SEIÞ-MENN vs. SEIþ-KONA Gender-Bias in Black Magic Debunked
While the story of the "Little Volva" and "spa-kona" practicing spa (prophecy) on the seið-stool in Erik the Red's Saga chapter 4 is usually taken as the prime example of seið-work, we have a parallel example from Laxadela Saga chapter 35, of a married man with two sons practicing seið on the seið-stool to raise a violent gale against an opponent at sea. In this source, there is no egi or effeminacy implied in the source, despite the seið-bearer being a married man with children. The notion that seiðr is "women's magic' and "inmanly' for men to practice seems solely based on Snorri's statements in Ynglingasaga ch. 7, which in turn are based on Loki's mocking Odin for practicing seið and dressing as a volva in Lokasenna 24. While seiðr has a negative connotation, gender doesn't appear to be the basis for it.
Laxadeala Saga chapter 35 states:
"Kotkell was the name of a man who had come out a short time ago. His wife's name was Grima. Their sons were Hallbjörn Suchisteinsauga and Stígandi. These men were from Southern Iceland. They were all very "skilled in the black art" [fjölkunnig] and the greatest magicians [seiðmenn]. Hallsteinn the priest took them and put them down to Urður in Skálmarfjörður and their settlement was not popular."fjöl-kunnigr (fjöl-kundr, Barl. passim), adj. [kunna], skilled in the black art, Grett. 150, 153, Eg. 119, 179, Nj. 17, 272, Fms. i. 18, ii. 134, Hm. 114, passim. fjöl-kyngi (fjöl-kyndi, Barl. passim), f. the black art, witchcraft, Fms. i. 10, Korm. 222, Landn. 84, Grett. 151, Rb. 408, Stj. 647; galdrar ok fjölkyngi, K. Þ. K. 76, Grett. 155, etc., passim; fjölkyngis-bækr, f. pl. magical books, Post. 645. 61; fjölkyngis-fólk, n. wizard-folk, Hkr. i. 267; fjölkyngis-íþrótt, f. magic art, 623. 31, Fms. x. 307; fjölkyngis-kona, u, f. a sorceress, Fas. ii. 273; fjölkyngis-liga, adv. (-ligr, adj.), with sorcery, Gísl. 31; fjölkyngis-list, f. magic art, Stj. 73; fjölkyngis-veðr, n. a gale produced by sorcery, Fms. iv. 44
Laxadeala Saga chapter 35, continued: Thord greeted her warmly: she said she wished to place herself under his protection, and said that Kotkell and his wife and sons were giving her much trouble by stealing her goods, and through witchcraft, but had a strong support in Hallstein the Priest. Thord took this matter up swiftly, and said he should have the right of these thieves no matter how it might displease Hallstein. He got speedily ready for the journey with ten men, and Ingun went west with him. He got a ferry-boat out of Tjaldness. Then they went to Skalmness. .Thord had put on board ship all the chattels his mother owned there, and the cattle were to be driven round the heads of the firths. There were twelve of them altogether in the boat, withIngun and another woman. Thord and ten men went to Kotkell's place. The sons of Kotkell were not at home. .He then summoned Kotkell and Grima and their sons for theft and witchcraft [þjófnað og fjölkynngi] , and claimed outlawry as award [og lét varða skóggang]. He laid the case to the Althing, and then returned to his ship. Hallbjorn and Stigandi came home when Thord had got out but a little way from land, and Kotkell told his sons what had happened there. The brothers were furious at that, and said that hitherto people had taken care not to show them in so barefaced a manner such open enmity. Then Kotkell had a great spell-working scaffold [seiðhjall ] made, and they all went up on to it, and they sang hard twisted songs [Þau kváðu þar fræði sín] that were enchantments [galdrar]. And presently a great tempest [hríð] arose.Thord, Ingun's son, and his companions, continued out at sea as he was, soon knew that the storm was raised against him. Now the ship is driven west beyond Skalmness, and Thord showed great courage with seamanship. The men who were on land saw how he threw overboard all that made up the boat's lading, saving the men; and the people who were on land expected Thord would come to shore, for they had passed the place that was the rockiest; but next there arose a breaker on a rock a little way from the shore that no man had ever known to break sea before, and smote the ship so that forthwith up turned keel uppermost. There Thord and all his followers were drowned, and the ship was broken to pieces, and the keel was washed up at a place now called Keelisle.
