As a pathway
Völva, vølve, volva is a gender specific term in Old Norse meaning woman who carries a staff. This staff represents her knowledge and practice of Nordic folkways, runes, histories, songs, dances, and stories. Her staff begins with her own family of origin stories and histories – her oorlog and wyrd. In Völva Stav she is dedicated to healing her own oorlog and wyrd. She travels widely to test her knowledge and gain broader insights. If asked, she may choose to serve others in healing, teaching, or other ways. And she may decide not to.
An American Völva
I began serious study of runes and Nordic folkways in 1988. I travel widely to teach the history, songs, and dances of Nordic tradition. I use runes in song, Nordic movement and dance, and divination to express the deepest root of my heritage.
In the Midwest
Publicly, a volva is one who carries the staff for the community at large. She is recognized by the community and asked to serve as volva. A volva does not oath to a specific kindred or create political alliances that favor one kindred or group above another. Her title is maintained by her reputation (gefrain). She has years of study in runes, lore, seidr, galdr, healing, journey and work on the web of wyrd. To represent the Midwest, one must be recognized and elected by the council at Midwest Thing. I served in this capacity from 2010 – 2015.
This is different than a gythia (god-woman) oathed to a kindred, or a village witch, shamman, seidr or spa kona, or rune worker. The völva has a political position as liaison between tribes, clans, and communities.
The word völva, (also vǫlva, volu, volve and vala) is a gender specific word in Old Norse for “wand” or “staff” carrying woman. Related is the Proto-Germanic *walwōn, derived from a word for “wand.” Sometimes the monikers seiðkona (magic woman) and spákona (prophet woman) were attached to them depending on what particular skill set they brought to the community. Men were referred to as vitki meaning wise man.
The oldest staff carrying woman’s grave dates to about 1000 BCE – middle Bronze Age. Her staff was of wood. All that is left is the finial or end decoration.
In Viking society (700 – 1066 ACE), a Völva was a woman who had released herself from the strong family and community bonds that normally surrounded women in the Old Norse clan society. She traveled the land, sometimes accompanied by young people (students), and she was summoned in times of crisis. She had immense authority and was paid well for her services.
Old Norse sources present the Völva as highly professional, wise in lore and history, healers, rune users, wyrd energy workers and prophets. As the Viking era became more patriarchal and dangerous for women, a volva sometimes attached herself to an aristocratic household, giving her greater authority than the aristocratic lady. This often caused disruption and difficulty, but both were ultimately dependent on the benevolence of the warlord that they served. When they had been attached to a warlord, their authority depended on their personal competence, credibility, and gefrain.
Historical Accounts by Outside Observers
The earliest descriptions of such women appear in Roman accounts about the Germanic Cimbri whose priestesses were aged women dressed in white. They sacrificed the prisoners of war and sprinkled their blood, in order to prophesy coming events. Though these may have been priestesses rather than volur, per se.
Julius Caesar in Commentarii de Bello Gallico (1, 50) under Ariovistus (58 BCE) writes that “ – among the Germans it was the custom for their matrons to pronounce from lots and divination whether it were expedient that the battle should be engaged in or not.” This is most often interpreted as the use of runes in casting fate.
Tacitus also writes about female prophets among the Germanic peoples in his book Histories 4, 61 – notably a certain Veleda: “by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity”
Jordanes relates in his Getica (XXIV:121) of Gothic Völvas called Aliorumnas. They were driven into exile by King Filimer, when the Goths had settled in Oium (Ukraine). The name is probably a corruption of a Gothic Halju-runnos, meaning “hell-runners” or “runners to the realm of Hela”. Another interpretation of Aliorumnas is Alu-runnos, those who write the sacred runes. Alu is an epithet used after many sacred inscriptions.
Paulus Diaconus, the Lombard historian in the 790s, wrote how the Völva Gambara’s good relations with the goddess Frea helped her people win in battle.
Harald Bluetooth, who was at war with the Holy Roman emperor kept a Völva at Fyrkat.
