Seidhr today

The heathen community is full of seidh-bunnies; indeed, neo-pagans and New Age dabblers are no less enchanted by shamanism. Apparently, they think it goes with the territory. With very little provocation, they’ll tell you every detail of their latest journey to other worlds. I listen. I smile and nod politely. Not for me the task of spoiling the fantasy. Not for me the task of warning every fool who wants to act like prey. Let the gods deal with them.

We know from the lore that seidhr was a women’s practice. It struck our ancestors as unmanly. Men lived in this world. They cultivated its soil, transformed it with their swords, brought themselves wealth and honor in war, in raiding, in trading. Men honored the gods and asked their help in times of need. But, it was the women, that more luminous half of the species, who practiced serious magic.

Frejya taught seidh-craft to Odhinn, and he – ever the crafty magician – used it to enhance his power, but his use of women’s magic left a lasting stain on his manliness. We know because Loki taunted him for it, and Odhinn had no answer. It is also significant that Odhinn could change his sex at will, being either male or female.

No doubt there mortal men whose weakness and failure led them into the practice of magic. I think of those ancient priest-ridden kings at Uppsala. Ritual incarnations of Freyr, presiding at the holiest site in the Norse world, how can we expect them to have abstained? And, those men whose gender identity was formed toward the feminine, they surely made themselves lives as priests; they were surely seidhmen. And those madmen who we now call psychotics, they too must have been seidmen.

What is it, then, about seidhcraft that draws the heathen man of today? Can it be that they are all queer or psychotic? For many years, I simply assumed so. Now, I know that I was wrong to take them at their word – they are not really seidhmen, they are seidh-bunnies. What they practice is a probably harmless Norse-flavored version of Michael Harner’s shamanism for the New Age dilettante. Let the gods deal with them.

I first encountered this New Age shamanism at a workshop in New York City in the late 1980s. I went to this workshop as I went to so many in those days. “Let’s see what’s happening in the mainstream of the New Age.” Led by a student of Michael Harner, we 10 or 11 seekers sat in a circle on the floor at one end of a darkened auditorium. Then, as a group, we stood and walked a circle as we participated in a guided visualization, while a group at the other end of the auditorium debated the meaning of queer culture within the Hispanic community. With a background of Indian drums, we followed in our imaginations the instructions of our guide. Our task at this introductory workshop was to enter a specific other world and discover our individual power animals, which would then possess our bodies for the duration of the visualization. It should come as no surprise that everyone succeeded, except, in an odd way, me. [1] The frumpy student on my left discovered her connection to the eagle. The gnomish stockbroker on my right turned out to have the soul of a wolf. Indeed, eagles and wolves turned out to be the commonest result. I seem to remember that we also had a dove, a meadowlark, an elk, and a couple of mountain lions. Apparently, the predator species are particularly fond of urban office workers—or maybe it’s the reverse.

I have nothing against guided visualization as a tool for self-discovery. But, it’s not seidhr. What it is is an interesting way of mining the content of the mind more or less at the level of a waking dream. Through guided visualization, you will find connections that are interesting and often highly meaningful personally. That’s why so many heathens bring back odd personal interpretations of the lore. Those connections fit perfectly in the unique universe of personal symbolism we all spend our lives constructing. I have no doubt that the stockbroker would love to be like a wolf. His civilized and somewhat beaten-down demeanor suggested that a bit of the wolf might have helped him savage his clients and be more successful in his chosen career. Nor do I have any doubt that the frumpy student longed to soar like an eagle. What I doubt is that a stockbroker who had the wolf in him would have been quite so pleased to face that realization.

Seidhr is not guided visualization. Seidhr is one variety of shamanism, and shamanism is not – New Age gurus to the contrary – an easily accessible tool for personal discovery. It is not a way of connecting to the wishes of your heart. It is not a pleasant recreation for a Saturday afternoon.

Shamanism is a way of journeying to another world. The true seidhkona (or seidhmadhur) experiences something none of us would choose willingly. The true seidhkona is ripped out of her body to journey to a world so complex, so overwhelming that her very sanity is threatened. When she returns, she is exhausted. Not merely tired, but feeling that every ounce of her will has been drained. She may then spend days recovering from the experience. With a skilled mentor, she will know what she might encounter and learn to frame her experiences in a way her rational mind can accept. With self-discipline and practice, she may – over many years — learn to control her experience to some extent, to visit particular places and to understand where to find the information she is looking for. What she will not do is learn her craft from a book and practice it on weekends as a pleasant way of getting to know the gods. She will not conclude that losing her job a few days after meeting Odhinn on her latest seidh-journey is proof that Odhinn is a hard taskmaster who is putting her through “some changes.”

