The völvas were supposedly pagan priestesses that specialized in chanting galdrs.

Galdr (plural galdrar) is one Old Norse word for "spell, incantation"; these were usually performed in combination with certain rites.[1] It was mastered by both women and men.[2] Some scholars have assumed they chanted it in falsetto (gala).[2][3]


The Old Norse word galdr is derived from a word for singing incantations, gala (Old High German and Old English: galan) with an Indo-European -tro suffix. In Old High German the -stro suffix produced galster instead.[4]

The Old English forms were gealdor, galdor, ȝaldre "spell, enchantment, witchcraft", and the verb galan meant "sing, chant". It is contained in nightingale (from næcti-galæ), related to giellan, the verb ancestral to Modern English yell; cf. also the Icelandic verb að gala "to sing, call out, yell" and Dutch gillen "to yell, scream".

The German forms were Old High German galstar and MHG galster "song, enchantment" (Konrad von Ammenhausen Schachzabelbuch 167b), surviving in (obsolete or dialectal) Modern German Galsterei (witchcraft) and Galsterweib (witch).


The incantations were composed in a special meter named galdralag.[2] This meter was similar to the six-lined ljóðaháttr but adds a seventh line.[5] Another characteristic is a performed parallelism,[5] see the stanza from Skirnismál, below.

A practical galdr for women was one that made childbirth easier,[2] but they were also notably used for bringing madness onto another person, whence modern Swedish galen meaning "mad".[3] Moreover, a master of the craft was also said to be able to raise storms, make distant ships sink, make swords blunt, make armour soft and decide victory or defeat in battles.[3] Examples of this can be found in Grógaldr and in Frithiof's Saga.[3] In Grógaldr, Gróa chants nine (a significant number in Norse mythology) galdrar to aid her son, and in Buslubœn, the schemes of king Ring of Östergötland are averted.[6]

It is also mentioned in several of the poems in the Poetic Edda, and for instance in Hávamál, where Odin claims to know 18 galdrar.[1] For instance, Odin mastered galdrar against fire, sword edges, arrows, fetters and storms, and he could conjure up the dead and speak to them.[7][8] There are other references in Skírnismál,[1] where Skirnir uses galdrar to force Gerðr to marry Freyr[6] as exemplified by the following stanza:

34. Heyri jötnar,
heyri hrímþursar,
synir Suttungs,
sjalfir ásliðar,
hvé ek fyrbýð,
hvé ek fyrirbanna
manna glaum mani,
manna nyt mani.[9]
34. "Give heed, frost-rulers,
hear it, giants.
Sons of Suttung,
And gods, ye too,
How I forbid
and how I ban
The meeting of men with the maid,
(The joy of men with the maid.)[10]

A notable reference to the use of galdrar is the eddic poem Oddrúnargrátr, where Borgny could not give birth before Oddrún had chanted "biting galdrar"[2] (but they are translated as potent charms, by Henry Adams Bellows below):

7. Þær hykk mæltu
þvígit fleira,
gekk mild fyr kné
meyju at sitja;
ríkt gól Oddrún,
rammt gól Oddrún,
bitra galdra
at Borgnýju.
8. Knátti mær ok mögr
moldveg sporna,
börn þau in blíðu
við bana Högna;
þat nam at mæla
mær fjörsjúka,
svá at hon ekki kvað
orð it fyrra:
9. "Svá hjalpi þér
hollar véttir,
Frigg ok Freyja
ok fleiri goð,
sem þú feldir mér
fár af höndum."[11]
6. Then no more
they spake, methinks;
She went at the knees
of the woman to sit;
With magic Oddrun
and mightily Oddrun
Chanted for Borgny
potent charms.
7. At last were born
a boy and girl,
Son and daughter
of Hogni's slayer;
Then speech the woman
so weak began,
Nor said she aught
ere this she spake:
8. "So may the holy
ones thee help,
Frigg and Freyja
and favoring gods,
As thou hast saved me
from sorrow now."[12]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 The article Galder in Nationalencyklopedin (1992)
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:72
  3. 1 2 3 4 The article galder in Henrikson A., Törngren D. and Hansson L. (1998). Stora mythologiska uppslagsboken. ISBN 91-37-11346-1
  4. Hellquist, E. (1922). Svensk etymologisk ordbok. C. W. K. Gleerups förlag, Lund. p. 177
  5. 1 2 The article Galdralag in Nationalencyklopedin (1992)
  6. 1 2 The article galder in Nordisk familjebok (1908).
  7. Turville-Petre, E.O.G (1964). Myth and religion of the North : the religion of ancient Scandinavia. Holt, Rinehart and Wilson. ISBN 0-837174201.
  8. Schön 2004:86
  9. Skírnismál at «Norrøne Tekster og Kvad», Norway.
  10. Skirnismol in translation by Henry Adams Bellows.
  11. Oddrúnarkviða at «Norrøne Tekster og Kvad», Norway.
  12. The Lament of Oddrun in Henry Adams Bellows' translation.


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