I mentioned last week that my practice of oracular seidhr would be going though some changes this year, and thought today I’d elaborate a little on that, both in order to share my own experience and to show how ancient rituals can be adapted for modern practice with a little imaginative thinking.
As explained on my website, I began my current practice five years ago, and at the onset it was a very simple, spirit-taught rite. Right from the start, it has been very closely associated with Odin, naturally, and with two of His own spirit allies: His uncle Mimir (mentioned in the Havamal as one of His earliest teachers in the arts of incantation and sorcery; no, He didn’t learn all His magic from Freyja!), and a mysterious being I’ve come to know as the Well-Wight, a froglike water wight who dwells within the Well of Wyrd. Since all bodies of water are regarded in the Northern Tradition as having their own indwelling spirits (who are usually very wise, but can also be extremely bloodthirsty), it wasn’t a huge leap for me to accept that the Well of Wyrd itself was no exception to this.
My initial rite (which remains the core of what I do today) was fairly simple, consisting of a cleansing bath followed by a trance journey to the Well of Wyrd (I don’t journey to Helheim for this, as some traditions do) to make offerings of a drink libation and some of my blood (in symbolic imitation of Odin’s own offering of His life’s blood as He hung from the Tree, impaled by His own spear). I then seek oracles on behalf of my querents, sometimes scrying into the Well itself for answers, sometimes beseeching Mimir and/or the Well-Wight, and sometimes posing questions of Odin or various other gods, all of Whom are generally accessible via the Well. (And sometimes They even answer!) Oracular seidhr (as opposed to operational seidhr, or soul manipulation) is essentially a community-based activity; after all, if there are no questions there’s no point in seeking answers! However, not having had any kind of local community at the time I started with this I decided to invite questions via the internet, initially from my friends and eventually from the general public. (And here I’d like to insert a plea: if you’ve been reading my blog and thinking about sending in a question “at some point,” but hanging back because you think I may have too many, don’t be shy! I need YOU in order to make this practice work, because as mentioned above, there can be no answers without questions.)
From its basic beginnings, the rite has evolved slowly and gradually, the first addition having been my purchase of a high seat (whose use is supported by the most complete account of oracular seidhr we have in the primary source materials, the Icelandic Saga of Erik the Red). Mugwort (the herb I associate most strongly with Odin, and also apparently a favorite of the Well-Wight) quickly became my chief plant ally for seidhr, to be taken as a tea before mounting the high seat, added to my purification bath, and burned during the ritual. Eventually, roses were added to these mixtures, and most recently birch bark–both of which are now among my plant allies. (The name I now go by, Beth–which is my real middle name–means “house” in Hebrew, but “birch” in Gaelic; it is also the first letter of the Ogham alphabet, a magical system that has many things in common with the runes.) Both of the latter two plants are also connected strongly with Frigga, who is becoming involved in my pre-seidhr cleansing and other preparations, after which She hands me over to Odin for the duration of the ritual.
Other new elements that will be incorporated gradually into the ritual over the coming months have been inspired by my work with my personal Mighty Dead, among Whom is Thorbjorg, the seidhrkona mentioned in the Saga of Erik the Red. The dead tend, as a rule, to be far more concerned than the gods are with following the traditions and customs of their own cultures and time periods, and Thorbjorg is encouraging me to adopt as many of the trappings of her own practice as I can, as described in the saga. The saga takes place in Greenland after the Christian conversion, when most of the old ways have died out and the ritual described is obviously a dying vestige of something much older. The seidhrkona (seidhr woman, or witch) herself is described as having been one of ten sisters with the gift of prophecy, but she is the only one left alive at the time of the saga. It is a lean time in Greenland, and the community invites the seeress to come among them to tell them when relief will come and what is in store for them (both collectively and individually) for the coming year. When she arrives a high seat is set up for her, with a cushion stuffed with chicken feathers. I already have the high seat, and sewing myself a cushion for it, stuffed with feathers I can probably obtain from a local butcher, will be an easy addition to that.
