In Germanic religion and Germanic mythology, a seeress is a woman said to have the ability to foretell future occurrences. Strongly associated with wands, seeresses at times held an authoritative role in Germanic society and mentions of Germanic seeresses occur as early as the Roman era, where, for example, they at times played a role in rebellion under Roman rule and acted as envoys to Rome. After the Roman Era, mention of seeresses occur in records among the North Germanic people, where they form a reoccurring motif in, for example, Norse mythology.
The Roman and Greek record records the name of several Germanic seeresses, including Albruna, Ganna, Veleda, and, by way of an archaeological find, Waluburg. Norse mythology mentions several seeresses, some by name, including Heimlaug völva, Þorbjörg lítilvölva, Þordís spákona, and Þuríðr Sundafyllir. In North Germanic religion, the goddesses Freyja holds a particular association with seeresses.
Archaeologists have identified several graves that may contain the remains of Scandinavian seeresses. These graves contain objects that may be wands, seeds with hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac properties, and a variety of high-status items.
Germanic seeresses receive mention in popular culture in a variety of contexts. In Germanic Heathenry, a modern practice of Germanic religion, seeresses once again play a role.
Names and terminology
Aside from the names of individuals, the Roman era record does not contain information about how the Germanic peoples referred to seeresses. Much later, Old Norse applies several synonymous terms to seeresses, including the common nouns vǫlva (völva) or völfa (plural vǫlur, völfu or also völfur, voluur; and meaning 'prophetess, wisewoman'), spákona or spækona (consisting of the elements spá, 'prophecy', and kona, 'woman', and therefore meaning 'foretelling woman, prophetess'), and seiðkona ('seiðr-woman').
The Old Norse common noun völva is generally held to mean 'wand-bearer' (and subsequently 'seeress'), a reflection of the object's strong association with the Germanic seeress. Various seeress names also reflect this fact, containing elements deriving from Germanic words for wand. For example, the first element of Waluburg (compare the Gothic common noun *walus, meaning 'staff, wand'), and the first elements of Ganna and Gambara (the latter likely deriving from Lombardic dithematic personal name *Gand-bera 'wand-bearer'—compare Old Norse gandr, meaning '(magical) staff, wand').
The names Þuríðr and Heiðr occur frequently in the Old Norse corpus as names of seeresses.
Germanic seeresses are first described by the Romans, who discuss the role seeresses played in Germanic society. A gap in the record occurs until the North Germanic record over a millennium later, when the Old Norse record frequently mentions seeresses among the North Germanic peoples.
In the first and second centuries CE, Greek and Roman authors—such as Greek historian Strabo, Roman senator Tacitus, and Roman historian Cassius Dio—wrote about the ancient Germanic peoples, and made note of the role of seeresses in Germanic society. Tacitus mentions Germanic seeresses in book 4 of his first century CE Histories.
- The legionary commander Munius Lupercus was sent along with other presents to Veleda, an unmarried woman who enjoyed wide influence over the tribe of the Bructeri. The Germans traditionally regard many of the female sex as prophetic, and indeed, by an excess of superstition, as divine. This was a case in point. Veleda's prestige stood high, for she had foretold the German successes and the extermination of the legions. But Lupercus was put to death before he reached her.
Later, in his ethnography of the ancient Germanic peoples, Germania, Tacitus expounds on some of these points. In chapter 8, Tacitus records the following about women in then-contemporary Germanic society and the role of seeresses:
- A. R. Birley translation (1999):
- It is recorded that some armies that were already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by women pleading steadfastly, blocking their past with bared breasts, and reminding their men how near they themselves are taken captive. This they fear by a long way more desperately for their women than for themselves. Indeed, peoples who are ordered to include girls of noble family among their hostages are thereby placed under a more effective restraint. They even believe that there is something holy and an element of the prophetic in women, hence they neither scorn their advice nor ignore their predictions. Under the Deified Vespasian we witnessed how Veleda was long regarded by many of them as a divine being; and in former times, too, they revered Albruna and a number of other women, not through servile flattery nor as if they had to make goddesses out of them.
- Horace Leonard Jones translation (1924):
- Writers report a custom of the Cimbri to this effect: Their wives, who would accompany them to their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with prisoners of war throughout the camp, and would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had raised a platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel, some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way would produce an unearthly noise.
Writing in the second century CE, Roman historian Cassius Dio describes in chapter 50 of his Roman History an encounter between Nero Claudius Drusus and a woman with supernatural abilities among Cherusci, a Germanic people. According to Diorites Cassius, the woman foresees Drusus's death, and he dies soon thereafter:
- Herbert Baldwin Foster and Earnest Cary translation (1917):
- The events related happened in the consulship of Iullus Antonius and Fabius Maximus. In the following year Drusus became consul with Titus Crispinus, and omens occurred that were anything but favorable to him. Many buildings were destroyed by storm and by thunderbolts, among them any temples; even that of Jupiter Capitolinus and the gods worshipped with him was injured. Drusus, however, paid no heed to any of these things, but invade the country of the Chatti and advanced as far as that of the Suebi, conquering with difficulty the territory transversed and defeating the forces that attacked him only after considerable bloodshed. From there he proceeded to the country of the Cherusci, and crossing the Visurgis, advanced as far as the Albis, pillaging everything on his way.
