3 Magical Women of the Forest Peoples
Categories: Excerpt Indigenous Cultures & Anthropology New Release Spirituality & Religion
Since pre-Christian times in central Europe, the wise old woman, the sagae, as Tacitus calls her, had enjoyed respect and reverence. She was something of a shaman or worked at least similarly to a shaman, seer, herbalist, or midwife. In rural areas, she played a central role until the beginning of our modern era. The various activities of the wise women (as well as the visionaries), which we will consider here, overlap and are not mutually exclusive.
First, we want to say more about the wise old hag discussed earlier—the one who knew the nine herbs and how to let her soul fly through the chimney into the spirit world, the commonly called hedge sitter or fence rider (Old English hægtesse), who mediated between this world and the other. Seen through cultural anthropology, it can be assumed they still mastered the archaic shamanic technique of separating the soul from the body. At night, her soul could enter the body of her animal familiar as an owl, hare, fox, or cat. Thus, she could move through the village and countryside while her body lay at home in deep trance. She could check on her neighbors through the eyes of her familiars; she was able to hear with their ears and smell with their noses.
The medieval scholars argued whether the witches could actually physically fly or whether it was just their demonic imagination. Definitely, people feared them and the Church made them subject to penitentials and inquisitions. The Abbot Regino of Pruem (846–915 CE) warned that “there are criminal women who, seduced by delusions and suggestions of demons, believe and confess that they spend the night with the heathen gods Diana and Herodias and innumerable other females, riding on certain animals all over the countryside, secretly and in haste in the dead silence of the night” (Habiger-Tuczay 1992, 120). Bishop Burchard of Worms wrote penitentials that served the priests as a guide for confession. In them, he lets the priest ask the confessors if they believe that a woman, while her husband sleeps and imagines his wife resting in his embrace, escapes through locked doors, flies through the air, and then, without any visible weapon, kills baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood. Even those who believed some women did these things (let alone those being accused of doing them) had to reckon with strict penance.
Presumably, these women knew about flying salves and flying herbs. Direct traditions of recipes do not exist. It was solely the priests, witch hunters, and early scientists who reported them and dealt with the salves. Giambattista della Porta, for example, describes a salve that an old woman is supposed to have used. In contrast to the Inquisition, della Porta considered witches’ flights and the Witches’ Sabbath on the Blocksberg (the Brocken) to be complete superstition. Through a crack in the door, he watched an old woman anoint herself with a salve and sink into a deep sleep. When she awoke, she told how she had flown over the sea and mountains. For della Porta, it was clear that it was all a subjective hallucination triggered by the toxic effect of the salve (Biedermann 1994, 355). Included in the salve were celery, aconite, poplar twigs, water parsnip, water iris, cinquefoil, nightshade (belladonna probably), oil, and bat’s blood. A dangerous-sounding mix that should under no circumstances be imitated.¹
Often, harmless analgesic ointments were found in the possession of the suspected person to serve as evidence (corpus delicti) for the offense. Witch hunting was, after all, a lucrative business because those found guilty had their possessions seized by the authorities.
Different types of magical women, heirs of heathen priestesses, were found for a long time in the villages of remote regions—as I know, from deep in the Alpine mountains—and can still be found today.
The mysterious magic of women is called seið (sejd, seiðr). The secret starts with the word. Some scholars claim it is related to “seething” (Old English seothan = boiling or cooking vigorously). Thus, it would refer to the “boiling” of cooking herbs, or the boiling of salt—salt was precious—and the prophesy read from the boiling cauldron. Perhaps the term also refers to the seething soul, the magical heat that shamans, berserkers, lamas, and ascetics possess. Other researchers believe seið could have to do with “rope” or Seil (Indo-European *s, referring to a rope or, as a verb, “to bind”), binding spells and magical fetters, or even to “sing.” In any event, it was a woman’s art. For men, it was considered shameful to practice seið. Freya, the “seið-bearer” was regarded as the champion of this knowledge. She taught this art to Odin, the shameless one. Loki mocks the shamanic god in his diatribes (Lokasenna):
But though, say they on Sams Isle once
wovest spells like a witch,
in warlock’s shape through the world didst fare:
were these womanish ways, I ween (Hollander 1962, 95).
