Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic by Clive T
Clive Tolley; Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic;
review by Lyonel D. Perabo
Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic
Folklore Fellows’ Communications
Academia Scientiarum Fennica
589 + 286 pages, Softcover
The question of the potential shamanic nature of elements of Old Norse Religion has
fascinated researchers of religion, folkloristics and anthropology alike since the
beginning of the last century. The influence that shamanic cultures - or cultures viewed
as shamanic - like the Sámi or the Finns on Norse magical practice and especially seiðr is
indeed a subject that such renowned researchers such as Strömbäck (1935) or Price
(2002) have spent considerable time researching.
With his latest book, Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic, Clive Tolley,
Folkloristics Docent at the University of Turku (Finland) brings much to this long-lasting
and often heated debate. The book, a behemoth of almost six-hundred pages comes
accompanied by a volume of reference material of almost three-hundred pages and
presents the reader with what might be best described both as the author’s magnum
opus and one of the most complete monographs of the subject.
Being primarily a linguist and a literature scholar, Tolley choose to research
almost exclusively written literary sources when dealing with Norse practices and beliefs
and ethnographic material when discussing “classic” shamanistic cultures. By doing so,
some could say that the author might be considerably restricting his field of research
and leave areas of the said research isolated from potentially crucial cognates found in
material culture. In order to clarify his position, Tolley expresses his general mistrust
towards non-literary sources:
I remain generally skeptical that physical objects by themselves, without some
piece of writing or other expression of human thought upon which to hang an
interpretation, can suggest meanings (p.12).
Immediately following the presentation of his systematic written-based-sources
methodology, the author sets up to define the area researched, namely FennoScandinavia and the Eurasian steppe (Chapter Three “Norsemen and their Neighbours”)
before presenting his study of shamanism and shamanistic practices (Chapter Four,
“Shamanism in Eurasia”). It is important to notice here that, as opposed to some
contemporary religious scholars, Tolley does affirm that the phenomena of Germanic
shamanism can be defined and studied. To do so, he bases his definition of shamanism
on Hultkrantz (1973, 1978), Vajda (1959) and Siikala (1978, 1992). His conclusion, based
on Vajda, seems to be that a society can be described as harboring shamanistic practices
when a certain set of factors are present. Following Vajda, eight such factors are given
before quoting him in what constitutes the backbone of Tolley´s approach (p. 67):
None of the components alone suffices to determine the whole complex; each of
them is also widespread outside shamanism; only the typical coincidence of
these traits harmonized together amounts to the complex phenomenon that we
call shamanism (Zur phaseologischen Stellun des Shamanismus 1959).
After having successfully managed to define the subject of his research, the author
starts by producing accounts of various Eurasian cultures that fall unto the category of
Shamanism following the methodology enounced earlier and goes as far as including
Japan in the area researched. The next chapter (”Shamanism in Europe”) follows the
same patterns and focus on the description of magic specialists in ancient Greece (pp.
93-103) and in mediaeval Europe (pp. 109-133). Tolley´s idea in studying such areas is
that by studying other societies that were situated in the periphery of the traditional
shamanistic area one could draw parallels with the Norse society which was in such a
peripheral position as well. In this chapter, Tolley manages not only to find parallels
between for example, the Greek cult of Apollo Delphian and shamanistic practices (pp.
94-95) but also between seemingly related Greek and Norse shamanistic practices best
seen in the ecstatic aspect common both to Bacchus and Oðinn (pp. 100-103).
In the two following chapters (“Purposes” and “Community and Gender”), Tolley
focuses more on the actual practice of shamanism among both Scandinavian and
Uralian/Siberian peoples. In this highly comparative section we are presented with the
evidence that the only type of Norse magician to have any specific shamanic features is
the famed seiðr-maðr (following Dillman, 2006) but that it lacks at the same time the
traditional functions of classic Siberian shaman such as the one of a healer (p. 135),
psychopomp (p. 136), or sacrificial priest (p. 138).
A large part of Chapter Seven is then used to discuss the much-debated issue of
ergi and its connection to seiðr practices. Again, drawing mostly from a smart, in-depth
lecture of the Icelandic prose and poetic sources, Tolley is able to demonstrate that ergi,
far from simply being an epithet for sexual perversion should rather be seen as a state
of passivity and vulnerability towards the wider world exemplified by the situation of
being sexually dominated. (p. 159). The author also gives rightful intention to the myths
and can demonstrate that the tale of Þrymskviða could also be fraught with ergi
symbolism such as the phallic value of Þór´s hammer and its subsequent loss and
retrieval (p. 163).
Myths are also the main focus of Tolley for the next couple of chapters (from chapter
Ten “Cosmic Structures: Pillar Post or Pole” to Chapter Fifteen, “Aspects of Non - vertical
Cosmography”). In this one-hundred-and-fifty page-long section, the author thoroughly
analyzes a great many mythical elements, both in the Norse and shamanic traditions
and skillfully draws parallels between them. We are for example presented with rather
compelling evidence supporting the claim that the cosmology of the Norsemen had
much in common with that had that of several shamanistic cultures. The most important
of such elements, namely the World Pillar, associated with Þórr (p. 282) and the World
Tree, associated with Heimdallr (p. 379) are also notable for having close parallels in
such cultures especially the Sámi (pp. 275-276 concerning the pillar and pp. 308-309 for
However, despite offering a wealth of precious information on the significance of
Norse myths and their connections with Eurasian ones, this section, in the same fashion
as the previous one (“III: Metaphysical Entities”) appears to venture beyond the scope
of the book. Indeed in this chapter Tolley doesn’t only review ritualistic and
mythological concepts that might harbor traces of shamanistic practices but many other
as well, including some that have been acknowledged by the author himself as having
little to nothing to do with shamanism. Despite the fascinating nature of such
digressions, it might have been wiser, for the sake of the present study, to cut short
such sections and solely focus on the shamanistic elements of said myths.
