VIKING SPIRITUALITY by Tyr Neilsen

                                                                                                                   "Åsgårdsreien" by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

                                                                                                                   "Åsgårdsreien" by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Spirituality was an integral part of the Norse people. It was a part of everything they were, in a way that is difficult for us born in this modern world to understand. For the Scandinavian people of the Viking Age, everything in nature had a spirit. For these people, it was important to communicate with spirits and cultivate their own strong spirit.

Much of our understanding of Viking spirituality comes from Norse Mythology. Mythology is a collection of sacred stories of a religious or cultural tradition. A culture's collective mythology helps convey explain nature, history, customs, and a culture’s spirituality.

In Norse mythology, there are stories about interpreting dreams and the sacrifices. According to these sacred stories, everything in the universe is physically connected, and everything is spiritually connected.
 
There were and are many spiritual paths in Viking spirituality. Seiðr, galdr, utesitting and runes are forms of coming in contact with spirituality. There are Norse ceremonies that follow year cycles and phases of the moon. In Old Norse, seiðr was a type of sacred ritual which was practiced in Norse society during the Viking Age. 

Our ancestor’s wisdom can be found in the Norse myths, in the Edda poems and sagas. Wisdom and understanding can be found in Norse myth stories about the world's creation, destruction and renewal. Urkraft, a name for ancient power, is a strong and free power, which can't be suppressed or manipulated.

Viking spirituality has many similarities with Sami shamanism and other shaman traditions around the world. The Norse vǫlva (a female shaman or seer) and Seiðmenn (seið-men) had a thorough understanding of healing herbs found in nature, energies, spirits and wisdom. Vǫlva in Old Norse means "wand carrier" or "carrier of a magic staff". Practitioners of seiðr were predominantly women, vǫlva or seiðkona, seiðr-woman or seiðr-wife". There were male practitioners, seiðmaðr, seiðr-man, as well, but this was deemed unmanly.

For the Viking warrior, his or her spirit and spirituality was of paramount importance, according to the Edda’s. This is very clear in a specific part of the Poetic Edda called the Hávamál.

Spirituality is very important regarding the way the Norse people and especially Viking warriors lived. A major part of this spirituality was connected to fate and destiny and the understanding of life after death. 

To live not just without fear of death, but to live and fight knowing that you would live again and serve a greater purpose, gives a freedom to live and fight without reservation that is hard to imagine for most people today. This wasn't a question of belief, these people knew that this was the way of things, which made it possible to live and fight to the fullest. 

There is not a lot written about Norse spirituality, and a lot of the Viking's spirituality is very misunderstood, but spirituality was a major part of a Viking's life.

HÁVAMÁL - VIKING WARRIOR WISDOM

For the Viking warrior, his or her spirit and spirituality was of paramount importance, according to the Edda’s. This is very clear in a specific part of the Poetic Edda called the Hávamál.

Often described as the wisdom of the North, Hávamál is one of the most important documents from Viking Age Scandinavia. Attributed to the Norse God Odin, the Hávamál’s wisdom gave spiritual nourishment to the Vikings in their daily lives, their long journeys to discover new lands, and their personal journeys to discover the meaning of life and death.

Hávamál - verse 15

Þagalt og hugalt              People should be
skyldi þjóðans barn         Quiet and thoughtful
og vígdjarft vera.             And brave in conflict
Glaður og reifur               They should live
skyli gumna hver             Happy and friendly
uns sinn bíður bana.        Until their last day.
 

The first 80 verses called "Hávamál proper" deals with basic everyday wisdom. Verses 80 to 164 deal with magic. Vikings garnered wisdom and inspiration from Hávamál, inherited from their ancestors. Hávamál’s content provides a clear picture of the Viking's philosophy and beliefs about how life should be lived both as a physical being and a spiritual entity. On a spiritual level Hávamál explains how to deal with a world of spirituality where unknown dangers and sacred knowledge are hidden.

UTESITTING

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

A way for a Viking to achieve wisdom and strengthen their spirit was through Utesitting, which is directly translated means ‘sitting-outside’. The modern equivalent would be meditation done out in nature. By sitting alone in nature, people of the Viking culture could seek inner wisdom and visions.

