I first became interested in the possibility of reviving oracular techniques for modern use when I started to explore Viking-Age spiritual practices similar to those attributed to shamans in other cultures. It became clear that in the skills listed under the headings of Seið and Galdor, the Germanic peoples had a magical tradition that was equal in depth and complexity to that of other traditional cultures, which, moreover I could explore without fear of cultural misappropriation. The more I learned about Germanic religion the more I realized that such skills, although they were by no means practiced by everyone, were an integral part of the spiritual life of the community. And in that case, they ought to play a part in the emerging movement to reconstruct Germanic religion (Heathenry or Asatru).
My work along these lines began in 1988 with the runes, which eventually resulted in a book, Taking Up the Runes (Weiser, 2005). In 1989 I gathered together a group to work on the oracular practice which in the lore is referred to as Seidh, Spá or Spæcraft (for a discussion of the terminology, see below). Since 1990, that group (now known as Seiðjallr) has been presenting oracular rituals as a regular service for the San Francisco Bay Area pagan and heathen communities. I have also taught numerous workshops on the practice in various parts of the U.S. and Europe.
Since then, Oracular Seidh (to distinguish it from other practices also listed as Seidh) has become accepted as an aspect of heathenry. However the response to our work at pan-pagan conventions such as Pantheacon has made it clear that people from many different traditions want to ask questions. And when I began doing the workshops, I found that many of those who wanted to learn seið came from pagan traditions other than Asatru. Since it is my feeling that traditional magic ought to be practiced within the context of the culture from which it comes, this presented a problem. However my research into oracular techniques had made it clear that some version of the practice is found in every culture. Thus, it ought to be possible to extract basic principles and practices analogous to the “core” shamanic practices identified by Michael Harner, which could then be combined with mythology and historical examples from given cultures to recreate versions of the practice appropriate for use in traditions such as the Celtic or Greek.
Oracle work requires the seer to be able to move into an altered state in which s/he becomes extremely receptive to rapport with the questioner, while at the same time retaining the inner discipline and skill to find and communicate an answer.
Basic skills include relaxation and breathing, working with power animals and spirit guides, structuring a journey, using archetypes and imagery, grounding and reintegration. An accurate understanding of our own strengths and vulnerabilities is essential. We develop these skills by learning to sense and manipulate energy and establish rapport, to clear the channels for information to come through, and acquire and remember information. We must also be prepared to deal with psychological effects and ethical issues.
Since I began presenting oracular sessions in 1990, we have learned a great deal about working with different audiences. For this reason, although all that the essential oracular process requires is one person with a question and another person who is able to move into a trance state in which s/he can find an answer, we have found that the process is much more safe and successful, and yes, entertaining, if it takes place within the context of ritual. Oracle work is most successful as a group activity, in which both questioner and seer are supported by others who are trained to facilitate what is happening. A ritual which evokes a specific cultural context helps questioners to become part of the process.
Seið, transliterated in English as Seidh or Seith, can also appear as SeiðR (Old Norse nominative form). It is used in the Viking-Age lore for a variety of magical practices involving altered states of consciousness. The list of seidh-skills attributed to the god Odin in Ynglingasaga VII includes:
- knowing the fates of men and predicting events
- causing harm by magic
- causing mental and physical illness
- taking or giving luck
- spirit journeying in altered shape while the body lies in trance
- controlling fire and weather
The first is clearly the oracular form (Oracular Seidh) which is the practice that appears most often in the sagas, especially in The Saga of Eric the Red IV. Modern writers such as H.R. Ellis Davidson refer to the oracular form as seidh, and this is still the best-known term.
Spá (Old Norse) or Spæ (Scots), is a more specific term for Germanic oracular practice, which many prefer. Etymologically it is related to spy, or words from the Latin spectio, “look or contemplate”.
Oracle can refer to the medium, or person who gives a prophecy or commandment, the prophecy itself, or the place where the prophet practices. It comes from the Latin oro, “to speak”.