The Good, the Bad and the Undead: New Thoughts on the Ambivalence of Old Norse Sorcery

The Good, the Bad and the Undead: New Thoughts on the Ambivalence of Old Norse Sorcery

By Leszek Gardeła

Saga and East Scandinavia: Preprint papers of The 14th International Saga Conference, edited by Agneta Ney, Henrik Williams and Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist (Gävle: Gävle University Press, 2009)

Introduction: Numerous Old Norse accounts such as sagas, skaldic poems and Eddic poetry but also medieval Norwegian chronicles (for example Historia Norwegie, Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium and Ágrip af Noregskonungasögum) and rune-stones contain information onthe enigmatic performers of a very special magical craft often referred to as seiðr. When taken collectively those sources imply that seiðr was a kind of operative magic which – among other things – enabled its practitioners to foresee the future, heal the sick, change weather conditions, reveal the hidden, shift into animal form or travel to other worlds in a state of trance. Seiðr, however, also had a darker side and could be employed to inflict physical or mental harm. At present, the darker aspect of this practice lies at the core of my studies.

The undoubted existence of the two distinct facets of seiðr, which are so evident in thewritten accounts, has recently led me to reinterpreting a number of very atypical Scandinavian burials. After having conducted a preliminary analysis of the available archaeological material I am inclined to believe that when given a closer look and viewed from an interdisciplinary perspective those graves may provide actual, material evidence for what some scholars understand as “social ambivalence of Old Norse sorcery”. Furthermore, they imply that there existed multiple forms of treating the deceased sorcerers and that the manner of burying the dead was dependant not only on the role which they played during their lives but also on a social perception of their actions and the very nature of their craft.

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