Seidhr and the anthropologist

On the knife-edge: Seišr-working and the Anthropologist

Jenny Blain

Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada B3M 2J6

email: jenny.blain'at'msvu.ca
or: gydhja'at'hfx.andara.com

© jblain 1997
All rights reserved


The Welling of Wyrš

They sit, three raised above all others in the room, hands joined: Uršr, who knows all past, and who has direction of this ritual; Weršende who holds the strands that make the present, and tells their weaving; centrally Skuld, obligation, asking: "do you understand me?" Before them stands Jordsvin, the guide for this spae-working, who asks "is there one here who has a question for the Norns?" And one after another, we step forth.

We have come here by means of a journey beginning in the barn at Martha's Orchard, which serves for the great hall of our feasting and assembly at Trothmoot, June 1997. We have seen the three women move to the high seats, we have heard the song which, in this spae-working, attunes our consciousnesses to the cosmology of the North, the high clear voice of Weršende, the present, the now, singing:

Make plain the path to where we are
A horn calls clear from o'er the mountain
The gods do gladden from afar
And mist rises on the meadow ...

The hounds and eight-legged horse we hear
A horn calls clear from o'er the mountain
The heart beats quick as Yggr draws near
And mist rises on the meadow ...

Diana has called for guardianship to Noršri, Sušri, Austri, Vestri, the dwarves of the quarters: for inspiration, assistance and blessing to those of the Elder Kin who do this work, Freyja and Óšinn. Then she has called for energy and guiding on the power animals, the spirit guides or guardians of the three seeresses to come to them, dancing and drumming before she became Uršr in the high seat, and we have descended to the great plain of Mišgarš, to the tree Yggdrasill itself, and beneath its roots to the place where Wyrš wells before us and the Norns sit, waiting. I realise, with shock, that quite how we came here I do not know: at some point the familiar meditation became unfamiliar, and so I have travelled here by unknown roads. The air is charged with potential, with waiting, with anticipation and with magic. Now led by Jordsvin, we sing the song which gives the seeresses access to knowledge that is otherwise hidden: each has trained herself to respond to it by a shift in awareness, and their words, coming from beyond themselves, are charged with meaning.

The guide, Jordsvin, lit by flickering torchlight, asks:

The spell is spoken, the Norns wait.
Is there one here who would ask a question?

And one after another, at Jordsvin's beck, we step forward, each to ask of what is near to our hearts and our minds: thoughts that preoccupy us; problems, spiritual or physical, to be faced; partners; health; occupations; future plans. It is my turn. I have a question for the Norns. It seems likely that my academic career is nearing an end, due to job shortages, and I describe this, asking what waits for me, what path I should take. Then I stand in this half-world, feeling my body swaying slightly, concentrating intently on the replies as the seeing passes from one to another to another, and back again, and Skuld, in the centre, jolts, as the energy passes through her.

Two paths lie before me now, they say, together with the one I have travelled upon to reach this place, the path straight ahead which is short and ends soon. They resemble the rune elhaz. I stand at the point of division. Do not choose too soon: do not choose until the last moment. One path is easier, one carries more of sacrifice. Yet the paths bend around, so that both lead in the end to the same place: I know where I will go in the end, I know where my home is. The guardian stands by the way...

I stand in two worlds balancing their demands. Do I understand? I must not choose too soon... I stand balanced on a knife edge, I walk a knife edge...

"Do you understand this?" says Skuld.

Ritual and community

Anthropologically, this is indeed an extra-ordinary experience [1], and part of my mind is taking notes, comparing this with other spae-workings that I have participated in, as attendee, guide or seeress, noting the similarities, the regularities, the pattern of the ritual. First there is scene setting -- drawing a circle, calling for its protection by Landspirits and other entities, or, as in the first session I observed, chanting the runes of the elder futhark -- followed by invocation of those deities who themselves perform spae-working: Freyja Vanadis, and Óšinn. These preliminaries over, the leaders create, through singing, drumming and guided meditation, a state in which all present enter a light trance. The seeress however goes further, entering realms where the others do not follow, in order to seek answers to their questions. The questioning takes a form found in the Eddic poems Baldrsdraumar and Völuspį.

