Lauded for their courage, strength, and beast-like figure, the Norsemen, popularly called as the Vikings have ventured out in the harsh cold of the Scandinavian region to conquer neighboring regions (mostly European territories) but historical accounts suggest that they have also landed in the north-eastern coast of Canada and probably in South America as well. Besides being ambitious in trade and conquering new territories, the Vikings had a complex belief system. By nature, they were known as the pagan and venerated many gods and goddesses including Odin, and Freyja who were major divinities in Norse Shamanism.
Yggdrasil – Cosmis tree in Norse Shamanism
Their spiritual belief lies in the cosmic and gigantic ash tree-Yggdrasil which is made up of three roots. Each of these roots is a representation of different realms ruled by divine entities. One of them is the realm of Asgard known as the land of the Aesir (the old gods), another realm is called Jotunheim is known to be inhabited by the frost giants, and the third one is called Niflheim lived by the dead.
Beneath Yggdrasill lies three springs or wells. The major spring is called Hvergelmir which means ‘bubbling boiling spring’ in old Norse. It is located in Niflheim, home to many serpents and the dragon Níðhöggr. The other spring is named Mímisbrunnr, touted as the ‘Source of Wisdom’, and lastly Urdarbrunnr, known as the ‘Well of Fate’ inhabited by the three Norns who help sustain the divine tree.
Oseberg Ship Burial Excavation – Shamans Norse women
Just like in the Euroasian, and in the south American regions, ancient cultures were predominantly influenced by shamanism, and the Norse had their own shamanistic practices. Thanks to archaeological excavations such as the Oseberg ship burial excavated by archaeologists from 1904 to 1905 that we can now understand more about the Norsemen’s belief system and culture. The ship was found in a large burial mound in Vestfold county in Norway at the Oseberg farm. From research analysis, the Viking longboat was buried in the year 834 CE. And interestingly inside the ship lay two women (one in their 50s and the other one in her 70s) who were identified as shamans because of the artifacts collected near the bodies. These lavish artifacts including the sumptuous clothes which the women wore (wool dress with lozenge twill pattern and plainer wool dress with a wool veil). There were equally skeletal remains of 14 horses, an ox, and three dogs inside the ship. And other objects such as staffs with iron rattle heads, and cannabis seeds made it clear that these women were shamans.
Henbane Seeds – Use of Hallucinogens in Norse Shamanism
Another excavation made in Fyrkat in Denmark gave more insights into the practice of shamanism in these societies. A box containing a talisman or ‘taufr’ was discovered. The talisman was made with owl pellets, bone remains of birds, and henbane seeds which can produce hallucinogenic effects when thrown into a fire. The hallucinogen seeds are believed to produce a trance, which is one of the many methods of altering the state of consciousness.
The Practice of Seiðr in Norse Shamanism
In the Norse ancient culture, women were primarily practicing shamanism or seiðr. These women were called a seiðkona or völva, however, there were also some men who also practiced shamanism in these societies. The word völva means a ‘wand carrier’ or a ‘magical staff bearer’ which is why it makes sense of the presence of staff in the burial sites of the Norse shamans. The staff was a representation of the ‘World Tree’- Yggdrasil which was inhabited by many divine entities, and connecting with the spirits was an essential requirement for the shamanic practitioner to negotiate peace, harmony, or wisdom with the gods and goddesses.
The role of the shamans in these societies was to bring insightful information about future events, but also to bring peace and harmony within a community. They were acting as intermediaries between the ordinary men and the divine beings of the other realms. In her book ‘The Norse Shaman’, author Evelyn Rysdyk stated that,
‘the shaman or shamanic practitioner borrows power or enlivening spiritual energy from her spirit allies. These may include the animals, birds, landscape features, natural forces, energies from the elementals, and cosmic bodies and forces. In her work, the shaman may also borrow shamanic power or wisdom from human-form teachers and from her ancestors. These spiritual energies are invited to participate in the work of the shaman, who is always focused on mending connections and supporting harmony. Historically, the shaman did not use her or his ego to direct the action of the spirits but worked alongside the spirits, and on behalf of the community, to provide healing, insight, divination, wisdom, and guidance for the purpose of enhancing the possibility for individual and group survival.’
The Practice of Varðlokur (similar to Icaros)
In order to connect with the divine entities the shamans have to go into an altered state of consciousness or trance, and there are many methods to access this mental state. Some of the methods are widely used in many ancient cultures including the rhythmic drum beats, hallucinogens like mushrooms or ayahuasca, dance, meditation, and ‘icaros‘ (the magical songs in South America) which is somehow similar to the Norse ‘ecstatic chanting – Varðlokur.
Just like in South American the shamans would sing to help the patients while journeying into the other realm, the Norse shamans would sing to go into a visionary trance state. Often depicted in the Icelandic sagas, the ancient seers’ spoken words were shifted into a poetic language to call the spirits.
Útiseta – Norse Shamanism
Another similar method of connecting with the spirits was the practice of ‘útiseta’ which means ‘sitting out’. This consisted of taking time in nature and undergoing an introspection where the shaman can receive vision when singing with nature spirits called landvættir that included animals and birds. Generally, this is done to seek wisdom and protection. Interestingly, the shamans in the Amazon go solo in the deep jungle to meditate which is part of their training.