Freya is the divine archetype of the völva, a professional or semi-professional practitioner of the Germanic magical tradition known as seidr. Seidr (Old Norse seiðr) was a form of magic concerned with discerning the fated course of events and symbolically weaving new events into being in accordance with fate’s framework. To do this, the practitioner, with ritual distaff in hand, would enter a trance and travel in spirit throughout the Nine Worlds accomplishing her intended task. This generally took the form of a prophecy, a blessing, or a curse.
The völva wandered from town to town and farm to farm prophesying and performing other acts of magic in exchange for room, board, and often other forms of compensation as well. The most detailed account of such a woman and her doings comes from The Saga of Erik the Red, but numerous sagas, as well as some of the mythic poems (most notably the Völuspá, “The Insight of the Völva“) contain sparse accounts of seidr-workers and their practices.
Like other northern Eurasian shamans, the völva was “set apart” from her wider society, both in a positive and a negative sense – she was simultaneously exalted, sought-after, feared, and, in some instances, reviled. However, the völva is very reminiscent of the veleda, a seeress or prophetess who held a more clearly-defined and highly respected position amongst the Germanic tribes of the first several centuries CE. In either of these roles, the woman practitioner of these arts held a more or less dignified role among her people, even as the degree of her dignity varied considerably over time.
Such was not usually the case for male practitioners of seidr. According to traditional Germanic gender constructs, it was extremely shameful and dishonorable for a man to adopt a female social or sexual role. A man who practiced seidr could expect to be labeled argr (Old Norse for “unmanly;” the noun form is ergi) by his peers – one of the gravest insults that could be hurled at a Germanic man. While there were probably several reasons for seidr being considered to fall under the category of ergi, the greatest seems to have been the centrality of weaving, the paragon of the traditional female economic sphere, in seidr. Still, this didn’t stop numerous men from engaging in seidr, sometimes even as a profession. A few such men have had their deeds recorded in the sagas. The foremost among such seiðmenn was none other than Odin himself – and not even he escaped the charge of being argr. We can detect a high degree of ambivalence seething beneath the surface of this taunt; unmanly as seidr may have been seen as being, it was undeniably a source of incredible power – perhaps the greatest power in the cosmos, given that it could change the course of destiny itself. Perhaps the sacrifice of social prestige for these abilities wasn’t too bad of a bargain. After all, such men could look to the very ruler of Asgard as an example and a patron.
In any case, there were other forms of shamanism that were much more socially acceptable for men to practice. One of the central institutions of traditional Germanic society was the band of elite, ecstatic, totemistic warriors. Some of the warriors in these warbands were berserkers. These were no ordinary soldiers; the initiation rituals, fighting techniques, and other spiritual practices of these bandswere such that their members could be aptly characterized as “warrior-shamans.”
The divine guide and inspiration of such men was the same as for the seidr-workers: Odin. The Ynglinga Saga has this to say about them:
Odin’s men went armor-less into battle and were as crazed as dogs or wolves and as strong as bears or bulls. They bit their shields and slew men, while they themselves were harmed by neither fire nor iron. This is called “going berserk.”
Or in the astute and evocative words of archaeologist Neil Price:
They run howling and foaming through the groups of fighting men. Some of them wear animal skins, some are naked, and some have thrown away shields and armour to rely on their consuming frenzy alone. Perhaps some of the greatest warriors do not take the field at all, but remain behind in their tents, their minds nevertheless focused on the combat. As huge animals their spirit forms wade through the battle, wreaking destruction.
This combat frenzy (“going berserk”) was one of the most common and most potent forms that Odin’s ecstasy (óðr) could take. In such a battle-trance, these hallowed warriors bit or cast away their shields, the symbolic indicators of their social persona, and became utterly possessed by the spirit of their totem animal, sometimes even shifting their shapes to become a bear or a wolf. By extension, they achieved a state of unification with the master of these beasts and the giver of this sublime furor: Odin.
Given the prominence of shamanism in other traditional northern Eurasian societies, it would be shocking if it were absent from traditional Germanic society. So it’s hardly surprising to find, instead, that the established social customs of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples brimmed with shamanic elements.
It’s just as important, however, to stress the uniquely Germanic form of these elements. At the center of the Germanic shamanic complex is the “Allfather,” Odin, who inspires the female seidr-workers and the male “warrior-shamans” alike with his perilous gift of ecstasy, granting them an upper hand in life’s battles as well as communion with the divine world of consummate meaning.