...through worlds have I wandered,
seeking the seeress whom now I summon...

Cease not seeress, 'till said thou hast,
answer the asker 'till all (s)he knows...

Within this highly-charged setting, the seer or seeress indeed produces answers, which do make sense to the questioners. According to experienced spae-workers, the accuracy or precision of the answer is directly proportional to the emotional involvement of the one who asks a question.

I note also the differences between this public working, with its many questioners, and the private "journey" sessions in which people seek their own answers, perhaps without knowing what it is they seek. The small group with whom I have been working in Nova Scotia structure their rituals according to whether the rite is private or public: private journeyings require less scene-setting, as the group members know where they are going, and do not have the pattern of question and answer, question and answer. All journey together to a known point, the great tree Yggdrasil, the centre of all the worlds, and then diverge to pursue their own visions. Other spae-workers, in interviews, report similar circumstances. Winifred-- Weršende of the Three Norns ritual -- speaks of a far less elaborate setting when she does spae for a friend, or for herself. Jordsvin, himself a spįmašr, a man who speaks prophesy, modifies and omits part of the ritual when performing spae for his kindred. The seeker can be solitary, "sitting out" (śtiseta) to seek guidance.

Yet however simple or elaborate the format of the ritual, those who do this work report on the intensity of the experience and its centrality as a focus of identity construction. Winifred describes the first time she did spae-working:

the moment when I stepped up to the high seat for the first time and sat down in it and put the veil over my head and they started singing for me, what I felt then was that I had been walking my entire life to reach that one moment. So it was like, it's really like a vocation for me, that's calling me. And all the different paths have come together in that.

It is her contribution to the Įsatrś community, a way that she can assist her deities and her people. Jordsvin points out that "people love it. My kindred loves it. When I do this some other people from among the pagan community show up also." He says that compared to Winifred, he is only beginning to "scratch the surface". He has learned from her, and from receiving materials from the group known as Hrafnar in California, and attending their workshops. Winifred in turn says:

I had been taking trance journeys myself for about five years before having Diana's training...And I, for that I used, I've read lots and lots of books on shamanism and you know, picked and chose what seemed to make sense to me, in terms of ways, but it came very easily to me.

If answers are produced, where do they come from: Gods, spirits, those who have gone before, the seeker's subconscious? Rational-liberal anthropology, of course, says the latter. Jungian psychology would suggest a collective-unconscious origin. The answers do not always have meaning for the speaker, but they do seem to for the questioner. Practitioners have their own answers. "It's not archtyptes and the collective unconscious, or at least it's more than that as well" says Jordsvin. "I expect most of this is coming from the dead people, because that's where I go". He journeys within Hela's realm: in Norse tradition, wisdom comes from the dead, from the mound. Others may focus on deities as the source of the answers, depending on what is asked.

Seišr or Spae? What's in a name...

The answers are only part of the experience, however. For the participants, they go on a journey, as already outlined. This is soul work: the seeress sends out part of her spirit, faring forth through the worlds to seek knowledge. Winifred calls her technique "spae", from spį, speaking or foretelling. She is a spįkona, spaewoman. Others use the term "oracular seišr", and seišr comes also in other forms, reflecting a wide range of practices. According to Jordsvin,

There are other forms of seišr being done, and there are other uses besides what I was taught...I've also found, uh, that I can uh use this to basically unhaunt houses.

"De-ghosting" is his term for this. Others point to the use of seišr for warding people against harm, particularly psychic or psychological danger, although physical danger may be warded also. Seišr may require a more active or deliberate participation than spae, involving as it does journeying to speak with others -- spirits -- to find that which is unknown or invoke their aid towards some stated end. Seišr was brought first to the Aesir by Freyja (according to Snorri [2]), and apparently learned by Óšinn who could use it not only to forecast future possibilities but (again according to Snorri) to manipulate them. This includes the possibility of use both for protection, and also for what Jordsvin calls:

a kind of psychic attack, as messing with people's minds.

He emphasises that this is not what he does.

You have to have a pretty damn good reason before you go playing games like that. I've had some pathworking where I've been shown how to do that, and it would be for self-defence in emergency purposes only. Uh you don't do this because you're pissed at somebody, because they were snide to you, you do this because they're a threat to your life or health or somebody in your family. So I stress I do oracular seišr, I also stress that what I have done so far has been Diana Paxson's and Hrafnar's version of oracular seišr. People develop their own varieties but mine is definitely a variety of that.

Those who have derived the modern practice of spae-working -- or oracular seišr -- have drawn on accounts from the sagas, most notable the scene in the saga of Eirik the Red where a spįkona, a spae-woman or prophetess, is asked to come to a Greenland community which has been undergoing hard times. Her costume, described in some detail, includes gloves of catskin, shoes of calfskin and a hood of black lambskin lined with white catskin, and a skin bag in which she keeps magical or divinatory items. She carries a carved staff with a knob of brass and set with stones, and stones decorate her blue cloak. Even her eating utensils are described. She is asked to predict the progress of the community, but to do so requires to engage in an elaborate ritual. She eats a meal of the hearts of all the kinds of animals kept on the farmstead, and the next day at nightfall she prepares to do seišr, which requires a special song [3] to be sung to "the powers". In this case the song is sung so well that she is able to learn more information than ever before, as many spirits, or powers, are said to be satisfied by its singing.

This and other accounts of seišr and/or spae-working have been examined in detail by those who are reconstructing the rituals within the North American Įsatrś community: most notably Diana Paxson and other members of her group Hrafnar (as Jordsvin's account mades plain), and Paxson, in her article "The Return of the Volva" [4] and in other materials produced for circulation within the Įsatrś community, indicates the derivation of her practices. However, from the old material it is unclear where the boundaries of "seišr" and "spae" lie and whether these were distinct, though overlapping magical techniques. In the case of the Greenland völva, Žorbjörg, was she a seišr-worker who included spae, foretelling, as part of her seišr-practice, or was she primarily a prophetess who did draw upon seithr techniques to enhance her spae-work? She is addressed with respect, and always as a spae-woman (spįkona), whereas some others given the term seiškona are portrayed in a negative light. Gundarsson [5] has attempted to demarcate and differentiate between spae, seišr, and shamanism in the old material (and decribes Hrafnar's work as spae-working influenced by shamanic techniques). Many of today's practitioners, including Jordsvin, however think of spae as a subdivision of seišr, and point out that the negative accounts of seišr (as messing around with people's minds and souls) may come from a later, more christianized period, whereas earlier accounts focus on positive, warding or protective magical effects. Within the heathen community, Gunnora Hallakarva suggests that originally spae and seišr were distinct, and both viewed positively with the focus of seišr on "divination when spį alone is not sufficient, defense by hiding a person being hunted by those who would harm the person, defense by creating magically protective weavings such as shirts/banners, gathering of information at a distance," [6] but that seišr came to take on negative connotations particularly when it was used against churchmen, or christianizing kings (notably in the sagas of the two Ólįfrs).

Snorri's section of Ynglingasaga dealing with Óšinn's practice of seišr, journeying and transformatory magic indicates such a negative approach to seišr and other forms of what is translated in this extract "witchcraft". Here we are dealing with a thirteenth century account transmuted into nineteenth-century discourse, which imparts its own slant to the material, notably in the use of the word "witchcraft" which would at the time of translation have had a negative connotation, and in the avoidance of the word "ergi", which may mean male receptive/passive homosexuality (translated in this extract as "weakness and anxiety").