Such diversions appear especially inconvenient when the author loses himself in
a confused and seemingly ad-hominem attack on Jötnar (whom he incorrectly calls
“Giants”) which are here described in unfair and un-informed ways: Their world is thus
described by Tolley as “A travesty of human society” and he insists on their “general illwill to men” (p. 238). Such arguments, both rather out-of-place in a paper concerned
with the issue of Norse shamanism and fallacious (I would side with Price; 2002, who
sees the Jötnar as a vision of “the other” which is far from being purely nefarious) take
almost the form of diatribes and weaken the general discourse of the book.
In the last sections of his book, “The Workings of Shamanism” and “The Kindred
Concerns” Tolley thankfully return to the main subject of his paper and discuss further
the potential bridges that can be made between Eurasian shamanism on one hand, and
Norse seiðr on the other. After an informative review of Norse accounts concerning the
origin of seiðr (pp. 415-422), the potential shamanic quality of Oðinn´s various sacrifices
and initiations is discussed before being partially rejected: while the tales of Oðinn´s
experiences appear to “show a superficial resemblance to shamanic rites of initiation”
(p. 462), the former lack several key shamanistic features such as the ritual
dismembering and re-arranging of the shaman’s body (p. 431). Interesting parallels can
nevertheless be traced such as the similarity between the tale of the theft of the mead
of poetry and a Finnish folk tale concerned with the banishing of evil from earth (p.436).
In Chapter Seventeen (“Performance”) Tolley finally discuss the question of seiðr
as a magical practice and compares the numerous accounts of Eurasian shamanism (p.
464-470) with the relatively limited accounts of actual seiðr séances we found in Norse
mediaeval literature. The bulk of this chapter is made of Tolley´s rebuttal of the most
famous of such account: the tale of Þorbjörg litilvölva found in Eiríks Saga Rauða. For
Tolley, discussing this particular account is crucial, if only because:
While seiðr is mentioned fairly frequently in Norse sources, and the reason for
engaging it are usually stated, little is said […] about its actual performance (pp.
In fact, as the author demonstrates it, the only detailed accounts of seiðr are the one
found in Eiríks Saga and Örvar-Odds Saga. And the latter is, according to Tolley, simply
modeled after the former, which is, again according to Tolley, a pure invention.
Basing his reasoning on purely literary grounds (with the exception of a rather
clever philological reading of Náttúrur not as “Spirit” but as “Abilities”), Tolley argues
that the description of þðrbjörg is built as to paint her as an “anti-bishop” whose
presence in the saga is only due to the its author’s desire to put in exegesis the destiny
of the rightful Christian settler Guðriðr (pp. 489-491). While the motive of a pagan seer
or seeress announcing a triumphant Christianity is indeed an existing figure in Christian
missionary literature (starting with Rimbert, Viita Ansgarii, Chapter Eighteen –
surprisingly not referred to in this chapter-), the author’s statement that Þorbjörg´s
dress should be seen as a parody of a bishop’s dress (p. 491) appears extremely
tentative at best. The author also seem to avoid any attempt at comparing her dress
with, for example, other shaman’s dress despite the fact that in doing so Dubois (1995)
came to a quite different conclusion:
In many aspects of the outward ritual, the Finnish tietäjä’s art resemble saga
accounts of seiðr. The Eiríks Saga account of þorbiörg’s distinctive ritual dress,
for instance, strongly resemble garb used by Finnish and Karelian tietäjä during
their healing rituals (Chapter VI, p. 132).
Other discrepancies in Chapter Seventeen such as an odd association with the saga’s
winter settings of seiðr with the symbolism of the birth of Christ (p. 491) or the mention
– with no attempt at an actual discussion - of potential parallels between the account
and tales of early-modern Scottish witchcraft (p. 498) render much disservice to Tolley´s
main argument, namely that descriptions of Norse seiðr have only few and far-between
similarities with Eurasian accounts of shamanic séance.
The author’s main point, that the seiðr-practitioner was never described as
sending away his soul is argued on the basis of comparisons between the twelfthcentury Historia Norwegiae and the only Norse account describing potential souljourneys, Snorri´s Ynglinga Saga (pp. 507-513). Here Tolley scores point by casting an
aura of doubt on the inconclusive Norse sources which in turn fuels his grand
Despite the presence of numerous elements, both in myths, practices and
cosmology of clearly shamanic nature, the unsystematic nature of such features coupled
with the often untrustworthy nature of Norse sources make the assumption that
Norsemen practice shamanism or some form of shamanism void.
However, the presence, in particular of striking parallels in mythology (the tale of
the acquisition of the mead), cosmology (the presence the world pillar and tree) and
folk belief (the tale of Völundr in Chapter Nineteen, and the symbolism of the bear in
Chapter Twenty) definitely prove that the Norsemen have been either strongly
influenced or shared some equivalent religious notions originating from the steppe.
The author, in his masterful yet one-sided monograph of shamanism in Norse
Myth and Magic doesn’t offer any answers concerning the extent or the conditions of
such relations. This is however, a topic that, and partially thanks to Tolley´s oeuvre, will
have to be addressed in a near future, hopefully by taking into consideration sources
such as a archaeology that were left out in the present study.