Updated: Oct 14, 2019
The Saxon Soothsayers told the future so well, the Franks passed a law that stated that these Soothsayers were to be given into the service of the church. This is absolutely amazing, considering that the Franks forced Christianity on the newly conquered Saxons, and put all to death that did not accept forced baptism. But if you were a Soothsayer, the church would spare you and bring you into the church to serve the church. The Lex Saxonum was the law code that the Franks forced upon the Saxons during the Saxon Wars (of the years 772-804 AD) and post Saxon Wars. Lex Saxonum #23: “We have ordered that diviners and soothsayers shall be given to the church and priests.” Lex Saxonum #4 “If anyone, out of contempt for Christianity, shall have despised the holy Lenten fast and shall have eaten meat, let him be punished by death.” Lex Saxonum #7 “If anyone, in accordance with Pagan rites, shall have caused the body of a dead man to be burned and shall have reduced his bones to ashes, let him be punished capitally.” Lex Saxonum #8: “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a Pagan, let him be punished by death.” The church was so anti-Heathen that it killed Heathens left and right, but not the soothsayers. It is obvious that the church really felt these Saxon Soothsayers could accurately predict the future, otherwise, they would have had no use for them in the service of the church. This article is about reconstructing the historical ART & RITUAL of Soothsaying (Saxon) and Seiðr (Norse). To understand this article, one must have prior knowledge of Uurd and her Shapers (Old Saxon) or Urðr and her Nornir (Old Norse/Icelandic). Please see this article to understand the role of Uurd and her Shapers in Heathenry, before proceeding to the rest of this article:
Also, this article is for those who are HEATHENS. I am glad that many come into “Asatru” due to the Vikings TV show and The Last Kingdom show. However, those that stay in Heathenry, must stay in Heathenry for the right reasons, and living a TV show not historically accurate is not a reason to be Heathen. Many come to Heathenry for the magical aspects alone. This article is not for those wishing to create the “Asatru Psychic Network.” As for the drug induced “hippies” that join “Asatru’s” ranks, there no mention of drug induced frenzies in the primary sources. This article is not for you either.
If you do not celebrate historical Heathen Holy Days, and perform historical Heathen rites like Blot and Sumble, this article is NOT for you. The idea that people can come into a historical religion, not study it or its historical practices, and be able to successfully perform the art of soothsaying or seiðr, is RIDICULOUS. A great Soothsayer will know and follow historical Heathen practices, not making up stuff, and certainly not one following modern ways like “The Wheel of the Year.” To successfully learn the art of soothsaying (predicting the future) one must know the Gods & Goddesses, and have an understanding of Uurd and her Shapers (Norns) and years of experience before being “successful” in this endeavor. Successful enough that even Christians would want you to predict their future. (Like the historical Saxon Soothsayers, a modern Soothsayer must be that accurate.) One verb that is used with performing seiðr is efla. “Efla” means “to prepare” or “to perform.” This word is used in the context of Heathen ritual called “blót.” It is clear, that seiðr fell into the category of ritual like blot was a Heathen ritual. Therefore, those not following the Old Ways are NOT following the art used to successfully perform soothsaying.
In Chapter 4 of the Saga of Erik the Red, we have an example of a Volva. “A woman named Thorbiorg was in the settlement. She was a Soothsayer and called ‘Little Volva.’ She had nine sisters all of whom were Soothsayers. She was the only one still living. It was Thorbiorg’s custom to go to feasts in the winter, and people invited her to their home; most who wanted foreknowledge of their Fate.” In Nornageststhattr 11, Gestr tells King Olaf that when he was born “Volvur were traveling around the country and they prophesied men’s Fates.” In Ynglingasaga 7, we see that Uuoden practiced “seið” which is a craft that allowed Uuoden to learn men’s Fates and the future. Please note, below I discuss that Norse society did not hold men who practiced Seið in high regard, yet Odin, a male, practiced this.
