I went to the Vikings exhibition the other day at the British Museum with my friend Susan, and whilst the highlight for me was undoubtedly the Lewis Chessmen, especially the little berserker guys (they’re the chaps gnawing their shields – never has drug-addled ferocity looked so cute) I was also fascinated to discover some new things about Viking culture, especially the Völvur, prophetesses or seers who held an important place in society, divining the future, and practising magic.
They wore long cloaks of blue or black, and carried a distaff, and although she herself is not specifically identified as a seer, the goddess Freyja is nevertheless associated with the völvur, and to an extent they were her representatives in Midgard, the Middle World – the world of men.
When the gentle god Balder starts to have nightmares that presage his own death, his father Odin rides to Niflheim – the underworld – and wakes a völva sleeping there, and asks her whom she is expecting:
‘The shining mead,’ said the seeress, ‘is brewed for Balder; a shield covers the cauldron. For all their glory, the gods will be filled with despair…’
(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths)