Odin’s Banishment and The Practice Of Seidr
- " Odin the Wanderer” by Georg von Rosen (1886) -
There is an episode in our lore that is considered to be a bit controversial to some, to the point where they choose not to share it with their children or speak about it openly with others of our faith. They feel that it represents some sort of moral deficiency within our sacred stories and amongst our Gods and Goddesses.
I personally feel that this story needs to be explored more thoroughly before we make judgments as to its ethical validity, for in the end I believe that it offers one of the highest moral standards within the Odinist or Asatru religion. I am here referring to Odin’s rape of Rind in order to have the son Vali. We are of course not endorsing rape here in any form, awful action that remains , unethical, immoral and illegal at its most, but rather are here to demonstrate that the indignation with which we would meet such a crime was actually shared by the Gods and Goddesses, and allows us to witness just how far the Gods will go to follow the law. It also represents just how far the forces of Chaos will go to corrupt the natural order.
Our story begins when Baldur the Bright had baleful dreams (Vegtamskvida 1). When Odin witnesses the misfortunes of his son, whose luck was supposed to be boundless, he knew something ominous was about to take place. So Frigga, Baldur’s mother, took oaths from all things (except the mistletoe) to not harm her son (Vegtamskvida 3-4, Gylfaginning 49). Meanwhile, Odin searched the worlds for all seers and seeresses in a relentless quest to find what could be foretold from these events (Vegtamskvida 8-20, Gesta Danorum Bk. 3), and the answer he receives is always the same: Baldur will die and only Vali can avenge him. But Odin cannot accept this, and eventually he sacrifices his eye for the wisdom he needs from Mimir’s fountain (see Voluspa 27-9, Gylfaginning 15). From this he learns that he will not be satisfied until he speaks with Urd herself, the Goddess of Fate, who knows all things about all worlds (ibid., see The Asatru Edda LIII.31). He also learns how he can get her to reveal the secrets she has hidden within her well (Voluspa 29). When he offers her many precious gifts she sings the song to him that has come to us as the Voluspa, in which she describes all that has been and will be concerning the fate of the worlds. Here she reiterates what Odin has already learned:
She [Urd] sat out alone
when the ancient one [Odin] came.
The Aesir’s glory [Odin]
looked into her eyes:
“What do you ask me?
Why do you tempt me?
I know everything Odin,
where you hid your eye.”
I know where Odin’s
eye is hidden,
deep in the wide-famed
well of Mimir;
Mimir drinks mead
from Odin’s pledge [Gjallarhorn]
know you more or what?
necklaces and rings for her
in exchange for prophetic songs
and knowledge of prophetic staves.
Fully she knew the future,
further on she could see.
She saw far and wide
over all the worlds.
We must remember that the Etins have this information as well, for Odin has already traveled to the grave of an evil vala (seeress) in the Underworld, and she had already told him that (Rind bears Vali in the western halls” (Vegtamskvida 16). Therefore it should come as no surprise to us that they should try to thwart his plans. The greatest weapon in their arsenal is the evil Seidr, the black art used to manipulate minds, cause sickness, and yes, see the future for their malevolent plans. However, because there are misconceptions that have evolved regarding the true nature of the Seidr, it is important for us to clarify exactly what it is before we move on.
First of all, it must be explained that the Seidr has its origins in the practices of Gullveig,
Loki’s female counterpart in the lore, and that it was solely designed for the destruction of the work the Gods had created, namely the ordered cosmos (The Asatru Edda XXII. 3, Bundehesh ch. 3, Hyndluljod 31-2, Voluspa 22; see also Viktor Rydberg’s Undersökningar I Germanisk Mythologi [Investigations into Germanic Mythology, henceforth UGM] vol. 1 ch. 27, 35-6, and UGM 2.1 ch. 27). It will be demonstrated below that the Seidr must be contrasted with the holy Galdur, which are the sacred songs and chants to the Gods for benevolent purposes. Seidr has been confused with shamanism and shown to be somehow sanctified, when the descriptions of it in the lore show anything but this. By means of this practice one “could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet compelled lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft follows such weakness and anxiety that it is not thought respectable for men to practice it; and therefore only women are brought up in this art” (Ynglingasaga ch.7). This must be compared to the statement in the same chapter of Ynglingasaga that it is Odin who knows this art well, which Loki made a derisive comment to the Allfather about in Lokasenna (24):
Loki: “But, it is said, that you
cast spells like a vala,
once on Samso;
in a vala’s guise
you went among the folk,
I think these were womanly ways.”
In Voluspa 21 it is Heid who spreads the Seidr:
They called her Heid,
when she came to houses,
the wise, prophetic vala,
who blessed gandurs;
who practiced Seid,
by Seidsent Leikin,
she was always sought out
by evil women.
It has been demonstrated in other works that Heid is identical to Gullveig (UGM 1 ch. 35) and it is beyond the scope of this essay to repeat the investigation here. Besides, the point we are trying to make here is that the Seidr is the black art in contrast to the holy Galdur. Hyndluljod (33) gives a clue to this when it traces the lineages of the “Seid-workers” (Seidberendr) to the Etin Svarthofdi, likely identical to Surt, who brings forth the flames of Ragnarok (UGM 1ch. 39). Even the sagas describe the Seid-workers as having been mistrusted by the folk. They were appreciated when they brought good news, but when they brought bad it was almost always viewed as a curse:
“There was a woman who went about in that part of the country, named Oddbjörg, who amused people by storytelling, and was a spaewife. A feeling existed that it was of some consequence for the mistress of the house to receive her well, for that what she said depended more or less on how she was entertained. She came to Upsal, and Saldis asked her to spae something, and something good, of those boys. Her answer was, ‘Hopeful are these lads; but what their future luck may be it is difficult for me to discern.’ Saldis exclaimed,’If I am to judge by this unsatisfactory speech of yours, I suppose you are not pleased with your treatment here.’ ’ You must not,’ said Oddbjörg,’let this affect your hospitality, nor need you be so particular about a word of this kind.’ ‘The less you say the better,’ replied Saldis, ‘if you can tell us nothing good.’ ‘I have not yet said too much,’ she answered; ‘but I do not think this love of theirs will last long.’ Then Saldis said,’I should have thought my good treatment of you deserved some other omen; and if you deal with evil bodings, you will have a chance of being turned out of doors.’
‘Well,’said Oddbjörg,’since you are so angry about nothing, I see no need for sparing you, and I shall never trouble you again. But, take it as you will, I can tell you that these boys will hereafter be the death each of the other, and one mischief worse than another for this district will spring from them.’” -Viga Glum’s Saga ch. 12
This passage should then remind us of Odin’s words in Havamal (87), to “never trust a flattering vala.” We are told in Harald Harfagris saga, chapter 36, that “King Harald was a hater of all Seidrworkings. There was a Seidr-man in Hordaland called Vitgeir; and when the king sent a message to him that he should give up his Seidr-work, he replied in this verse:
‘The danger surely is not great
From Seidr-workers born of mean estate,
When Harald’s son in Hadeland,
King Ragnvald, to the art lays hand.’
“But when King Harald heard this, King Erik Blood-axe went by his orders to the Uplands, and came to Hadeland and burned his brother Ragnvald in a house, along with eighty other Seidr-men; which work was much praised.”
Then again in Vatnsdaela Saga (ch. 28) a man by the name of Thorolf Sleggja is said to have been a Seidr worker and it also states that “he was a thief, and in other respects a very wicked man.”
It should not be thought that the telling of fortunes is considered an immoral practice within the Odinic faith. Odin sought the aid of seers and seeresses throughout the worlds (Vegtamskvida 2, Gesta Danorum bk. 3), Frigga “knows the fate of all well” (Lokasenna 29), and Urd, the Goddess of Fate herself is viewed with favor in our stories. It may be that the medium used to discover one’s urlag determined if one was using Galdur or Seidr. The Galdur would then include using the runes or similar device, as we see in the sources (Germania ch. 10, Hymiskvida 1, Egil’s Saga ch. 44). This is why it is said in Voluspa 64 that “Hoenir is able to choose the lot-wood” after Ragnarok when the next Age begins. The Seidr, however, likely involved some form of necromancy, a practice much feared and hated by many ancient cultures. When Hardgrep wished to learn of the Gods’ will, she created a charm with wood and stuck it under the tongue of a corpse to give it speech. But the corpse awakened, then cursed her for interrupting his slumber. Later that night the following episode took place:
“Therefore, when they had built a shelter of brushwood and were spending the night in the aforementioned forest, they saw a hand of enormous size creeping right inside their small hut. Hadding was distraught and cried for his nurse’s help. Hardgrepa, unfolding her limbs and swelling to Etin dimensions, gripped the hand fast and held it out for her foster-son to lop off. More pus than blood dripped from its hideous wounds. But later she paid for this deed, for she was slashed by companions of her own race, and neither her special nature, nor her bodily size helped her to escape the savage nails of
her assailants, which tore her to pieces.” ‒The Asatru Edda LXX. 59, Gesta Danorum bk. 1
The only passage that has led some to believe that Seidr might be some sort of sacred “shamanist” practice is Ynglingasaga ch. 4, which states that Freya “first taught the Aesir the Seidr, as it was put in use and fashion among the Vanir.” But we find in another source that Freya had among her retinue at one time a giantess named Aurboda (Fjolsvinnsmal 39) who again is none other than Gullveig herself (UGM 1 ch. 35). In Gylfaginning ch. 37 we find that this Aurboda is also the wife of Gymir or Aegir (cp. Lokasenna open prose, Skaldskaparmal 25) and that Gerd is their daughter. It is likely then that when Frey pined away, almost to the point of death, for Gerd’s love, that he was under the power of Gullveig-Aurboda’s Seidr (Skirnismal open prose, 6-7, Gylfaginning 37) in order to fulfill her schemes (see The Asatru Edda ch. LXVII for the entire story). This shall prove significant as our investigation continues.
Now to return to Odin’s story. So far, he has been told that his son Baldur will die, and that only Vali will avenge his brother’s death. Vali must be born by Rind “in the western halls” of Billing (see Havamal 97). Once the event takes place it is Hodur who actually kills Baldur, misled as he was by the treacherous Loki. Because Baldur was given an oath by all things not to harm him, the Gods played a sport where they threw various objects at him to demonstrate his invincibility. But Loki gave Hodur a special arrow made of the mistletoe that did not take the oath. Hodur thought that it was a regular arrow, and with it kills his brother, the most beloved of all the Gods (The Asatru Edda ch. LVI). However, the slaying was unintentional and the Aesir knew this, so none of them would dare avenge Baldur’s death by killing Hodur. Nevertheless, the law of bloob-revenge had to be fulfilled, for Baldur was too precious among the Gods for weregild to be paid. By the prophecies laid before him, Odin knew what he had to do.
He set out to Billing’s halls, using his shape shifting capabilities to make himself the most presentable for Rind and, being a God of war, demonstrated himself as the most capable in combat. Surely Rind could not have resisted him under normal circumstances, and yet time and time again she did.
Odin returned in several new forms, each one even more desirable than the last to her father as a potential suitor. Each time Rind rejected Odin, sometimes violently. It is likely that Rind was under the influence of Gullveig’s Seidr at the time, just as we saw Frey was before. At one point Odin tried to kiss her, but she “gave him such a shove that he was sent flying and banged his chin on the floor. Immediately he touched her with a piece of bark inscribed with runes and made her like one demented (The Asatru Edda LVII. 7, Gesta Danorum bk. 3).”
Odin returned again, only this time in the form of a woman named Vaka (cp. Odin’s name Vakr ‘The Wakeful,’ Grimnismal 54). There he offered to cure Rind of her illness, which he himself had caused with the piece of bark. He told her father that in order for her to be cured he had to give her a remedy “that would taste so bitter that unless the girl allowed herself to be tied down she would not be able to bear the potency of the cure” (The Asatru Edda LVII.10, Gesta Danorum bk. 3). Here is what follows:
“Once her father had heard this she was laid on the bed, bound, and ordered to submit passively to everything her doctor applied. Billing was quite deceived by the female form which old Odin wore to disguise his persistant scheming, and it was this which enabled a seeming remedy to become a license for his pleasures. Her physician stopped attending on her and seized the opportunity to make love, rushing to wreak his lust before he dispelled her fever, and finding that where in sound health she had been antagonistic, he could now take advantage of her disposition. Thus, Ygg-Odin won Rind with Seid.”
The Asatru Edda LVII.10 (Gesta Danorum bk. 3, Skaldskaparmal 2, 54) So we see that Odin was put into an impossible position where he had to perform a most disreputable act, even using the black art to do so, to counteract another evil act likely perpetuated by the same art. But is this the moral of our story here, that transgressions can be excused simply because one is put into a corner? I think not.
The act of raping Rind is not forgotten, and later on in the lore Odin has to pay a grave price for it. Gullveig has been executed twice for her crimes, but every time she is slain she is reborn (Voluspa 21).
Again the Gods discovered that she was alive and well and again spreading Seidr and corruption throughout the worlds. So Odin condemned her once more, Thor struck her with his hammer, and for a third time she was raised on spears and burnt (The Asatru Edda LXVIII.1, UGM 1 ch. 34-6). But this time there was a difference. Because of his marriage with Gerd, Frey and his kinsman had a familial relationship with Gullveig, and thus were compelled to speak against her execution. Of course, this seems to be her plan all along, since it is said that she will bring discord among the Gods (The Asatru Edda LXVIII. 2, cp. Helgakvida Hundingsbana I str. 38). After some heated debate, in which the Aesir stand firm in their decision to kill Gullveig for practicing the evil Seidr, the Vanir then reminded the Allfather that he too once used this art to have sex with Rind.
“When Odin heard himself accused of practicing evil Seidr, his face changed. He was reminded of a depravity that he could not contest and which also was presumably Gullveig’s work, a depravity that he paid for with a son’s death.” (The Asatru Edda LXIX. 13, UGM 1 ch. 34-6; Gesta Danorum bk. 3; Voluspa 8, 21-6, 33-4; Skaldskaparmal 2,17; Gylfaginning 34, 37; Skirnismal 6-7).