Utesitting is an ancient ritual that the Norse people used to come in contact with their spirituality. It is an ancient practice known from Norse sources such as the poem Völuspá, from the Poetic Edda, an Icelandic manuscript from the year 1270.

Utesitting was a way to build the spirit and an individual’s spirituality. It could be a calm and gentle experience, or a deeply transformative experience. After utesitting, a person was more serene, more aware, more focused in mind, body and spirit. Utesitting was a way to connect with other energies, the gods, or the universe. This was a way to undertake a vision quest to put a person in touch with themselves and the spirit world.

It was very important that the place chosen for utesitting would be a place where a person was not disturbed. During utesitting, where a person would go, and how long they would be gone, would be decided naturally within the utesitting ritual. It would take however long it took. Sometimes such a ritual could take a short while, or an afternoon, but sometimes it could take days.

Utesitting themes could be personal questions, major issues, or life's big questions. Utesitting could be used as a spiritual cleansing process. It could be used to open a spiritual door or as a way to introduce a person to the elements and environment around them.

Utesitting, as the name suggests, is time spent in meditation in nature. This was done both for inner wisdom and as a way to lead to a higher consciousness through contact with nature. It was and is a method to find a person’s place in nature, or way back to a natural state. It makes no difference whether a person is troubled by large or small issues, or is making large or small processes regarding changes in life, utesitting was and is, a way to clarify a person’s intention and co-create with nature.  

Sacrifice was very important to the Norse people, and rituals always contained some sort of offering. A gift to nature and the nature spirits would be offered before and after utesitting. Whether an specific utesitting felt like a good or bad experience, Vikings obtained wisdom and understanding from this practice. Utesitting could be an hour, a day, a night, or weekend in the forest or mountains. This practice was helpful to Vikings who needed to withdraw from "normal life", in order to bring them to a place where they could get closer and have better contact with themselves.

Getting in contact with ones-self and the universe became a problem with the coming of Christianity, and utesitting was perceived as so threatening for this religion that it was forbidden. The custom of sitting out in nature with a view to induce wisdom or visions was deemed dangerous in Norway and Iceland, and the church sanctioned hard against those who practiced that kind spirituality, or ‘magic’.

In 1267, King Magnus of Norway received instructions regarding this according to Gulatings-loven. Utesitting in groves or on mounds were crimes against the Holy Church. It was forbidden to sit alone in the forest or mountains and open the mind and the inner contemplation. It was prohibited to connect with nature's energy and the beings of the forest. If a person had undertaken utesitting, they had to confess to a bishop and not a regular priest, according to the scripture commands the bishop Torlak in Skâlholdt in Iceland at the end of the 1100s.

All of this suggests that utesitting for personal wisdom and spirituality were very important activities for the Norse people.

SEID

Seid, or seiðr, is a collective term for the knowledge and techniques that are at the interface between religion and magic. Seid was considered secret/sacred knowledge in the Iron Age and Viking Nordic region.

In Norse society, seid was mainly practiced by women who were called Volve, vǫlur, Seiðkonur and vísendakona. A man could also engage in seid, but he did not receive the same respect as the Crone or Volve. There are accounts of male practitioners, known as seiðmenn, but in practising this sacred knowledge, they brought a social taboo known as ‘ergi’ on to themselves, and were sometimes persecuted as a result.

Odin is the Norse god who is simultaneously responsible for war, poetry and sorcery. It is said that Odin learned seid from the goddess Freya. This shows that Odin was a god who had no boundaries or adherence to social norms.

Accounts of Seid/seiðr are found in sagas and other literary sources, and evidence of Seid has been unearthed byarchaeologists. Various scholars have debated the nature of seiðr over the centuries, with some arguing that it was shamanic in context, involving visionary journeys by its practitioners.

VIKING RUNES

The Old Norse word Rún means "secret", and runes were thought of by Vikings as sacred secrets, and a way of interacting with both the living and the spirit world. 

Hávamál - verse 80

Þat er þá reynt                                      When searching for
er þú at rúnum spyrr                            Answers in the runes
inum reginkunnum                               Which were created by the gods
þeim er gerðu ginnregin                      And written by Odin
ok fáði fimbulþulr                                 It is best to reflect
þá hefir hann bazt ef hann þegir        Over the meaning

According to legend, the Norse god Odin speared himself to a tree, in a self-sacrificial attempt to receive sacred knowledge. At the end of his ‘shamanistic journey’, hanging suspended for nine windy nights, Odin learned the mysteries of the runes, which he then passed on to his people.