- The Albis rises in the Vandalic Mountains, and empties, a mighty river, into the northern ocean. Drusus undertook to cross this river, but failing in the attempt, set up trophies and withdrew. For a woman of superhuman size met him and said: "Whither, pray, art thou hastening, insatiable Drusus? It is not fated that thou shall not look upon all these lands. But depart; for the end alike of thy labours and of thy life is already at hand".
- It is indeed marvellous that such a voice should come to any man from the Deity, yet I cannot discredit the tale; for Drusus immediately departed, and as he was returning in haste, died on the way of some disease before reaching the Rhine. And I find confirmation in these incidents: wolves were prowling about and howling just before his death; two youths were seen riding through the midst of the camp; a sound as of a woman lamenting was heard; and there were shooting stars in the sky. So much for these events.
In Roman History chapter 67.5, Dio Cassius mentions the seeress Ganna—who he describes as the seeress Veleda's successor—as part of an envoy sent by the Suebi to meet with the Roman emperor Domitian:
- In Moesia the Lygians, having become involved in war with some of the Suebi, sent envoys asking Domitian for aid. And they obtained a force that was strong, not in numbers, but in dignity; for a hundred knights alone were sent to help them. The Suebi, indignant at his giving help, attached to themselves some Iagyzes and were making their preparations to cross the Ister with them.
- Masysus, king of the Semnones, and Ganna, a woman who was priestess in Germany, having succeeded Veleda, came to Domitian and after being honored by him went home.
Dating from the 2nd century CE, an ostracon with a Greek inscription reading Waluburg. Se[m]noni Sibylla (Greek 'Waluburg, sibyl from the Semnones') was discovered in the early 20th century on Elephantine, an Egyptian island. The name occurs among a list of Roman and Graeco-Egyptian soldier names, perhaps indicating its use as a payroll.
North Germanic corpus
Few records of myth among the Germanic peoples survive to today. The North Germanic record makes for an exception, where the vast majority of material that survives about the mythology of the Germanic peoples extends. These sources contain numerous mentions of seeresses among the North Germanic peoples, including the following:
|Seeress name (Old Norse)||Attestations||Notes|
|Heimlaug völva||Gull-Þóris saga||In Gull-Þóris saga, Heimlaug assists the saga protagonist by way of prophecy.|
|Heiðr||Hrólfs saga kraka, Landnámabók, Örvar-Odds saga||Various seeresses by the name of Heiðr occur in the Old Norse corpus, including Gullveig, who scholars generally consider to be another name for the goddess Freyja|
|Þorbjörg lítilvölva||Eiríks saga rauða||In Eiríks saga rauða, Þorbjörg lítilvölva travels to Scandinavian farms in Greenland and predicts the future.|
|Þordís spákona||Vatnsdæla saga, Kormáks saga||Tenth century Icelandic seeress and regional leader|
|Unnamed seeresses||Völuspá, Völuspá hin skamma||Unnamed seeresses occur in various contexts in the Old Norse corpus. For example, as its name implies, the poem Völuspá ('the foretelling of the seeress') consists of an undead seeress reciting information about the past and future to the god Odin.|
A high seat was set for her, complete with a cushion. This was to be stuffed with chicken feathers.
When she arrived one evening, along with the man who had been sent to fetch her, she was wearing a black mantle with a strap, which was adorned with precious stones right down to the hem. About her neck she wore a string of glass beads and on her head a hood of black lambskin lined with white catskin. She bore a staff with a knob at the top, adorned with brass set with stones on top. About her waist she had a linked charm belt with a large purse. In it she kept the charms which she needed for her predictions. She wore calfskin boots lined with fur, with long, sturdy laces and large pewter knobs on the ends. On her hands she wore gloves of catskin, white and lined with fur.
When she entered, everyone was supposed to offer her respectful greetings, and she responded by according to how the person appealed to her. Farmer Thorkel took the wise woman by the hand and led her to the seat which had been prepared for her. He then asked her to survey his flock, servants and buildings. She had little to say about all of it.
That evening tables were set up and food prepared for the seeress. A porridge of kid’s milk was made for her and as meat she was given the hearts of all the animals available there. She had a spoon of brass and a knife with an ivory shaft, its two halves clasped with bronze bands, and the point of which had broken off.
Viking Age Archaeological Record
The archaeological record for Viking Age society features a variety of graves that may be those of North Germanic seeresses. A notable example occurs at Fyrkat, in the northern Jutland region of Denmark. Fyrkat is the site of a former Viking Age ring fortress, and the cemetery section of the site contains among about 30 others a grave of a woman buried within a horse-drawn carriage and wearing a red and blue dress with gold thread, all signs of high status. While the grave contains items commonly found in female Viking Age graves (such as scissors and spindle whorls), it also contains a variety of other rare and exotic items. For example, the woman wore silver toe rings (otherwise unknown in the Scandinavian record) and her burial contained two bronze bowls originating from Central Asia.