In his book, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (p 64), author and archaeologist Neil Price explains how seiðr was used in general. “There were seiðr rituals for divination and clairvoyance; for seeking out the hidden, both in the secrets of the mind and in physical locations; for healing the sick; for bringing good luck; for controlling the weather; for calling game animals and fish. Importantly, it could also be used for the opposite of these things – to curse an individual or an enterprise; to blight the land and make it barren; to induce illness; to tell false futures and thus to set their recipients on a road to disaster; to injure, maim and kill, in domestic disputes and especially in battle.” Terms:
seiðkona Old Norse for “Seiðr-woman”
seiðmaðr Old Norse for “Seiðr-man”
spámaðr Old Norse for “Diviner (male)”
spákona Old Norse for “Diviner (female)”
spá Old Norse for “to see (the future)”. Our English word “to spy” comes from this word. The Poem "Voluspá" has this word as the last three letters of it's title. Voluspa means "Volva's spa")
Soð Old Saxon meaning “thread.” Please note, the word “soð” is pronounced “sooth” and our modern word “soothsayer” comes from this word. Linguists believe that the Old Saxon word “Soð” is not linguistically related to the Old Norse word “Seið” for “thread”, but all agree that it has the same meaning. (Go figure? I am not a linguist, but I think their relation is obvious.)
Soðsago Old Saxon word meaning “Soothsayer” or “threadsayer” and pronounced “sooth-say-yo.”
Uuarsago Old Saxon word meaning “truth sayer / diviner” and pronounced “wahr-say-yo”.
Volva: Old Norse means "carrier of a weaving staff". (The Saxon soothsayers would not carry a staff but a weaving wand.)
Orlegas Old Saxon word. It is used in the Old Saxon Heliand, only with the word "Uurd". "Orlegas Uurd" means "the laying of Uurd." Some argue, this has to do with how Runes are used for divination, with casting Runes on a white cloth, and how they lay on that cloth; see below. Also, please note the singular of "Orlegas" is pronounced "orlay." (The "g" is pronounced like a "y" here.) Norse Heathens say "orlog" pronounced "or-loy."
Both seiðr and soð (meaning “thread) are words tied to Uurd and her Shapers, and the Old Saxon verb “metod” meaning “to measure” as well as the Old Saxon verb “giuuand” (pronounced “yee-wand”, where the word '(magic) wand' comes from). “Giuuand” means “to spin” or “to turn.” Therefore, seiðr and soð are tied to the spinning threads and creating “distaff”, as in, the Old Saxon “giscapou” (Shapers) and Norse “Nornir” (Norns). Please see the "wand" or "staff" in the image below, and note that a "magic" wand really comes from Germanic Soothsaying or weaving, and this practice did not have phrases like "hocus pocus." Note the wand is about distaff.
For more information on seiðr (Old Norse) and Soð meaning “to spin”, see Elder Heide “Gand, seid og åndevind”. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen. See also Heide, Eldar. 2006b: “Spinning seiðr”. In Anders Andrén et. al. (eds.): Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives. Origins, changes, and interactions. An international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004. Vägar till Midgård 8. Lund: Nordic Academic Press. 164-70.)
It is not a coincidence that weaving tools are often found in grave mounds alongside of weapons. Weaving tools suggest a volva’s mound. Since the Norsemen believed that the Norns controlled people's fate by spinning, it is very likely that they considered individual fates to be controllable with the same method. This is seen in Saxon literature too, not just in Saxony, but even the Old English Poem Beowulf calls Wealhþeow a “piece weaver.”
Look at Erik the Red’s Saga chapter 4, and its description of the volva Thorbjorg: “On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a dark hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. A staff (or wand) she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair, and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.”
