I’ve been busy with my studies at university, so that little time remained for this blog. Lastly I’ve been very involved with a paper on Seidhr (unfortunately in German). In this context I have interviewed three people involved in these practices of our ancestors. One of them has been Jan Fries (the two others were Diana L. Paxson and Freya Aswynn [Elizabeth Hooijschuur]). He’s not the main influence to my approach to Rune Work, but his general approach to magick is of relevance and his books Visual Magick: A Manual of Freestyle Shamanism and Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick have opened important doors in my mind and soul.
However, the occultnik should become familiar with the objective facts concerning Runology first before engaging in esoteric Work, regardless of how ‘dry’ or ‘boring’ the academic study seems to be to him or her. The objective study of the Runes (academic Runology) should precede subjective study. Otherwise totally subjective systems of the Runes will be the result that must remain without any meaning to others. To put it in other words: you should become familiar with that which is known (exoteric) before you engage in the quest for that which is unknown (esoteric) – not the other way around ;). This approach has been called the Polarian Method by Dr. Flowers / Edred Thorsson formulated.
It’s obvious that Jan Fries’ postmodernistic, relativistic approach supports basically the development of a subjectivistic system. (Even if I don’t know if it’s possible to establish an objective system. But we can at least study what is known.) His refusal of the value of solid academic research and an intellectually ambitious approach to the Runes doesn’t make his work more individualistic, as he somehow seems to believe (at least in my interpretation of our private correspondence). But his “practical pantheism” is very inspiring nevertheless. A certain knowledge of the way our ancestors thought and what they believed could be helpful. The sagas and Hilda Ellis Davidson’s books come to my mind. The dedicated German speaking seeker should study Jan de Vries’ Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte. (I think Jan has used that work too.) First then the esoteric works should be taken into account. Subjective meanings will appear at this stage and they will very likely contradict with (some of) the interpretations of other magical authors. Here Jan is absolutely right: follow your intuition! Noone can help you here except your ‘Deep Mind’ (Jan Fries) or, to say it in a more traditional way, your Fylgja. The only rule is: don’t universalise your own intuitive realisations. (Here Jan’s take on the Runes is again creditable as he always emphasizes that his Rune interpretations are subjective and only of personal meaning.) It is this subjective stage most of us are engaged in. Some say, there is no other stage to reach (than a subjective one), others are convinced that there is a level of meaning that is reflecting a traditional, objective knowledge. It’s not for me here to decide for you what take is the right one, but consider that there exist Vitkis and Rune Masters who have been studying this magical tradition for decades and could possibly teach you a lot, if your mind is open to it. There’s no disgrace in being a beginner. We all remain Learners all life long. Hasn’t once a wise old man said that he knows that he knows nothing? For Socrates all wisdom began with wondering, thus one must begin with admitting one’s ignorance. This certainly applies to the Runic seeker. His search will begin with an irrational, mysterious flash of inspiration, which will cause him / her to seek after the Runes and/or other Mysteries. Jan Fries’ work has its place in the renaissance of Runic Wisdom and will be of use to the practioner of modern magical techniques. I consider Jan’s techniques are worth studying and can be applied in the process of subjective synthesis, when the ancestral Runic wisdom in the seeker’s Soul is reawakening and the life waters are returning to the ancient and dry riverbeds of our forefathers and foremothers.
But get a picture of Jan Fries’ approach and ideas on the magical practices of our ancestors yourself by reading his own words. Though we talked about (postmodern, neo-shamanistic [!]) “Seidhr” you can apply these statements to his take on the Runes, too. Ok, I think I said enough for an introduction to this interview. Here are Jan’s answers to my questions:
Matt Anon: This interview is part of an academic investigation of the practices of Seidhr in the postmodern world. Could you tell me a little bit about your background in the area of magic(k) and/or Neo-Paganism and how you came to practice Seidhr?
Jan Fries: Magic is central to my life. I had my first dreams of Kâlî, Medusa, Lilith etc when I was a child (they usualyy scared me out of my head), learned basic self hypnosis, breathing exercises and vowel singing at the age of eleven from a friend of my grandmother, Dr. Gisela Eberlein, started to meditate in various ways around the age of fifteen, began with Yijing divination, astrology and martial arts at sixteen, rituals at eighteen and so on. My orientation has always been eclectic, I do not believe or subscribe to any tradition apart from ‘find out for yourself’. I respect and appreciate aspects of a number religious, shamanic or magical systems, such as Huang Lao Daoism, early Chinese Wu shamanism, Tantric Kaula, Krama, Mahâcina, Haitian Voudou, non-Crowleyan Thelema, Ma’at Magick and reinterpret the local European pagan religions as I like. If forced to define the whole thing I would call it practical pantheism. However, I believe that the individual is a lot more important than any system, religion, cult or school. And if you have to stick a label to yourself to do your thing you ain’t good enough yet.
