Interview with Diana Paxson
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?
My first magical training was in a ceremonial tradition based on the work of Dion Fortune. After several years, I felt that I needed to balance that with a more energetic and ecstatic practice, so I began to work with the techniques in Michael Harner’s book on shamanism. However these techniques, although very well presented and effective, lacked the substance that comes from a cultural tradition, but I had no connection to any of the Native American or other cultures. When I was doing research into Norse mythology I had seen references to seidhr, which sounded like a northern European magical tradition that I could explore without the danger of cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, at that time, I knew of no one who was practicing it, so I had to figure it out for myself, using what I had learned in other traditions about spirit journeying and trance work to interpret and flesh out the information in the lore.
Where does Seidhr come from? What was Seidhr in the past and what is Seidhr today?
In the Eddas and sagas, Seidh is used as a term for a variety of magical practices which involve a trance state and is often translated into English as “witchcraft”. The list of skills ascribed to Odin in Ynglingasaga (although presented in negative terms) is similar to lists
of shamanic practices from other cultures. The oracular practice described in the saga of Eirik the Red and other sagas is also called seidh (or spae). It is said to have been taught to the Aesir by Freyja.
Oracular Seidh is the best known form today. The process I developed is based on the sources given in my answer to question 4. I have trained people all over the US, in England, and in Holland. Many have taken the basic approach and developed their own variations.
Why do you think Seidhr should be practiced? What does result from practicing Seidhr?
Oracular seidh is a community service, a way to provide insight and counsel. Other forms of seidh can be used for healing, inspiration and to gather information.
What sources have inspired you to take up the practice of Seidhr? What sources have you studied / read?
1. The sagas, especially the saga of Eirik the Red, which includes the most explicit description of any Norse religio-magical ceremony that we have.
2. The Eddic poems in which Odin visits the Völva in hel to question her: Baldrsdraumar, The shorter seeress’ prophecy, and Völuspá.
3. Saxo and other sources that describe journeys to the Otherworld.
James Chisholm has put together a sourcebook of references to seidh, published by RunaRaven Press.
Do you think one has to speak Old Norse or has to study the original sources to be able to practice Seidhr?
In order to understand the references in the lore it is useful to at least compare several translations and look up problematic words in an Old Norse dictionary, as modern languages have a more limited vocabulary, and terms are often mistranslated.
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?
I find “shamanistic” to be a useful term for practices that resemble those found in true shamanic cultures. Ethnographic research (see Eliade’s „Shamanism“) indicates a remarkable similarity of practices in widely separated cultures. I believe that such practices were once
world-wide, and some may have survived in the Indo-European cultures. It is also possible that the Norse borrowed practices from the Finns and Saami (just as the latter borrowed some elements from Norse mythology). Oracular seidh, though it uses many of the same skills, in format is clearly part of the Indo-European oracular tradition.
What are the differences between shamanism and Seidhr? What are the specifics of Seidhr?
My understanding of the way “shamanism” is now being used is that it properly is applied to the practices of tribal hunter/herder-gatherer cultures, with the classic initiatory and other experiences.
By the saga-period, practitioners of seidh play a more anomalous role in their societies, except for the seers, who seem to have been highly respected. Because terms such as “seidhjallr” are used in connection with spae, I classify it as a subset of Seidh.
Do you consider Seidhr as part of the ‘Northern Tradition’ / Teutonic-Germanic Religion?
Although not universal, oracular seidh is practiced in a number of heathen communities in the U.S. In my opinion seidh is the proper term for such practices in Asatru. Groups basing their practice on Anglo-Saxon or Continental Germanic ways might find other terms (such as
“hexerei”). Certainly “Seidh” is the best-known and most popular term for Teutonic-Germanic magic.
What is the role of women in Seidhr? Is Seidhr somehow more connected to women?
In Ynglingasaga we are told that in earlier times both men and women practiced seidh, but that later it was considered so “ergi” that it was only taught to priestesses. Apparently as the Norse became acculturated to European Christian ideas, the status of women and anything requiring receptivity was lowered. Thus, except for the seidhmadhrs persecuted by the Norse kings, the seidh workers we read about in the lore are female.
I have trained both men and women in seidh, and both are quite able to master the skills. It is true, however, that those who continue to practice seidh and make it part of their Asatru identity include more women and gay men than straight men.
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?
See above, and for a full analysis, see my article, “Sex, Seidh, and Status” (http://www.seidh.org/articles/sex-status-seidh.html)
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?
This is a topic that has been discussed exhaustively by contemporary heathens. For an analysis, see Chapter 7 of /Our Troth, Vol. 1/. Essentially, opinions range from those who believe that anyone who feels called by the Germanic gods can worship them to the splinter groups who think that Asatru is the natural religion of a superior white race. The heathen emphasis on family and heritage means that for many, their descent from Germanic peoples is one motive for becoming heathen, however, at least in the U.S., everyone has been formed by speaking a Germanic language and living in a culture shaped by Germanic ideas, so we all have a Germanic cultural heritage.
Why do you think so many people feel attracted to Neo-Paganism today (including Wicca, Druidry & Ásatrú)?
There are many reasons: the Abrahamic religions don’t deal well with the feminine or the environment, many of them fail to help people connect with Spiritual Power, focusing on sin and guilt is depressing, and finally, Monotheism doesn’t really make sense (see John Michael Greer’s „A World Full of Gods“).
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?)
To properly address any one of these questions would require a book. In brief, Paganism in general sees humans as part of the natural world, not superior to it, and teaches harmony and cooperation rather than exploitation. If we understand natural law and apply it to our own
actions, we have a better chance of restoring balance in all areas of life, and thus human, as well as natural survival.
Heathenry in particular offers a strong ethical system with an emphasis on personal responsibility, and plenty of inspiration for meeting adversity with courage. One popular saying is, “We are our deeds.”Polytheism makes more sense because no matter how hard people try to deal with the Divine as an all-powerful, etc. universal Being, so long as we are in human bodies, we inevitably personify our gods and in doing so, limit them. The solution is to have many deities that cover all aspects of existence.
Heathens tend to think of their deities as friends or relations, senior partners in the fight to preserve the world.