Even though we, sitting from our comfortable and smug 21st century CE perspective, know that magic isn't "real," the fact remains that magic was not only defined extremely differently to our modern interpretation of it, but it was a part of everyday life.. and death in Viking societies.

Magic, magic everywhere

Like most pre-modern societies, magic - its use, appreciation, and fear - was a part of everyday life for people spread across Viking societies throughout the Western hemisphere. 

To understand the role that magic played throughout this period, we must first define it. One must turn to Dion Fortune, one of the United Kingdom's most prominent authors and occultists, for a definition of just what exactly magic is. 

She wrote that magic was "the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will." Now given that she also was a ceremonial magician, this is quite a good definition to start with.

It can be quite hard for our modern minds to quite understand and fully appreciate the role that magic played in early medieval societies that the Vikings frequented. 

The Old Norse religion was one of the most popular religious belief systems in Viking societies. This was a religion whereby humans, mere mortals, were just one life form inhabiting just one world (Midgard). 

Along with the vast pantheon of gods and goddesses, who could intervene in daily life, shapeshift, and had a similar emotional intelligence to humans, were a variety of other life forms, from land spirits to elves, dwarves, and giants. 

Magic was one of the fabrics that bound these deities, these beings, indeed the nine worlds of Norse cosmology, together with us mere mortals.

Deus ex machina

Analyzing the role that magic played in Viking societies, one must start right at the top, with the Norse gods and goddesses themselves. 

The Norse god that is most heavily associated with magic is Odin. Despite his martial skills and heavy intellect, Odin is also an expert in sorcery and the runic alphabet. 

In the Hávamál section of the Poetic Edda, Odin is said to have quite literally died to gain knowledge of the runes. 

He did this, rather dramatically, by hanging himself for nine nights on Yggdrasil, an immense sacred tree in Norse cosmology. 

This was after, of course, losing an eye for a chance to drink for Mimir's well to gain more knowledge of magic. 

Odin is also associated with spells and incantations (galdr), associated with runes, which were a central part of the medicinal treatment of humans and animals in Viking societies.

Aside from Odin, many other gods and goddesses were also involved in the use of magic. The second most important deity to use magic was Freyja

This Viking Aphrodite not only had such a deep understanding and knowledge of magic that she helped teach it amongst the Æsir, she also was the center of cultic rituals, galdr, and a myriad of other ways that mere mortals tried to win her favor or her deep knowledge of magic. 

Yet it was for one particular type of magic that she was most famous for.

People in the Viking era did not necessarily have to adhere to only one religion. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Seiðr

The most famous form of magic in Viking societies was Seiðr (often translated into English as Seidr or Seidhr).

This was a magic that relates to telling of one's future or indeed the shaping of it. While its origins are mostly unknown, it is believed to have been widely practiced throughout Viking societies before its long decline as Christianity gained a foothold throughout the Viking world.

Whilst practitioners could indeed be both sexes, it was mostly a practice associated with women as the Goddess Freyja was not only the patron of it but also taught this form of dark arts to the other Æsir

Female practitioners were called Völva and were seeresses for the community. There is a line of academic thought that the Völva were sort of early medieval witch prototypes... without the flying broom, though. 

This form of magic was heavily associated with the "feminine" in Viking societies, so any man involved in it (which was not uncommon) was tarred with the label of being Ergi, i.e., unmanly or homosexual.

Mostly, the practice of Seiðr involved the incantation of spells (galdrar) to try and connect with the spiritual realm. 

There is a mixed academic opinion on exactly just what the practitioner was trying to achieve, but some theories include a sort of crisis management technique (if a crop failed or livestock died), a tool to try and see the future, or even as a means of cursing enemies or playing a hex on them. 

It is important to understand that this form of magic could be either malign or beneficial. Other academics have suggested that it was also used as a form of daily guidance.

Other forms of magic

Whilst the Old Norse religion dominated Viking societies, it should also be noted that there was also a wide range of other spiritual beliefs. 

People in Viking societies did not necessarily have to or want to adhere to only one religion. 

As Christianity slowly took a foothold in what would become the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, most people chopped and changed, took aspects of Christianity, and mixed it with their older Norse beliefs. 

A Christian God who was seen as all-powerful and could influence events and daily life – if you pleased him – was not an uncommon notion for people in Viking societies. 

Prayers were seen as being similar to the chanting of galdrar, whilst missionaries often compared miracles performed by a Christian God to a form of holy magic.

There was also a plethora of people living throughout Viking societies that held animist and shamanistic beliefs. 

The Sami, Balto-Finnic, and Finno-Ugric peoples all believed in a wide variety of magic through shamanistic ceremonies and rituals. 

Shamans were often used to tell, or even shape, the future, heal sick or wounded people or animals, and offer protection from evil spirits, all through the use of magic.

Despite the fact that we know now that magic is not real, it was for people in the Viking Age. Illustration: The Viking Herald 

Is there any archaeological evidence of magic?

Aside from the sagas, which are littered with references to the use and practice of magic by gods and mere mortals, there is also a fascinating archaeological find that highlights the importance of magic to people in Viking societies. 

On the Swedish island of Öland, an 82 cm (about 2.69 ft) staff was uncovered from the grave of a wealthy woman. This is believed to have been a magic staff used by a Völva.

Uncovered in the remains of the Oseberg Viking Ship in Norway were the bodies of two women believed to have been a Völva and her female slave. 

Along with a purse full of cannabis seeds (used in a magic ritual or ceremony), a wooden staff was also uncovered, again believed to have been used for magic.

Despite the fact that we know now that magic is not real (at least for those over the age of 12), it was for people in Viking societies. 

It cannot be overstated just how important the use of magic was and how much a part of the fabric of everyday life for people in Viking societies; it remained right throughout the early medieval period.

For more on Viking magic, visit the National Museum of Denmark's webpage here.

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