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Monday, September 9, 2019

Seiðr Shamanism and the Art of Song Healing

Merlin, by Alan Lee

In Part One of this article, My Life as a Vagabond, I described how I began to use alcohol in order to calm down my kundalini symptoms. In Aalborg, in Denmark, and on vagabonding trips around the world, I actually lived more or less like a "Dharma Bumfor 10 years. The alcohol abuse ended with a liver disease, hospitalization, and a near-death experience.

It was in Rold Forest I began to receive help from different instances. Quite physically I was found in the forest by an old woman. I was sitting at the trunk of an old tree, singing an unintelligible song. By my side stood a bottle of vodka. The old woman called an ambulance and I was brought to a hospital in Aalborg, 25 km north of the forest. My long hair and beard were filled with leaves and twigs. I not only looked like a madman. I was one. I´m not denying this. So you are welcome to think what you want about these autobiographical posts, which I post under the seriesMy Life as a Vagabond.

And yet the kundalini process was going on in me, apparently unaffected.

The help seemed to arrive because I´m was in a process where I, due to Hara practice and simple awareness, had allowed my lower chakras to be processed. I was attracted to nature. And the more I was working with Hara and the lower chakras, the more the Earth Chakra was opening me for Mother Earth elements and therefore shamanism.

In her book, Working with Kundalini – An Experiential Guide to the Process of Awakening, the spiritual teacher, Mary Shutan, writes that it has been her direct experience as well as from hearing hundreds of client experiences that there are three distinct phases of Kundalini. Most literature is focused on the first phase either because it is an intellectualization of the Kundalini process without direct experience (there is a lot of this out there) or because the author or experiencer has not reached past the first phase themselves.

The first phase of Kundalini is talked about a fair amount. This is in general the processing of the first three chakras. Shutan says that this is what 90 percent of people who are experiencing Kundalini are working through (confusing enough, the first phase often cause the upper chakras to open before the lower chakras). I realized that my hospitalization probably was the culmination of the first phase. The second phase of Kundalini is not talked about much. This is because most people have a tremendous amount of work to do in their first three chakras, most people truthfully do not get beyond the first phase of Kundalini awakening (or even go beyond Kundalini stirring which is a temporary experience of Kundalini), and because talking about “higher” spiritual experiences can be difficult.

In the second phase about Kundalini we begin to move beyond the physical and emotional experiences that were locked in our first three chakras. We obviously still have work to do with energies in the first phase… we always will. Some of the patterns that are in the first phase of Kundalini awakening simply cannot be released or cleared before we explore things from a deeper layer of Self (such as a karmic or societal level). In this phase we begin to move beyond the self and direct experience. Sort of…

The next phase takes us through the societal, world, community, karmic, and other patterns such as sex, race, and sexuality. Personally, I began to sense a connection between shamanism and art.

Shaman art by Susan Seddon Boulet

In her article, Wild Men & Women of the Forest, the author and folklorist, Terri Windling, writes about Merlin (pictured in the drawing by Alan Lee above). She writes:

Merlin is a figure intimately connected with forests in Arthurian lore. After the disastrous Battle of Arderydd, Merlin goes mad and spends years as a wild man in the woods, living a solitary, animal existance, before he emerges into his full power as a magician and seer. His prophesies are contained in Welsh poems said to be written by Myrddin himself (from texts dated to the 9th century and onward); many of them can be found in the Llyfr Du Caerfryddin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. In the "Afallennau" and "Oineau" poems (from The Black Book, translated by Meirion Pennar), Myrddin portrays his life among apple trees in the forest of Celydonn: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild; after not so dusty things and entertaining minstrels, only lack does now keep me company. . . ." He despairs that he, who once lay in women's arms, now lies alone on the cold, hard ground, with only a wild piglet for company (a creature much revered by the Celts).