Here the seidhjall (seid-seat) is used to conjure HRÍÐ, f. [A. S. hrîð a απ. λεγ. in the poem Widsith; Scot. and North. E. snow-wreath]:—a tempest, storm, in old writers only of a snow storm, as also in present use, except in western Icel., where rain and sleet are also called hríð; hríðir ok íllviðri, Rb. 102; hríð mikla görði at þeim, Nj. 263; hríð veðrs, 282; þá létti hríðinni, a violent snow storm, Bjarn. 55;2. metaph. a shock, attack, in a battle; hörð, snörp, hríð, Fms. ii. 323, viii. 139, Hkr. iii. 158, Nj. 115, Eg. 492.3. medic., in plur. paroxysms of pain, of fever; hafa harðar hríðir, sóttar-hríðir, paroxysms of fever: but esp. pangs of childbirth (fæðingar-hríðir).
Also in Laxadaela Saga, the seiðmen are not described as effeminiate or perverted for practicing seið. The seið-mann is married with two sons. There is no indication that this is a "highly gendered" art whatsoever. That whole notion comes out of Snorri's pseudo-history, Ynglingasaga based on a skaldic poem titled Ynglingatal that he was trying to illuminate as an example of the skaldic art. There is no guarantee that the stories Snorri weaves about seidr and Freyja in chapter 4 have any basis in the mythology. In Voluspa 22, seiðr is introduced and spread by a jotunn witch named Heid, who is the daughter of Hrimnir in Hyndluljod 32. According to verse 33, she comes from a line of magic-workers beginning with Svarthofdi (Black-head0 from which all "seid-bearers" come. Likeise "all jotuns come from Ymir", it concludes. We also find a daughter of Hrimnir as a servant of Frigg and a osk-mey of Odin, who delivers an apple on the shape of a crow, in Volusngasaga chapter 2 to a barren queen. The pregnancy doesn't go so well. She seems to have poisoned the apple. We also find evidence of a jotun handmaiden among Freyja's servants in the poem Fjolsvinsmal st. 38.
In Ynglingasaga Chapter 7, Snorri writes:
he taught along with runes and those songs that are called galdrar (‘magic spells’). Because of this the Æsir are called galdrasmiðir (‘magic makers’). Óðinn knew, and practised himself, the art which is accompanied by greatest power, called seiðr (‘black magic’), and from it he could predict the fates of men and things that had not yet happened, and also cause men death or disaster or disease, and also take wit or strength from some and give it to others. But this magic, when it is practised, is accompanied by such great perversion that it was not considered without shame for a man to perform it, and the skill was taught to the goddesses.
Yet, back in chapter 4, she stated:
Njǫrðr and Freyr Óðinn appointed as sacrificial priests [blótgoða], and they were gods among the Æsir. Njǫrðr’s daughter was Freyja. She was a sacrificial priestess [blótgyðja]. She was the first to teach the Æsir black magic [seið], which was customary among the Vanir.
Yet, seið is not said to be practiced by the Vanir elsewhere. Instead they are only associated with spá, prophecy. Nor is this episode included in Snorri's Prose Edda. It is presented as a historic spisode in the beginning of his historic work Heimskringla, and clearly has been euhmerized, and perhaps distorted in other ways. Regardless, the sources we have concerning seidr do not associate it with women , and do not condemn men for using it on the basis of their gender. Loki mocking Odin in Lokasenna, spefiies that he once dressed as a volva, along with practing seið. So reasonably, the cross-dressing and not the act of sieðr was the basis for being designated ergi. Loki kvað:24. "En þik síða kóðu Sámseyu í,ok draptu á vétt sem völur;vitka líki fórtu verþjóð yfir,ok hugða ek þat args aðal."
Loki spake:24. "They say that you practiced seið in Samsey onceYou beat on a lid, like a volva;And in the likeness of a vitki you journeyed among men;and I thought that the hallmark of a pervert."
-William P Reaves , December 2021