The seeress’ costume is described in astonishing detail, and presents a bit more of a challenge. The key features are a jeweled mantle (which I can probably also sew or even knit for myself at some point), a string of glass beads (I prefer amber, so I have started a collection of large amber beads—famously connected with Freyja, the great seidhrkona of the Northern Tradition–and a few other stones that resonate with me to eventually make a special necklace reserved only for seidhr), a hood of black lambskin lined with white catskin, calfskin boots lined with fur (a new pair of Uggs clones will work for these), white catskin gloves lined with fur, a staff adorned with a brass knob set with stones (making this is another project I still need to tackle), and a linked charm belt around her waist with a large purse in which “she kept the charms which she needed for her predictions.” (Spirit work kit, anyone?) Returning to the catskin gloves and hood for a moment, while I’m not about to skin any of my cats, I do have a blue smoke Persian whose fur is quite spinnable (with at least a four inch staple length), so one creative workaround I’ve come up with is to card some of her fiber with wool and angora rabbit fiber, spin it into yarn, and use it to make fingerless gloves and a hood/cowl to wear during seidhr.
A surprising amount of detail is given, too about the ritual itself. First the seeress is served a meal of “the hearts of all the animals available” locally, along with a porridge of goat’s milk. There has been speculation in the seidhr community that this rather strange meal was intended to help the seeress align herself with the local landwights and other spirits, whose cooperation she would need in order to prophesy successfully, and this suggestion is supported by the fact that she insists she must spend the night in the community before holding the rite. At any rate, I am already well acquainted with the local landwights, having been working with Them and making offerings for two years now, but have decided to adopt a variation of this ritual meal anyway, for tradition’s sake and because it will please Thorbjorg. There is a nearby butcher specializing in local and humanely raised meats where I can get chicken hearts and (with a week’s advance warning) cow hearts (and maybe in time I will find a source for pig and sheep hearts as well); I can boil these, take a small taste, offer some to Thorbjorg, and give the rest to my household of eight felines (and one small dog). The goat’s milk porridge is even more of a cinch; goat’s milk is readily available locally, and I can use it to make a small portion of Irish steel-cut oatmeal.
“Late the following day” (which suggests to me that the ritual took place at or near dusk, the same time of day I hold my own seidhr rite), the community gathers and the seeress asks for people who can perform “the chants required for carrying out magical rites, also known as warding songs.” The word used here, vardlokkur, means literally “ward enticers,” or chants intended to attract spirits to the sorceress, who was enclosed in a ring of wards set up before the ritual. (In my case, these wards are set for me by my partner Jolene, who prepares the seidhr chamber—a physically closed-off ve set up in my bedroom– while I am taking my cleansing bath.) In other words, although most of us who practice oracular seidhr in a modern setting do some degree of trance journeying as part of the rite, in the most complete description of a Viking-era seidhr rite we have, there was no trance journeying at all; the seeress called the spirits to her.
Although I do intend to continue journeying to the Well, once there I will be using the warding song I was recently given in order to deepen my trance and call the spirits to me. This is more an addition of a new technique than an actual change in direction, since what distinguishes oracular seidhr from spae in the first place (according to most practitioners) is that answers are obtained with the aid of spirits, rather than just by way of the practitioner’s natural psychic ability. However, I see it as an important technique, since in my experience, and that of many others, spirit songs work partially because most spirits love music; singing or chanting not only attracts Them but can also make Them more inclined to give aid. (In the saga, Thorbjorg states that the warding song performed for her was done so well that many spirits came to her, and gave her a great deal of information where before they had not been inclined to answer.)
I’m sure further refinements and changes will be given to me in time, as always happens in a living, evolving tradition, but for now I have my work cut out for me with new practices to implement (many of which–especially the ritual costume elements–will probably take a while, and may not even be completely finished this year). I’m not sure yet how much I’ll be allowed to share in terms of photographs of my costume and other accoutrements, however I will probably post updates on these developments from time to time even if they can’t always be accompanied by photos.