This flight into wilderness is a common theme in shamanic initiation from cultures around the globe. Through deprivation, an elemental existence, and even madness, the shaman embarks on an inward journey; when he or she returns to world it is as a changed and not-quite-human being, aligned with the powers of nature, able to converse with animals and to see into the hearts of men. Suibhne (or Sweeny) in Irish lore, for example, is a warrior cursed in battle and forced to flee to the woods in the shape of a bird. Like Merlin, Suibhne goes stark raving mad during his long exile — but when he emerges from the trial, he has mastery over creatures of the forest. (For a gorgeous modern rendition of this tale, I recommend the book Sweeny's Flight,  an edition containing Seamus Heaney's long poem based on the myth, along with photographs of the Irish countryside by Rachel Giese.)

I found recognition and comfort in all this, but especially I found recognition in the Scandinavian Seiðr shamanism. In her article, Songs of Enchantment - The Legacy of the Seiðr Tradition, the Danish shamanic teacher, Annette Høst, uncovers the early northern European shamanic tradition of Seiðr and magic chanting and looks at what it has to offer us for empowerment and healing. She writes:

Like many other students of shamanism and spiritual traditions, I first thought that you only find shamanism in faraway exotic cultures, among the Siberian peoples, among Native Americans, or closer to us North Europeans, among the Sami in northernmost Scandinavia. Then I heard about the tradition of seiðr, (pronounced  somewhat like say-th, where ð is pronounced like th in there) an old Nordic form of shamanism, or shamanic magic. I was instantly fascinated: Imagine, a shamanic tradition in my own “indigenous culture” although a long time ago! I decided immediately to learn everything I could about it. 

Høst writes that our only written sources are bits and pieces in Norse myths and sagas from late Viking age, but the tradition probably has much earlier origins, with roots in Germanic fertility cult and early shamanism.  A practitioner of Seiðr would be called seiðr -woman, seiðr -man, or volva - meaning staff carrier.  Traditionally, the Seiðr workers used a combination of staff, song and a magic high seat as means to open the doors to the otherworld.

Høst says:

Let us try to picture how a seiðr ritual typically unfolds in the Viking era, for example as told in our most famous seiðr account, that of Thorbjörg Little-Volva in the saga of Eric the Red:

Thorbjörg - an experienced, professional wise woman and seiðr worker - is sitting on the seiðr seat holding her staff. The people who have summoned her to solve the problems of illness and bad hunting luck in their settlement, surround her singing the seiðr song. Thorbjörg’s spirit allies gather around her, called by the hauntingly beautiful chanting, and the song transports her into trance, into the spirit world. There she meets with spirits, divine beings or forces, and puts forward her request for help on behalf of the suffering community. Her task completed, she signals the singers to end the song. She then chants the outcome of her magic, predicting a speedy return of health and fertility in the settlement.

In the silent “echo” following the song, the volva is still in trance and gives oracular answers to the questions put to her by individuals from the farms about health, the crops and the future.

Thorbjörgs seiðr was a big community ritual, but seiðr can also be done with just a few people, or alone in nature. Other saga accounts describe seiðr used for bringing fish back into a fishless fjord, making a weapon invincible or telling the future. In short, seiðr can be used to transform, to heal, and to seek vision. 

The account of Thorbjörg’s Seiðr outlines a ritual recipe for a community Seiðr, which Annette Høst has successfully used for many years if a group of people work for common purpose, like finding a guiding vision for a new work project or re-empowering a neighbourhood. Apart from the results of the work, just being part of such a community Seiðr can be very empowering for the unity of the group as well as the individuals in the circle. One participant, Høst recalls, called it “a deeply meaningful human activity”.

However a big group Seiðr is not the most convenient magic method for most people. Luckily, a simpler, related practise exists, much more accessible for you and me in our everyday. It is the solitary Seiðr, a way of nature-magic, where your Seiðr seat might be a rock or a root of a tree in a forest or other natural setting. With your purpose or intent clear in your heart, you simply sit with your staff and sing yourself into contact with the wind, the night, with the animals and spirits out there and let their songs blend with yours and guide you and energise you. It is a way of literally rooting your spiritual practice in your own land. People often say it is like coming home.

