The question of ritual magic and mysticism within Heathenry has been a hot-button topic for ages. To many people, especially those who may have come to Heathenry through to a more overtly mystical path, magic is a core element of their practice. However, there’s also a sizable chunk of the Heathen community that regularly declares that such things have no place within our traditions, going so far sometimes as to declare that Heathen mystics aren’t ‘real’ or ‘serious’ Heathens. Many of those with a more strictly Reconstructionist bent argue that because the specifics of these mystical arts were never written down and preserved, they are impossible to faithfully rebuild.
While the ritual specifics of these arts were never recorded, the Lore is most certainly filled with references magic spells and what we might today refer to as ‘witchcraft’. Magic in the context of the Lore could be good OR bad. Some mystics were reviled and viewed with fear, while others were heroes or even just simple farm folk who knew a magical trick or two. The Poetic Edda opens with a consultation of a völva, a seeress whom the Allfather consults for visions of the future. In the Saga of Eric the Red we are introduced to a Seiðkona, with her magical staff and bag of talismans. In the poem Oddrúnargrátr, the character Oddrún mutters an incantation to ease the labor of Borgny. Even the Allfather himself lists a number of spells he knows in the Hávamál! One can hardly turn a page of the Eddas without running into mentions of spellcraft; the only problem is that none of these sources detail HOW such things were performed.
What Does Heathen Magic Even Look Like?
Heathen magics are often divided into a handful of different categories. In all likelihood, these various types of magic were seen as far less distinct in the Pre-Eddic period than they often are today. Indeed, the types of abilities that fall under each purview often seem to overlap in the descriptions left within the Lore. That being said, most examples of magic tend to fall into one of four categories.
Seiðr is probably the most well known and commonly referenced forms of magic referenced in the Eddas and the Sagas, primarily because both Odin and Freyja were known to practice this form of magic. Based on the examples we have from surviving texts, Seiðr magic was predominantly concerned with scrying (or ‘Far-seeing’), and prophecy. The völva who predicts the fall of the gods at Ragnarök, for example, is a Seiðkona. However, that was far from the extent of it’s powers. The proper use of Seiðr was said to have been able to change fate, control the weather, or even heal the sick. So while it may be primarily associated with visions and prophecy, at one point in history this was obviously a much more all encompassing idea of magic. Laine Delaney offers a fascinating insight into the ideas behind Seiðr.
In many ways, the concept of Galdr has become the foundation for the modern western notion of ‘wizardry’. The idea of magical words and spoken incantations in our literary fiction can be traced, at least in part, to this ancient belief. This is thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Tolkien, who based his character Gandalf on a number of magicians found in Norse Mythology including Odin himself. In the Hávamál, Odin lists 18 galdrar (Spoken spells) that he knows and what each of them do.
Galdr was hardly limited to the gods or grand wizard-like characters though. In Oddrúnargrátr, we see the main character ease another woman’s labor by muttering ‘biting Galdr’.
Magical sigils, or staves, were a form of Icelandic magic. Sometimes referred to as Galdrastafur, these magical symbols had a range of uses covering anything from fending off bad dreams, to sealing barrels. One of the most commonly known staves is the ægishjálmur (The Helm of Awe, pictured right). Unfortunately this magical artform has a lot more to do with the Renaissance occult revival than any ancient Heathen beliefs, as they only date back to about the 17th century. This was long after Iceland had converted to Christianity, and concurrent with mysticism movements occurring throughout western Europe at the time.
Rune magic is probably the best recorded and most historically verifiable forms of Heathen mysticism. Among academics in the field, widespread mystical applications of the runes is often debated; but that some ancient scribes attributed magical power to them is fairly easy to confirm.
Commonly cited in defense of the magical uses of the Futhark, is Tacitus’s writings from the first century CE, in which he describes the casting of lots as a method of divination. He writes that symbols were carved on wooden strips, cast at random, and then three were selected to provide some mystical insight. This would seem to lend credence to the mystical meanings of the runes that were laid out centuries later in various rune poems. It is important to note, however that Tacitus did not record any of the symbols, and there is no way of knowing if they were indeed the runes or something else entirely.
The rune poems themselves were written down late enough that Christian influences are a distinct possibility, though the similarities between surviving copies written across several centuries and in different locations (with different related sets of runes) would seem to lend them some level of credibility.
The most solid evidence of the magical application of the runes that we have actually comes from the archaeological record. There are a number of objects bearing runic inscriptions that are thought to have been magical tools or talismans. For example the Bratsberg Buckle, dated back to about 500 CE, which bares the inscription .
The markings have been interpreted in a number of ways, including: “I (am) erilar”, “I (am the) Herule” or “I (am the) runemaster”. Similar inscriptions have been found on items from a number of sites and are thought to possibly have had mystical ‘protective’ qualities ascribed to them. Another similar ‘talisman’ was the Strand Runic Buckle, which bears the inscription “sigli’s ná-hlé” or “The jewel is a protection against the dead”.
Can it be Reconstructed?
With the exception of a scant handful of inscriptions and some literary figures, the methods and rituals for performing these magical arts are almost non existent. The Lore makes a big deal about the idea of power in secrecy, thus it’s no real surprise that while descriptions of these feats of magic have been passed on, there’s no ‘how-to’ section within the surviving texts. So where does that leave modern Heathens who wish to embrace this (completely valid) piece of our heritage and traditions? How can we possibly reconstruct something about which we have little to no surviving knowledge?
Modern religions, particularly in the western world, are very focused on this idea of cannon and orthodoxy. The influence of Abrahamic religions has left this archetype of a unified holy text and practice as a core element of faith. This mindset is a relatively recent development. It simply didn’t exist in the context of ancient Heathen practices and beliefs. We didn’t even have a NAME for our traditions until the modern revival gave it one!
Letting Go of Modern Biases
There was never any kind of unified pan-European Heathenry. It varied from place to place. Mainland Germanic Heathenry looked different from Icelandic or Scandinavian Heathenry. The stories changed, the language was different, even the names of the gods changed from place to place. Odin, Wōden, Wōdan, Wuotan , all variations of the same name used in different times and places. So if you think about it, it’s really kind of silly to expect there to be some kind of unified method behind the different varieties of folk magic described in the Lore over such a vast range of time and space. In all likelihood, no ‘official’ methods EVER EXISTED. There was no school of witchcraft to teach the approved way to perform these rituals. Methods and practices likely changed from family to family, only getting lumped into some kind of all inclusive category of ‘magic’ much later.
You can’t knock someone for not being a strict reconstructionist when the art they are practicing has no orthopractic cannon to reconstruct. This is folk magic, not the ceremonial wizardry that caught the fancy of the Renaissance. If modern Heathens calling themselves seiðkona all seem to have their own methods and rituals independent of some kind of all encompassing source material, then I’d say that’s a pretty faithful recreation of what ancient Norse ‘witchcraft’ probably looked like!
So can someone who explores the more mystical elements of our traditions still be a ‘serious reconstructionist’? Yes. Just be honest about what your doing. It’s one thing when someone says they’re practicing their own brand of folk magic, inspired by their traditions and the Lore. The only issue comes when people try to insist that they’ve found the ‘one true way’ to practice a magical art that never had a ‘one true way’ to begin with. If you’re mysticism is informed by the Lore and all of the records and resources of what those ancient practices may have looked like, to the best of your ability, then I’d say you’re applying a pretty darn Reconstructionist mindset to your magic. I can’t see any
So let’s lay this one to rest shall we? It is perfectly possible to be a serious Recon Heathen, AND practice the traditional magics associated with the Aesir and the Vanir. These two things are not mutually exclusive.