In addition, the grave contained a small purse that itself contained seeds from henbane, a poisonous plant, and a partially disintegrated metal wand, used by the seeresses in the Old Norse record. According to the National Museum of Denmark:
- If these seeds are thrown onto a fire, a mildly hallucinogenic smoke is produced. Taken in the right quantities, they can produce hallucinations and euphoric states. Henbane was often used by the witches of later periods. It could be used as a "witch's salve" to produce a psychedelic effect, if the magic practitioners rubbed it into their skin. Did the woman from Fyrkat do this? In her belt buckle was white lead, which was sometimes used as an ingredient in skin ointment.
Henbane's aphrodisiac properties may have also been relevant to its use by the seeress. At the feet of the corpse was a small box, called a box brooch and originating from the Swedish island of Gotland, which contained owl pellets, and bird bones. The grave also contained amulets shaped like a chair, potentially a reflection of the long-standing association of seeresses and chairs (as in Strabo's Geographica from the first century CE, discussed above).
A ship setting grave in Köpingsvik, a location on the Swedish island of Öland, may have also contained a seeress. The woman was buried wrapped in bear fur with a variety of notable grave goods: The grave contained a bronze-ornamented staff with a small house atop it, a jug made in Central Asia, and a bronze cauldron smithed in Western Europe. The grave contained animals and humans, perhaps sacrificed.
The Oseberg ship burial may have also contained a seeress. The ship contained the remains of two people, one a woman of notably elevated status and the other possibly a slave. Along with a variety of other objects, the grave contained a purse containing cannabis seeds and a wooden wand.
Another notable grave that may have contained the remains of a seeress was excavated by archaeologists in Hagebyhöga in Östergötland, Sweden. The grave contained female human remains interred with an iron wand or staff, a carriage, horses, and Arabic bronze jugs. Notably, the grave also contained a small silver figurine of a woman with a large necklace, which has been interpreted by archaeologists as representing the goddess Freyja, a deity strongly associated with seiðr, death, and sex.
The concept of the Germanic seeress has had influence in a variety of areas of popular culture. For example, in 1965, the Icelandic scholar Sigurður Nordal coined the Icelandic language term for computer—tölva— by blending the words tala (number) and völva.
The seeress Veleda has inspired a number of artworks, including German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's 1818 novel Welleda und Ganna, an 1844 marble statue by French sculptor Hippolyte Maindron, an illustration, Veleda, die Prophetin der Brukterer, by K. Sigrist, and Polish-American composer Eduard Sobolewski's 1836 opera Velleda.
- Göndul, a name meaning 'wand-wielder' applied to a valkyrie in the Old Norse corpus and later appearing in a 14th-century charm used as evidence in a Norwegian witchcraft trial
- Norse cosmology, the cosmology of the North Germanic peoples
- Vitki, a term for a sorcerer among the North Germanic peoples
- For völva, see Guðbrandur Vigfússon 1874: 721-722, for spákona see Guðbrandur Vigfússon 1874: 581, and for seiðkona, see Guðbrandur Vigfússon 1874: 519. On the compound element kona, see discussion in Guðbrandur Vigfússon 1874: 350.
- See discussion in, for example, Simek 2007 : 98, 99, 279.
- Simek 2007 : 135, 333).
- Wellesley (1964 : 247).
- Birley (1999: 41).
- Jones (1924: 169-172).
- Cary (1917: 378-381).
- Cary (1927: 346-347).
- Simek (1993 : 370-371).
- "Þórdís spákona (Þjóðsagnasafn Jóns Árnasonar)". Háskóli Íslands (in Icelandic). July 1998. Retrieved 2021-05-08.
- Kunz (2000: 658).
- National Museum of Denmark website. Undated. "A seeress from Fyrkat?". Online. Last accessed August 21, 2019.
- National Museum of Denmark website. Undated. "The magic wands of Viking seeresses?". Online. Last accessed August 21, 2019.
- Zhang (2015).
- Simek (2007 : 357).
- For discussion regarding examples of modern-day seeresses in Germanic Heathenry, see for example discussion throughout Blain 2002.
- Birley, A. R. 1999. Trans. Tacitus, Agricola Germany. Oxford World's Classics.
- Cary, Earnest. 1917. Trans. Dio's Roman History, vol. 6. Harvard University Press. Available at Archive.org.
- Cary, Earnest. 1927. Trans. Dio's Roman History, vol. 8. Harvard University Press.
- Guðbrandur Vigfússon. 1874. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford at Clarendon Press.
- Jones, Horace Leonard. 1924. Trans. The Geography of Strabo, vol. 3. Harvard University Press. Available at Archive.org.
- Kurz, Keneva. 2000. "Eirik the Red's Saga" (trans.) in The Sagas of Icelanders, pp. 653-674. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-100003-9
- Simek, Rudolf. 2007 . Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
- Wellesley, Kenneth. 1972 . Trans. Tacitus, the Histories. Penguin Classics.
- Zhang, Sarah. 2019. "Icelandic Has the Best Words for Technology". Gizmodo, 5 July 2015. Online. Last accessed August 21, 2019.
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