While this article, written twenty years ago, no longer reflects current belief and practice within Hrafnar, it is left online in service to the community.
Originally published in Sagewoman, Fall, 1993
Heide: Witch-Goddess of the North
by Diana L. Paxson
Night has fallen. Shadow veils the fields we know and hides the familiar features of the town around us from view. In darkness, all is as it was a thousand years ago. The world is hushed, resting after the work of the day. Everywhere, folk seek their beds; in the distance a wolf howls and dogs bark their answer, closer, someone slams a door.
The village around you is seeking sleep, but you wait for the secret hour, the hour of silence. You have bolted your door and curtained your windows; folk have died for what you are about to do, for though you make yourself comfortable and close your eyes you are not sleeping, tonight you have a journey to go…
The scent of the sacred herbs is sharp and pungent; you breathe deeply, letting the stillness around you fill your soul– in … and out … in … and out … You relax, your limbs grow heavy, pressing you into the chair. You cannot move your legs, your arms are slack, your fingers curled; your breast and belly rise and fall as you breathe, and all your tensions gently ease away. You breathe deeply, drawing in peace, letting go of care– in … and out … in … and out …
Now you are floating … A face appears in memory– the old woman who comes sometimes to the village, casting the runes in exchange for a place to sleep and a crust of bread. Once more you hear her message–
“The time has come. You are summoned to the hilltop. Tonight the Lady will be here. . . .”
Excitement tingles in your veins; fear flutters in your belly; you need to see Her, but what will happen if you go? Call now from the Otherworld your ally, your familiar, the beast-friend who will help you to make your journey. Silently repeat the words of the spell–
“Into my ally’s shape I’ll go
with care and labor, as I know,
And I shall go in the Lady’s name,
all ’till I come home again.”
The change takes you, and in beast-shape or riding, you are off into the windy darkness!
Ah, the freedom, the joy of this wild ride through the night sky! Everything you know is left behind. There are no landmarks here, only swift motion, and other riders around you, familiar and strangers, coming, like you, to answer the call … But now you find yourself descending far from human habitation– only one point of light shows in this wilderness of heath and hill.
On the highest hilltop, a fire is burning, its flickering hidden by the tangled trees.. Dark shapes move around it; as you swoop downward you can hear the edged sweetness of a fiddle, the heart-beat of a drum. Hanging above the fire is a cauldron; the scent of the herbs boiling within it is already beginning to mingle with the tang of woodsmoke in the air.
“You are late,” cry the others– you know them for your sisters, though you only meet here. “It is almost midnight!”
You dismiss your steed and reach out to take the hand that is offered you. Viol and drum take up the tune with redoubled vigor, and you begin to dance. Around and around the cauldron you go, singing, chanting. Sparks blaze up from the fire and dance dizzily with the stars.
And presently, you become aware that someone else is leading the dancing– an old woman, but more lively than all the rest of you, thin legs pounding the ground as her dark skirts fly. Grey hair streams out from beneath her kerchief; one moment she looks ancient, and the next she is laughing like a girl. The dance whirls until you can hardly stand, and at that moment the music ceases.
You sway, and see that old woman stand suddenly straighter, and now her draperies fall like a cloak around her, and her eyes have become wells of mystery. Your heart skips a beat, or perhaps it is leaping for joy. For you know now that She is here, and it is time for the magic to begin. . . .
In the lands where Germanic languages are spoken today, there were witches before ever the Inquisitors wrote down their Satanic fantasies, brewing spells and dancing on the mountaintops. Holy women and hags, they were the heirs to an ancient tradition, and the name for the goddess who embodied their lore was “Heide”, Witch and Wisewoman of the North.
The goddess who survived in the popular imagination as the witch of Germanic fairy tales has a venerable history. The comments of Tacitus on the position of women among the Germanic tribes have been widely quoted–
They even suppose somewhat of sanctity and prescience to be inherent in the female sex; and therefore neither despise their counsels, nor disregard their responses. We have beheld, in the reign of Vespasian, Veleda, long reverenced by many as a deity.