Odin could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon his own or other people's business. With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased ... Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord of the mounds. He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news. In all such things he was pre-eminently wise. He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic. By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practise it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art. Odin knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased. From these arts he became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and relied on his power and on himself. He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long. (Ynglingasaga, Translation by Samuel Laing, London, 1844) [7]

The negative associations are present also in older material, such as the Völuspį verse which deals with the coming of Heišr. "She practiced seišr where she could...playing with soul, she was ever dear to evil women."
[8]

In accounting for the negative associations of seišr, historian Jenny Jochens (1996) examines both older and later material (the Ynglingasaga passage being later, and euhemerized) to suggest that it was magic practiced initially by women, and its practice by men was seen as problematic, effeminizing or ergi (even for Odhinn), possibly because it may (in her view) have included female "receptive" sexual activities. Men were more able to take over the (non-sexual) practice of spae-working, while retaining community standing, and indeed male spae-workers including Christian priests are spoken of approvingly in the later Icelandic literature. Without necessarily agreeing fully with Jochens that magic within Germanic comunities was originally a female domain, taken over by males during an increasingly patriarchal period prior to Christianization, it is still possible to see gender and gender-constructing processes as part of the dynamic of a marginalization of seišr, not only in the present but indeed within present-day Asatru practice. Ambiguity about today's seišr is not all related to interpretation of the old material. These are those who still fear women's power, and for whom rituals performed mostly or exclusively by women are suspect: many practitioners of spae and seišr today are women, or gay men -- marginalized by today's society -- and for some few this is sufficient to render the practice of either seišr or spae (or any ritual form in which clearly defined gender categories and gendered dominance is challenged) doubtful at best, evil at worst. The discourses of mainstream twentieth-century categorizations are hard to overturn, and it must be admitted that some of those who profess to be "Įsatrś" are seeking confirmation, not challenge, to their dearly-held beliefs of superiority. [9]

Anthropological literature indicates that it is common for magic-workers to be viewed with ambiguity within their cultures, and that this ambiguity is easily transformed to negativity. This is evident in the classical studies of African "witchcraft", notably Evans-Pritchard (1937), and in later material such as that of Crawford (1967) [10]. Laura Bohannan's (1964) novelization of her anthropological fieldwork illustrates processes by which under adverse circumstances a magic worker becomes viewed as a highly threatening figure. Turning our attention nearer home, accounts from the Scottish witch-hunts of the early modern period show that a "good witch" was considered by the church to be at least as problematic as one who used her (usually) talents for "evil" (Larner, 1981). While this chapter is not about the negative association of seišr and soul-working in the old material, when this material is viewed within an analytical framework supplied by anthropological considerations of gender, magic and social power, the negativity becomes more comprehensible, especially if dominant Western discourses of gender and dualism are considered as part of the equation -- under development during the witch-craze, shaping the anthropological accounts of twentieth-century African magical practice, and informing consciousness and practice of present-day Įsatrśars.

Seišr and Shamanism

It seems likely that both seišr and spae-working may form part of the rather scattered remnants of shamanic techniques in Norse culture, and have been related to the shamanic practices of other cultures. Norse culture was clearly not shamanic: this would have required the shaman to be a central figure within society, even while being viewed ambiguously, whereas seišrworkers appear in the sagas as marginalized figures, and spae-workers, though respected, are rare. As Grundy points out (1995, p.220), "The only figures in Germanic culture which we can point to as bearing significant resemblance to the 'professional shaman'...are the seeresses who occupy a position of respect based on their visionary capabilities" though they do not demonstrate other shamanic techniques or activities. Yet, seeresses and other people apparently did work in ways that could be described as "shamanic" -- and often it is said that they were trained by "the Finns", which probably refers to the nomadic Saami, a people who were, until very recently, truly "shamanic". Today's seišrworkers are drawing on the shamanic practices of various Aboriginal religions, and the work of those who have studied these cultures and religions. Winifred draws also on her training within Christain spirituality. However practitioners point to a need to keep the cosmological focus, maintain the journeying within a multi-dimensional "map" of the Nine Worlds. The practices are specific. As Heathen seidhman Bil Linzie says (in an interview for the magazine Idunna):