As to getting into seidhr, well, I never did think about it. I simply noted that in a number of interesting trance- or obsession states, boddy tends to shudder, sway and shake. More so, it turned out that excitement increases the shaking and shaking can increase excitement. Both of them improve visualisation and produce a state of mind that may look uncontrolled or strange from the outside, but is actually quite focused and lucid from within. As I researched shaking trances worldwide, I found examples in Siberian, Napalese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese ‘shamanism’, in Indian Kaula, the Vedic vipra-seers, Haitian Voudou, a lot of African sorcery, the Mesmeric movement, the medieval Welsh seers and so on. And in one of the trances I had the insight that body is the cauldron while awareness is the seething fluid within. By changing the ‘heat’ (the excitement induced by imagination), the ‘seething’ of awareness can be controlled. It connected neatly with Simrock’s translation od seidhr as Sudkunst, so I began researching ‘shamanic’ elements (or really techniques) in Viking literature. There are some very close parallels.
As I keep emphasising, my identification of seidhr with shaking or trembling trances is hypothetical.
Nor do I claim to teach seidhr, for the simple reason that I don’t know what seidhr really is. After all, Nordic literature on the topic was composed by people who were usually Christian, badly informed or even hostile to the art. And the sources contradict each other. There is not a single statement by anyone who actually practiced seidhr. While we all may guess what seidhr was really all about by emphasising one source and ignoring another, I believe the main thing is not the word seidhr but how people can change their consciousness. The Nordic mystique is just one frame of reference, a useful metaphor if you like. The fact is that seers and healers have used shaking, swaying and rhythmic body motions at least since the Rig Veda was compiled, and regardless whether we call it seidhr or anything else, it happens work.
Matt: Where does Seidhr come from? What was Seidhr in the past and what is Seidhr today?
Jan: Where my impression of seidhr comes from was outlined above. Historically, Viking seidhr seems to have counterparts in the skohsl dances of the Goths and the ‘shamanism’ of the Sami. Not to mention a number of ecstatic trance elements in medieval Island Celtic lore, such as Theo awenyddion which Giraldus Cambrensis daw in Wales, or the frenzied bards at king Maelgwynn’s court (according to Gildas). Such matters are discussed at length in Seidways.
What seidhr is today? I have no idea. All I know is that a number of people do things they call seidhr. You better ask them.
Matt: Why do you think Seidhr should be practiced? What does result from practicing Seidhr?
Jan: Why I think seidhr should be practiced? I don’t. Do you think mountaineering should be practiced? Do you think everybody should go diving?
Look, trancing is not suited to everyone. I don’t know about seidhr, as I don’t know what reidhr really is, but I do know that some people get along perfectly with shaking trances and others don’t. It’s an advanced trance requiring good health and sanity and I would suggest before anyone went into it, a couple of years of regular meditation and daily physical exercise are wise. Nor do I think that shaking trances are a must. There are so many ways of changing consciousness. People do it all Theo time. They get excited or angry, they fall in love, worry or feel sad. The human nervous system has an enormous abilitx for developing and maintaining highly unique consciousness states. You can use ‘shamanic’ methoda, including dancing, shaking, drumming, chanting etc., or maybe Yoga, using posture, breathing, mantra, visualisation, or you could just sit down, induce a deep trance and change your brain rhythms, chemistry and the flow of energy in your body. It’s easy. All of these are conveniences. They produce different states of consciousness, but what happens in them, and how you use (or abuse) them depends entirely on you.
The only thing which I would recommend for other people is to learn how to think and make good feeling. We could do with more happy feelings in this world. When you are happy you make better decisions, and that leads to being even happier. Fellings don’t just happen, they can be learned and made.
Matt: What sources have inspired you to take up the practice of Seidhr? What sources have you studied / read?
Jan: The sources that inspired me can all be looked up in my bibliographies provided one isn’t too lazy.
Matt: Do you think one has to speak Old Norse or has to study the original sources to be able to practice Seidhr?
Jan: I don’t think one has to learn specific languages to practice any sort of magic or consciousness changing. A couple of hundred words of special terminology, sure. Learning languages is fun, but not essential. It’s different when the literature happens to be untranslated. I learned bronze age Chinese as most of the inscriptions have not been translated into European languages. Now some people need old languages for the feeling. Others dress up in costumes, or redecorate their homes. Well and good. Anything that works is fine.
As to the practice of ‘old seidhr’ well, even with Old Norse you won’t be sure what thaz really was about.
Matt: Despite the fact that the term ‘shamanism’ is itself controversial outside the context of Siberian shamanism, do you believe that Seidhr is a kind of ‘Northern Shamanism’? Does Seidhr feature shamanistic elements?