Thus began the great Teutonic theomachy, the war between the Aesir and Vanir. In the end, the Vanir stormed Asgard and Odin and his sons honorably vacated the realm so as not to spill divine blood (The Asatru Edda LXIX. 33-4, UGM 1 ch. 34-6, Gesta Danorum bk. 6). Once the Vanir have their victory, the following takes place:
“Because of all that had occurred, the Vanir ensured that Odin was ousted from his pre-eminence, stripped of his personal titles and worship, and outlawed, believing it better for a scandalous president to be thrown from power than desecrate the character of public religion; nor did they wish to become involved in another’s wickedness and suffer innocently for his guilt. Now that the inappropriate behavior of a high deity had become common knowledge, they were aware that those who worship and adore them were exchanging reverence for contempt and growing ashamed of their piety. They saw doom ahead, fear was in their hearts, and you would have imagined that the nid of a single member were recoiling on their heads.” - The Asatru Edda LXIX. 34, Gesta Danorum bk. 3
In the end, Odin was banished for ten years. This was not a sentence, it was simply how things fell into place, for according to ancient law such a crime or nid (‘disgraceful act’) could have resulted in is permanent outlawry. In the Vanir’s eyes his rape of Rind was only coupled with his unjust slaying of Gullveig, which would have made it a niding-slaying (a slaying committed by one who is disgraceful) and would thus be an ubotamal (irredeemable crime). However, an event then took place which put Odin in the only position to redeem that which otherwise could not be redeemed. The Etins informed him that they wished to attack Asgard, and that if he assisted them they would restore his position over the worlds and destroy his enemies, the Vanir. But Odin refused, then went to tell the Vanir of the impending attack, which by the laws of our ancestors was the one single way to atone for an ubotamal.
“Wherever a man commits a nithing-slaying, he is an unholy outlaw and forfeits every penny of his property, both land and movable property; he shall never come to the country, or the king, or the jarl, unless he brings true war news [of a hostile host coming, emphasis mine]. ‒Gulathing’s Law 178
Odin also offered to assist against the oncoming invasion, which would include his warrior sons of the Aesir. Until this point they had all been living in exile in Mannheim (‘Man-Home’) while Ull ruled Asgard in Odin’s stead, using Odin’s name (The Asatru Edda LXIX. 34, Gesta Danorum bk. 3). The Vanir readily accepted Odin’s offer and together they crushed the Etins so badly that it is written that they will not have another upheaval until Ragnarok due to the vast numbers they lost. Because of this, Odin was allowed to return to his throne:
“After Odin returned home, he took his wife, Frigga, back. Once Odin had recovered his divine regalia, he shone throughout the earth with such lustrous renown that all peoples welcomed him like a light returned to the universe. There was nowhere in the entire globe which did not pay homage to his sacred power. He banished the Seid as his first act and dispersed the groups of its practitioners which had sprung up, like shadows before the oncoming of his sacred brightness.” ‒The Asatru Edda LXXII.7; Gesta Danorum bk. 1,3; UGM 1 ch. 34, 37, 41. Cp. Havamal 146.
This episode fully demonstrates the primary purpose of our lore: to describe the Gods’ Age of Innocence, the ‘Ancient Age’ (Ár Alda) mentioned in Voluspa. They have had a time of learning and adapting to the harsh realities of the univers, and because of this they know how to deal with the forces of Chaos and their manipulations. The lore could thus be broken up into four segments:
1) The Time of Creation, when the divine order rose up out of the Chaos to bring about the cosmos as we know it.
2) The Time of Corruption, when the powers of Frost and Chaos planted the seeds that set things in motion for
Ragnarok to come. This is when the Gods faced these powers and learnt how to deal with them.
3) The Time of Containment, when the Gods bound the most powerful among the Etins and slowed down their destructive activities. Gullveig was banished to the Ironwood, Loki and Fenrir were bound, Leikin was cast into Niflhel, Jormungand was knocked unconscious by Mjollnir, and the Etin forces were depleted in
4) Ragnarok, when Chaos and Order clash for one final battle to cleanse the worlds of all corruption and make way for a new order of peace and enlightenment.
This idea that the Gods had their time of learning shows that they are not perfect, nor would we want them to be. They are beautiful because they are real, as real as you and I, and they have been seduced by bad influences in the past, just as we have. This moral lesson is a good one, a moral one, because it teaches us that even the highest of Gods is not above the law, no matter how justified his actions may be, and that Gods too can make mistakes. When these mistakes are atoned for, the episode is over and honor is restored. But we cannot use this as an excuse when we err, for the Gods themselves are willing to make up for transgressions and face justice, even with their very lives, as in the case of Hodur.
Our moral code is one of iron, because it is direct and to the point. However, when these laws are violated there must be appeasement so that urlag can be balanced. This is a theme we find again and again in our lore.