killed soon, which will not take place ;' there-upon she leapt down from the seid-platform, and sang:

'Keen are the eyes
Of Ham and Hrani ; (1)
The high-born are
Wonderfully bold.

 

**1. Helgi and Hróar had taken the names of Ham and Hrani.

 

"Thereafter the boys ran out to the wood with great fear; their foster-father Regin recognized them and was very glad. The Volva had given them the good advice to run away when she ran out of the hall herself. The king asked men to rise and search for them. Regin extinguished all the lights in the hall, and each man held the other back, for some wished them to escape, and in this way they got into the wood" (Hrolf Kraki's Saga, c. 3).

The Volva Gróa used spell-songs in order to get a whet-stone out of Thor's head.

"The Volva Gróa, wife of Örvandil the skilled, came and sang her spell-songs over Thor until the whetstone got loose. When Thor felt this, and, had hope of getting rid of the whet-stone, he wanted to reward Gróa for the cure, and make her glad; be told her the tidings that he had waded southward across Elivagar, and carried Örvandil in a basket on his back away from Jötunheimar; the proof of this was that one of his toes had projected out of the basket and frozen so that Thor broke it off and threw it upon the heaven, and made of it the star called Örvandil's toe. Thor said he would soon come home. Gróa became so glad that she remembered no spell-songs, and the whetstone did not get loose, and still sticks in the head of Thor" (Skáldskaparmal, c. 17).

The descent of the Volvas is thus described :—

All Volvas come from
Vidólf,
All wizards from
Vilmeid,
All sorcerers
From Svarthöfdi,
All Jötnar
From Ymir.

The Sagas give an interesting insight into the incantations and ceremony used by the Volvas.

"Ingjald dwelt at Hefni, north in Halogaland. He went on warfare in the summer, remaining quiet during the winter. Friendship existed between Ingjald and Thorstein Ketilsson, and the former became the fosterer of Ingimund Thorsteinsson.

"Once at a feast, according to ancient custom, Ingjald prepared incantation (seid), that men might know their fates. There was there a Finn woman skilled in witchcraft. Ingimund and Grim (son of Ingjald) came to the feast with a great many men. The Finn woman was placed high, and splendid preparations made for her; each of the men went from his seat to inquire of her about their fates. She told every one his fate, but they did not all like it quite as well. The two foster-brothers sat in their seats and did not go to inquire they had no mind for her prophesying. The Volva said, 'Why do these young men not ask about their fates, for they seem to me the most noteworthy of those present?' Ingimund answered, 'I do not care to know my fate until it comes, and I think my life does not depend on thy tongue-roots.' She replied, ' 'I will, however, tell thee unasked. Thou wilt settle in a land called Iceland; it is still to a great extent unsettled; there thou wilt become a man of rank and grow old; many of thy kinsmen will also be famous men in that land.' Ingimund said, 'This is well told, because I have made up my mind never to go to that place, and I should be a poor trader if I sell my many good family lands and go into deserts.' The Finn answered: 'It will happen as I tell, and it shall be a token that the image has disappeared from thy purse which King Harald gave thee in Hafrsfjord, and it now lies on the stone ridge where thou wilt settle; a Frey of silver is marked on it; when thou buildest thy farm my tale will prove true.' Ingimund said: 'If I should not offend my foster-lather by it, I would reward thee by knocking thee on the head; but because I am not an overbearing or fretful man, I shall not do it.' She said he need not be angry. Ingimund said she had brought bad luck there, and she said that it would be thus, whether he liked it or not. She added: 'The fate of Grim also points thither, as well as that of his brother Hrómund, and both will be great bśndr.' Next morning Ingimund searched for the image, but did not find it; he thought this a bad omen. Ingjald told him to be merry, and not let this affect him, or hinder his joy, saying that many famous men now thought it honourable to go to Iceland, and that it was only for good that he invited the Finn. Ingimund said he could not thank him for this, but nevertheless their friendship would never cease" (Vatnsdćla Saga, c. 10).

