Magic and Divination

Jacob Grimm begins his chapter on Magic by drawing a distinction between divine Wundern and devilish Zaubern, not altogether justly so, inasmuch as Teutonic paganism did not observe the distinction. He is happier when he defines the various notions entering into the conception as including "doing, sacrificing, spying, soothsaying, singing, sign-making (secret writing), bewildering, dazing, cooking, healing, and casting lots." For the same notions we commonly use the expressions practicing magic, witchcraft, divination, soothsaying, and conjuring (Frisian tjoene, Danish trylle).

Magic constitutes an important part of every religion, some scholars regarding it as the most original element, others as "a disease of religion." Such questions, however, form part of the general phenomenology of religion and not of the history of each special religion. Without entering, therefore, upon this general problem, we shall here attempt to arrange what is know to us of magic and divination among the Teutonic peoples. Both folklore and Norse literature furnish a wealth of material, although much of what is found in the former is of more recent origin.

The first question that confronts us is that of the connection between magic on the one hand, and mythology and cult on the other. Many a magic charm and many an incantation is efficacious in itself, without resort to higher powers, but as a rule witchcraft is connected with a belief in soul. Thus the young Svipdag learns from his deceased mother Groa the magic songs which are to shield him from all manner of danger. The magician and the vlva stand in relationship with the spirits. At the same time magic power proceeds from the Æsir, Vanir, giants, dwarfs, and elves as well. It is a well-known fact that Odhin is preëminently the god of magic, but Thor, Tyr Heimdallr, etc., are also invoked in the practice of magic. The power of magic in such cases rests ultimately, as Uhland has put it, upon the basis of an actual event that has taken place in the world of gods or spirits.

The exact connection between the magical and the mythical is by no means always clear. In the first Merseburg Charm the effect of the incantation for the loosing of bonds seems to be intimately connected with the work of the Idisi. But Hávamál, 148, and Grógaldr, 10, mention incantations that produce the same result without a single hint of a mythological basis. Magic of a similar kind, but covered with a Christian varnish, is to be found in Bede. He tells us of a youth who had been picked up on the field of battle and been taken prisoner. Al efforts to bind him were in vain, because his brother, an abbot and presbyter, thinking him dead, was saying masses for the repose of his soul. The mass for the dead is here attended by the same result as the magic incitation that looses bonds. In the second Merseburg Charm the connection between the mythical incident contained in the introduction and the charm proper is even less apparent. It is at any rate of some importance to know that myth and magic charm are linked together. Hence, also, at the dawning of the light of day, some incantations lose their power, as may, for example, be inferred from an otherwise somewhat obscure strophe (Hávamál, 160):

Before Delling's doors the dwarf Thjodrerir sang his magic song: strength he sang to the Æsir, skill to the elves, and wisdom to Hroptatyr.

Various gods are invoked in the practice of magic: Tyr, for example, at the graving of sword runes, which conferred magic power on certain swords, such as Tyrfing in the Hervarar Saga. The names of the Æsir and elves seem to possess special magic power. The magic effect produced by particular words is likewise seen in the practice of erecting a so-called spite-stake (nídhstng). These bore an inscription and were surmounted at times by a human figure, or again by the head of a horse turned in the direction of the dwelling of the enemy. The est know example is that of the scald Egil, who erected a nídhstng against king Eirikr and his wife, bearing the following words: "I here erect a nídhstng and direct this spite (nídh) against the spirits (landvættir) that inhabit this land, so that they may all fail of the right path, and none find or reach his destination before they have driven king Eirikr and queen Gunnhild out of the land." The magic stake and the conjuration were accordingly also thought to be effective against the spirits of the land (landvættir).