(Germania : 8).
Among the tribes, the holy women played a crucial religious role, and though even before the conversion to Christianity it was somewhat eroded, the belief in female access to chthonic wisdom was retained in the figure of the Völva from whom even the great god Odin sought knowledge of his destiny.
But there are few powers in this world which cannot be misused to do harm, and those who have the greatest power to heal or help are the most likely to be suspected of evil-doing. The degree to which women had been reverenced was the measure of the hostility which they might inspire, especially as their social power decreased, since a culture typically both fears that which it has suppressed and ascribes to it magic powers. As Grimm puts it:
The witches are of the retinue of former goddesses, who hurled from their thrones, transformed from precious adored beings into malign and dreaded ones, roam restlessly by night, and instead of their once stately progresses can only maintain stolen forbidden conferences with their adherents.
(Teutonic Mythology, p. 1055)
Fortunately, in Scandinavia the pagan tradition degenerated more slowly, and has left us with sufficient material from which to form an image of the goddess who gave the witches of the North Her name.
Heide first appears in the “Voluspá” in the stanza following the description of Gullveig. Both have been seen as aspects of Freyja, since in this passage the goddess has apparently come to Odin’s hall as either a spy or emissary of the Vanir.
I remember the first great war in the world,
when Gold-drunk they pierced with spears,
and in the hall of Hár they burned her;
thrice they burned her three times reborn–
oft, not seldom– yet still she lives.
Like Odin in King Geirrod’s hall, the hostile fires could not consume her. If she came as a spy, perhaps the Aesir had reason to torment her. But if she came as an emissary, it is no wonder that their treatment of her provoked, or at least intensified the war. Nonetheless, her survival of the worst they could do undoubtedly contributed to their conclusion that a treaty with the Vanir would be more productive than continued warfare.
The witch-goddess in her aspect as Gullveig (“Gold-mad”, or perhaps “the golden ecstatic one”) is the first face we see. Some scholars have tried to give the name an economic implication, but I think that in this case “gold” is more likely to be related to brightness or else to the function of the Vanir as deities of prosperity. What is important here, however, is the fact that this goddess is perceived as being so powerful that she is threatening– indeed she is so powerful that even the great Aesir are not able to destroy her.
The image that remains with us is that of a radiant figure rising from the flames, laughing at the foolishness of men who think that her power and wisdom can ever be destroyed. As such, she is a powerful role-model and source of strength when we come out of the broom-closet and affirm our right to practice the ancient magic and worship as we please.
Both the wandering wise-woman and the magical woman who is seized and burned are part of the archetype of the witch. In the next stanza, her magical activities are summarized.
Heide she hight when to men’s houses she came
well-seeing Völva, wise in gand [magic],
much seidh she knew, seidh for mind-bending,
ever was the joy of ill-doing women [“brides”]
Heide is the name that Gullveig (or Freyja, if they are the same) is called by when she wanders the world casting spells and prophesying. This name can also be used as a generic term for women who practice magic. For instance in the “Shorter Seeress’ Prophecy” (5) we learn that– “Heidhr ok Hrossdhjófr Hrimnis kindar.” (Heide and Horse-thief (are) Hrimnir’s kin.). Here the name Heide is usually given as “witch” by translators. HrimniR is one of the Giants. The meaning of the passage is probably that witches and horse-thieves, both of whom act outside the law of the community, are the kin of the Giants, the powers that rule the wilderness.
Elsewhere Heide appears as the proper name of a number of female practitioners of magic. Whether they, and those women whom they work for, are truly “ill doing” presumably depends on the purpose of their magic, or perhaps on one’s attitude towards female workers of magic in general. The völva who prophecies for King Frodi in Hrolf’s Saga Kraka is called Heith. In Frithiof’s Saga, one of the seidhkonas who raise a storm against Frithiof is named Heide. The name of her sister, Hamglam, is possibly related to hamhlypunni (skin leapers), since the two fare out of their bodies to work their magic.