Hávamál - verse 139 (as told by Odin)

Við hleifi mik seldo ne viþ hornigi,   No bread was I given nor drink from a horn,
nysta ek niþr,                                       downwards I peered;
nam ek vp rvnar,                                 I took up the runes,
opandi nam,                                         screaming I took them,
fell ek aptr þaðan.                              then I fell back.

Since the Vikings believed the runic symbols to be a gift from Odin, they treated them with great reverence. Belief in the divine origin of the runes meant that runes possessed magical powers.

The Vikings are often portrayed as illiterate and uncultured barbarians who were more interested in plunder than in wisdom. This is very far from the truth. The Vikings left behind a great number of manuscripts written on vellum, which are both rich in wisdom and artistic achievement. These documents were based on the earlier Viking oral tradition and information Vikings had carved in stone, wood, bone and metal.

What was carved in these hard materials were enigmatic symbols made up of straight lines. Each symbol, called a rune, had its own unique sound that was said, or sung, to represent them. These sounds could be used singularly as a chant, or together as a chant. These chants, or rune-songs, are known as Galdr, and any serious use of runes would include them.

The first collection of 'Viking runes' is called Eldri rúnaröð, the older rune-row, which had 24 runes. These were the runes used by the Norse people from the 2nd to 9th century. This changed to Yngri rúnaröðthe younger rune-row, which had 16 runes, was also called the Scandinavian runes, and was in use from about the 9th century onward.

We associate runes used for writing as letters of an alphabet. The Viking ‘alphabet’ is now called the Futhark, from the first 6 rune symbols which look like the letters f,u,t,h,a,r, and k. The Elder Rune-row (or Futhark) of twenty-four runes, at some point in time was arranged into three groups of eight runes called an Ætt, meaning clan. Each Ætt had 8 runes, and each Ætt were ruled over by their own particular spirit or Norse God. Respectively these are Freya’s Ætt, Hagall’s Ætt, and Tyr’s Ætt. Freya is the Norse goddess of fertility, we are not sure of the exact meaning of Hagall in this respect, and Tyr is the Norse god of war and justice.

THE SECRET OF THE RUNES

We know of the meaning of Viking rune symbols from Viking Rune Poems. These poems list the rune symbols and provide an explanatory poetic stanza for each rune symbol/word. There are three different poems that have been preserved:  

The Norwegian Rune Poem is a 17th-century copy of a destroyed 13th-century manuscript.

The Icelandic Rune Poem is recorded in four Arnamagnæan manuscripts, the oldest of the four dating from the late 15th century. This has been called the most systemized of the rune poems (including the Abecedarium Nordmannicum) and has been compared to the ljóðaháttr verse form.

The Old English rune poem is dated to the 8th or 9th century.

The Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems list 16 Younger Futhark runes, but the Old English rune poem has 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. Each poem differs in poetic verse, but they contain numerous parallels between one another.  

 

The rune poems and old texts, give sets of associations for the runes, but the meanings of the runes are quite fluid. Each rune symbol has a meaning, or several meanings, connecting a variety of things including: objects, creatures and archetypal processes, feelings, experiences, and spirits.

Rune writing was a very important skill for the Vikings, and runic inscriptions are found on artifacts including jewelry, amulets, tools, weapons, calendars and runestones. But rune symbols were not only used for writing, they were also used to tell fortunes, cast spells, provide protection and for spiritual purposes.

The Poetic Edda mentions the magical significance of the runes. Verses 80, 111, 137, 143 and 158 of the Hávamálare about Odin mentioning the runes in contexts of divination.