Archeologists in Scandinavian have discovered wands in about 40 female graves, usually rich graves with valuable grave offerings showing that Völvas belonged to the highest level of society.
In Fyrkat, Denmark, the richest grave in the area, a Völva had been buried in a wagon with the wheels removed. She wore a long, plain dress. Around her toes, she had toe rings. At her head, she had a Gotlandic buckle which may have been used as a box. She also owned objects from Finland and Russia. At her feet, she had a box which contained her magic tools: a pellet from an owl as well as small bones from birds and mammals, and in a pouch she had the seeds of henbane. If such seeds are thrown into a fire, they produce a hallucinogenic smoke which causes a sense of flying. In the grave there was also a small silver amulet that represented a chair made from a stump. When such small silver chairs are discovered in graves, they always belong to a woman, and it is possible that they represented objects such as the platform where the Völva performed her rituals and Hlidskjalf from which Odin watched across the world.
Around 1000 BCE, a Völva was buried with considerable splendour in Hagebyhöga in Östergötland, Sweden. In addition to being buried with her wand, she had received great riches which included horses, a wagon and an Arabian bronze pitcher. There was also a silver pendant which represents a woman with a broad necklace around her neck. This kind of necklace was only worn by the most prominent women during the Iron Age and some have interpreted it as Freyja’s favourite necklace, the Brísingamen. The pendant may represent Freyja herself, the most prominent Völva of them all.
In Birka, a Völva and a warrior were once buried together. Above them, a spear was positioned in order to dedicate the dead couple to Odin. They had probably served Freyja and Odin, two gods of war, and he had done so with his spear and she with her wand
In Norway, the Oseberg ship burial in Norway revealed two women who had received a sumptuous burial. One of the women was a high-ranking lady who knew how to practice the seid, as she had been accompanied with a wand of wood. In the grave, there were also four seeds from the cannabis plant which probably had been in the pillows that supported the corpses. Moreover, additional cannabis seeds were discovered in a small leather pouch. While in Oslo participating in the reality show, “Alt for Norge” in 2009, I was able to visit the bones of this Norwegian völva. My entire experience in Norway as an American völva was profound, grounding my practice in the rocks and waters of my ancestral land.
In Myth and Saga
Historical and mythological depictions of völvas show that they were held in high esteem and they were held to possess great powers. In the Völuspá which translates to “prophecy of the völva,” Odin himself consults a völva, Heidr, to prophesy from his ørlög (Old Norse for something like karma). Even he must give her much gold for her labors.
In the prologue of the Prose Edda, related by a völva, the origin of Thor’s wife Sif is detailed, where she is said to be a spákona. Snorri contextually correlates Sif with the oracular seeress Sibyl on this basis.
Groa in Skáldskaparmál performs magical healing for Thor and in Groagaldr in the Svipdagsmal council gods and ancestors from beyond the grave. Huld, in Ynglinga saga, shows a less savory reputation for the magical woman as Christianity and patriarchy begin to color women of power as evil doers and witches.
In Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, Norns arrive at the birth of Helgi Hundingsbane and twinned his fate as a hero through spinning and chanting. It is likely that these Norns were not divine beings but völvas.
In Flateyjarbók, toward the end of Norna-Gests þáttr, Norna-Gest details that “spákonur (Völvas) traveled around the country-side and fore-told the fates of men.”
In Örvar-Odd’s Saga, the seiðkona also wears a blue or black cloak and carries a distaff (a wand which allegedly has the power of causing forgetfulness in one who is tapped three times on the cheek by it). The colour of the cloak may be less significant than the fact that it was intended to signify the otherness of the seiðkona.
Perhaps the most detailed account of the wandering völva is from the Saga of Eric the Red where Thorbjörg the littlevolva’s visit is described. Her rich dress, special treatment, foods she ate, and methods of communicating with the other worlds is described. She practiced High Seat prophecy which has inspired the reconstruction of this practice in many corners of the world.