The image of the vigorous older woman, or the crone who lives on the fringes of society, is best expressed by Heide. Goddesses (like gods) are polymorphic, and may appear in whatever form fits the occasion. This includes apparent age. A goddess, when assuming a role usually taken by a woman of a given age in the culture, will probably appear to be that age. No doubt the working of magic was associated with older women in Germanic tradition because it takes time to master the lore, and also because younger women are too busy with hometending and childbearing. In the sagas, women who work magic are almost invariably mature, if not advanced in years. They may still be sexually active, however, even if their children are grown. They take lovers for their own pleasure, not for procreation. In a culture without dependable contraception, only a post-menopausal woman can afford to be thus free.
Given the Norse tendency to incorporate proper names as kennings (viz. Asa-Tyr for Odin), and to use descriptive terms as proper names (FreyR = “lord”), trying to identify the “real” name of the witch- goddess is probably pointless. Perhaps it is more useful to consider what the name, or description, “Heide” tells us about the goddess.
In Old Norse the word Heidh has two principle meanings, or perhaps there are two words which have evolved into the same form. The first refers to the brightness of the sky, the radiance of the heavens. As a divine name, this would seem to derive from the Indo-European tendency to define the gods as beings of brightness. The second, like the German heide, means a heath, and it is this root from which we draw the term “heathen”. The heath is the wilderness outside the garth to which the seidhman or seidhkona, and later anyone who wished to worship in the old way, retired to work their magic. A third meaning seems to relate to a fee, something of worth, or honor. The term was also used as a name element (dropping the “h” as a suffix), as in Heidhrun, the name of the she-goat who browses on Yggdrasil and whose milk is the mead that nourishes the heroes.
The stereotype of the witch with her cauldron, transmitted via Shakespeare’s Three Witches, is still with us, and this is certainly one of the major images of Heide. The cauldron as a symbol was particularly significant for both the Celtic and Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, where sufficient fuel and water were available to cook food in really large cauldrons. In the heroic period, most meat was cut up and boiled rather than being roasted (meat could even be cooked in the raw hide suspended from poles if a cauldron was not available). One possible etymology for seidh relates it to the root for seethe– boiling things in a cauldron.
One of the sacred uses of the cauldron was certainly to boil the meat of animals offered to the gods at the great festivals. After the animal had been honored and dedicated with suitable prayers and swiftly killed, the head and hide would be hung on a tree for the god, and the meat shared among the people– a practice at least as humane, and considerably less wasteful than modern factory-style butchering. Smaller amounts of meat, in smaller cauldrons, could be prepared by individuals working magic.
However a more likely use of the cauldron in women’s magic would be to simmer herbs gathered for their symbolic or medicinal qualities to be used in healing or spells. In many cultures, the process of preparing the potion is itself a ritual. Spells and affirmations are chanted as the brew is stirred. Among the Azande, for instance, consuming the herbs so prepared is what transforms the individual into a shaman. When the culture permits it, such magic can be worked in the woman’s domain of hearth or kitchen. More powerful still are the spells that are chanted over the cauldron in the wilderness, for the lands beyond the fences of men are already half-way between the worlds. In principle, any pot in which herbs are steeped or food is cooked is a cauldron, and you can call upon the magic of Heide to empower it, whispering your intent into the steam as you stir. Like many women’s magics, it does not require robes or special magical tools. Anyone with access to a stove can learn this aspect of Heide’s wisdom.