Jan: If we use ‘shamanism’ in the common, Eliade-type definition (which I am not too happy about) as a loose term for ecstatic consciousness changing healing trance ritualism, sure, there are parallels. Read them up in my books. Personally, I am not too fond of the term as it was used in such a sloppy way by a few anthropologists and a lot of fakes. So if we have to use it, then only in want for a better term. I prefer to speak of shamanic techniques, which you find in many cultures, than of shamanism, which is such a wide (or narrow) field of cultural activity that I wouldn’t like to define it at all. Instead of looking for what people call themselves (or others) I prefer to learn what they do, how they do it, how it works and what it is good for.
Matt: What are the differences between shamanism and Seidhr? What are the specifics of Seidhr?
Jan: We had these questions earlier. You tell me what these two things are. What is ‘shamanism’ and what is ‘seidhr’? One term is too vague and the other refers to a phenomenon we don’t know much about, and that is questionable. So please tell me. When you’ve done that you can look for differences and similarities. Or do something worthwhile for a change.
Matt: Do you consider Seidhr as part of the ‘Northern Tradition’ / Teutonic-Germanic Religion?
Jan: I don’t know what you or anybody else understands as ‘Northern Tradition / Teutonic-Germanic religion. In my opinion there are wide differences between the beliefs of various Vikings (about which we know far too little), the prehistoric so-called Germans (about which we know even less) let alone whatever you consider ‘Teutonic’. As I recall the Teutons spoke a Celtic language. So just what are you talking about?
Matt: What is the role of women in Seidhr? Is Seidhr somehow more connected to women?
Jan: Yes, we all read that bit about Odin teaching seidhr to Freya and Theo goddesses. So what? There are a number of seidhrwomen in Theo sagas, just as there are women in many forms of ‘shamanism’. And sure, Tacitus also had his say. Well and good, but I really don’t care. I don’t believe in gender or race, I believe in individuals. As far as I’m concerned, souls don’t have a gender. They get one when they are born, but may have a different one in Theo next life. So Theo only thing I can say is that when it comes to shaking (which may or may not be part of seidhr), in my experience women tend to learn it faster. Simply because of gender roles. Males usually learn to freeze their hisps (to use a metaphor courtesy of Wilhelm Reich) in western cultures, and this can make shaking more difficult. But what does this amount to? Tension can be relaxed and shaking is possible regardless of gender. Just like any other trance state.
Matt: Is it ‘unmanly’ to practice Seidhr? What does that say about the role of men and women in (ancient) Germanic culture? How is this seen in (post)modern Neo-Paganism / Ásatrú?
Jan: I don’t know anything about modern, postmodern or postmortal Asatru, as I don’t belong to any such organisation. I know that some people got quite excited discussing the meaning of argr-, you can find my interpretation in Seidways and Helrunar. And I’ve heard people mixing the matter with trans-sexual behaviour and getting carried away discussing whether homosexuals could be pagans or whatever. Frankly, I don’t care. For me, the whole issue isn’t what any organisation says. It’s about you, on your own, experience in your contact with the divine, whatever you call it and however you contact it. And how it improves your life. Cults, organisations, churches, dogmas etc. only get in the way of true experience.
Matt: Germanic Neo-Heathenism has been often accused of being racist / right-wing? Why do you think that is the case? Can descendents of non-European cultures be part of Ásatrú?
Jan: I believe that (at least some people) get reborn (unless they don’t want to), and that any capable sorcerer should live in several distinct cultures. I don’t believe that the concept ‘race’ means anything. ‘Culture’ or ‘subculture’ may be slightly more meaningful, as you can join or leave them as you like. We are talking categories here. This is a long way from real life. And regarding politics, I cannot say anything about groups I don’t belong to. I can only say that politics and religion are usually a bad combination, as they make people even more stupid than they already are.
Matt: Why do you think so many people feel attracted to Neo-Paganism today (including Wicca, Druidry & Ásatrú)?
Jan: One major reason for the increase of new faiths is that people are not satisfied with the old ones any more. But then, it has always been that way. There has always been an urge to commune or unite with the divine (no matter how you call it), and whenever people organised to do so they defined themselves, they included some and excluded others, and as we happen to inhabit mammalian bodies, they also organised group behaviour in terms of territory, hierarchy and finally power poltics and money. By then, other people got fed up and invented their own faiths. It happens all the time.
Matt: Finally, what answers does Heathenism / Paganism have to the condition of the modern world (including modern challenges like climate change, overpopulation, financial crisis etc.)? In which way does it help to improve the conditio humana? (I would also like to ask in this context: Why is it ‘better’ than the monotheistic cults?)
Jan: In a world which is steadily becoming more integrated regarding communication, travel, trade, work, culture, art etc., poly- and pantheism make communication with other faiths and cultures easier than a monotheistic attitude does. Especially a narrow-minded monotheistic attitude, as in the first commandment. But that’s really all. I don’t believe ‘Heathenism / Paganism’ have any answers to anything. There ain’t such thing. It’s just two words you put together as if they were meaningful. Words, words, words. We are not talking churches or politics, we are talking people. And we don’t talk them either. They all have their own answers. Ask them. And listen.