"At that time there was a very bad season in Greenland; the men who had gone a-fishing had a small catch, and some had not returned. There was a woman in that district (Herjolfsnes), Thorbjörg, who was a spákona, and was called the little Volva.' She had had nine sisters, all spákonas, but she alone was then living. It was her custom in the winter to go to feasts, and those especially who wanted to know about their fate, or the season, invited her. As Thorkel was the greatest bondi in Herjolfsnes, it was thought he ought to know when the bad season would cease. He invited the prophetess, and she was well received, as war customary with such women. A high seat was prepared for her, and a cushion of hen's feathers placed upon it. That evening, when she came with the man sent for her, she was dressed in a blue cloak with straps, set with stones down to the skirts; she wore glass beads on her neck, and a hood of black lambskin lined with white catskin; she had a knobbed staff in her hand, ornamented with brass and with stones around the top; at her belt hung a large skin-bag, in which she kept the charms which she needed for her foretelling. She wore hairy calfskin shoes with long thongs with large tin buttons on the ends; she had on her hands white catskin gloves with the fur inside. When she entered every one thought it his duty to greet her with words of respect; she received this according to her liking of each of those present. Thorkel took her hand and led her to the seat prepared for her, and then begged of her to let her eyes run over the people of the household, and over the herd, and over the homestead. She spoke a little of everything. The tables were set in the evening; the food prepared for her was porridge made with goat's milk, and the hearts of all kinds of animals which were there. She had a spoon of brass and a knife of brass with a handle of walrus-tusk, mounted with two rings; its point was broken off. After the tables were taken away, Thorkel went to her and asked how she liked the looks of things there in the homestead and the behaviour of the men, and how soon she would ascertain what he had asked her, which all were most anxious to know. She said she could not tell until the next morning, after she had slept. Towards the end of the following day such preparations were made for her as she needed for perfbrming the seid. She bade them get women who knew the witchcraft songs which were used for the seid, called vard-lokkur (weird or fate songs); but such women could not be found; search was made on the farm if any one knew them. Then Gudrid (the daughter of an Icelander by name Thorbjörn, who had emigrated to Greenland) said: ' I am neither skilled in witchcraft nor a prophetess, but nevertheless Halldis, my foster—mother, taught me a poem in Iceland, which she called vard-lokkur.' (1) Then. thou art wise in good time,' replied Thorkel. She answered, 'This is the only custom at which I will not assist, for I am a Christian woman.' Thorbjörg added, 'It may be that thou wilt help people herewith and wouldst not be a lesser woman than before (and still wouldst not be lowered by it), and of Thorkel I will ask the things needed.' Thorkel pressed Gudrid bard, and she consented. The women placed themselves in a ring around the seid-hjall on which Thorbjörg sat, and Gudrid sang the song so well that all present thought they had never heard a finer voice. The spákona thanked her, and said that many spiríts who had before wanted to depart and give no help had now come, and found pleasure in listening, as the song was so well sung; 'and many things which before were hidden from me and others are now made clear. I can tell thee, Thorkel, that this bad season will not last longer than this winter, and that it will improve with the spring; the sickness which has been here will also be better sooner than you expect. I will at once reward thee Gudrid for thy help, for thy fate is now very clear to me; thou wilt be married very honourably here in Greenland, though thou wilt not enjoy it long, for thy ways lie to Iceland, where a great and good family will spring from thee, and such bright rays shine over thy offspring that I have not power to see this clearly; and now farewell, daughter.' Then they went to the spákona, and every man asked what he wished most to know. She spoke willingly, and what she did not fail much to prove true. Then she was called for to another farm, and went there. Thorbjörn was then sent, for he would not stay at home while such superstitions were formed. The weather soon improved, as Thorbjörg had told" (Saga Thorfin's Karlsefnis, c. 3). (2)

 

**1. This song is lost.

**Cf. also Norna Gest's Thatt. c. 3.

 

Cats seem to have been special favourites with these sorceresses. 

"Thórolf Sleggja became a very unruly man; he was a thief, and in other respects a very wicked man. People very much disliked his neighbourhood, and thought they might expect any evil from him. Though he had not many men wíth him, he had animals which he trusted, namely, twenty cats; they were all black, and exceedingly large and strongly bewitched. People went to Thorstein (a chief) and told him this trouble, as the rule of the herad belonged to him; they said Thórolf had stolen from many, and done many other unmanly deeds. Thorstein said this was true, 'but it is not very easy to deal with this man of Hel and his cats, and I do not want to lose any of my men against them.' They answered he could scarcely keep his honour if be did nothing. Then Thorstein gathered men, as he wanted to have many with him. His brothers and his Norwegian guest were with him. They went to Sleggjustadir. Thórolf did not trouble himself about this; he could never have good men with him. He went in when he saw them coming on horseback, and said: 'Now the guests must be welcomed, and I intend my cats to do it, and I will place all of them in the entrance, and it will take them long before they get in if they defend the door.' Then he made them very strong with spells, and they looked very fierce, mewing and rolling their eyes. Jökul (Thorstein's brother) said to Thorstein: 'It was good advice of thine not to let this human fiend be undisturbed any longer.' They were eighteen men. Thórolf said to himself: 'Now fire shall be made, and I do not care though smoke follows it, for the coming of the Vatnsdal men is not likely to be peaceful. He put a kettle over the fire, and laid under it wool and all kinds of rubbish, and the house became full of smoke. Thorstein came to tile door and said: 'We ask thee to go out, Thórolf.' He answered that their errand could not be peaceful. Then the cats at once began to whine and act hideously. Thorstein said: ' 'This is a wicked company.' Jökul answered: 'Let us go in at them, and not care for these cats.' Thorstein said they should not, 'for it is most likely that our men will be hurt by all the cats and Thórolfs weapons, for he is a great champion; I should prefer that he gave himself up and walked out, for he has so much smoke from the fuel that he cannot well stay in.' Thórolf took the kettle off the fire and threw it on the wool-pile, and so strong a smell came out that Thorstein and his men could not stand very near the door. Thorstein said: 'Beware of the cats that they do not clutch you, and let us throw the fire into the houses.' Jökul took a large firebrand and threw it into the entrance, so that the cats drew back and the door fell back. The wind blew on the houses and the flames were fanned up. Thorstein said: 'Let us stand at the fence where the smoke is thickest and see what he does, for he has so much fuel that he cannot stay long.' Thorstein guessed right. Thórolf jumped out with two chests full of silver, and went with the smoke; when he came out the Norwegian was there, and said, 'Here is the fiend running, and he looks wicked now.' He ran after Thórolf down to Vatnsdal river, until they came to some deep pits or fens. There Thórolf turned round towards him, took hold of him, laid him under his arm, and said: 'Thou triest to run now; let us then both run.' He jumped into the bog and they sank, and neither came up again. Thorstein said : 'A great mishap was this that my Norwegian should perish, but it is well that Thórolf's property will be enough to pay his wergild? And so it was. The abode of Thórolf was after this called Sleggjustadir, and cats were often seen there, and it was often thought evil to be there "(Vatnsdćla, c. 28).