A third face of this goddess is that of the Seeress. According to some scholars, in “Voluspá”, it is this mysterious witch-goddess, Heide herself, whom Odin seeks in the Underworld and compels to prophesy. In the poem she is referred to only as “the Völva”, a term which can be used interchangeably with seidhkona (a woman who performs seidh magic, about which we will have more to say), but seems to have the connotation of age and wisdom. It is interesting to compare the tone of her interchanges with Odin with the competitive riddling with which he confronts male figures such as Vafthruthnir. It is the wisewoman who provides him with cosmic doctrine, with knowledge of how the world began and how it will end–
Hear me, all ye hallowed beings,
both high and low of Heimdall’s children,
thou wilt, Valfather, that I well set forth
the fates of the world which as first I recall.
In “Baldrsdraumar”, Odin seeks out a similar figure to interpret his son’s evil dreams. The Völva has inherited the skills and prestige of ancient Germanic seeresses such as Veleda and Alirun. It is this tradition upon which Wagner draws for his characterization of Erda, the “Vala”. The final interchange between Wotan and Erda in Siegfried is based upon the Eddic dialogues between Odin and the Völva.
That the seeress was not simply a supernatural figure is seen in passages such as the description of the visit of the Völva Thorbjorg to the holding of Thorkell in Greenland (Saga of Eirik the Red: 3). She is said to be the survivor of a company of nine priestesses, clearly a woman of age and authority, even though her tradition is dying. In the tale of Arrow Odd, a Völva called Heith travels to feasts accompanied by fifteen youths and fifteen maidens who chant the spellsongs. In Landnamabók, another Völva, also called Heith, prophesies good fortune. It is not clear whether all of these women are old, but they are certainly experienced, mature, and respected in their communities.
In sagas set after the conversion to Christianity, the wandering spae-wife remains a character, but she has become more furtive and is more likely to be asked to perform destructive magic. In Viga-Glum’s Saga (12), a wandering seeress called Oddbjorg visits the farm and tells fortunes. In Chapter 13 of the Ynglinga Saga, we are told how Huld the seidhkona is hired by Drifu to set the night-mare on the husband who has abandoned her.
Whether as an acknowledged or euhemerized goddess, the kinds of magic associated with Heide fall under the classification of seidh, distinguished from galdor in that it relies less on words, runes, and formal knowledge than on altering consciousness and raising power (although spells and runes were often used in seidh-magic, and of course energy was raised by magicians to empower spells). The word can be spelled seidh or seidh in English– the final sound is like the “th” in the.
Many of the activities referred to by the Old Norse as seidh are skills that we would call shamanism– shapechanging, spirit journeying, working with spirits and prophecy.
According to tradition, it was Freyja (of whom Heide may, to one of a Wiccan ent, be considered to be the Crone form) who taught the arts of seidh to the Aesir, and chief among them, Odin, who was already the originator and master of galdor. The fullest description of seidh practices is given in reference to him.
Odin had the skill which gives great power and which he practiced himself. It is called seidh, and by means of it he could know the fate of men and predict events that had not yet come to pass; and by it he could also inflict bane on men, or soul loss or waning health, or also take wit or power from some men, and give them to others. But this sorcery is attended by such ergi that manly men considered it shameful to practice it, and so it was taught to priestesses. . . .
Odin could change himself. His body then lay as if sleeping or dead, but he became a bird or a wild beast, a fish or a dragon, and journeyed in the twinkling of an eye to far-off lands, on his own errands or those of other men. Also, with mere words he was able to extinguish fires, to calm the seas, and to turn the winds any way he pleased. (Ynglingasaga:: VII)
This term, ergi deserves some explanation. It is used in two situations, in passages dealing with magic, and (between men) as a sexual insult. Its meaning as such seems to imply sexual receptivity or desire. It is unclear whether it was originally a sexual metaphor used for spiritual receptivity, or a religious term which was degraded. In either case, it indicates that the person so described is willing to relinquish control, and allow him or herself to be used or filled by some greater force. This, of course, is a prerequisite for attaining the kind of ecstatic trance and altered consciousness required for the practice of seidh.