The true seidhkona will probably come from a family of practitioners, whether of seidhr or in some other tradition. A talent for real shamanism is largely biological. Look for it in any family with an unusual number of psychotics and homosexuals, of alcoholics and drug-abusers, of prison inmates and prostitutes, of people who just can’t seem to get the hang of living in the world. Years ago, a therapist shook her head sadly when I told her that many of my ancestors were Indian medicine men. She said, “Then even more were psychotic, or gay, or alcoholic.” She was right. (I didn’t realize that our Freudians knew so much about the world.) The family of my father’s mother going back many generations and coming forward in all its branches is full of these folk, including my late and truly demented father, a Lakota medicine man. Before the Anglo conquest they were honored spiritual leaders. Now, they’re just nuts.

So, going back to my original puzzle – why are so many heathen men (and women) who aren’t queer and aren’t psychotic and who would punch you if you suggested they were failures or misfits, why do they embrace the idea of themselves as seidmen (or seidhkona)? Is it simple ignorance? Wishful thinking? Is it the legacy of their path to heathenism through some variety of fluffy-bunny Wicca?

Maybe those reasons are a part of the answer, but I think there’s something more. Heathenism has no continuous and unbroken chain from the Norse past to the American present. Humans seem to want and need hierarchical games. But how can you be a truer heathen than your neighbor? Easy – practice “seidhr.” [2] Why merely honor the gods when you can use them to grab a bit of status? And, the best part is that no one can actually prove that you don’t regularly commune with the gods on weekends. If this seems harsh, consider the differences between ancient and modern seidhr. Men seem to now dominate seidhr. In contrast, the lore shows it as the affair of women and feminized men, The practice of seidhr now provides an opportunity to show leadership in the local community. The small bit of surviving lore shows that its practitioners were not of particularly high status. (However, I believe that status dimension reflects the conversion to Christianity in our sources.) And, modern seidhr is typically mere guided visualization, not the shamanism of our ancestors. Modern heathens are deceiving themselves if they believe that their practice is something more than fluffy bunny Wicca in Norse drag.

For a description of real seidhr, see The Seidman Rants. There’s a guy I can hear without rolling my eyes. Let the gods deal with the rest.

  1. I said that in an odd way I didn’t succeed at this visualization, so it seems reasonable to give the rest of the story. As it happens, I believe (more or less) in spirit guides and power animals, and I happen to know that mine is a raven. But, during this visualization, I connected strongly with the image of a winged horse. The image didn’t possess my body, as their images did for the other participants, and I walked out of workshop rather than share an unsettling experience with the group. From that day I began developing what is now a completely irrational and overwhelming fear of heights and flying. Indeed, that horse haunted my dreams for years afterwards, carrying me places I didn’t want to go. I remain confident that the meaning for me, if any, of the experience will become clear some day.
  2. Other games are also available. You can cast runes, a form of oracular magic. You can form a kindred and get yourself elected godi. At the very least, you can brag about how long ago you became a heathen. The only cool game you won’t be able to pull off is claiming that you are a hereditary heathen and that your family went underground during the Burning Time.

Poor Nova Roma

Sometimes I wonder why I stay with this organization. It’s so tumultuous that I have to think its most vocal members are enjoying their conflict. Today, one of the main topics is the religio. Nothing new there. I have to say that if I were a Christian, I don’t think I could honorably belong to Nova Roma; it’s too much a pagan organization. The fact that it has Christian members leads me to wonder why they stay. Is it so that they can eventually achieve a victory for Christ by overturning the religio? Do they wear their faith so lightly that participating in paganism doesn’t trouble them at all? Or, are they so enchanted with playing a game of government simulation that they have no interest in Societas Via Romana?

I belong to Societas Via Romana, as well as to Nova Roma, and to the New Roman Republic as well. SVR, I can understand. It offers romanitas without the heavy politics, in-fighting, and conflict over religion. That, perhaps, makes it not so attractive to practitioners of the religio, but also less attractive to the nuts.

The New Roman Republic? In my mind, the jury’s still out. It looks like a clone of Nova Roma right now, in it’s earliest days. Same micronational emphasis. Same official establishment of the religio with tolerance for Christians. But, my friends are becoming involved and they have very different dreams for its future — It will be a place for the religio. No, it will be a place to get away from the excessive emphasis on the religio. I see only that it will be a place to play out the same conflict that currently exists in Nova Roma.

After the Volturnalia, I will have a clearer perspective, I think. When I am not bound by an immediate obligation, I will be able to assess more clearly whether I should commit myself to Nova Roma, or withdraw to a solitary practice.

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