Vestiges of the Vikings: Magic Buried in a Viking Woman's Grave
Murky, elusive and undefined, the religion of the pre-Christian Vikings has long been subject to debate. Contemporary texts of their spiritual worship do not survive, and the later records that do survive stem from Christian authors. Thus they are tainted with a Christian worldview and anti-pagan opinions. The magic of the Vikings, however, is somewhat a secondary field of interest. Though intricately linked with the pagan beliefs of the Norse, it is in many ways more undefined due to the ritual sacrifice of magical items.
In 1894, a curved metal rod was discovered in a 9th-10th century female grave in Romsdal, Norway. Scholars have debated its intention for years, shuffling between theories that it was a "fishing hook or a spit for roasting meat", before realizing in 2013 that it was likely a form of a magic wand. The bend toward the top of the wand was seemingly made just before the wand was laid to rest with the woman, as if to stem its magical properties. This particular wand fits the traditional mold of a seiðr wand based on previous discoveries dating from the 9th and 10th centuries. It is long (at 90cm), made of iron (consistent with the materials circulating of the Norse Iron Age) with "knobs attached to them" for the benefit of the wielder.
The Viking metal rod that is believed to have been a magic wand. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum
It is important to note that it was very common in Viking funerary traditions for weapons or items to be ceremoniously broken or bent before burial. Though the exact reasons for these actions are uncertain, it is believed by scholars such as Thomas DuBois and Neil Price that such alterations were part of the funeral itself. The weapons of a warrior, for instance, or the wand of a witch, in this case, were forcibly made impotent or non-functional just as the warrior could no longer fight, and the witch could no longer perform magic.
A Viking sword that had been ceremoniously bent (Astrid Westvang / Flickr)
The wand is currently in residence at the British Museum in London, and the curator of its exhibit, Sue Branning, believes it was used as a magical staff in the seiðr rituals of the pre-Christian Nordic countries. Seiðr was one of the most common types of magic practiced during the pagan era of the Norse world, and its presence has been heavily recorded in the Icelandic sagas. (Though again, one must remember that these sagas were written by Christians, not the practitioners themselves.) Seiðr was not the only form of magic practiced in the Old Norse world, however, since the wand was discovered in the grave of a female, it was most likely used in such a performance. Although men had a more prominent role in the Viking world than women, seiðr was one ritual not often performed by males. In fact, it was often considered unmanly for a man to perform a seiðr, because (in the Norse mindset) it was a form of deceit—apparently an entirely female occupation.
According to the traditions dictated in the sagas, seiðr was used "to respond primarily to situations of crisis and [was] untaken by a religious specialist (usually a woman) at the request of a client and within the context of a communal gathering. The ritual appeals to some sort of spirit helpers, either for divinatory information or help in controlling the mins and wills of others". This practice was most closely associated with the god Odin, in his guise as a war god, as well as Freyja, the goddess of fertility. It should be noted here that this is not the first time that Odin and Freyja are paired together; they also divide the souls of the warriors rescued by the Valkyries between their two realms.
A depiction of Oðinn riding on his horse Sleipnir. Within Norse paganism, Oðinn was the deity primarily associated with Seiðr (public domain)
The finding of this Viking wand in 1894, and its subsequent interpretation by scholars does not necessarily add further insight to the field of pre-Christian Norse religion. However, what its finding does indicate is further proof that magic was likely a predominately female position, and considered important enough that the wand was worthy of being ritually destroyed before placed with its owner. While an article written by "The Daily Mail" indicates that this break was due to a fear that the witch's magic would rise again, according to archaeological data and the vast research of scholar Neil Price, it is more likely that the wand was broken in respectful ceremony.
Top image: A reconstruction of how Viking witches could have looked as they wielded their fearsome staffs (DailyMail)
By Ryan Stone
DuBois, Thomas. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gye, Howard. 2013. "The Viking Witch's Magic Wand." The Daily Mail. Accessed 10/04/2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2531575/The-Viking-witchs-magic-wand-Relic-ninth-century-grave-disabled-terrified-villagers-feared-sorceress-owner-rise-dead.html
Medievalists.net. 2014. "Is this a Viking Magic Wand?" Medieval News. Accessed 10/09/2016. http://medievalnews.blogspot.com/2014/02/is-this-viking-magic-wand.html
Price, Neil. 2016 (rpt). The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Price, Neil. 2001. The Archaeology of Shamanism. London: Routledge.