As a write Whispers of a Sorceress, the second book in my Daughters of Valhalla series, I’ve been learning a lot about Viking* völvas.
In the books, the character Haldis has been trained as a völva, or Viking seer. Born blind in one eye, which is all-white, and with a reddish-purple rash running down one side of her face, Haldis was thought to be a cursed, weak infant. For that reason, her father abandoned her in the forest — something that was sadly done in Viking times when babies were not expected to live long. However, Haldis’s mother found her in the forest and rescued her with a story: that her all-white eye saw Asgard, the realm of the gods. She insisted that Haldis was not cursed, but was marked for something special. And so Haldis was brought up to be a völva. (Whether she believes in her own magical abilities or not is another story…)
So who were these Viking seers?
Völvas were usually women who practiced a magic called seidr. This magic enabled them to see the future and cast binding spells — some for protection, some for healing, and some as curses. They carried magical staves to do their work; the term völva literally means “staff carrier” or “wand carrier.”
Well-respected for her work, a völva typically traveled from town to town to share her arts. For example, a wealthy person may have invited a völva to their home, while at the same time holding a feast for their friends and family. At this event, the völva would work her arts for all those gathered — reading fortunes, performing healing spells, and more. In return for her work, the völva received shelter and compensation.
It must have been a unique life, and I wonder if völvas ever married or had children, for life on the road must have made that difficult. That said, there is at least one saga that references a völva’s son, and völvas may have held strong ties to their jarls and important families where they lived as well — so perhaps some “settled down” or still had home bases where their families lived. Or maybe their mysterious nature made them lone wanderers, both feared and strangely accepted everywhere they went.
What did völvas wear?
Völvas were known to wear colorful clothing. Burial sites reveal that they wore more colors than most, as well as many different animal skins. Although there are variations, the description of a völva in The Saga of Erik the Red includes a bejeweled blue cloak, glass beads around the neck, a hood made of lamb skin and cat skin, shaggy calfskin shoes, and shaggy cat skin gloves. I also used clothes from völva burial sites as inspiration for what Haldis and other seers in Daughters of Valhalla might wear — especially the hood that Haldis always likes to hide beneath.
How did völvas perform their magic?
To practice seidr magic, a völva would sit in a high seat — perhaps on a ladder or some sort of scaffold that was raised above others in the room. Then she would ask if any women knew songs to call on spirits. If someone did, they would would sing to attract spirits to the space. The völva put herself into a trance to commune with these spirits, who aided her in seeing the past and future.
She could also leave her body and enter an animal’s, perhaps to travel great distances. This is the inspiration behind Haldis’s raven visions, which begin in Song of the Shieldmaiden and become stronger in Whispers of a Sorceress. And it’s possible a völva’s rituals included ingesting herbs such as henbane, which causes hallucinations; at least one former völva has been found buried with the herb.
But the most important of the völva’s tools was her staff. In one description, a seeress’s staff was decorated with brass and covered in stones up to a knob at the top. In one of the opening scenes of Song of the Shieldmaiden, Haldis chooses a mysterious black gem from a treasure box, a gift from her father; the gem will make a perfect ornament for her staff when she is ready to create one of her own.
But what was the staff’s purpose? Well, weaving was one of the most important domestic tasks that women performed in Viking society. Additionally, in Norse myth, three female deities known as the Norns wove everyone’s fate in a great tapestry. In a way, a völva’s staff is similar to what the Norns (and everyday women) would use to weave. As such, the völva’s staff enabled her to “weave” in the same way. This allowed her to manipulate destinies — or at least granted her access to that great tapestry on which each person’s fate was patterned by the Norns.
What do you find most interesting about a völva’s life in Viking times? There is so much more to explore, too. The sagas are a great place to read description of völvas (fictional though they may be), while archaeological burial sites offer real evidence of the clothing and tools Viking seeresses most likely used.
If you want to learn more about Viking völvas, here are a few great resources:
“The Völva (vǫlva), Seidr, and Dark Magic” – Vikingr
“The Vǫlva (Norse Seeress) and Seiðr” – Jackson Crawford (YouTube)
“The magic wands of Viking seeresses?” – National Museum of Denmark
“An attempt at recreating grave 507 from Birka” – Cheyenne Production
*I use the term “Viking” even though that is not the term “Vikings” used for themselves! They were Norse, Danes, etc. And when they went sailing on their raids, they were going “a-viking,” which is where we get the modern term for them. I use “Viking” here because it’s an easy and well-known shorthand when talking about this specific group of people and their culture.