The most prolific source for runic magic in the Poetic Edda is the Sigrdrífumál, where the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (Brynhild) gives advice on the magical properties of runes. Some of these are:

"Victory runes" (stanza 6, referring to the Tyr rune to be carved on the sword hilt) Ølrunar "Ale-runes" (stanza 7, a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife)                                                                                     Biargrunar "birth-runes" (stanza 8, a spell to facilitate childbirth)
Brimrunar "wave-runes" (stanza 9, a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder)
Limrunar "branch-runes" (stanza 10, a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees "with boughs to the eastward bent")
Malrunar "speech-runes" (stanza 11, refers to a spell to improve rhetorical ability at the thing)
Hugrunar "thought-runes" (stanza 12, discusses a spell to improve wit)

SWORD RUNES

Vikings believed that runes had magical qualities that were very valuable to a warrior, such as protecting a warrior in battle or at sea, cursing or guarding against threats, and curing illnesses. The Ansuz and Tiwaz runes in particular seem to have had magical significance in the early (Elder Futhark) period.

Runes inscribed on a sword blade gave it magic power. A warrior who knew the secret of the runes could strengthen his own blade or blunt his enemy’s weapons. Viking warriors customarily carved the runic symbol for Tyr, the Norse god of war, onto their swords and shields. In the Poetic Edda, the Sigrdrífumál mentions "victory runes" which should be carved on a sword: "some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and name Tyr twice".

The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic Futhorc.

The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife), found in the River Thames, England, in 1857. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic Futhorc.

RUNESTONES

Viking runes were inscribed into large freestanding rocks or boulders called Runestones. Runestones were often decorated with inscribed intricate Norse patterns and painted in black, blue, red and white paint.

Many Rune-stones served as spiritual stones for sacred ceremonies. Runestones served as spiritual commemorations for the dead. Runestones also served as memorials to honor men and women, or to document how much land the deceased Viking had owned and listing relatives who would likely inherit that person's estate.

       Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald

       Left: The runestone of King Harald Bluetooth, carved around A.D. 965 in Jelling, Denmark. Middle: The larger Jelling stone. Right: Deatail showing rune inscription concerning Harald

When the seafaring Vikings traveled to faraway lands, they brought their system of writing with them, and left behind runic inscriptions in paces as distant as Greenland and Byzantium.

Wherever they went, Vikings turned to runes to express both the poetic and the plain, inscribing them on everything from great stone monuments to common household items. Rune carvings varied from "Listen, ring-bearers, while I speak of the glories in war of Harald, most wealthy" to "Rannvieg owns this box".

RUNE CARVINGS

Runes were carved into many objects, such as staves, staffs. A Rune Stave was found in the cult room of the Norwegian Oseberg burial mound, alongside the two women who were buried there in the year 834. The round birch stave is 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm at the ends. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”.

The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” which translated means “Man knows little”. Another interpretation is that it reads “litill vissm”, which translated reads “(Although) I am small I am wise”. A third interpretation is “litil vés m” meaning “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.

RUNIC CALENDAR

                                       Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone

                                       Runic calendar inscribed in whale bone

A Runic calendar is a calendar that correlates to the Sun and the Moon. Runic calendars were written on parchment or carved onto staves of wood, bone, or horn. The oldest known runic calendar is the Nyköping staff from Sweden, from the 13th century. Most of the several thousand which survive are wooden calendars dating from the 16th and the 17th centuries.

A primstav, prime staff, is the ancient Norwegian calendar stick, engraved with images instead of runes. The images depicted the different non-moving religious holidays. The oldest primstav is from the year 1457 and is exhibited at Norsk Folkemuseum.

BIND RUNE

A bandrún, bind rune, is a binding of two or more rune symbols. Bind runes are rare in Viking Age inscriptions, but are common in earlier (Proto-Norse) and later (medieval) inscriptions. There are several types of bind runes: 

One type of bind rune is formed by two (or rarely three) adjacent runes being joined together to form a single conjoined symbol, (usually sharing a common vertical stroke.

Another type is called a same-stave rune, which is common in Scandinavian runic inscriptions. This type is formed by several runic letters written sequentially along a long common stem-line.

                                The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

                                The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz/Tyr runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

Bind runes are now also being used in modern industry. The Bluetooth logo  merges the runes ᚼ (Hagall) and ᛒ(Berkanan) together, forming a bind rune. The two letters form the initials 'H B', alluding to the Danish king and Viking raider Harald Bluetooth.

Bind runes were initially used pre-Viking age on Norse gravestones. They gradually faded out of use along with all other runic writing, except in Iceland where the tradition continued. Not only were bind runes used in Iceland for the purpose of writing in general, but they were also used in protection and luck symbols called Galdrastafir.

