Viking-Age Psychic: Some Hits and One Big Miss

June 21, 2012

Old Norse literature is filled with supernatural beings and occurrences. Obviously, the mythological works refer to gods, elves, dwarfs, giants, enormous serpents, etc., while the sagas feature the returning dead (lots of them), trolls, shape-shifting berserks and the occasional giant. There’s also quite a lot of magic. There is active magic: spells and curses, but, since the sagas were written by Christians and the Icelandic family sagas (Íslandingasögur) often take place after the conversion (at least in part), this kind of magic is often viewed negatively. In addition, since seiðr magic was particularly associated with women, male practitioners (including Odin) were often viewed with suspicion and contempt. Even though magic sometimes has a bad reputation in the sagas, it is generally taken for granted and therefore often works (in the saga accounts–not in real life).

Along with active magic, there is also prophetic or divinatory magic. Sometimes active and prophetic magic go hand and hand, but they could also be separate, and I’m going to focus on prophetic magic in this post. Prophecy can come in many forms in the sagas: sometimes people have prophetic dreams; sometimes a member of one of the overlapping groups of female deities associated with human fate will turn up (dísirfylgjurnornir). Since the sagas’ original audience would often have been familiar with the general plots of the stories, saga writers don’t build suspense in quite the same way modern novelists do. Instead they often use a lot of prophetic foreshadowing. This is particularly noticeable in Laxdæla saga, in which the author applies prophetic foreshadowing with a trowel: there are dreams, cursed weapons and predictions out the wazoo.

Some saga characters are particularly gifted at foretelling the future. They “see further into things than other people.” Some of these people are men, and they don’t bear the same stigma as men who practice seiðr. Indeed, they are often considered wise counselors. For instance, in Laxdæla saga, a man named Gest Oddleifsson

was an important chieftain and especially wise man, who could foretell many events of the future. Most of the foremost men of the country were on good terms with him and many sought his advice. (ch. 33, p. 328)

On one occasion, he and Olaf Hoskuldsson observe a group of young men swimming. He is able to identify Olaf’s sons and nephew. After Olaf leaves, Gest begins to weep and predicts that one day Olaf’s nephew Bolli will

stoop over [his cousin/fosterbrother/best friend] Kjartan’s corpse and in slaying him bring about his own death, a vision all the more saddening because of the excellence of these young men. (ch. 33, p. 331)

Earlier, he had interpreted a series of dreams for Gudrun Osvifsdottir. These dreams also relate to the central tragedy, as Gudrun gets engaged to Kjartan, but marries Bolli.

The sagas also feature professional seers, the völur (singular völva). The völur were female and often practiced seiðr as well as divination. The title of the mythological poem Völuspá means “The Prophecy of the völva.” The völur were respected and well-compensated (the Wikipedia article gives some examples of very rich völur graves).

Eirik the Red’s Saga gives one of the most detailed descriptions of a völva’s appearance and performance. Thorbjorg lives in Greenland and is known as the Little Sybil (lítilvölva). She and her nine sisters were all völur, but she is only one still alive. The saga makes it clear the kind of respect the völur commanded:

It was her custom in winter to attend feasts; she was always invited, in particular, by those who were most curious about their own fortunes or the season’s prospects…. Thorkel invited the prophetess to his house and prepared a good reception for her, as was the custom when such women were being received. A high-seat was made ready for her with a cushion on it, which had to be stuffed with hens’ feathers…. When she entered the room everyone felt obliged to proffer respectful greetings, to which she responded according to her opinion of each person. (ch. 4, pp. 81-82)

Her clothing and her meal are described in very great detail. This is what she ate:

[S]he was given a gruel made from goat’s milk, and a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there [during a time of famine]. She used a brass spoon, and a knife with a walrus-tusk handle bound with two rings of copper; the blade had a broken point. (ch. 4, p. 82)

The clothing, food, hen feathers and accouterments all presumably have some sort of magical significance. Unfortunately, she needs one more thing: a bunch of women who will stand in a circle and at least one woman who can sing certain spells. The only woman who knows the spells is Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a young woman recently arrived from Iceland, who learned the spells from her foster-mother but is hesitant to perform them because she is a Christian and doesn’t want to do something so pagany. Eventually, she is convinced.