Many of the practices associated with seidh are those which in other cultures would be called shamanism. There are many references to shapechanging in Old Norse literature, both for women and men. In most cases the transformation seems to occur while the witch is in trance, and it is thus the spirit, or astral body, which changes shape and journeys. There are also references to totem animals which may be survivals of helping spirits in animal form. Many of the Norse gods are associated with specific animals. Freyja, for instance can take falcon form and rides in a chariot drawn by cats. No animal is given for Heide, but I have always associated her with a female raven, a bird famed for its wisdom. Perhaps Heide’s raven is Hugin and Munin’s mother.
Of the skills described above, the one which is most often associated with Heide as both a divine and mortal figure is prophecy. Perhaps the most complete description we have of any Norse ritual is a seidh seance held at a farmstead in Greenland during the time of Erik the Red (10th cen.). The gear worn by the Völva is reminiscent of shamanic trappings– a blue cloak ornamented with stones, hat, gloves, shoes, and charm bag of animal skins, and a carved and jeweled staff. In many shamanic cultures the outfit includes a fringe to hide the face or a veil, and the veiled prophetess on her High Seat is one of the images of Heide.
In the saga, the procedure for seidh involves sitting on a high platform while a spirit song is sung, and with that assistance, entering a trance state in which she is able to answer questions and prophesy. In the Eddas, Odin goes down to the Underworld to awaken the Völva from her sleep in the gravemound. He then asks her questions about the history and fate of the world. The assumption is that either the information the seeress reports comes from the dead, or that perhaps she must enter a state beynd mortal life to gain access to it.
It should be noted here that despite the fact that the English word used by Christians for their place of eternal punishment comes from the old Germanic, Hel, in Norse belief is neither hot nor particularly unpleasant (although according to late texts it does include some nasty neighborhoods for evil-doers). In general, it is more like the Celtic Summerland, or the Elysian fields, green even when it is winter and the world, with feasting halls. It is the realm of the ancestors, believed by many cultures to have access to great wisdom and willing to help their descendents, a place of rest.
In Hrafnar (the Norse circle I work with) we have reconstructed the procedure for performing seidh. Our procedure involves a journey to the underworld, and indeed, the trance state one enters is unusually deep and peaceful.
However as we have seen prophetic or divinatory seidh, however fascinating and useful, is not the only area in which the help of Heide may be sought. As the Veiled Völva, she teaches us the wisdom of the depths. As the archetypal witch, She is the key to recovering the traditional women’s magic of Northern Europe. As Gullveig, she is the spirit of the Witch who can survive even the conversion of the folk to Christianity.
How can we learn to work with Heide today? The outline that follows is based on the Norse ritual tradition developed in Hrafnar and can be adjusted as necessary for solo or group work. Any (attractive) picture of a witch can be used as a goddess-image, or you can copy the illustration for this article. A piece of natural linen or black cloth is appropriate for an altar cloth. Use a votive light in a clear or amber colored glass. I myself place a tea–light in a miniature cauldron and position it where it will light the image.
A Ritual to Heide
Hallowed herbs all ill dispell
As fuel on the fire,
As smoke on the wind.
(use an herbal or forest scented incense and fan it over participants, if possible with a feather!)
By this water from the sacred well,
may your/my spirit be made bright
as the bark of Yggdrasil…
(sprinkle self with water to which a pinch of salt has been added)
Sunwise I walk the way of wonder,
With sacred staff the worlds I sunder,
As I walk the circle round
By wit and will may it be bound.
(cast the circle with a wand you have cut yourself, or with a broom)
Nordhri and Sudhri, Austri and Vestri
From the center here we summon,
Watchers of the world, now ward us
Konntu heill ok sæll
(“kon-too haik ok sait”)
(The Norse did not have an elemental/directional system as such, but did identify these dwarves upholding the four corners of the world. Face in each direction in turn to honor them. The phrase in Old Norse at the end means “Hail and be welcome.”)