The Edda gives a list of magic charms at three various times: Hávamál, 145-163; Grógaldr, 6-14; Sigrdrifumál, 6-13. In these passages a number of things are enumerated which were sought to be obtained by magic, such as help in sickness and danger, aid against enemies, safeguard against harmful influences, acquisition of knowledge and skill, safety in journeys on land and on sea, power to heal wounds. It would be quite impossible, in the case of the Teutons as with other peoples, to enumerate all the benefits that were looked for from magic in both public and private life, the pursuit of agriculture, of cattle breeding, etc. Magic also plays a considerable part in the art of healing. In all this it is quite impossible to draw a sharp line of division between what is pagan and what is Christian: much that comes under this rubric may be of medieval origin, such as the accounts of supernatural powers, of metamorphoses, of magic food and draughts of forgetfulness, of magic hoods (Tarnkappe) and of hidden treasures. The same observation applies to the practices condemned by the Indiculus Superstitionum and the Homilia de Sacriligiis, such as philacteries and incantations.

Conjuring is effected by means of the magic song (Norse galdr), and the magic charms employed usually derive their power from the runes that are graven on them. These runes among the Teutons are older than the runic letters, which they borrowed from the Latin alphabet, and with which the marks (notæ) on the magic lots in Tacitus have accordingly nothing in common. Run occurs in numerous proper names of an early date: Sigrun, Hildrun, Albrun, Heidrun, etc. Halibruna in Jordanes is another early example. The word "run," from the same root as the German raunen (to whisper), "signifies, in the first instance, whispering, secret speech, and then mystery in general, in doctrine, witchcraft, song, symbol, or letter." The designation applies to magic sign as well as to magic song (Old Norse ljódh, spjll,galdr). Thus the lists of magic charms in the Edda referred to above are called runes. The ancient connection between incantation and runic symbol crops out in a later romantic saga, in which the sorceress Busla utters specially potent galdrar (plural of galdr, magic song), to bewitch kin Hring. To these incantations a series of runic letters, six in number, are subjoined, which, while also forming a sort of riddle, are at the same time thought to possess magic power. The Egils Saga, Chapter 72, furnishes another example of the great power of runic signs. In an effort to cure a sick peasant girl, false runes had been graved on fish gills (tálkn); Egil discovers this, replaces the false runes with the true, and an instant cure results. It is therefore not surprising to find the knowledge of runes embracing practically every domain of superhuman power: he who is possessed of "ever-during runes and life-runes" is all-powerful and is safeguarded against every misfortune.

A specifically Norse form of witchcraft is called seidhr. By some it has been thought that seidhr was introduced from Finland, but while this is not impossible, it has at least not been clearly proved. Seidhr is attributed to Odhin, Ynglingasaga, Chapter 7 , and Lokasenna, 24; to Gullveig, Völuspa, 22. The work is usually employed in an evil sense, referring to base, harmful arts which cause tempests and thunderstorms, kill enemies, and create delusions. However, it also occurs as applying to magic arts that are used as safeguards, or which serve to divine the future. King Harald Fairhair, we are told, was violently opposed to these sorcerers and had eighty of them burnt, among them one of his own sons.

Seidhr was practiced on an elevated seat (seidh-hjallr), and consisted of beautiful, alluring, majestic songs, sung by the seidhmadhr (man) or seidhkona (woman), or by their attendants. Thus the rvarodds Saga tells of a vlva and seidhkona Heidhr, who was accompanied by fifteen boys and fifteen girls, all with good voices, who were to sing the song. The seidhkona seems to have been of more frequent occurrence than the seidhmadhr. The Ynglinga Saga, Chapter 7, explains this as due to the contemptible character of the magic arts, hardly correctly so, inasmuch as the sorceress and prophetess were highly esteemed and wielded great power.