Looking at our experiences of the last twenty years with different forms of Seiðr work, Høst finds this tradition has a lot of relevance for us today; it is far more than an exotic, ancient speciality. The most impressive elements are the magic Song, the Staff and the Power. Let us take a look at each of them.

The old Seiðr songs are portrayed with expressions like: “Sweet was the chanting” or “No one present had ever heard a fairer song”, at other times it is “strong” or “harsh”. Both then and now the Seiðr song is known to often be ecstatic.

No old Seiðr songs have been handed down to us, so Høst has had to turn to the related traditions of magic and ritual song of Northern Europe, especially the old Nordic galdr, the Finnish runosong, the Sami joik, to learn the old secret skills of magic singing.

In our culture today the tradition of magic chants is still kept barely alive - by lullabies. A lullaby’s aim is to restore peace to the child it is sung over and to open the doors to the Realm of Sleep. This is another meaning of spellbinding and enchantment, with great healing power when used consciously and ethically.

In my article, My Life as a Vagabond, I wrote about Windling´s article, On Artistic Inspiration, where she writes:

“In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans walk perilously close to the realm of madness; indeed, in some cases, their gifts specifically come from journeying into madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods and then back again.”

This is also a central theme in her book, The Wood Wife. It begins with a Goethe quote:

Who wants to understand the poem
Must go to the land of poetry.

In popular thought, if not always in fact, shamanism is associated with altered states of consciousness and borderline madness, with shapechanging and otherworldly journeys, with creativity and genius. Windling’s novel The Wood Wife weaves these elements into the story of a woman who meets spirits of place when she travels to the Arizona desert. The artist figures in The Wood Wife are, like shamans, intermediaries between the spirits/nature and the human world. The artists speak to and for the spirits.

The second phase of the kundalini process began to show in my dreams. Lately they have attained a rather strange character. They have attained the color of icons. Something otherworldly is mixing in. I´m still experiencing life on the streets, and my engagement with other bums. But there is an extraordinary feeling of sacredness. Strange people are mixing in, people from traveling caravans, street entertainers, bohemians, gypsies, vagabonds, and some more strange creatures, half animal and half human creatures, so-called shapeshifters.

I was therefore quite fascinated when I discovered the art work of Rima Staines. Rima Staines (as portrayed on her website) is an artist using paint, wood, word, music, animation, clock-making, puppetry and story to attempt to build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that. Her gate-building has been a lifelong pursuit, and she hopes to have perhaps propped aside even one spiked loop of bramble (leaving a chink just big enough for a mud-kneeling, trusting eye to glimpse the beauty there beyond), before she goes through herself.

Rima was born in London in 1979 to a family of artists and has always been stubborn about living the things that make her heart sing. She lives in South Devon with Tom Hirons (a writer, storyteller, acupuncturist, poet & wilderness rites of passage guide), and their two young sons. Together they steer Hedgespoken - a vehicle for the imagination - a travelling offgrid home and theatre built on a 1966 Bedford truck.

Rima's artwork has appeared in and on books, magazines, and record covers on both sides of the Atlantic. For many years she maintained a passionately-followed blog at and has sold paintings and prints of her work (as well as the clocks she makes) on her travels the length and breadth of Britain. 

Her work hangs on walls in six of the seven continents.

The Old Woman of the Woods series: Baba Yaga

Sova Slova

A former accordionista with the London Gypsy Orchestra, she can now be found playing by Devon’s street corners and campfires, and giving life to puppets on the edges of woods. She has books in the making, and also produces animations and puppets and obscure games in lost dialects.

Rima’s inspirations include the world and language of folktale; the faces of the people who pass her on the street; the folk music and art of Old Europe and beyond; peasant and nomadic living; magics of every feather; wilderness and plant-lore; the margins of thought, experience, community and spirituality; and the beauty there is to be found in otherness.

