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Superstitions: Witchcraft


"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 439-449



Kinds of witchcraft—Use of runes with incantations—Power of witchcraft—Ceremonies attending it—The Finns great masters in the art— Magical characters on weapons — Witchcraft Knowing women —Raising dead people—Power of the eye to blunt weapons— Charmed swords - The life-stone — Charmed garments— Ocular delusions Appearance of ghosts at feasts considered lucky—Protection against ghosts—Punishment of witchcraft in later times.

THE worshippers of the Asa creed were strong believers in witchcraft; it is most difficult for us now to comprehend such superstition, but we need not go back to that remote period to find the same diseased state of mind in Europe and America.

Two kinds of witchcraft, Galdr and Seid, were practiced. Galdr, derived from gala, to sing, was a form of sorcery;. Odin was called the father of galdr, and those who practised it were called galdrasmid, or galdr-smiths, and sometimes gaidramen, who, while singing their formularies, used at times to mark certain mystic runes (1) which were used with the incantation; and it appears that caution in the use of these runes was necessary, as their use by an impostor was held to cause danger. (2) It was supposed that such gald were able to cure wounds and sickness, allay fire and storm, rouse up the dead in order to consult them as to the future, and win the love of women.


**1. Egil's Saga, 44.

**2. Egil's Saga, 75. See p. 165.


"He (Odin) taught with runes and with songs called galdrar; therefore the Asar are called galdra-smiths. Odin knew and himself practiced the greatest of idróttir, which is called seid; by it he could tell the destiny of men and future things, and cause death or bad luck, or illness, and take away men's wit or strength, and give them to others. He taught most of his idróttir to the sacrificing priests; they were next to him in all wisdom and witchcraft. Many others, however, learned a great deal of them, and from them witchcraft has spread widely and been kept up long" (Ynglinga Saga, c. 7).

The seid, which had been learnt by the Asar from the Vanir, like the galdr, was performed with songs and incantations, and generally at night. It was used mostly for evil purposes, and its knowledge was not held as noble as that of galdr. It had been taught by Freyja, and was chiefly performed by women.

Among the ceremonies attending seid was that of cooking strange dishes, the objects composing which were kept secret by the seid persons.

"Kotkel had a large seid-platform made; they all went up on it and sung there their wisdom, namely, galdr" (Laxdæla, c. 35).

"Kotkel and Grima and their sons left their home during the night; they went to the farm of Hrút and there made a great seid. When the seid-sounds were heard, those inside could not understand what it was, but the song was fine to listen to. Hrút alone knew these sounds, and said that no man must look out that night, and that every one who was able must be awake, and they would not be harmed if they did this. Nevertheless all fell asleep. Hrút was awake the longest time, but nevertheless fell asleep. Kári, his son, was then twelve winters old and the most promising of his sons, and much loved by him; he could scarcely get any sleep, for all this was intended against him; he did not get much rest. He jumped up, looked out, and walked on the seid place, and fell down dead at once" (Laxdæla, c. 37).

The Finns were looked upon as great masters in witchcraft, and their advice was in much favour; they were considered especially clever in going on journeys in another shape.

"Vanlandi, the son of Svegdir, succeeded him and ruled the realm of Upsala; he was a great warrior, and travelled far and wide. He lived one winter in Finnland with Snjar the old, and married his daughter Drifa. In the spring he went away, and Drifa remained; he promised to come back in three winters, but for ten winters he did not come. Then Drifa sent for the seid-woman, Huld, and sent Visbur, their son, to Sweden. Drifa made a bargain with the seid-woman; Huld, that she should get Vanlandi by geld to Finnland, or slay him. When the seid was performed Vanlandi was at Uppsalir; thereupon he wished to go to Finnland, but his friends and advisers prevented him from going, and said that his wish was owing to the witchcraft of the Finns" (Ynglinga, c. 16).

Mal was a name given to magical characters, runes, &c., which were inlaid upon weapons, and which were believed to enable their owners to hold others spell-bound.