According to the Museum of Icelandic history, the effects credited to most of the rune staves were very relevant to the average Icelanders of the time, who were mostly subsistence farmers and had to deal with harsh climatic conditions.

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Several popular bind runes, or Galdrastafir, include:
Vegvísir is a stave to guide people through rough weather or used as instruction to guide the way.

Vegvísir in Icelandic means 'sign post'. This magical stave is intended to help the bearer find their way through rough weather, as attested in the Huld Manuscript, collected by Geir Vigfusson in 1880, consisting of material of earlier origin. (Nearly all ancient/pagan manuscripts were collected in Iceland throughout the centuries).  A leaf of the manuscript provides an image of the vegvísir, gives its name, and, in prose, declares that "if this sign is carried, one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known"


Ægishjálmur, the ‘Helm of awe’ used to induce fear and to protect against abuse of power.

Ægir is an Old Norse word meaning "terror" and the name of a destructive Jötunn associated with the sea; ægis is the genitive case of ægir (and has no direct relation to Greek aigis). In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir bears on his forehead the ægishjálmr "Ægir's helmet" or "Helm of terror/protection". 

Bind runes were also used in Viking combat and in glima competition. Gapaldur and Ginfaxi staves were kept in shoes. Gapaldur under the heel of the right foot and ginfaxi under the toes of the left foot. 

RUNE SPELLS

Viking poetry reads: "Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learns to read them well". Many from the Viking upper classes could read and write runes, but most Vikings called in a specialist when dealing with the spiritual properties of rune symbols. These experts were called Rúnemester, rune masters, and were specially trained to bring runes into play for divination and spirituality.

One common rune-casting technique was carving runes on pieces of bark then flinging the pieces on the ground. Picking three at random, the symbols inscribed on the bark would give the answer to specific questions.

Another method of divination is using painted runes on flat pebbles, inscribed and painted runes on pebbles, and inscribed runes on pebbles. These rune pebbles are placed in a leather bag and shaken then cast onto a solid surface. Runes that land face up are used for divination.

GALDR

Galdr (plural galdrar) is an Old Norse word for spell, incantation or song enchantment. These were usually performed in combination with certain rites, such as before a battle or Glima competition.

Galder’s were used to make swords blunt, make armor soft and decide victory or defeat in battles. Examples of such galders can be found in Grógaldr and in Frithiof's Saga. In Grógaldr, Gróa chants nine (a significant number in Norse mythology) galdrar to aid her son, and in Buslubœn, the schemes of king Ring of Östergötland are averted.

Galdr incantations were composed in a special meter named galdralag, and could be used by both women and men. A practical galdr for women was one that made childbirth easier, but they could also be used to affect another person’s humor. Galdr is referenced in Skírnismál, when Skirnir uses galdrar to force Gerðr to marry Freyr.

Galdr is also mentioned in several of the poems in the Poetic Edda, for instance in Hávamál, where Odin claims to know 18 galdrar. Odin mastered galdrar against fire, sword edges, arrows, fetters and storms, and he could conjure up the dead and speak to them.

Galdring is a tool for achieving spiritual wholeness. Making and singing a galdr is an excellent means to strengthen a person objective and future goals. A personal galdr song can be fortified with words verses from the eddas to create esoteric mantras.

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THE WILD HUNT

Our ancestors were strongly tied to hunting. According to Norwegian folklore, Oskorei, often understood and written as Odin's Wild Hunt, Åsgårdsreia, Aasgaardsreiden, Asgardsreien and Asgaardsreien, was a hunt that started on 31 October and held until 30 April.

The hunt consists of gods from Asgard and dead souls, who ride through stormy sky. The sound of hunting horns can be heard through forests and mountains, but the hunt is rarely seen. When Odin's Wild Hunt is heard, it means changing weather or trouble.

Academy senior instructor Tyr Neilsen with the beautiful painting "Asgardsreien" by Peter Nicolai Arbo - 1872   Photo - Bente Wemundstad

Academy senior instructor Tyr Neilsen with the beautiful painting "Asgardsreien" by Peter Nicolai Arbo - 1872   Photo - Bente Wemundstad