The Middle Ages to the Romantic Period
As the Nordic lands grew more patriarchal and began to Christianize, independent spiritual women became known as “troll women” or witches. They sometimes became midwives (jordmor) or were called “doctor gamle” for their old-fashioned healing methods. Svarteboks (black books), recorded folk medicines and charms, and folk stories and songs preserved the “staff” of the volva. “Kjerringa med Staven” (the honored lady with a staff) is commonly sung in Norwegian language camps and children’s dance groups.
Women’s traditional work was transformational, taking one substance and transforming it to another. Spinning, weaving, churning, baking and brewing were tasks that were accompanied by chants and charms held over as children’s sayings. These mundane tasks were meditative and often, especially when accompanied by song or chant rhythm, created a trance state. Women who were gifted in seeing used these tasks to create such a state, endow their food or cloth with magical properties, or use the tasks to manipulate the energy of others. So powerful were these methods that Christian church law banned many of the songs and charms (which were then hidden in the guise of children’s verses).
A distaff possessed magical powers, and in the world of the gods, the Norns twinned the threads of fate. Many of the wands that have been excavated have a basket-like shape in the top, and they are very similar to distaffs used for spinning linnen. One theory for the origin of the word seiðr is “thread spun with a distaff”, and according to this theory, practicing magic was to send out spiritual threads. Since the Norsemen believed that the Norns controlled people’s fate by spinning, it is very likely that they considered individual fates to be controllable with the same method. I use the drop spindle in magical work quite often.
In theory, invisible fetters and bonds could be controlled from a loom, and if a lady loosened a knot in the woof, she could liberate the leg of her hero. But if she tied a knot, she could stop the enemy from moving. The men may have fought on the battle field in sweat and blood, but in a spiritual way, their women took part. It is not by coincidence that archaeologists find weaving tools and weapons side by side.
The Battle Song of the Valkyries is perhaps the most detailed and gruesome account of the use of weaving in the control of war.
The use of runes for charms and amulets dates as far back as 100 CE, long before they were used as an alphabet. The closest thing we have to “rune readings” are the accounts of “drawing lots” and “divination with sticks,” most often thought to have been rune markings etched on small stavs. Runes were inscribed on stones, tools and weapons as well. There is a medieval account of a girl who visits a “troll woman” to get a rune charm for protection. Runes were put under the heads of children to keep them safe.
The widest use of runes was in galder, the “singing” or howling of runes in verse called galderlag. Galder was sung to confuse the minds of the enemy in personal relationships or in battle. It was used to banish evil spirits from a sick person and to call helpful spirits and deities in to heal.
Lokkr is a style of singing that lures or entices. Lokkr may include words of endearment or compelling runes. Perhaps the most famous account of singing vardlokker (warding calls) comes from Gudrid, the Christian in Eric the Red’s Saga, who sang for Thorbjorg’s ceremony. It was reportedly the most beautiful and alluring singing that anyone had ever heard.
Some Key Terms
Völva – (Old Norse) staff or wand carrier. A holy woman of Northern European pre-Christian spiritual tradition. Proficient in runes, lore, seidr, galdr, healing, journey and work on the web of wyrd.
Stav – (Norwegian, pron. stahv) staff, any vertical line, rods in the eyes, ski poles.
Völva Stav – Kari Tauring’s unique training system for aligning the body with the world tree, runes, and Norse cosmology through staff rhythm, breath and voice using.
Staving – (coined by Kari Tauring, 2003) the act of using the staff for rhythm in song, ceremony and to attain a seidr state. Stavers are those who do staving.
Tein – (Norwegian, pron. tayn) a sucker from a tree, a wand or switch, the stick end of a drop spindle, a cross stick for use in rhythm for Volva Stav.
Seiðr – (seidr or seith, Old Norse, pron. sayth) a state of heightened consciousness where unity of being is achieved and where the web of wyrd (the web of unity of all things) is perceived.
Ørlög – (oorlog, Old Norse) the accumulated core of ancestral “karma”, DNA, inherited conditions plus the accumulation of each individual’s actions, words, and intentions in their present life time.
Web of Wyrd – the inter-connected energy of life through time and space. Something like “chi lines” and “ley lines” combined. The accumulation of individual strands of oorlog in a perceivable pattern of connectivity.