"Thorgrim Nef dwelt at Nefstadir, near the Haukadal river. Be was versed in witchcraft and magic, and a very great wizard. Thorgrim and Thorkel invited Thorgrim Nef to their home, for they had a feast. Thorgrim was skilled in iron work. The three went together to the smithy, and thereupon shut the door. The pieces of the sword Grásida (grey-side), which Thorkel got at the division of property between himself and his brother, were taken, and from these Thorgrim made a spear, which was finished at night. Ornaments (mal) were inlaid on it" (Gisli Sursson's Saga).

Witchcraft-knowing women were accustomed to rub with their hands the whole body of the man who was to go to war or fight; by this means they found the most vulnerable part of the body, for they believed that on this place they could find a knot which was supposed to be the spot that was to be wounded, and if they found such a knot they had a special protection made for it.

"Helga's foster-mother used to touch men (with her hands) before they went into a fight; she did this with Ogmund before he left, and said she did not find a vulnerable spot" (Kormak i.).

"It is told that Hrói gathered men and got 30 before he left; his foster-mother wanted to touch his body with her hands before he went from home, and thought she knew then best how he would succeed. She found a vulnerable point on his foot, but in other places she was satisfied" Vemunds Saga, c. 5).

The champion Thormód. came very often to talk with the widow's daughter against Grima's will. Then she sent a man, Kolbak, to lie in ambush for Thormód one evening. "She (Grima) touched him all over with her hands. Then Kolbak went his way. . . . . . . 
Thormód walked in front of the sheep-house door, and at that moment a man with a
drawn sax ran out of it and struck at Thormód. The blow hit Thormód's arm above the elbow and the wound was large. Thormód threw his shield down and drew his sword with his left hand and struck at Kolbak with both arms, the one blow after the other. The sword did not bite, for Kolbak was so strengthened with witchcraft that iron did not bite him. Kolbak did not strike any more blows at Thormód, but said: 'Now I can do with thee, Thormód, what I like, but I will not do more.' Kolbak went home and told Grima the news" (Fóstbrædra Saga, c. 14).

Among the numerous kinds of witchcraft practised was that of a man sitting out of doors at night in the open air, and, by some magical action not described, raising troll (wizard or witch) or dead people, in order to ask them questions as to the future. (1)


**1. Cf. Ynglinga, c 7.


Hakon and Ingi were pretenders to the crown of Norway, and were going to fight a battle.

"It is told that Gunnhild, to whom Simon had been married, and who was the fostermother of King Hakon, had out-sitting for the victory of Hakon. The result was that they should fight against Ingi at night, but never by day, and then it would go well. The woman who was said to have sat out is called Thórdis Seggia, but I do not know it for true" (Hakon Herdibreid's Saga, c. 16).

Some people were supposed to have power in their eyes, by which they could blunt swords in the fight.

"Gunnlaug Ormstunga challenged the viking Thórorm to a holmganga, because he would not pay back money which he had borrowed from Gunnlaug. Gunnlaug was then at the hird ot King Adalrad in London, who told him that this man blunted every weapon, and gave him a sword to fight with and told him to show only his own sword to the viking (Gunnlaug Ormstunga's Saga).

"She (Thordis the witch) blunted Kormak's sword so that it could not bite" (Kormak's Men who carried charmed weapons were always held to be lucky in fight. When using such charmed swords, good care had to be taken that the charm should be effective, or part of the power was lost: for instance, the famous sword


—taken from the mound of Hrólf Kraki—was not to be drawn in the sight of people, nor must the sun shine on the hilt, (1) and the wounds inflicted by these could not be cured except by touching them by the so-called lifstein (life-stone) which was attached to the sword. The wounds of the sword Sköfnung could only be healed by the stone set in its hilt.


**1. Cf. Laxdæla, 57, 58; Njala, 30.


"Bersi had a sharp sword, Hviting, with a lifstein attached to it, which he had carried in many dangers" (Kormak's Saga, c.9.)

Bersi, on account of his many duels, was called llolmganga Bersi.

"Kormak said to him: 'I challenge thee, Bersi, to holmganga (a duel) at the end of half a month on Leidholm." . . . . .

