Vestiges of the Vikings: Magic Buried in a Viking Woman's Grave

Vestiges of the Vikings: Magic Buried in a Viking Woman's Grave
By Riley Winters - February, 11 2020

Murky, elusive and undefined, the religion of the pre-Christian Vikings has long been subject to debate. Contemporary texts of their spiritual worship do not survive, and the later records that do survive stem from Christian authors. Thus, they are tainted with a Christian worldview and anti-pagan opinions. The magic of the Vikings, however, is somewhat a secondary field of interest. Though intricately linked with the pagan beliefs of the Norse, it is in many ways more undefined due to the ritual sacrifice of magical items.

In 1894, a curved metal rod was discovered in a 9th-10th century female grave in Romsdal, Norway. Scholars have debated its intention for years, shuffling between theories that it was a fishing hook or a spit for roasting meat, before realizing in 2013 that it was likely a form of a magic wand.

The bend towards the top of the wand was seemingly made just before the wand was laid to rest with the woman, as if to stem its magical properties. This particular wand fits the traditional mold of a seiðr wand based on previous discoveries dating from the 9th and 10th centuries. It is long (at 35 inches) and made of iron, which is consistent with the materials circulating in the Norse Iron Age, with "knobs attached to them" for the benefit of the wielder.

In fact, it was one out of a number of similar iron rods recovered from female burials dated to the Viking Age. Typically measuring 20 to 40 inches in length, they were usually made from iron, sometimes with bronze fittings along the shaft.

Staff or Wand

Staff or Wand, iron and brass. The Swedish History Museum/CC BY 2.0

The Seiðr Rituals of the Vikings

The wand is currently in residence at the British Museum in London, and the curator of its exhibit, Sue Branning, believes it was used as a magical staff in the seiðr rituals of the pre-Christian Nordic countries.

Seiðr was one of the most common types of magic practiced during the pagan era of the Norse world, and its presence has been heavily recorded in the Icelandic sagas. (Though again, one must remember that these sagas were written by Christians, not the practitioners themselves.) Seiðr was not the only form of magic practiced in the Old Norse world, however, since the wand was discovered in the grave of a female, it was most likely used in such a performance.

Although men had a more prominent role in the Viking world than women, seiðr was one ritual not often performed by males. In fact, it was often considered unmanly for a man to perform a seiðr, because (in the Norse mindset) it was a form of deceit—apparently an entirely female occupation.

According to the traditions dictated in the sagas, seiðr was used "to respond primarily to situations of crisis and [was] untaken by a religious specialist (usually a woman) at the request of a client and within the context of a communal gathering. The ritual appeals to some sort of spirit helpers, either for divinatory information or help in controlling the mins and wills of others". This practice was most closely associated with the god Odin, in his guise as a war god, as well as Freyja, the goddess of fertility. It should be noted here that this is not the first time that Odin and Freyja are paired together; they also divide the souls of the warriors rescued by the Valkyries between their two realms.