Women who practiced magic and soothsaying were called vlur (plural of vlva). While the vlva, or spákona (wise woman), is not necessarily a seidhkona (seidhr-woman), the distinction between the two classes is frequently lost sight of, and more than one vlva is also said to be versed in seidhr. The word "vlva," derived from vlr (staff), signifies staff-bearer, the name referring either to the magic staff of the vlva or to the staff with which she wanders from place to place. To acquire her supernatural power the vlva sometimes for several nights in succession sat out in the open air (spáfr, wisdom-faring; útiseta, sitting outside), where she then received revelations from Odhin, or from spirits and the dead. Finnur Jónsson is of the opinion that such vlur, in the character of wandering sorceresses and soothsayers, were found in Norway alone, whereas in Iceland they retired into the background, only a few women who otherwise followed the ordinary walks of life possessing magic power. But wandering vlur are to be found in Iceland and Greenland as well: witness for Iceland, Oddbjrg in the Viga Glums Saga, Chapter 12, and for Greenland, Thorbjorg, "the little vlva," whose doings are so picturesquely described in the Eiriks Saga Raudha. We quote the passage in its entirety, because it presents the clearest picture of a heathen ceremony that we possess. On account of dearth, famine, and failure in the catch of fish, it was resolved in Greenland that Thorbjrg, "the little vlva," should be consulted. She was the only one remaining of nine sister, who had all been prophetesses. "It was Thorbjorg's custom in the winters to go to entertainments, and she was especially sought after at the home of those who were curious to know their fate, or what manner of season might be in store for them." Thorkel, "the chief yeoman in the neighborhood," was accordingly to consult her regarding the famine.

A high seat was prepared for her, in which a cushion filled with poultry feathers was placed. When she came in the evening, with the man who had been sent to meet her, she was clad in a dark-blue cloak, fastened with a strap, and set with stones quite down to the hem. She wore glass beads around her neck, and upon her head a black lamb-skin hood, lined with white cat-skin. In her hands she carried a staff, upon which there was a knob, which was ornamented with brass, and set with stones up about the knob. Circling her waist she wore a girdle of touch-wood, and attached to it a great skin pouch, in which she kept the charms which she used when she was practicing her sorcery. She wore upon her feet shaggy calf-skin shoes, with long, tough latchets, upon the ends of which there were large brass buttons. She had cat-skin gloves upon her hands, which were white inside and lined with fur. When she entered, all of the folk felt it to be their duty to offer her becoming greetings. She received the salutations of each individual according as he pleased her. Yeoman Thorkel took the sibyl by the hand, and led her to the seat which had been made ready for her. Thorkel bade her run her eyes over man and beast and home. She had little to say concerning all these. The tables were brought forth in the evening, and it remains to be told what manner of food was prepared for the prophetess. A porridge of goat's beestings was made for her, and for meat there were dressed the hearts of every kind of beasts which could be obtained there. She had a brass spoon, and a knife with a handle of walrus tusk, with a double hasp of brass around the haft, and from this the point was broken. And when the tables were removed, Yeoman Thorkel approaches Thorbjrg, and asks how she is pleased with the home, and the character of the folk, and how speedily she would be likely to become aware of that concerning which he had questioned her, and which the people were anxious to know. she replied that she could not give an opinion in this matter before the morrow, after that she had slept there through the night. And on the morrow, when the day was far spent, such preparations were made as were necessary to enable her to accomplish her soothsaying. She bade them bring here those women who knew the incantation which she required to work her spells, and which she called Warlocks; but such women were not to be found. Thereupon a search was made throughout the house, to see whether any one knew this incantation. Then say Gudrid: "Although I am neither skilled in the black art nor a sibyl, yet my foster-mother, Halldis, taught me in iceland that spell-song which she called Warlocks." Thorbjrg answered: "Then art thou wise in season!" Gudrid replies: "This is an incantation and ceremony of such a kind, that I do not mean to lend it any aid, for that I am a Christian woman." Thorbjrg answers: "It might so be that thou couldst give thy help to the company here, and still be no worse woman than before; however, I leave it with Thorkel to provide for my needs." Thorkel now so urged Gudrid, that she said she must needs comply with his wishes. The women they made a ring round about, while Thorbjorg sat up on the spell-daïs. Gudrid then sang the song, so sweet and well, that no one remembered ever before to have heard the melody sung with so fair a voice as this. The sorceress thanked her for the song, and said: "She has indeed lured many spirits hither, who think it pleasant to hear this song, those who were wont to forsake us hitherto and refuse to submit themselves to us. Many things are now revealed to me, which hitherto have been hidden, both from me and from others. And I am able to announce that this period of famine will not endure longer, but the season will mend as spring approaches. The visitation of disease, which has been so long upon you, will disappear sooner than expected." Thorbjrg also prophesies a happy marriage and a safe return to Iceland to Gudrid, and besides foretells the future of many others.