"Bersi had a sharp sword called Hviting with a ljfstein attached to it, which he had carried in many dangers.

"Dalla (mother of Kormak) advised him to find Midfjord Skeggi and ask for Sköfnung (Holf Kraki's sword). Kormak went to Reykjar (Skeggisbù) and told him his case. Skeggi answered that he was unwilling to lend him the sword, for they 'Sköfnung and Kormak' were unlike in temper. 'Sköfnung is slow, but thou art impatient and, headstrong.' Kormak rode away ill pleased, returned to Mel, and told his mother that Skeggi would not lend him the sword. Skeggi used to give Dalla advices; and there was friendship between them. Dalla said: 'He will lend thee the sword, though he will not yield readily (at once).' Kormak did not think it was fair if he withheld not the sword from her, but did from him. . . . A few clays later she told Kormak to go to Reykjar, as Skeggi would now lend him the sword; Kormak found him and asked for Sköfnung. 'The management of it may seem difficult to thee,' said Skeggi; 'a bag (covering) follows it (goes with it) and thou shall leave it quiet; the sun must not shine on the upper guard, nor shall thou draw it except thou preparest for fight; but, if thou comest to the fighting-place, sit alone, and there draw it. Hold up the blade and blow on it; then a small snake will creep from under the guard; incline the blade, and make it easy for it (the snake) to creep back under the guard.' Kormak said: 'Many things do you the wizards use?' Skeggi replied: 'This, however, will help thee fully.' After this, Kormak rode home and told his mother what had happened; and said that her will had much power over Skeggi; showed her the sword, and tried to draw it but it would not leave the scabbard. Dolla said: 'Too self-willed art thou, kinsman.' Kormak put his feet on the guard, and tore off the bag; Sköfnung howled at this, but could not be drawn from the scabbard. "The time for the holmgang approached, and Kormak left home with fifteen men. In the same manner Bersi rode to the place with as many men. Kormak came first, and said to Thorgils that he wanted to sit there alone. Kormak sat down and unfastened the sword, and did not take care that the sun did not shine on its guard; he had girt himself with it outside his clothes, and tried to draw it; but did not get it out until be stepped on the guard; the small snake came, but it was not handled as he should have been, and the luck of the sword was changed, and it went howling out of the scabbard" (Kormak's Saga, c. 9).

There were also garments which were supposed to be impenetrable. 

When about to leave the house of his parents, Hrólf went to his mother Asa and said:

"I want thee, mother, to show me the cloaks which Vefreyja, thy foster-mother, made for my father a long time ago.' She opened a large chest and answered: 'Here thou canst see them, and they have decayed but little as yet.' Hrólf took them up; they were with sleeves, a hood at the top, and a covering for the face; they were wide and long; no iron could cut them, and poison could not damage them. Hrólf took two which were the largest, and said: 'I do not carry away too much from the house of my father, though I take the cloaks" (Göngu Hrólf's Saga, c. 4).

Among the kinds of witchcraft mentioned in the sagas is one called sjonhverfingar (ocular delusion).

"At Froda there was a large hall and a locked bed adjoined it, as then was customary. On each side of the hall was a small room; one of them was filled with dried fish and the other with flour. Meal fires were made every night in the hall as was the custom. People used to sit long at the fires before they went to their meal. When the gravediggers came home that night, and men were sitting at the fires at Froda, they saw a half moon appearing on the wall of the room. All those who were inside could see it. It moved backwards against the course of the sun through the room. It did not vanish while they sat at the fire. Thorod asked Thorir Wood-leg what this foreboded. Thorir answered it was the Urdarmani (moon of Urd). Deaths of men will follow upon this. This continued all the week; the urdarmani entered every night" (Eyrbyggja, c. 52). (1)