First off, I am faithful to the Northern Gods -- in other words, Asatru -- and have been for almost twenty years. Everything that I do, think, say, perceive, or whatever is passed through that belief system. And because it is filtered through that system, everything I practice is authentic. (Idunna 26, p.17)

One point that many seišr practitioners make is that learning to do seišr is taught through doing it, and that the "teachers" are not so much other practitioners as those met within the journey: whether these be spirits, the Norns, ancestors, or Óšinn himself. The experience of finding a teacher, or of becoming a traveller between the worlds can be intense, experienced by some as frightening or strange, and can cause major changes in how an individual thinks of her/his self. Some practitioners describe initiation experiences comparable with those found in the anthropology of shamanism. The experience of "sitting out" can be alarming. One woman, hearing that I was writing this chapter, told me:

I would ask that you warn persons about taking this too lightly. I decided to do a sitting out, without any clear idea of what I was there for and had a most disturbing evening, what I remember of it that is. I woke up in my high seat having drawn runes and symbols all over my back fence. Had I known better I would have had a notebook or a tape recorder, I would have prepared something to help me wake up before it got all fuzzy, and I would have told someone who knew about the runes what I was about to do. What I got from the runes before the rain washed it away (it was in chalk) was that I had been very stupid and was lucky that I had not oathed anything serious to the gods when I couldn't remember it. Anyway, prepare people more fully for real magic...

This does not answer the question of what occurs or where the seer/ess journeys. Writer Diana Paxson, who has done considerable work in this area and derived much of the form most often used for oracular seišr, recommends preparatory activities including breathing exercises, and guided meditations within a Norse cosmological framework, including those in which the purpose is to meet a spirit ally or guardian, a "power animal". The one who journeys to seek answers should be able to deal with transfers of energy and to have a source -- from drumming, from a power animal, from a personal reservoir -- to provide this energy. A necessary part of the experience is to be able to describe it. Here Diana Paxson has described a key event, occurring within non-ordinary reality, during a shamanic workshop run by Michael Harner [11].

I am walking through a grey land ... a world of grey mist that swirls among mighty stones. The raven flies ahead of me, not clear... but brilliant as the image of the sun against closed eyelids, bright/dark/bright wings against the shadowed stones.

Where are you taking me?" I ask, and try to go faster. [12]

I was aware of faint sounds from the world that I had left behind me, but wrapped in my grey cloak, I was insulated from both the noises and the chill of the building where the workshop was being held. Long practice helped me control my breathing and sink back into trance, to trust myself to Michael Harner's steady drumming and let it thrust me into the vision again.

The stones stand like pylons to either side, their rough surfaces inscribed with scratches whose meaning has been worn away by the winds of countless years. The raven alights on one of them, wings twitching impatiently. Clearly, she considers me rather stupid, but so far she has always waited for me to catch up again.

"You asked for a teacher--" she tells me. "That's where I'm taking you."

I don't argue. I would never have dared to claim a raven as an ally. Especially not this one, this Grandmother of ravens, whose tongue is as sharp as her pointed beak.

But I thought that she was going to teach me what I want to know...

Ms Paxson adds, in her commentary, that she analyzed the process even as she experienced this shamanic "journey". As a westerner, she had learned to separate personal experience from scientific "textbook knowledge", and to discount the former. She was suspicious also, because of her knowledge of ravens in both Native and European mythology, and what they implied.

...When I sought a power animal in the Underworld, I understood the significance of the raven who came to me. But just because I recognized her, it was easy to suspect myself of wishful thinking. ... If I had been inventing an ally for a character in one of my novels, I might have chosen a raven. That too, was a reason to doubt what I was hearing. I know that I can make up stories. Was I inventing this one now?

"Did anybody ever tell you that you think too much? Shut up and come along!"

Seišr and the anthropologist

Within today's anthroplogy, there are attempts being made to find ways to discuss such experiences. Goulet and Young (1995) speak of such "extraordinary experiences" in terms of multiple realities. Within one reality mode, so to speak, we construct experience and meaning by attending to sets of symbols and sensations that within another reality mode would go unchecked. As we shift mode, new possibilities become apparent, and old ones disappear. Ms Paxson's commentary on her experience illustrates this point. By her account, she had to work rather hard to prevent her rationalist preconceptions from disrupting her journey; and the subsequent events involving finding her teacher led her to consider that she was not simply inventing a scenario.

