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Shamanism in the Icelandic Sagas: the Case of Sei∂r

Photo from the Saga Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland

An audience of 64 people turned out on January 18 (a very good turnout for a January evening of freezing rain), to hear Dr. Céline Leduc’s talk on “Shamanism in the Icelandic Sagas: the Case of Sei∂r”. Included in the audience were 17 who are not CNS members. The event had attracted quite a bit of interest on our Facebook page so we were curious to see who would show up for what seemed to us to be a fairly obscure and esoteric topic. It turned out that some of the non-members had a scholarly interest in the Viking era and others were fascinated by shamanism in general, including modern shamanism. A couple of people in the audience actually practise modern shamanism and Dr. Leduc told us that she herself had practised shamanism at one time.

Dr. Leduc’s approach to the subject was based on the thesis that earned her a PhD in Religious Studies in 2015. She presented the argument that the ritual described in the Saga of Erik the Red is a shamanistic ritual, contrary to the position held by some earlier academics. Most of us in the audience had at least some knowledge of the Icelandic sagas because of our Nordic backgrounds and interests. So we knew that they were written around the 13th century and describe the exploration and settlement of Iceland, Greenland, and North America in the Viking era, with more or less historical accuracy depending on your opinion. But not many of us were familiar with the precise details of the Saga of Erik the Red, which is based on events that occurred around 950 A.D.

The Saga of Erik the Red starts out by describing a particular family’s roots in Norway, where the death of a patriarch in battle causes his son and widow to flee to the Hebrides. There the son becomes a warrior chief. When he dies, his mother flees to Iceland and occupies much of it. Her descendant Erik and his family get involved in some feuds with neighbouring families and are outlawed. They then flee to Greenland, but eventually return to Iceland, reconcile with their enemies, and recruit other families to settle with them in Greenland. When hard times and famine fall on the settlers, one of the families invites a woman named Thorbjorg to come to their farm and perform a sei∂r ritual. The photo above is of a display in the Saga Museum in Reykjavik that depicts “Thorbjorg lítilvölva” carrying out the ritual. As Dr. Leduc explained, Thorbjorg is dressed in a specific way and carries special objects on her person that distinguish her from the other settlers. The Saga says that she wore a dark mantle ornamented with stones over her dress and a black lambskin hat lined with white catskin. Her gloves were also lined with catskin. She wore a necklace of glass beads, a purse, and a belt made of tinder (a kind of mushroom), and she carried a special staff.

Dr. Leduc explained that Thorbjorn’s outfit shows that she is special and to be respected and that she was probably also somewhat feared for her powers. On her arrival at the farm, Thorbjorg is served with the heart of each type of animal found there. She spends one night there, probably to prepare herself for the ritual. Perhaps she was getting in touch with the natturur, the non-human entities that may have been associated with that location. Or she may have been attempting to gather information to assist her in her ritual, including the possibility of lucid dreaming.

To begin the ritual, she seats herself on a pillow on a raised seat or platform and asks for a woman to sing or recite the var∂lokkur, the special songs or chants that form part of the ritual. Somewhat reluctantly, since the songs are not Christian songs, the mistress of the farm agrees. The women of the farm form a circle around Thorbjorg as the mistress of the farm performs the chants.

We all sat quite spellbound as Dr. Leduc described this ritual as if it were taking place right in front of our eyes. It was not difficult to imagine being there. The sense of mystery, awe, and danger that must have been evoked as Thorbjorg communicated with the natturur was palpable. Would she be successful in contacting? What would they tell her?

Thorbjorg tells the women that the natturur were pleased with the chant and describes future prosperity for the family.

With her vivid description of the ritual, we couldn’t help wondering if Dr. Leduc herself believed in the existence of the natturur. Finally someone asked what we were all wondering… did she believe in them or not? Her reply was non-committal. She explained that the extent of her immersion in these studies was bound to affect her perception. She told us that as a member of the faculty of the Department of Religion at Carleton University, she must maintain a professional objectivity for the sake of her students. She said that she has studied a great deal about religion in general and sometimes she believes and sometimes she doesn’t, concluding by saying that she thinks there are too many religions in the world.

The day after her presentation I came across an article in The Daily Beast about the release of the results of a CIA study in the 1960’s on a famous psychic. (“Secret CIA Tests Found TV Psychic Uri Geller Really Did Have Special Powers”, The Daily Beast, January 19, 2017). The article states “a remarkable cache of freshly declassified documents reveals that the agency did indeed conduct a week of experiments in 1973 on one of the U.K.’s most famous TV personalities of the day: Uri Geller” and goes on to say that “Geller—who has been much mocked in the British media over the years for his claims—completely convinced the CIA of “his paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.” So perhaps it is the case that certain individuals have abilities that cannot be explained. Maybe the ancient Norse were, at least some of the time, tapping into something real.

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