If you strip away all the magical trappings, however, the Little Sybil’s performance isn’t too different from that of a modern psychic or a nineteenth-century spiritualist. She doesn’t actually contact the spirits of the dead–when the Norse dead wanted to contact the living, they just got up and did it themselves, using their dead bodies (this occurs in Eirik’s saga, when Thorstein Eiriksson sits up to give a final message to his wife, the aforementioned Gudrid). She does, however, mention spirits (náttúrur):

Many spirits are now present…which were charmed to hear the singing, and which previously had tried to shun us and would grant us no obedience. And now many things stand revealed to me which before were hidden both from me and from others. (ch. 4, p. 83)

And what is her actual prophecy? Well, she’s been invited because there has been a severe famine, and people want to know when it will end:

I can now say that this famine will not last much longer and that conditions will improve with the spring; and the epidemic which has persisted for so long will abate sooner than expected. (ch. 4, p. 83)

Yippee! Exactly what people want to hear. She also has a prediction for Gudrid:

…I can see your whole destiny with great clarity now. You will make a most distinguished marriage here in Greenland, but it will not last for long, for your paths all lead to Iceland; there you will start a great and eminent family line, and over your progeny there shall shine a bright light. (ch. 4, p. 83)

She gives readings to others as well, although the details are not provided. We are told, however, that “there were few things that did not turn out as she prophesied.” And, indeed, her predictions are accurate as far as they go, but, considering she can see Gudrid’s whole destiny, she leaves out a few important details: “During your first marriage, there will be an epidemic, and the dead will rise. Your own husband will rise as a zombie, but don’t worry, he doesn’t want to eat your brains; he just wants a Christian burial.” Missed that one.

Oh, and there’s one more glaring miss: all Gudrid’s paths lead to Iceland, except the one that leads to a new world that hadn’t been discovered at the time of the prophecy. Gudrid will start a great and eminent family line in Iceland, but one important member of that family line will be the first European born in that brand new world. North America–kind of a big thing to leave out, don’t you think?

Actual photo of “The Little Sybil”

ES

References:

Eirik’s SagaThe Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Penguin Classics ed. London, Penguin, 1965. All quotations are from this edition.

Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. Heimskringla.no

The Saga of the People of Laxardal. Tr. Keneva Kunz. The Sagas of Icelanders. Ed. Örnólfur Thorsson. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2000. All quotations are from this edition.

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End of the Year Psychic Predictions

December 21, 2011

Cross-posted at the Independent Investigations Group-Atlanta blog. Go visit us. We’re swell!

This afternoon I received a Google alert about a press release that had gone through the CBS Atlanta website. It did not originate there, but it’s unfortunate that it ended up on a news site all the same. It was a press release by psychic Blair Robertson, and it began:

Psychic Who Predicted Japan Earthquake Shares Insights

PHOENIX, Dec. 20, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Can Blair Robertson see into the future? His successful forecasts of coming events seem to prove he can.

His past predictions include the Japanese 8.9 earthquake and tsunami, the two devastating New Zealand earthquakes, the terrible plane crash that claimed the life of Polish president Lech Kaczynski, World Cup events, accurately predicting the Oscars, and more.

Gosh, he must be pretty good, then, right? Saved thousands of people in Japan, right? Well, not so much.

I’m going to focus on Robertson’s claimed “prediction” of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami because if it’s true, it’s utterly amazing and important. If it’s false, then Robertson is capitalizing on the death and misery of thousands for cheap, imaginary bragging rights and should be treated as a heartless fraud.

The facts of the case

On 8 March, psychic Blair Robertson sent an envelope to Shawville Town Hall by commercial courier (which I image they pronounce interestingly in Quebec).

Early in the morning of 11 March 2011, I was waiting at my bus stop and scrolling through my twitter feed. Australia was having a collective gasp of horror over an earthquake in Japan. Reports and video were just coming in, and my tweeps were reacting to what they were seeing.

At 7:00 PM (see the image of the envelope here) on 11 March, the mayor of Shawville opened an envelope on stage and found what appeared to be a prediction of an earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Mind you, this is a prediction of something that has already happened, which should be a huge tip-off.

Basically, he switched envelopes. Indeed, skepdic uses this guy as a classic example of a “sealed envelope trick.” At let’s face it, if you are “predicting” things that have already happened, you aren’t making predictions.

It’s also telling that Robertson “predicted” the 8.9 earthquake, which is what the news had reported on the 11th, but the USGS eventually revised the earthquake to a 9.0 on the 14th. You’d have thought he would have gotten that. But of course he didn’t.

Blair also releases annual predictions on his website. Last year, Robertson released a list of what as going to happen in the year 2011. Let’s see how he did, eh wot?

“1. I predict avalanches in Italy, Austria and the western US, with multiple injuries in January.”

This prediction is pretty feeble because it is predicting the inevitable. He might as well be predicting mountains where there are mountains, avalanches are so common in some of the places he is suggesting (the Alps and…the whole Western US). According to the director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, for example, between Dec 18, 2008- and Jan 25, 2009, 23 people died in avalanches in the US.

“2. Watch for train derailments in California and on East coast within 60 days.”

Another gimme. Between January and September of this year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis, there were some 1,054 train derailments in the US. At that rate, it would be stunning if there weren’t multiple derailments in California or on the whole East Coast.

3. Air to air collision in Northeast.***

The asterisks point us to a collision that happened on the same day of the blog post. He says he predicted it on TV the night before. However, I would posit that there are constantly air to air collisions helicopters, planes, birds, balloons, or skydivers. This prediction is so vague that it could be anything. In this case, he says that a helicopter and plane collision fulfilled his prophecy. Any collision would have fit the bill, which is why we can’t take this as a serious prediction.