Men and women with the power of foreseeing and foretelling were thought to be born with the same gifts as the Volva; (1) by foretelling evil they had a great hold on the people, and received good rewards for their knowledge. (2)

 

**1. Laxdćla, 38; Njala, 127.

**2. Orkneyinga, 100, 102; Ljosvetninga, 21; Vatnsdćla, 12; Orvar Odd, 2.

 

"A woman, by name Oddbjörg, went about the herad. She was merry, wise and foreknowing. She made it a great point that the housewives should receive her well, and she told favourable things according to her entertainment. She came to Upsalir. Saldis received her well, and asked her to foretell something good about her boys. She said: 'These boys look promising if they have luck, which I do not see.' Saldis said: 'I think thou wilt not find the entertainment very good for this taunt.' She answered: 'Thy entertainment will not depend on this, and thou needest not be so sensitive as to words.' Saldis said: 'Little shalt thou say of it if thy mind does not think it good.' She answered: 'I have not as yet said too much, but I do not think their love to each other will last long.' Saldis replied, 'I thought I deserved other words for the sake of good entertainment, and, thou wilt be driven away if thou tellest evil foretellings.' Oddbjörg said: 'I think I need not spare thee as thou sayest this without reason; I will not visit thee again, and thou mayest bear this as well as thou wilt, but I can tell thee that they will carry spears of death against each other, and one thing after another, worse and worse, will be caused by this in the herad'" (Viga Glum, c. 12).

"When Hákon, Pal's son, was in Sweden, he heard of a man who practised sorcery and foretelling, whether he used for it witchcraft or other things. He became very curious to see this man, and know what he could tell about his fate. He went to him, and at last round him in a district near the sea where be received feasts and foretold seasons and other things to the bondi. When he met him he asked how he would succeed in getting the realm or other luck. The wizard asked who he was, and he told his name and kin, that he was a son of the daughter of Hákon, Ivar's son. The wizard said: 'Why shouldst thou ask witchcraft or foretelling from me? Thou knowest that thy kinsmen little liked men of my kind. It may be needful for thee to ask thy kinsman, Olaf the Stout, in whom thou trustest fully, about thy fate, but, I guess that he will not condescend to tell thee what thou art anxious to know, or is not so powerful as thou thinkest him.' Hákon answered: '1 will not blame him, for I think it is rather my unworthiness to learn wisdom from him than his in- capability to teach it to me. I have come to thee because I think that neither of us need envy the other as to virtue or religion.' The man answered: 'I am pleased that thou trustest fully in me, and more than in the belief of thyself and thy kinsmen. It is strange with those who have this belief, they fast and have vigils, and think thus to be able to know the things they desire, and though they do such things they know less of the things they wish to know the more important they are. We undergo no afflictions, and yet always know the things our friends think important. Now it will be so that I will keep thee, because I see thou thinkest thou canst rather get truth from me than from the preachers of King Ingi whom he trusts fully. Thou shalt come after three nights, and then we shall see whether I am able to tell thee any of the things thou wishest to know.' They parted, and Hákon passed three nights in the district, and then went to the wizard. He was alone in a house and sighed heavily when Hákon entered, stroked his forehead with his hand, and said it had taken him much trouble to know the things he wished to hear of; Hákon said he wanted to hear his fate. The wizard began: 'if thou wishest to know thy fate it is long to tell, for it is great, and many great tidings will spring from thy life and doings—I see in my mind that thou wilt at last become sole chief over the Orkneys, but it may be thou thinkest the waiting time long. I also think that thy offspring will rule there, and thy next journey westward to the Orkneys will lead to great events when that which springs from it appears. Thou wilt also in thy days commit a crime which thou mayest redress or not to the god in whom thou believest. Thy steps go further out into the world than I can trace, though I think thou wilt rest thy bones in its northern half. Now I have told thee what I can tell thee this time, and thou mayest be satisfied or not with it.' Hákon answered: 'Much tellest thou if it is true, but I think it will turn out better than thou sayest, and maybe thou bast not seen the truth.' The wizard said he might believe what he liked, but that this would take place" (Orkneyinga, c. xxvi. p. 100).

The crime was the slaying of St. Magnus; and the steps out in the world, Rögnvald's journey to the Holy Land.

 

   

 
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