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 (dísir, fylgjur, nornir). 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?
Eirik’s Saga. The 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.