In Norse society, a volva was an elderly woman who had released herself from her family bonds, to travel the land. She was summoned in times of crisis. She had a strong reputation and was compensated greatly. Seeing a soothsayer or volva was something done often in both Saxon and Norse societies. Christ is presented as a soothsayer in the Old Saxon Heliand, and he performs soothsaying in several instances. Odin in the Eddaic stories, wanted to solve the mystery of his son’s dreams, and mounted Sleipnir, went to Niflheim, and called up a volva from her tomb. The Voluspa (or VoluSPA, i.e. the word “spa” is on the end of Voluspa), is Norse Spa (soothsaying). “VoluSPA” means “prophecy of the Volva.”
The Roman writers, wrote about the Germanic tribes. Strabo mentioned in Geographica 7.2.3 that Germanic prophetesses are among the Cimbri whose priestesses were old women dressed in white, who sacrificed prisoners of war and sprinkled their blood to prophecy coming events. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico 1. 50 Julius Caesar writes in the course of clashes with Germanic tribesmen under Ariovistus (58 BCE): “Among the Germans it was the custom for their matrons to pronounce from lots and divination whether it were expedient that the battle should be engaged in or not; that they had said, "that it was not the will of heaven that the Germans should conquer, if they engaged in battle before the new moon.” Tacitus also writes about prophetesses among the Germanic peoples in his Histories 4, 61, notably a certain Veleda: "by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity." (This statement is a hint that "prayers to the Gods" below may be prayers to Uurd and her Shapers, as Tacitus seems to see Uurd and the Shapers as Deities.)
Norse society did not accept Seiðrmen.: (Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. 1998:81) Steinsland states seiðmenn brought a social taboo, known as ergi on to themselves, and were sometimes persecuted as a result. During the Christianization of Norway, King Olaf Trygvasson had seiðmen tied up and thrown on a skerry at ebb.
RUNE CASTING: Using Runes in modern Soothsaying Many argue that the practice of using Runes in divination has zero historical merit. I personally disagree. For Rune casting and Divination, we have this testimony from Tacitus, writing in the first century describing the Heathen Germanic Tribes to the north of Rome:
Tacitus Germania, circa 95AD: “For divination and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they carve with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously carved on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required.”
The debate occurs because the phrase “different signs” carved onto the wood. Many argue that the different signs are not Runes. I disagree. If they are not Runes, we have no idea what they were. However, the Old Saxon word “to carve” is “uuritan.” Our modern English word “to write” comes from this word. uuritan is used so many different times in the Heliand when referring to Runes. Runes were carved over Christ’s head during the Crucifixion in the Old Saxon Heliand Gospel. This passage is different from the Biblical passage where the Jews complain to Pilate and Pilate states “I have written what I have written.” In the Heliand, Pilate states the Runes above Christ’s head were carved meaning that carved Runes were permanent and therefore he was powerless to change them, kind of like it was Christ’s Fate to be crucified. The modern German word “schreiben” came into Germanic languages from the Latin word “to write with ink on parchment.” (Latin “scriban”). Back to Tacitus, “carved signs” MUST BE RUNES. I do agree that Runes were the Saxon (and Germanic) tribes' alphabet, and Runes were used first and foremost for writing a language on wood, stone, and other objects. We have evidence in the Lore (Eddas, Sagas, Poems) that Runes were used as “magic.” I will focus here on just divination. We do not know for sure how casting Runes as lots worked. Below is my reconstruction based on the available historical sources.