We see from this account how much importance was attached to dress and even to food, and also that the vlva was herself dependent upon the women that knew the "warlocks" (vardhlokkur), to lure the spirits. Whether only soothsaying is intended her, as would seem to be the case, or whether the sorceress, through the influence that the songs exert upon the spirits, effects the cessation of the famine, is not altogether clear. At any rate, the vlva represents a remarkable combination of inward and outward witchcraft. She is herself prophetess and sorceress, but is at the same time dependent, in the practice of her art, upon her seat, her dress, and her song. These do not, however, constitute signs which she interprets, but are merely aids to her magic and divination. While descent (nine sisters) and tradition (Gudrid has learned the song from her foster-mother) influence the possession of this art, there is not a single trace of Shamanism, the being inspired by the spirits of deceased Shamans. At the same time the magic power bears the character of divine art rather than of human skill. Grimm's words, "Imagination, tradition, knowledge of medicinal properties, poverty, and idleness turned women into sorceresses, while the last three causes also turned shepherds into sorcerers," apply to later medieval conditions alone.

Up to this point we have not always been able to distinguish sharply between sorcery and soothsaying. We now pass to a consideration of divination proper. From Tacitus we know that the Teutons attached great importance to "omens and lots." Ariovistus' refusal to fight was explained by the prisoners on the score of "the custom which obtained among the Teutons that the mothers should by means of lots and prophecies determine whether or not it would be advantageous to fight a battle." According to Ammianus Marcellinus (XIV,9,10), the Alemanni felt all their courage desert them when the auspices or the authority of the sacred rights prohibited their entering battle. A number of other passages that deal with divination might be cited, from the historians (e.g. Agathias, II,6), from the vitæ of the missionaries, and from the Norse sagas, but it will be more profitable to subject the passages of Tacitus to a somewhat closer scrutiny and to group our material around these.

Tacitus distinguishes omens and lots (auspicia and sortes). Concerning the latter he remarks:

The mode of consulting lots is simple. They cut off the twig of a fruit bearing tree and cut it into little wands. These they thereupon distinguish by certain marks, and scatter them at random and fortuitously upon a white garment. Thereupon the priest of the state, if the occasion be a public one, or the father of a household, if it be private, after and invocation of the gods, and lifting his eyes up to heaven, thrice take up one wand at a time and interprets the wand taken up in accordance with the marks previously made on them. It they forbid, no further consultation concerning the same matter takes place on that day; but if they permit, a confirmation by means of omens is still required in addition.

However simple this mode of consulting lots may have been, the words of Tacitus are hardly such as not to require comment. The first question that presents itself is just what was the nature of the marks upon the wands. If they stood for yes and no, which forsooth would have been the most simple of all, then what need was there for more than two pieces of wood, and for an interpretation besides? The marks from which the priest of father of the family divined with prayer (coelum suspiciens) the will of the gods must, therefore, have been something else than mere signs for yes and no, although the answer was the main positive or negative (permissum or prohibitum).

With these bits of wood (surculi) in the account of Tacitus the Norse blótspann ("sacrifice-chip," divining rod; plural blótspænnir), showing that the lot was accompanied with sacrifice, and the Frisian teni (teina, twig), which we meet in Frisian judicial procedure, are to be compared. On these teni of the Frisians certain marks (signa) were made, belonging to individuals concerned in the suit. The procedure is described in the lex Frisionum. If a murder has been committed, lots are drawn by means of two pieces of wood, on one of which there is a sing of the cross, while the other is unmarked. Seven persons suspected by the plaintiff are brought forward, and if the unmarked lot be drawn the guilty person is among these seven. Each of the latter thereupon makes his own sign upon the teina, the seven lots are covered over, an innocent child draws six of them, and the owner of the seventh is the guilty man. In like manner lots were drawn in case of disputes involving property. Here, accordingly, the lot designates particular persons.

