Oracular arts vs historical accuracy
There was a woman in the settlement who was called Thorbjorg; she was a prophetess, and was known as the Little Sibyl. She had had nine sisters, but she was the only one left alive. 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. Since Thorkel of Herjolfsness was the chief farmer in the district, it was thought to be his responsibility to find out when the current hardships would come to an end. 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 hen’s feathers.
She arrived in the evening with the man who had been sent to escort her. She was dressed like this: she wore a blue mantle fastened with straps and adorned with stones all the way down to the hem. She had a necklace of glass beads. On her head she wore a black lambskin hood lined with cat’s-fur. She carried a staff with a brass-bound knob studded with stones. She wore a belt made of touchwood, from which hung a large pouch, and in this she kept the charms she needed for her witchcraft. On her feet were hairy calfskin shoes with long thick laces which had large tin buttons on the ends. She wore catskin gloves, with the fur inside.
When she entered the room everyone felt obliged to offer her respectful greetings, to which she responded according to her opinion of each person. Thorkel took her by the hand and led her to the seat which had been prepared for her. He asked her to cast her eyes over his home and household and herds; she had little to say about anything. Later that evening the tables were set up; and this is what the prophetess had for her meal: she 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. 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.
When the tables had been removed, Thorkel went over to Thorbjorg and asked her how she liked his home and people’s behaviour there, and how soon she would know the answer to his question which everyone wanted to learn. She replied that she would not give any answer until the following morning, when she had slept there overnight first. Late next day she was supplied with the preparations she required for performing the witchcraft. She asked for the assistance of women who knew the spells needed for performing the witchcraft, known as Warlock-songs; but there were no such women available. So inquiries were then made amongst all the people on the farm, to see if anyone knew the songs.
Then Gudrid said, ‘I am neither a sorceress nor a witch, but when I was in Iceland my foster-mother Halldis taught me spells which she called Warlock-songs.’
Thorbjorg said, ‘Then your knowledge is timely.’ ‘This is the sort of knowledge and ceremony that I want nothing to do with,’ said Gudrid, ‘for I am a Christian.’ ‘It may well be,’ said Thorbjorg, ‘that you could be of help to others over this, and not be any the worse a woman for that. But I shall leave it to Thorkel to provide whatever is required.’
So Thorkel now brought pressure on Gudrid, and she consented to do as he wished. The women formed a circle round the ritual platform on which Thorbjorg seated herself. Then Gudrid sang the songs so well and beautifully that those present were sure they had never heard lovelier singing. The prophetess thanked her for the song.
‘Many spirits are now present,’ she said, ‘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.
‘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.
Ref: Eric the Red Saga, Chapter Four based on a 13th C account of the happening in late 10th C Greenland. This is taken from pages 81-84 of The Vinland Sagas, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978 (1965)
The Chicanery of Seiðr
Part One: The Historical Seiðr Praxis
©Rig Svenson 2015