Let’s look at Tacitus’ passage above more closely, breaking it up line by line:
1. Tacitus says, “Their procedure in casting lots is always the same.” That is pretty damn specific. “Always the same.” 2. Tacitus says, “They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips.” You can easily go to Amazon.com and buy runes on oak branches, i.e. wood circles with Runes on them. 3. Tacitus says, “these they carve with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth.” I have a white cloth, to throw a set of Elder Futhark Runes on. (I am a Saxon Heathen, and in Old Saxon lands, only Elder Futhark finds are found. Anglo-Saxon and Frisian Heathens should use the Futhorc, and Norse Heathens should choose between the Elder and Younger Futharks. I would suggest the younger per the Icelandic and Norwegian Rune Poems.) We use the Rune Poems that survived to gage what the "Runes" meant to Heathens, and therefore, reconstruct what it would have meant to Heathens doing divination. 4. Tacitus says, “Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private.” Therefore, there was a priest of the state (male, masculine word), but yet fathers (MEN) often did this in private consultations. Therefore, is lot divination for men, and soð and seið only for women? Seems the Germanic tribes South of Scandinavia that Tacitus was writing about did not have the same anti men sentiment as the (later) Scandinavians may have. (Tacitus was quoted above with woman making prophecies. Is there a difference? Why are lots being cast here and a priestess not being sought? We have unanswered questions when we use critical thinking here.) 5. Tacitus says, “offers a prayer to the Gods,” Was this prayers to the Gods, or Prayers to Uurd and her Shapers? Would Tacitus not understand Uurd and her Shapers as “Gods” from a “Roman/Greek” point of view? Hard to say here. Odin talked to Uurd. Therefore, should Heathens address Uurd and the Shapers here or the Gods? (I personally have no issues addressing BOTH Gods and Uurd and her Shapers here. But my gutt feeling says address Uurd and her Shapers.Nornir. This is my “gut feeling.”) 6. Tacitus says, “and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously carved on them.” Here is where more debate comes in. There are three spinners (Norns). There are three tenses, past, present, and future. In Old Saxon, there are three numeric tenses: Singular, Dual, and Plural. Many feel that the three wood strips picked up is the following: the first one is past, the second is present, the third is the future. (I agree with this, but in fairness, this is a guess, based on what we know. Tacitus doesn’t mention why three strips were picked up. It is my view (an educated guess), that the three Runes are past, present, and future. It is possible, all three are for the future.) Three Rune Poems survived from antiquity. The Old English Rune Poem is by far the oldest Rune Poem. This poem is dated to the late eighth century, and has 26 Runes of the Futhorc. The Icelandic and Norwegian Rune Poems list 16 Younger Futhark Runes. The Norwegian Rune Poem is from the 13th century, and the Icelandic Rune Poem is from the 15th century.
Below is a chart of the Elder Futhark Runes in Old Saxon. Below that is my estimations on what each Rune means from the three Rune Poems, and the meanings of the individual Runes. Please note, using Runes in this way is historical GUESSWORK, but it is the best we have to go on. At the very bottom, I post passages on the Old Saxon Heliand, showing Saxon Soothsaying and Uuarsago (Saxon Seers). Please visit us on the Facebook group “Saxon Heathenry.”
1. Fehu : The Old Saxon word meaning “cattle”. This Rune is associated with wealth. It is a sign of plenty. This is the first Rune, and it is symbolic of starting a new journey.
2. Ur : The Old Saxon Rune symbolizing courage and strength. This Rune is the symbol of the horns for the now extinct aurochs, a type of European cattle.
3. ðuris : The Rune of Thunaer. While this is Thunaer’s Rune, it is the Rune that represents an opposing force or conflict. This is the Rune signifying danger, like that of the giants the enemies of Thunaer. The Old English Rune Poem equates this Rune as a thorn. This Rune is used for protection charms. The Rune could signify future conflicts.
4. As : The Rune of Uuoden. As is the Rune of the mind, inspiration, awareness, and communication. This is the Rune for poetry, writing, and the arts. This is also a healing Rune.
5. Reda : The Old Saxon Rune of riding and ritual. It symbolizes personal journeys, evolving, moving or relocation, and life changes.
6. Kon : The Old Saxon Rune of fire. It is a Rune for illumination and knowledge. Fire can be destructive, but it is also a tool for refinement and creation.
7. Geƀa : The Old Saxon word meaning “gift.” (i.e. of gifts and hospitality.) Also the Rune of sacrifice and oaths. The Northern Heathen faiths believe that wealth should be shared. The Rune signifies success in personal obligations. 8. Uunnia : This is the Old Saxon word for “happiness.” The Rune of well-being, community, satisfaction, happiness, companionship, and spiritual glory. It is Pronounced “uu” or “w”.