Now to the primal powers we lift our praise,
Spirits of earth and sea we summon,
all ye whose names we know, and those we do not know;
Landvaettir, nackar, vind-alfar, listen–
Ward us as we walk between the worlds.
Konntu heill ok sæll
(When we do trance work in particular, we move outside of human boundaries, and it is only polite to ask the aid of the elementals.)
(Light the candle in front of the image and bless it with the “H” rune, “hagalaz” or “hail” the rune of transformation)
Heide, heathen folk now hail thee–
As Gullveig thou wert gashed by god-spears,
Radiant One, thrice-burned and thrice reborn.
From deepest night may thy knowledge awaken.
Bless us and be with us now.
Heide, Heide, shining in shadow,
Word of Light sung by the darkness,
Wisest of women, wielding witchcraft,
Holy Hag, from the heath come hither,
Völva, Veiled One, Visions granting,
In the depths of our darkness Thou art waiting,
Fill me and fulfill us now!
Between the worlds, the veils are thinning,
Woman of wisdom this way winning,
Night-wind riding, now draw near,
Heide, hasten to us here.
Use the passage that begins this essay as a pathworking. If you are working alone, you may want to read it onto a tape which you turn on at this point. Allow a space of 5-10 minutes at the end for the vision to continue. Ask the goddess what you need to know. The conversation may suggest additional ritual work, or you may repeat this meditation later. Then retrace your steps– come down from the mountain and back to the village, your own bed, and into your body again. Afterward, if you wish, you may read the following.
Thus speaks the Goddess– Heide the Holy, the Wise–
I am the deep Wisdom that waits in the darkness.
The secrets of the shadow, of all you have forgotten,
all that men suppress and shroud from the light of the day.
The secrets of the womb and the tomb are mine,
I am the hidden place within your souls, where no man can see.
As I was the Night before your beginnings,
I am the Light that will shine for you at the end.
I wait as a seed within the earth, as the egg in the womb,
as the spirit in the body.
I am the matrix of all your magic.
To work your way upon the world, you must work with me.
I am all that is, that has been, and that will be,
and there is no man that hath lifted my Veil.
Sharing the Blessing
This drink I brew from thrice-blest herbs,
with strength well-blended and brightest honor;
’tis mixed with magic and mighty songs,
with goodly spells, wish-speeding runes.
(Bless the drink– spring water, herb tea or dark beer– with the “Lake” rune (L). Use a pewter goblet or, still better, a drinking horn.)
Bread I bring you, blessed by the Holy Hag,
Corn for the kindred of Ask and Embla;
Grain that was ground, gift of the Goddess,
By earth and fire its fate transforming.
(Bless the bread– preferably a good dark rye– with the “Seed” rune ( N ). Share the bread and the drink, and place/pour some into the offeing bowl.)
Heide, heathen folk here thank thee–
Wisest of women, wielding witchcraft,
Let thy wisdom sleep within.
Until once more we may invoke thee,
Holy Hag, we bid thee now fare-well.
Fridhr ok farsæll!
(“frither ok farsait” = “hail and farewell”)
Let us now thank the Powers which have protected us:
Nackar and Landvaettir and vind-alfar,
all ye whose names we know, and those we do not know;
Nordhri and Sudhri, Austri and Vestri,
Dwarf-kin, we dismiss you, with thanks for your kindness!
Fridhr ok farsæll!
With sacred staff I circle round,
Widdershins the ward’s unbound;
This place to all good use returned,
Leave us with the lore we’ve learned.
- James Chisholm, “Seidhr Excerpts: Part I” Idunna 3:4, Yule, 1991
- The Elder Edda, translated by Lee Hollander (University of Texas, 1986) and other translations
- Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Dover Books, 1966
- Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland, Oxford, 1985
- Snorre Sturluson, Heimskringla, Dover, 1990
- Tacitus, Germania (The Works of Tacitus, Oxford translation), Harper & Brothers, 1873.