Lately, I´m also beginning to experience inner tantric phenomena. Some of the female street entertainers appear like dakinis. Tsultrim Allione describes the dakinis as “mystical female beings who may appear in dreams, visions, or human form.” They are primarily energy-beings, “the wisdom-energy of the five colors, which are the subtle luminous forms of the five elements.” In his book The Faerie Way, Hugh Mynne writes that there is a truly astounding point-to-point correspondence between British faerie beliefs and Tibetan teachings concerning dakinis (besides its New Age scent, Mynne´s book is quite good). In Scandinavia we have the Disir. These are the female spirits (goddesses) I´m interacting with in Rold Forest.

The Disir belongs to a group of gods called The Vanir. In ancient Celtic religion they are called The Sidhe. They are the Divine Ancestors. They are closely associated with poetry and music.

The Sidhe could be compared with Tolkien´s concept of elves and angels, and the relationship with them could be used in the same way as suggested throughout this book. See Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien, especially Chapter 3: Philosophical Angeology.

Again Annette Høst is talking about something I clearly recognize. In an article, Keep it Close to Nature, Karen Kelly interviews Høst on Seiðr:

KK: Does This Mean That In Order to Practise Seiðr We Need to Follow the Religion of the Vikings?

AH: I am glad that you bring this up because I think that this question lingers maybe unconsciously in many people’s minds.  I’ll put it this way: A lot of the research connects the tradition of seiðr with the Viking Age, with the Aesir deities and especially with Odin.  This is without considering the fact that seiðr is much older than the Vikings, much older than the Aesir gods. I would rather go behind the filter and structure of any religion in my seiðr working to the source of the spirits and powers of Nature.  That is the same for us as for the old ones - it is timeless.  I don’t see seiðr as being necessarily part of any religion.  I really want to emphasise connecting it to the power and spirit of Nature rather than any religion. 

If we should relate seiðr to a religion it would be much more relevant to link it to the older fertility religion and the Vanir.  They are the earlier Nordic gods and spirits concerned with fertility, sexuality, magic, peace and abundance.  We know the main deities of the Vanir: Frey, Freyja and Njord.  But what is interesting is that they were inseparable from groups of spirits of the land and Nature.  Frey is connected with the Elves (alfar), Freyja with the Disir and sometimes the whole group of Vanir is called Elves.  So they are much closer to the Earth and shamanism than any later Nordic gods. I think most people don’t really know about the Vanir, so they have not yet been the object of romantic interest, but they are much more in harmony with some important aspects of seiðr, such as the ecstasy and ergi. 

However now that we know how a seiðr works I prefer to let go of all that historical fringe and concentrate on the timeless aspect of seiðr.  We are not recreating the past.

Dakinis, like the Sidhe (Scandinavia: Vanir/Disir), are particular associated with twilight; they frequently appear at twilight. They speak a mysterious non-rational “twilight language” (Sanscrit: sandhyabhasa) which can only be understood through the operation of another mode of knowing. Like the Sidhe, they are “between-creatures,” appearing and disappearing in the mysterious radiance of another world. This has all something to do with dream yoga. The Tibetan Dream Yoga practice (which origins in shamanism) became a great help for me, while interacting with the Disir in dreams.

Høst writes that many parents know how new lullabies have sprung out of their hearts, born in the moment from love and intent to help. However there are other time tested ways of finding new spells or healing chants. In the beginning of Finland’s great magic song cycle “Kalevala” we are told where the new magic songs (runes) live, where the source of power is:

Many runes the cold has told me,
Many lays the rain has brought me,
Other songs the winds have sung me;
Many birds from many forests,
Oft have sung me lays n concord
Waves of sea, and ocean billows,
Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation,
Oft have been my guide and master.