9. Hayel : The Old Saxon Rune of hail, storms, and stress. It can mean that a crisis/storm is looming on the horizon. It means destruction, trials and tribulations.
10. Nod : The Old Saxon Rune signifying need. It is also a Rune of hardship or testing.
11. Is : The Old Saxon Rune of ice. The Rune of stillness, silence, and darkness. The Rune symbolizes grievances, stress, sadness, and personal turmoil. It is Pronounced “i”.
12. Ger : The Old Saxon Rune for the year and the (good) harvest, fruit from the planted tree, results, and rewards. “Ger” is the Old Saxon word meaning “year.” It is pronounced “y”.
13. Ih : The Old Saxon Rune symbolizing the yew tree. The Rune symbolizes reliability, dependability, and longevity. The Rune can indicate one has a sense of purpose and is honest. The Rune is pronounced “æ” or “ay”.
14. Perða : The Old Saxon Rune symbolizing a fruit tree. The Rune symbolizes that mysteries and secrets will be revealed. It also symbolizes satisfaction, and spiritual fulfilment. Initiation, knowledge of one's destiny, knowledge of future matters, determining the future or your path.
15. Elaho : The Old Saxon Rune symbolizing elk. The Rune symbolizes guardians, protectiveness, and security. Defense, warding off evil, shield, guardian. Connection with the Gods, awakening, a higher life. This rune is pronounced like a “z”.
16. Sunna : The Old Saxon word for “sun” is “sunna.” This Rune symbolizes health, wholeness, power, elemental force, sword of flame, cleansing fire, warmth, heat.
17. Tir : The Old Saxon Rune that symbolizes honor. (It is Tir not Tiu). The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem dates to the 8th or 9th century. In the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, Tir is “honor” and not Tiu the God. In the Icelandic and Norwegian Rune Poems, the Rune is equated with the God Tyr/Tiu. This is the Rune to the Old Saxons of honor, rational thoughts, governance, leadership, and courage.
18. Berk : The Old Saxon word meaning “birch tree.” This is the Rune symbolizing fertility, birth and growth. Victory and success in any competition or in legal matters.
19. Hros : The Old Saxon word for “horse” is “hros.” This is the Rune of movement, travel, long distance moves, and transportation. Gradual development and steady progress. Harmony, teamwork, trust, loyalty. An ideal marriage or partnership. It is pronounced “e”.
20. Man : The Old Saxon word meaning “man.” This Rune symbolizes temperament and shifts in personality. Expect to receive some sort of aid or cooperation.
21. Lagu : The Old Saxon word meaning “lake.” The Rune of cleansing powers, crop fertility and luck. Flow, water, sea, a fertility source, the healing power of renewal. Life energy and organic growth.
22. Ing : The Old Saxon word for the God Ing, brother or Irmin (Uuoden.) Ing is the God who establishes the tides of the earth. Ing fathered Ostar, the Saxon Goddess of fertility who brings about warm weather and rejuvenation. Fertility, gestation, internal growth. Common virtues, common sense, simple strengths, family love, caring, human warmth, the home. Rest stage, a time of relief with no anxiety. It is pronounced “ng”.
23. Oðil : The Old Saxon word meaning “Ancestral home.” The Rune of inherited property or possessions, a house, a home. Family. This Rune symbolizes what is truly important to oneself. Land of birth, spiritual heritage, experience and fundamental values.
24. Day : The Old Saxon word meaning “day.” The Rune of awakenings. This Rune symbolizes daylight clarity as opposed to night-time uncertainty. A time to plan or embark upon an enterprise.
Here are some Old Saxon Passages showing Old Saxon Soothsayers. (They seem to all be men). The translation of the Old Saxon Heliand (circa 830 AD) passages are from my published book "The Saxons."