I know that I can make up stories, she said.Was I inventing this one now?

Other seišrworkers have likewise answered: No. Jordsvin points out that his physical experiences after doing oracular seišr tally with those of others: a feeling of cold, hunger, and a need to replenish energy, often followed by a "second wind" he calls "seišr rush". And his answers, even those which make no sense to him, do so to the questioner.

I don't think I'm crazy. I get people coming up to me after these seišr sessions when I'm stuffing my face, and resting, and they'll say, oh you said this that and ther other. And you know I'll say, yeah, I wonder what the Hel that meant. And they'll say, well it meant this this this, that was right on the money. And I did not know it, this is things for people I did not know.

But can I, as an anthropologist, tell his experiences in this way? Here is his description of his spae-work.

...there's a guided journey down to Helheim. The people that are doing the public oracular seišr go with me, they stop at the gate. We stress stay with the group, don't go runnin' off and stirring up the jotnar, you can mess yourself up. This is real stuff, you're dealing with real beings, it can have real results.... I go down, I go through Hela's gate... I always nod respectfully to Hela, I'm in her living room. I see, other people see different things, I see a lake, an island and a torch burning on it. It lights up, the torch and the lake light up the area enough to actually see the dead people. And I walk down there and they tend gather round, and I'll say, would those who need to speak with me or speak with the people I'm here representing please come forward. ...I've never seen anything scary, they look like people, the ones that have been there are passing on I guess to another life or whatever they're going to do, sometimes they're just like shadows, some look like living men and women, some are somewhere in between. Of course there's many, many many of them. They ask me questions, sometimes they'll speak. Sometimes I'll be in trance to where I'm answering the questioner, and the voice that's coming out of my mouth is, the intonation's different, the accent's a little different. I tend to go back and forth between various levels, my native Appalachian twang and a flattened, standard American English I've adopted for professional purposes. But the voice that's coming out of me is me and it's not me. And sometimes it's the strangest feelin'... Sometimes I hear voices, sometimes I see pictures, impressions, feelings, uh I have my eyes closed physically, and I'm in a trance, and I got a shawl over my head, sometimes it's almost like pictures on the back of my eyelids...

In relating Jordsvin's description, I treat it as description of processes which are occurring. I do not, however, seek to determine the "objective reality" or otherwise of the processes or the events. Here I look to the work being done by others such as Goulet and Young who emphasize the need to take seriously the accounts of informants. In order to describe processes of construction of identity, as I am attempting to do, this is essential. This does not always involve presenting the emic, or subjective-insider account, and theorizing, of practitioners as the only or literal truth. When I write in social-scientific mode, the need is for an account that readers will find interesting and that will assist them to follow my theorizing of discourse and identity. As research fieldworker, I become a broker, attempting to create understandings between cultures or subcultures, even as I attempt to find ways of understanding identity formation. This task of brokering forms part of the research, a necessary component in attempting to represent "insider" meanings, and translate these into a discourse that "outsiders" will find acceptable or comprehensible, and hence a concomitant to making a contribution to any theoretical discussion of identity formation.

Within present-day social science it is becoming more acceptable to present aspects of the world in ways that do not lay claim to total or final "Truth". Postmodernist rejection of metanarrative opens possibilities for multiple analyses, in which contradiction does not invalidate insight. Put more simply, the ethnographer need not attempt to force observation into a single, scientific explanatory framework. Seišr is experienced by participants from within an Įsatrś world-view, and as a community event where "community" includes more than the visible human participants. Rather than attempt to "rationalize" the explanation, my preference is to examine its discursive construction and to pose questions about how engaging with this practice forms part of identity, in the knowledge that participants themselves view identity as a complex matter, and "self" as requiring both spiritual and socio/psychological theorizing, and in the knowledge that the tradition of rejecting definitions of ultimate "Truth" is an honourable, though minority, one within the social sciences. The goal of research within interpretative/hermeneutic perspectives, as indicated by the writings of Winch (1958) or Taylor (1971) has been not simply explanation, but understanding of meanings, and how these form part of individuals' apparatus of perception of the social world. More recently, followers of social constructionist and narrative approaches, drawing on discourse theory, speak of competing discourses, in order to understand not only individuals' construction of meaning and identity, but the social nature of self-perception and self-construction, and how these in turn form part of the constitution of social relations within today's multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith societies.