Kuu is a Moon goddess in Finnish mythology. Art by Ethel Larcombe

Today we can use magic chanting to sing open the doors to the spirit realms, to sing pains or illness away, to sing stronger the bonds between ourselves and the tree in our backyard, to sing thanks to the dawn or the car running smoothly, to sing blessings for a newborn child.

The healing potential in singing is immediate and great, both for the singer and the one being sung over. Basically it only requires that you allow yourself to be moved by your purpose…and open your mouth. The Netsilik Inuit Orpingalik put it like this: “Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices”.

Høst writes:

In the new seiðr and other shamanic rituals I listen to the singing pouring from modern people when they are moved and opened by the song. Usually they have no “song training” but in their voices I hear echoes of the old song traditions, I hear the most heavenly harmony, the irreverent cackling of old hags, the coarse calls of ravens blending into a full sweeping wave of Song.

On the below video you can see Faroese Eivør Pálsdóttir performs her own song "Tròdlabùndin" (from the album "Trøllabundin" 2005) at an outdoor concert with Vamp on the mountain farm Stigen in Aurland, 10.08.13. Stigen Farm is a UNESCO World Heritage Site from 2005, and it is located by the Aurlandsfjord. Note the throat singing in the last part of the song. When I first heard this, I immediate came to think of Seidr.


In Tolkien´s Middle-earth, the elves of Rivendell are famous for their singing. In the Christian story of creation, the New Testament tells us that in the beginning, there was the Word. In Tolkien´s spin, we are told that in the beginning, there was the Song. Before writing The Hobbit, Tolkien laid out the origins of Middle-earth and how the happy elves found a home there. Though The Silmarillion was first published in 1977, four years after Tolkien´s death, it contains the history behind Middle-earth that Tolkien had been working on for much of his adult life. As it begins, the creator of the world, Ilúvatar, made the Ainur, or Holy Ones, and gave them the power of song. The voices of the Ainur, like innumerable choirs and musical instruments,

Began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went into the Void, and it was not void.

Both elves and men (Quendi and Atani) were created as important players of the world´s symphony. But though the race of men will do great things, Ilúvatar proclaims, it is the elves who “shall be the fairests of all earthly creatures, and they shall have and conceive and bring forth more beauty than all my Children; and they shall have the greater bliss in this world.”

The highest of the “guardian angels” in The Lord of the Rings is Elbereth. At the most critical juncture in the Quest, Sam is inspired to invoke her by name, “speaking in tongues” (language is always the clearest indicator of importance in Tolkien):

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
O menel palan-diriel,
Le nallon sí di-nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos (LOTR, p. 712)

This translates as: “O, Elbereth Starkindler from heaven gazing-afar, to thee I cry now in the shadow of death. O look towards me, Everwhite.”

When we come to the importance of the staff in Seiðr, we almost see Gandalf for our inner eye:

Gandalf painting by Kinko White

The occasions when the Seiðr staff sometimes behaves or manifest like a snake have naturally given rise to associations with both the Caduceus, Hermes’ wand entwined by two snakes, and the staff of Asclepius entwined by one snake. What does that tell us? Being careful not to take this comparison too far, it simply confirms to me that power of the Staff and spirit of Snake always have turned up as guides and allies in magic and healing work, and apparently they like to work together. It is of course kundalini.

In my article, Philosophy as a Rite of Rebirth (a Shamanic Ritual), I have told about my kundalini awakening, and its similarity with ancient incubation rituals. I will shortly retell it here:

My kundalini was awakened when I stayed in my childhood home in Aalborg, Denmark. One night I had a non-ordinary dream. I was standing at the top of a mountain in a row of sinners. Demons were surrounding the row, and were forcing the sinners to jump out from the mountain, down into Hell. When I was forced to jump, I was falling for a while down into the flaming hell. Normally, when you have a falling dream, you wake up. I didn´t woke up, but hit the ground without dying. I looked down and saw that my legs were broken, and that the bones stuck out. And all around me I saw mountains of skulls and bones. Besides me there was a rock where some runes were carved. They said: You are Norna Gest. An old woman dressed in black was approaching. I thought it was a witch, but it was Karen Blixen. She bend over me,  and took both her hands down around my throat, and drilled a finger hard and long into the back of my neck, for finally to stroke me over both shoulders. 