"Late in the summer Hörd went to Saubœr with twenty-three men, for Thorstein Oxnabrodd (ox-staff) had boasted that his witchcraft-knowing foster-mother Skroppa could with her sorcery effect that the Hólmverjar (men of Hólm, the island) were not able to harm him. They came to the bœr; Skroppa and the daughters of the bondi Helga and Sigrid were at home, but Thorstein was at his sæter at Kuvallardal, in Svinadal. Skroppa opened all the rooms; she made sjonhverfingar, so that the three (women) sitting on the cross-bench seemed to them three boxes standing there. The men of Hörd talked about wanting to break these boxes. Hörd forbade that. They then left the farm and turned northward to see if they could find any cattle. They saw a young sow running with two pigs in that direction; they got ahead of it. Then it seemed to them that large crowd of men was coming against them with spears and fully armed, and the sow with its pigs shook their ears. Geir (Hörd's foster-brother) said: 'Let us go to our boat; there will be odds against us.' Hörd said it was best not to run away so soon without any trial. At the same time he lifted up a large stone and struck the sow to death. When they came to it they saw Skroppa lying dead there, while the bondi's daughters, whom they had taken for pigs, stood at her side. When she was dead they at once saw that the crowd which came against them was oxen and not men; they drove the cattle down to the boat, killed them, and loaded their boat with the meat. Geir took Sigrid away against her will, and they went out to the Hólm (Hörd's Saga, 25). (2)


**1. Cf. Landnama, pt. iii.

**2. Cf. also Eyrbyggja, c. 20; and Fœreyinga, c. 40.


When drowned men came to their own arvel, or burial feast, as ghosts, it was looked upou as a good sign for the survivors of the family, for then the dead men had been well received by Ran. 

Thé people were strong believers in ghosts, and thought that the spirit of the dead could come into the mound where the body was buried. When they were seen at night at their mounds they were surrounded by fire, and it was said that the gate of Hel, where the dead were supposed to be, was open.

These ghosts of the dead were harmless.

The bondmaid of Sigrun, when walking one evening past the mound of Helgi, saw that he rode to it with many men; she sang:

Is it an illusion
Which I think I see,
Or the doom of the gods? (1)
Dead men ride;
You prick your horses
With spur points,
Or have the Hildings (2)
Got leave to go home ? (3)


**1 Ragnarok.

**2. Chiefs.

**3. From Odin.


Helgi sang:

It is not an illusion
Which thou thinkest thou seest,
Nor the doom of the world,
Though thou seest us,
Though we our horses
Prick with spurs,
But the Hildings have got
Leave to go home.


The bondmaid. went home and told Sigrun.

Go out, thou Sigrun
From Sefafjöll, 
If thou wantest to
Meet with the leader of men.(4)
The mound has opened;
Helgi has come;
The prints of the sword bleed
The Dogling (5) asked thee
That thou the wound-dripping
Shouldst stop. [(blood)


**4. Helgi.

**5. Helgi.


Sigrun went into the mound to Helgi, and sang:

Now I am as glad
Of our meeting
As the greedy
Hawks of Odin (6)
When they know of slain men
A warm prey, 
Or dew-besprinkled,
See the dawn of day.
I will kiss
The dead king
Ere thou thrcwest off
The bloody brynja;
Thy hair, Helgi,
Is covered with hoar-frost;
The king is all wet
With the dew of the slain.
The hands of Hogni's son-in-law
Are cold from wet,
How shall I, king,
Better this for thee?
* * * *


**6. Hawks as birds of prey.


Helgi and his men rode their way, and the maidens went home to their house. The next evening Sigrun let a bond-maid keep watch at the mound; and at sunset, when Sigrun came to the mound, the bondmaid sang:

Now would have come,
If to come he intendud,
The son of Sigmund (1)
From Odin's halls;
I say that the hope
Of the king's coming lessens, 
As on ashtree boughs (2)
Eagles sit, 
And all men throng
To the meeting of dreams. (3)
Be not so mad
As to go alone,
Sister (4) of Skjöldungs,
To the houses of the ghosts.
Stronger, maiden, become at night
All dead fiends, (5)
Than in the light of day.
(Helgikvida Hundingsbani, ii.)