I stand between two worlds, as broker -- between liberal-humanism, constructed from academic scepticism and the need for knowledge, and Asatru understanding of the nine worlds. I move from one to the other, in my words and my sentences, drawing on first one narrative, then another: and I turn to analyse both. I take comfort from recent writings within Anthropology: Favret-Saada who maintains the necessity of an anthropologist experiencing what she is attempting to understand, and Edith Turner, who speaks of the need for Anthropology -- and anthropologists, to enter "the realm of spiritual experience", and for the anthropologist to treat hr own experiences as data (Turner, 1994 p. 72).

Yet I write academic papers where I use other folk's words to describe what I myself know, because doing it this way is more readily acceptable. And I do this in the knowledge -- which I in turn present -- that my experiences of doubt, of attempting to rationalize, of attempting to "switch off" my academically-trained mind -- are not unique but shared with those whom I study, and that they too theorize their practice of tenth-century skills within a twentieth-century milieu. After an earlier paper in which I looked at paradoxes inherent in presenting seišr for an academic audience -- prepared for a book on fieldwork research -- I discussed my account with Winifred, who balances her work as a spae-worker with that of a government research ecologist. This is part of her comment.

Scientific/ rationalist thinking has a knowledge-domain--a large one--where it is an eminently suitable tool for the tasks within that domain. But as you pointed out in your paper, any conceptual approach comes with its own built-in blind spots, and science is certainly no exception. There remains a large--I would say infinitely large--domain where science/rationality is in many ways one of the more inferior tools which could be applied to acquire knowledge about it...One of the things one must know as a craftsman is "which tool is right for the job?"

Her Spae-working does a different job. As a way of knowing the world its possibilities are currently limited by its lack of validation, of the sort a twentieth-century scientist can accept. Yet it has its own means of testing.

Spae-working is another, different route to knowledge; another tool for the toolbox of the knowledge-craftswoman, which I aspire to call myself. In the same way that I seek to acquire, interpret, and use knowledge about the world we live in through the tool of science/rationality (and I am perfectly competent to use this tool, and respect it as far as it goes), I also seek to acquire, interpret and use other forms of knowledge, outside the domain of science, using very different tools. These other tools have gone through their own very rigorous process of technical evolution, testing, validation and interpretation, through many generations of many different cultures, religions and world-views. They are not foolproof, not perfect, not yet fully developed--just as can be said with respect to science and rational thinking--and even more, it is hard to acquire good training and "professional" validation in these areas, at least in our own society.

Her task now is to combine her realms of knowledge, and use one means within the area of the other. My description of it -- in terms of multiple competing discourses -- is somewhat different, because my starting knowledge-domains are different, but I feel also the need to unfragment the whole, and agree with her sentiment that:

None of this is easy, either intellectually or psychologically, but you know how it is: one feels the irrestible urge toward wholeness, and must heed the call no matter how difficult the path.

So now I write this chapter, as a scholar, seišworker, an academic, storyteller, skald: my life fragmented yet feeling that urge towards wholeness, which aligns me with what Bil Linzie terms wholemaking. And so I look at where I stand, on that knife-edge. I walk the knife edge, and I balance the demands of my worlds. Two paths stretch before me, in addition to the one that I have been on, and that ends. They stretch before, and wind around, and I cannot see the ends, though I know where my home is ... And I must not make my choice too soon.