Clairvoyant, wise women played such an important role among the forest peoples that it astonished the Romans. In the Germanic-Celtic settlement area, they were known under the names Wala and Voelva and in southern and central Germany as Walburg or Walburga, which means “staff bearer” (Germanic waluz = stave, staff; from Indo-European *uel = turn). They carried wands with which they were able to steer things magically. The Lombards knew the seer as Gambara, which also means “staff bearer” (Germanic gand = bar, bera = carrier). Other names for female seers were Veleda, Heid, or the Scandinavian spákona (from spá = see, peer; and kona = woman). The Veleda or Weleda goes back to the original Celtic velet or fili, which means “visionary” or “poet.” These women were not priests, but prophets, or shamans, who prophesied while in an ecstatic state and so guided the destiny of their tribe. (Joan of Arc fits into this tradition, for instance.) On April 30th, the eve of the May Festival (May 1st), we still remember them when Walpurgis Night, or Witches’ Eve, is celebrated. The patron saint of May 1st officially sanctioned by the Church is Saint Walburga, an English missionary and niece of Boniface, who could not stop the May Day celebrations.
These shaman women traveled about the land and were welcomed guests on the farmsteads as well as in the halls of the king. When they prophesied, they sat on a high seat or stool (seidhallr) on the roof of the house or on an ox hide on the crossroads, sang their gladr (magical songs) in magical tones, and subsequently journeyed into the world of the gods. Participants of these séances, who themselves were clairvoyant to the ethereal dimension, saw them covered in feathers and floating away as geese or swans. Freya herself appears in fairy tales and myths as a guardian of the geese; as a goose-maiden, she is the guardian of all souls. Particularly on special holy days, the shamans flew out as wild geese—on the Day of the Dead, the festival on November 1st, or the winter solstice, for instance. In many places, a goose, the totemic animal of flying Freya, is ritually slaughtered and seasoned with a bit of mugwort, the sacred shamanic herb. Reminiscent of shamanic flight is the ritual food of the Christmas or Saint Martin’s goose; mugwort now serves merely as a “spice,” its ritual context having been forgotten. The shamanic flights of these women were not simply psychedelic “trips” but served the kin community. In this way, they renewed the connections to the gods and spirit worlds, and brought blessings and healing back with them.
In the Saga of Eric the Red a Voelva named Thorbjorn is described in detail and was called in to help Greenlandic farmers during a period of bad weather. They say she was wearing a full-length blue coat as her shaman costume, decorated to the hem with gems, a belt made from tinder polypore, a pouch with fire-making items, a leather bag with charms, a black lambskin cap lined with white cat fur, and a wand. She took a place on the high seat while a woman sang charms to invoke spirits. In her ecstasy, she prophesied the end of the bad weather spell, saw a happy marriage ahead for the woman who was singing, and answered the questions of all those present (Zingsem 1999, 266).
It is said of the Voelvas and Weledas that they were so powerful that even God, when he fell ill one day, descended to Earth so that the magical women could heal him. He was made to laugh and then felt better again. Of the mighty Thor, it is also told that he went to the prophetess Groa because a flint wedge was stuck in his head and was giving him headaches. She sang her magic charms, and the flint became loose. Enthusiastic about the effect, Thor told the singer that her husband would soon return. Groa was so happy that she forgot the rest of the healing song, so Thor still carries the wedge in his skull.
For the Christian missionaries and priests, these greatly honored wise women were an obstacle in their quest to convert people to the “one and only true faith.” They were increasingly demonized. In 1326, the Icelandic Bishop Jon Halldórsson banned everything that had to do with magical practices, such as seid.
¹ Those who are interested in psychoactive plants should consult The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants by Christian Raetsch (2005).
Adapted from The Untold History of Healing by Wolf D. Storl. The Untold History of Healing takes the reader on a exciting, expansive journey of the history of medicine from the Stone Age to modern times, explaining that Western medicine has its true origins in the healing lore of Paleolithic hunters and gatherers, herding nomads, and the early sedentary farmers rather than in the academic tradition of doctors and pharmacists. Anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wolf D. Storl vividly describes the many ways that ancient peoples have used the plants in their immediate environment, along with handed-down knowledge and traditions, to treat the variety of ailments they encountered in daily life.