Jorvik Viking Festival

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The role of the völva, or ‘staff-bearer’, a female figure of power who appears to have combined elements of seeress, sorceress and priestess, has been a subject of strong debate in recent scholarship. Such women appear in several of the sagas, generally linked with elements of black magic, reflecting the Christian perspective of the saga compilers of the thirteenth century. Recent research suggests that these were women of considerable status prior to the Christianisation of Scandinavia, and a number of graves have been identified which are interpreted as sorceress graves, including the metal staffs from which they took their title, as well as other objects of ritual significance. Items from one such grave on the Isle of Man will be on display at JORVIK Viking Centre during the festival. Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coinage, British Museum

The majority of Viking settlers in Iceland followed a religion dominated by Æsir, gods who are human-like in appearance, needs and actions, but far more powerful than mortals. The mythology of the Æsir is recounted in the “Völuspá” where Odin, father of the gods and men, listens to the tale of the prophetess concerning the beginning and end of the world. The Vikings called these seers or prophetesses völvur and treated them with a mixture of fear and respect.

It is important to distinguish between the völvur and witches or sorceresses as Vikings understood them. The latter sought to influence a person’s action or destiny while the former could foresee such things as the weather or an individual’s fate. Witches and sorceresses were therefore typically associated with evil while the völvur enjoyed a high status and were often given gifts after they had made their prophecies. Although usually married with families, these women were regarded as independent and well rewarded in a society where women rarely worked anywhere else than at home.

One of the most detailed accounts of such a völva or seer can be found in the Saga of Eric the Red:

“There was in the settlement the woman whose name was Thorbjorg. She was a prophetess (spae-queen), and was called Litilvolva (little sybil). She had had nine sisters, and they were all spae-queens, and she was the only one now living.

It was a custom of Thorbjorg, in the winter time, to make a circuit, and people invited her to their houses, especially those who had any curiosity about the season, or desired to know their fate; and inasmuch as Thorkell was chief franklin thereabouts, he considered that it concerned him to know when the scarcity which overhung the settlement should cease. […]

Now, when she came in the evening… she was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair, and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.

And when the (next) day was far spent, the preparations were made for her which she required for the exercise of her enchantments […]

The women formed a ring round about, and Thorbjorg ascended the scaffold and the seat prepared for her enchantments…

“Many spirits,” said she, “have been present under its charm, and were pleased to listen to the song, who before would turn away from us, and grant us no such homage. And now are many things clear to me which before were hidden both from me and others. And I am able this to say, that the dearth will last no longer, the season improving as spring advances. The epidemic of fever which has long oppressed us will disappear quicker than we could have hoped.

The Saga of Eric the Red