Footnotes

[1] I use these words deliberately, and in the sense in which Young and Goulet (1994) sub-titled their book "The anthropology of extra-ordinary experience".

[2] Snorri Sturluson, whose Edda, written in the early thirteenth century as a guide to young poets who required to know their mythology, is the most coherent account of the mythology and cosmology of the North of Europe: though it is set within a euhemerized-Christianized framework, and may be over-systematized due to the author's familiarity with Greco-Roman mythology.

[3] Varðlokur, of which the meaning remains obscure. Which "powers" are to be charmed by it is not clear -- god/esses, spirits, the dead, landwights?

[4] available on the internet at http://ww.vinland.org/heathen/hrafnar/seidh.html

[5] In a series of articles published in Idunna issues 25, 26 and 27, Gundarsson outlines his reasons for the demarcation, and makes plain that Norse culture was not "shamanic". Idunna is a magazine published by the Ring of Troth.

[6] Personal communication, Aug. 1997.

[7] Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #15b. http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Heimskringla/ynglinga.html Snorri Sturluson, (Approx. 1225). English translation by Samuel Laing (London, 1844).

[8] Or to give the whole verse,

Heiši hana hétu
hvar er til hśsa kom,
völu velspįa,
vitti hśn ganda;
seiš hśn kunni,
seiš hśn leikin,
ę var hśn angan
illrar brśšar.

[9] I have neither met not interviewed heathens who would take such views: I have seen internet posts by them, and friends and acquaintances, particularly gay friends, have related encounters. However, these assumptions may persist more generally as an underlying current so that, for instance, seidhr or spae sessions are viewed as marginal to the "main purpose" of gatherings, and subject to minor disruption by people standing by the door, talking loudly and smoking, which they would be less likely to do during a ritual of blót or sumbel.

[10] Some of this negativity has been disputed, for instance by Harwood (1970) who states that among the Safwa people he studied "itonga" -- the mystical power of magic-workers -- was viewed as "morally neutral", and that this people did not routinely see "witches" as "anti-social". (p.69), and suggests that an automatic reading of "witch" as negative is a product of Western ethnocentrism. It is interesting that Harwood still adopts a definition of "witchcraft" derived from Evans-Pritchard's word, which he gives as 'a mystical and innate power, which can be used by its possessor to harm other people' (p.xv).

[11] Harner is the author of The Way of the Shaman (Harner, 1982), and founder of the Institute for Shamanic Studies.

[12] These extracts are from an essay on this experience, which Ms Paxson sent me in response to a request for information. The account, with its commentary, was prepared in 1989 for submission to the magazine Shaman's Drum.


References

Bohannan, Laura. Return to laughter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.

Crawford, J. R. Witchcraft and sorcery in Rhodesia. London: Oxford U.P., 1967.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evan. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937.

Goulet, Jean Guy, and David Young. "Theoretical and Methodological Issues." Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: the Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Ed. David E. Young and Jean Guy Goulet. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994 (16-38).

Grundy, Stephan Scott. The Cult of Óšinn, God of Death. Ph.D thesis, Cambridge, UK, 1995

Harner, Michael.. The Way of the Shaman. Bantam Books, New York, 1982

Harwood, Alan.. Witchcraft, sorcery and social categories among the Safwa. Oxford University Press for the International African Institute, London, 1970

Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Larner, Christina.. Enemies of God: the witch-hunt in Scotland. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 1981

Taylor, Charles. "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man." Review of Metaphysics 25 (1971). Reprinted in Eric Bredo and Walter Feinberg, Knowledge and Values in Social and Educational Research, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1982

Turner, Edith. "A visible spirit form in Zambia." Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: the Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Ed. David E. Young and Jean Guy Goulet. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994 (71-95).

Winch, Peter. The Idea of a Social Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958. Parts reprinted in Eric Bredo and Walter Feinberg, Knowledge and Values in Social and Educational Research, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1982

Young, David E. and Jean Guy Goulet (ed). Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: the anthropology of extraordinary experience. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994.


return to list of papers
go to my personal home page


1