Tacitus places omens and lots alongside of each other, as is also done in Hymiskvidha, I:

Divining rods they shook and blood inspected.

Concerning omens (auspicia) Tacitus notes the following:

They also know how to consult the cries and the flight of birds; it is peculiar to this people that they in addition deduce presages and admonitions from horses. These are fed at public expense in sacred forests and groves, are milk-white and undefiled by human labor. Yoked to the sacred chariot they are accompanied by the priest and the king, or chief of the state, who carefully observe their neighing and snorting. In not other omen is greater faith reposed, not only by the people but also by the nobility, for they regard the priests as the ministers of the gods, and the horses as cognizant of the divine will.

The cries and the flight of birds were, therefore, looked upon as omens. Some birds, as the swallow, stork, and eagle, bode good fortune; other, as the dove (Leichentaube), owl, and cuckoo, bode ill fortune. Tacitus dwells at some length on the most important oracle of all, the omens derived from horses. These horses were kept in the sacred groves, as were the white horses of Freyr near his sanctuary at Drontheim. They performed no daily tasks, but on the occasion of the sacred procession were yoked to the chariot, as at the procession of Freyr in Sweden. The chariot of Nerthus, on the other hand, was drawn by cows. The remark that not only the people but also the nobility believed in these auspices is doubtless made in view of the skeptical attitude prominent Romans assumed toward such matters.

A third kind of divination through which the Teutons sought to forecast the outcome of war, Tacitus describes as follows:

A prisoner of the tribe with which they are at war, taken in any manner whatsoever, they match with one of their own men, chose for this purpose. Each fights with the weapons peculiar to his own country. The victory of either is regarded as an augury of the result of the war.

It will be observed that this combat is not designed to bring the war to a close, but merely to obtain some presage as to its final issue. The single combats mentioned by Gregory of Tours (II,2) and Paulus Diaconus (I,12), that put an end to wars, are therefore not at all parallel.

A Scandinavian form of the single combat to decide disputes is the hólmaganga

("holm-going"), which one could not refuse to make without being branded as infamous. Von Amira is skeptical towards the supposed religious significance of these combats and regards, in fact, most of the so-called ordeals (Gottesurteile) as Christian in origin.

Tacitus does not make mention of divination in connection with sacrifice—sooth-saying from blood and entrails and possibly also from the brains of animals—nor of conjuring of the dead, although both of these forms of divination are doubtless to be regarded as Teutonic.

Alongside of these official forms, numerous conceptions and usages in connection with divination can be gathered from folklore, a few of which may here be briefly referred to.

Dreams are of very frequent occurrence in both Norse and German literature, the best know example being perhaps Kriemhilt's dream in the Nibelungenlied. In the main these dreams bear, however, the earmarks of conscious literary fiction, and Grimm, in his mythology, has accordingly attache little importance to them, despite the fact that certain special dreams, such as that of the treasure on the bridge, as well as the putting faith in dreams in a new house, in the wedding night, in New Year's night, etc., have obtained wide currency in popular tales. The Teutons, at any rate, never possessed systematized oneiromancy. Omens from what is encountered on the street (Angang) and other occurrences are enumerated (Reginsmál, 20-24). Careful attention was paid to sneezing, slips in speech, stumbling, falling, and various aërial phenomena. Belief in lucky and unlucky days was also very widespread, Friday being, for instance, generally shunned for setting out on a journey, for contracting a marriage, or starting any undertaking. Most of these things are, however to be regarded in the light of "ethnographic parallels" rather than as relics from pagan antiquity, although it is to be acknowledged that ecclesiastical regulations and such writers as Burchard of Worms, Regino of Prüm, and Pirmin combat these popular customs as pagan in character.

"The Religion of the Teutons," by P. D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, page 385-397.