4. I foresee a hunting accident that claims a life in mid-west before the end of February.

Again, any specifics would help. This vague “somewhere in the midwest” thing is another sure bet. In 1997, there were 66 fatal hunting accidents in the US. That one of them would occur “in the midwest” in the first two months is no stretch.

5. Massive fires in New England blamed on arson will occur before July.

In the first half of 2011, 14.5% of arson was committed in New England, according to the FBI. We have no specifics by which to hazard a guess at which cases of inevitable arson he’s talking about. Another gimme that therefore can’t possibly be taken seriously as a hit.

6. Tragic accident during sporting event injures leading sports figure in 2011.

Don’t you have any names? Or relevant fields of achievement? This isn’t a prediction; it’s a statement that will always come true in a world with NASCAR.

7. I feel a bus accident that injures college students….. eastern US…. in three months.

OK, if there is a single bus accident (doesn’t say school bus, mind you, or that it is school related in any way) with college students on it–anywhere east of the Mississippi–he gets a hit. And when you take into consideration that according to researchers at the University Michigan there were an average of 318 buses involved in fatal incidents each year between 2004-2007, and that deaths include people killed in smaller cars (majority of fatalities) and non-motorists–and these are only the subset of fatal accidents!–this is another useless non-prediction. Merely a statistical inevitability.

8. Weird. A bank robber uses Santa outfit…..trips up and shoots elf (EDIT: that should be “self”)

How do I even begin to check this? And Santa is a “right jolly old elf,” dude, so BOTH are correct! 🙂

9. I predict that fuel surcharges will skyrocket for common goods and services.

Um. I don’t what this means. I mean, I understand every word, but…I’m not sure which surcharge he’s talking about. You can look at the consumer price index and the cost of living and see how fuel costs factor into the overall cost of remaining on this soggy rock, but I don’t see a testable claim stated here without more specifics.

10. Watch for Paul McCartney to marry again, this time with a prenuptial agreement!

He did get married in 2011. He had been dating the same woman for years. There was no prenuptial.

11. Apple will buy Facebook by year end.

WRONGY McWRONGENSTEIN!

We have 11 predictions, most of which are so vague as to be useless. The only times that Blair makes a specific prediction, he is completely and entirely wrong.

So, Great and Powerful one, what’s on deck for this year? Any real shockers?

  1. I predict that the Republicans will win the Presidential election.
  2. A horrifying premonition: spandex will make a comeback near the end of 2012.
  3. Volcanic activity in the Northwest will be big news and I feel there will be a very good chance of a large eruption.
  4. There will be a bombing on a cruise ship this year.
  5. I predict North Carolina will be slammed and heavily damaged by storms in April.
  6. I predict Jennifer Aniston will marry.
  7. Watch for major riots will occur in Miami and London in the spring.
  8. I predict a train crash in Southern Europe within the next 120 days that will be caused by sabotage.
  9. In spite of persistent rumors, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will remain together in 2012 and adopt another child.
  10. This year will see the passing of a much-loved and great comedienne/actress.
  11. I predict a major fire in a building/hotel in Hong Kong affecting hundreds this summer.
  12. A member of royalty will die in a car crash within 6 months.
  13. I predict a dam will burst, causing much damage, within the year.
  14. I predict a major oil spill in the North Atlantic within the first five months.
  15. Watch for an assassination attempt on an African leader in the next few weeks that will make headlines.
  16. I predict a ferryboat capsizing in the Philippines with more than 60 lost in February.
  17. Another US leading politician in a sex scandal. This time an easterner.
  18. I predict volcanic activity in Italy – affecting the Amalfi Coast this year.
  19. Watch for a series of fires this spring in California that will be arson.
  20. I predict we will hear of horrifying riots in South Africa during the summer.
  21. I predict that the Euro will drop below $1.25US before the end of May.
  22. Watch for a tsunami in the spring that will threaten the island kingdom of Tonga.
  23. News of a thwarted “terrorist” attack at the summer Olympics will have the world on edge.
    I predict a baby for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge this year.
  24. I predict that both Greece and Portugal will default this year.
  25. Middle East tensions will greatly escalate in the fall.

So we’ll see. A lot of these are worthless–which Republican? Fires? In California? Arson? Wouldn’t be the first time. But, hey, you got 0-for-11 last year, so why not throw out 25? Eventually, the laws of probability demand that you will get one right.

IIG-Atlanta has $50,000 for Blair if he is able to pass our test and demonstrate psychic ability under scientifically controlled circumstances. This is real money. I’d be happy to extend an offer to CBS Atlanta to film any test that Blair agreed to participate in. Check out our challenge application at the IIG-Atlanta website. If someone nominates Blair and he passes, that someone will receive a $5000 finder’s fee. So let him know.

RJB