When I was straightening up, she broked the silence with the unexpected request:

”Now say a verse.” 

The first, which felt into my thoughts, was Rainer Maria Rilke´s poem Autumn

The leaves fall, fall as from far,
Like distant gardens withered in the heavens;
They fall with slow and lingering descent.

And in the nights the heavy Earth, too, falls
From out the stars into the Solitude.

Thus all doth fall.
This hand of mine must fall
And lo! the other one:—it is the law.
But there is One who holds this falling
Infinitely softly in His hands.

Then she said:

”You shall go now.”

I began to scream. But the only sound coming up through me was a wordless auummm. Enormous powers of energy were following this aum. I felt like I was sitting on a jet motor. The powers moved up through my body in violent spinning movements and spasms.

Then I woke up. But I had taken something with me out of the dream, and that was the energy. A new energy was now working in me, an energy which was not mine, or psychological constructed by me. It was Kundalini. It couldn´t be stopped by will, though I later learned how to steer it.

In my booklet on the chakras, The Nine Gates of Middle-earth, I write about how storytelling has formed my life. I have always reflected myself in storytelling. I early became fascinated with literature focusing on the journey motif, and which happened to stand on my father´s bookshelf, for example the Danish Nobel prize winner in literature, Johannes V. Jensen, and his novel The Long Journey.

What is special about Johannes V. Jensen is that he grew up and lived on the peninsula Himmerland, where also Rold Forest is situated, and he wrote about the area and its people in the collection of short stories called Himmerlandshistorier (Stories of Himmerland). These people are my ancestors. Jensen wrote in the same style as Tolkien and Blixen, a style which could be called mythic fiction; a tradition which follows the ancient tradition of storytelling.

There is especially one story from The Long Journey, which has imprinted itself in my mind. It is called Mother and Child. It is about a hunter who in ancient times lived in the great Northern forests with his woman and their child. One day while hunting, the hunter finds the track of a deer, and forgets himself in the hunt. It is as if the deer is teasing him to follow. During the hunt he loses his track of time. Finally, late in the night, at the top of a cliff, the deer stops and looks back at the hunter, who now raises his bow to shoot. But then the deer transforms into fire, and runs up to the sky. The hunter realizes that what he had hunted, was a star constellation (read more in the booklet).

It is also in The Long Journey, you can find the story of Norna Gest. I later came to realize that Norna Gest wasn´t me, but my Dream Master (see my Ebook: Karen Blixen - The Devil´s Mistress). I will end this article with a quote from the novel:

I have myself tried to find the song of healing. In my free Ebook, Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien, I have tried to gather my complete philosophy. I consider this book to be a song of healing. Recently I have started writing a series of new Sûnyatâ Sutras, where I try to practice a kind of "philosophy poetry". I consider these sutras to be another, ultra short, form of song healing. In the blog archive you can find them under the categories: The Artist as Shaman, and New Sûnyatâ Sutras.

Part One of this article:

My Life as a Vagabond

Texts on Dream Yoga:

What is Dream Yoga?

On The Nature of Dreams

My Friend in the Woods (blog post, where inner tantra is described).

The Nine Gates of Middle-earth (my free booklet on the chakras). 

Other related texts:

Keep it Close to Nature, by Annette Høst and Karen Kelly

On Artistic Inspiration, by Terri windling

Wild Men & Women of the Forest, by Terri windling

The Three Phases of Kundalini (article by Mary Shutan).

The Long Journey, by Johannes V. Jensen (Free Ebook. In 1944, Jensen won the Nobel prize in literature for this novel. Here you can find Jensen´s story of Norna Gest. If you want to read a translation of the original Norna Gest´s saga - click here).

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