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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The “Oprah of the Paranormal” at Dragon*Con

September 19, 2011

Independent Investigations Group-Atlanta had our big debut this year at Dragon*Con: we had a table, we brought in a guest speaker, mentalist Mark Edward and we distributed lots of brochures and cards inviting people to take our $50,000 Challenge.

We also kept an eye on the ParanormalTrack. One day, another member and I attended ParanormalTrack’s Psychic Reading Gallery featuring Ericka Boussarhane, “the Oprah of theParanormal.” We distributed our version of Granite State Skeptics’ psychic bingo cards at the door; however, since most people were already seated, we only handed out a few. Fortunately, one young woman was so delighted with hers that she got more from us and passed them out to other members of the audience. We can haz minion?Mwahahaha!

Boussarhane’s website is called coldcasepsychic.com, but she doesn’t actually seem to make many claims about work on cold cases or with the police. She is, however, impressively multifaceted (if not particularly gifted at grammatical parallelism):

Psychic, Intuitive, Empath,  Dreams, Horoscopes, Reiki II Clairvoyant, Success Coach, Cold Cases, Ordained Minister, Notary, Psychic Detective, Criminal Readings, Astrology, Counseling, Missing Persons & Tarot Readings .

In addition to being the “Oprah of the paranormal,” she has auditioned for Oprah’s OWN cable network.

At Dragon*Con, she was heavily promoting Pensacola ParaCon 2011. She is also promoting the Con on her website.

Boussarhane comes off as warm, personable and somewhat goofy. She projects an earth-mothery, women’s-feelings-are-magic vibe that I suspect would suit Oprah’s Jenny McCarthy/Suzanne Somers-infected network.

She began by talking about herself, her background and her point of view. She believes everyone is “intuitive.” Her mother was very psychic, “like a lot ofwomen.” She did mention that she has worked with cold cases but offered no details. In her public readings, she tries to cover everyone in the room, so she began her readings in the front row. Although the room was fairly small, she did not get to Elizabeth and me. Her method also meant that there was no time for questions at the end.

After her introduction, she made all sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” This, she said, would change the feel of the room and create “positive energy.” It would cause “good people” to come across, not those who want to talk about underwear (it seems that Ms. Boussarhane is frequently assailed by spirits with Tourette’s Syndrome or at least very poor impulse control).

She explained that she begins a reading with a silent prayer and closes her eyes so she won’t be influenced by visual clues. She was, she says, a psychology major and knows about “skeptic stuff.” She did’t mention cold reading, but it was clear that that was what she was talking about. It also seemed clear that she was, in fact, using cold reading techniques. While she does close her eyes, she does not keep them closed throughout the entire reading. If there are visual cues to be seen, then she sees them.

She explained that not everything she says will be a hit, and, indeed, when one of her statements fails to hit the mark, she often accepts it and moves on, rather than aggressively suggesting that the audience member must be wrong (à la John Edward). She did, however, mention that the information she is getting for one audience member might actually apply to another, or to a relative, or to a friend, or to someone the audience member passed on the street last week (okay, I added the last one).

I should mention that, from where we were sitting, it was often difficult to tell whether Ms. Boussarhane’s insights were hits or misses: the audience wasn’t miked, and we could only see the backs of the heads of most of the people who received readings. It was also difficult to tell how much information people were providing. That said, Ms. Boussarhane came up with no extraordinary hits.

Some highlights:

For one woman, she sees an aunt who is “poking her girls [breasts] out.” This means that she has “passed,” apparently. This is a miss. “Well, that’s okay,” says Ms. Boussarhane; she won’t try to make it make sense.

For a woman named Jennifer, she sees a large-breasted, blond woman who is dead. The woman wants to hug Jennifer. Her death was sudden, and she shows a puppy (breasts and animals, especially dogs, are a frequent theme). Ms. Boussarhane gets something about “cuttin’ hair.” The woman is “showing me a bathing suit top, kinda hippie-ish.” Jennifer is going to have a dual major and study away from home. At least some of this seems to make sense to Jennifer. At the end of the reading for Jennifer, the dead blond tells her not “‘to sweat the small things.’ She’s talking about your chest.” Ms. Boussarhane apparently does not realize how funny (and perhaps insulting) this is until the crowd laughs.

For a woman named Clair, she sees a woman with a “tramp stamp.” Seems to be Hello Kitty or something with kitty ears. Not sure whether this was a hit. I don’t think so. “Did you have a relative you only visited one time?” No. “Is there a Bruce?” Yes.

She sees someone giving a man named Hugh a wedgie—a chest-thumping colleague. This is a miss. She asks if he wants to sell a plot of land. He does. She suggests that he get his cholesterol checked because high cholesterol and neck blockages run in his family (this is worded oddly—something like, “cholesterol runs high in the neck in your family”). Although a propensity toward high cholesterol somewhere in the family seems a fairly safe suggestion, it appears to be a miss.

She tells someone, “The check is in the mail. Literally, the check’s in the mail. Not literally the check’s in the mail.” I’m not sure if this made sense to its intended target, but it didn’t to me.

“Someone put a big Shakespearean head on you. Or a hat. Or Peter Pan.” At first, I imagined someone with a bust of Shakespeare on top of or over the individual’s own head, but I think she meant an Elizabethan hat. Regardless, it isn’t a hit.

“Who killed a lizard in the house?” No one. Oddly, the lizard is the one thing Ms. Boussarhane can’t let go of. She keeps trying to find some connection to a lizard. In vain.

Perhaps my favorite exchange: “You’re gonna get a new car, sweetie.” “I don’t drive.”

Some noticeable cold reading elements: “Do you have three siblings?” No. “How many do you have?” “One.”

She gives one woman information that relates to the woman’s mother. Or, to be more accurate, the woman relates it to her mother. Ms. Boussarhane asks if the woman comes from from New York. The woman says no, but her mother did. She says, “I’m sensing that your mother’s not here.” Now, it seems to me that she’s suggesting that the mother has died, but “not here” could mean not in Atlanta or not at Dragon*Con, and that is how the woman takes it. This woman is sitting in the row ahead of me, so I can see and hear the exchange better than I could many of the earlier readings. The woman is clearly, if unwittingly, leading Ms. Boussarhane. The woman is also clearly upset about some things going on in her family, and the reading is starting to get uncomfortable when time runs out.

While Ms. Boussarhane’s wedgie-giving, big-boobed spirits are somewhat entertaining, this woman brings home to me why psychics are such horrible leaches. Although there were no tears or raw emotions over suicides or dead babies, this woman was upset about the way her mother is being treated (by whom, I’m not sure). The psychic’s words seemed to make sense to her, even if she was providing most of the information. The reading was brief, but the woman seemed to become very involved in it and seemed to hope she could get something useful out of the reading. There may be help for her, but it is not going to come in a one-minute reading at Wookie-infested convention.

ES

Crossposted at IIG-Atlanta.