**1. Helgi.

**2. We see it is so late that the eagles sit on the boughs for the night, &c. So they despair of Helgi's coming.

**3. One of the finest similes for sleep.

**4. Here dis may be sister or guardianspirit. Skjöldungs = kings.

**5. The bondmaid calls Helgi and his men ghosts and fiends.


There were ghosts who were supposed to kill people; the best means of protection against them was to burn the body and throw the ashes into the sea, or to cut off the head and put it at or between the feet, as the body had then to walk on its own head. Another way of getting rid of them was to pursue them by law, and sentence them at the door of the house they haunted. (6)


**6. See description in Evrbyggia. Each ghost was called by its name, and had to leave by the opposite door.


Án had slain an outlaw, Garan, in a wood.

"Án left him dead; he cut off his head, dragged him out (of his house) and put his nose between his legs, that be should not appear after his death" (An's Bogsveigis Saga, c. 5).

"The overbearing of Klaufi became so great that he maimed both men and cattle. Karl thought it a great evil that his kinsman should be a ghost. He went to his mound and had him dug up. He was then still undecayed. He had a large fire made on the rock above the house of Klaufabrekka, and burned him to ashes. He had a case of lead made, and put the ashes in it. Two bars of iron were on it, and he sunk it into the hot spring south of Klaufabrekka. The stone on which Klaufi was burnt was rent in two parts, and Klaufi never did harm after this. " (7) (Svarfdæla, 30).


**7. Cf. also Laxdæla, 24; Gretti, 34—37.


"At this time Thórodd Thorbrandsson lived in Alptafjord. He owned both Ulfarsfell and Örlygsstadir, but then the haunting of Thórólf Boegifót became so strong that people could not dwell on these farms. Bólstad was also empty of people, for Thórolf began to haunt there as soon as Arnkel (the bondi, Thórolfs son) was dead, and killed men and cattle. And no man has dared to settle there since because of this. When this farm was quite deserted, Bœgifót haunted Úlfarsfell, and caused great trouble there. All the people were struck with terror when they became aware of him. The bondi went to Kársstadir and complained of this to Thórod, for he was his tenant. He said it was the opinion of people that Boegifót would not stop before he had devastated the whole fjord of men and cattle, and if no means were tried against this he would not be able to keep himself there any longer. When Thórod heard this, he thought it was not easy to deal with. Next morning he sent for his horse, and told his huskarls (servants) to go with him, and also had men from the next farms with him. They went to Bœgifótshöfdi (Cape of Bœgifót) to Thórolf's grave. He was then still not decayed, and very troll-like to look at. He was blue like Hel, and stout like a bull. When going to move him, they could not lift him at all. Then Thórod had a felled tree pushed under him, and thus they lifted him out of the grave. Then they rolled him down on the beach, cut wood, made a large pile, set it on fire, rolled Thórolf on it, and burned the whole into cold ashes, though it lasted long before the fire could take in Thórolf's body. It was blowing a hard gale, and the ashes were blown far and wide while the burning lasted, and all the ashes they could they raked out on the sea. When they had finished this work, they went home and came there about bedtime" (Eyrbyggja, c. 63).

In later times the seid people were feared and punished, because they did evil. Harald Fairhair burnt one of his own sons because be had mixed himself up with this form of witchcraft. (1)


**1. Snorri Harald Fairhair's Saga, ch. 36.


"If a woman is accused of using witchcraft, "galdr," and sorcery, six women shall be named on both sides of her who are known to be good housewives; they shall give evidence that she knows neither galdr nor sorcery. If they do not, she is an outlaw. The king gets one half of her property, and the bishop the other." (Gulath 28).

"Rögnvald Réttilbeini owned Hadaland; he learned witchcraft, and became a seid-man. King Harald disliked seid-men. In Hördaland there was a seid-man called Vitgeir; Harald sent him word to leave off seid. He answered and sang:

It does little harm
Though we the children
Of bœndr
Make seid
When Rögnvald
The famous son of Harald,
Makes seid in Hadaland.

When Harald heard this, he sent Eirik (Blood-axe) to Uplönd; he came to Hadaland and burnt his brother Rögnveld, together with eighty seid-men, in his house; this deed was much praised" (Harald Fairhair, c. 36).



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