Decoding the Mystery: Who were the Volva of Norse Mythology?

the Volva women
Norse mythology, a realm rich with gods, creatures, and complex narratives, formed the spiritual foundation for the ancient Norse people. This fascinating cosmology includes notable deities such as Odin, Thor, and Loki, alongside a pantheon of giants, dwarfs, and other beings. The stories and characters from this mythology have permeated popular culture, largely thanks to literary and cinematic adaptations. However, Norse mythology extends far beyond the familiar narratives of valiant gods and fierce battles.
Among the lesser-known but incredibly significant figures in this rich tapestry are the Volva. The Volva, or “staff carriers,” were prophetesses, seers, and practitioners of magic who held a distinct and influential position within Norse society. With their deep connection to the supernatural, the Volva were often consulted for their foresight, healing abilities, and proficiency in magic. Their role in the societal and spiritual fabric of Norse culture is a captivating topic, deserving of our attention and understanding. As we delve deeper, we’ll unravel the enigma that surrounds these powerful women, revealing their remarkable influence in shaping Norse mythology.

Who Were the Volva?

The term ‘Volva’, derived from Old Norse, is often translated as ‘staff carrier’ or ‘wand bearer’. In the historical context, the Volva were women who journeyed from town to town, performing seances and divinations in exchange for food, lodging, and other forms of compensation. They were not just mystics but influential individuals who held a unique position within the societal structure of the time.
The Volva enjoyed a high social status in Norse society, partly due to the power and fear associated with their practice of Seidr, an ancient form of Norse magic. They were often consulted on matters of great import, such as conflict, fertility, and prosperity. Their presence was sought at major events, from birth to death, and they were respected, even revered, by kings and warriors. However, their power and practices also generated trepidation, making them somewhat isolated figures within the community.
Within Norse mythology, the Volva are portrayed as mystical figures capable of prophecy, foresight, and magic. They communicated with spirits and gods, performing critical roles in several sagas and stories. Perhaps the most famous Volva is the unnamed seeress from the Völuspá, the first poem of the Poetic Edda, who foretells the end of the world. Their influence extends beyond mere storytelling. They are a testament to the ancient Norse people’s beliefs in the supernatural, the power of prophecy, and the presence of magic in everyday life.

Social Status: The Volva in Norse Society

The Volva held a unique and paradoxical position within the societal structure of ancient Norse culture. While their skills and knowledge were invaluable and sought after, the nature of their work, associated with mystery and the supernatural, often placed them on the fringes of society.
Given their unique abilities to communicate with the spirit world and their knowledge of Seidr, the Volva were often consulted in times of uncertainty or crisis. They were called upon to predict outcomes of battles, foresee the fate of newborns, and provide counsel on matters of governance and prosperity.
Such was their importance that they were often welcomed in the halls of the powerful. They dined with chieftains, advised kings, and their prophecies could shape the decisions of warriors. Despite the patriarchal nature of Norse society, the Volva, as female figures, wielded considerable influence.
However, their power could also be a source of trepidation. The practice of Seidr, viewed with awe and fear, contributed to the Volva’s marginal status. They often lived apart from communities, traveling from place to place to offer their services. This itinerant lifestyle, coupled with their mystical aura, made them enigmatic figures.
This dual status of the Volva, as respected seers and societal outsiders, reflects the complexity of their role in Norse society. They were both revered and feared, sought after and yet separate. This fascinating juxtaposition underscores the multifaceted nature of the Volva and their integral part in Norse society’s spiritual and social fabric.

Magic and the Volva

Seidr is a form of pre-Christian Norse magic and shamanism that was predominantly practiced by the Volva. The rituals involved in Seidr often included the chanting of spells (galdrar) and incantations, performed to alter the course of fate or gain knowledge about the future. This complex spiritual practice, inherently tied with the Volva, allowed them to enter trance-like states and interact with spirits or the gods themselves.
In Norse myths and sagas, the Volva’s use of Seidr often comes into play during crucial plot points. Their magic is typically used for divination, prophecy, blessing, and sometimes even for manipulation or curses. One of the most prominent instances is in the saga of Erik the Red, where a Volva named Thorbjorg uses Seidr to predict the future of the settlement during a harsh winter.
The ability to use Seidr elevated the Volva’s standing within the societal hierarchy. Their power was perceived with a blend of reverence and fear. As the keepers of esoteric knowledge, they held sway over warriors, chieftains, and even kings. While some viewed their magic as a threat, many sought their skills in times of crisis or decision-making, reinforcing the essential role they played in the societal and spiritual framework of Norse culture.

The Volva in Major Norse Sagas

The Volva figure prominently in several of the most important Norse sagas, perhaps most notably in the Völuspá, a part of the Poetic Edda. This saga is essentially a dialogue between the Allfather Odin and a Volva, who recounts the creation of the world and prophesies its end, the Ragnarok. She is portrayed as a respected figure, even to the gods, symbolizing her revered status. Other sagas, such as Erik the Red’s saga and The Saga of the Ynglings, also feature Volvas who use their prophetic abilities to influence the course of events.Analyzing their role and influence in these stories, it becomes evident that the Volva often serves as a catalyst for key events. They are the carriers of important knowledge and warnings, often intervening at critical junctures to provide guidance or prophetic insights. This highlights the important societal and spiritual role the Volva played in Norse culture. They weren’t merely passive fortune-tellers; they were active agents of change, steering the fate of heroes, communities, and even the gods. Their narratives provide us with valuable insights into the perceptions and attitudes towards magic, gender roles, and power in ancient Norse society.

Volva’s Tools and Symbols

A characteristic symbol of the Volva was their staff, or ‘wand’, often referred to as a ‘seiðstafr’. This tool played a significant role in their practice of Seidr magic and rituals. It was likely a representation of their authority and spiritual power. The staff’s precise features and uses are the subject of debate among scholars, but it’s generally agreed upon that it played a central role in Volva ceremonies.
Beyond the staff, other significant symbols associated with the Volva were their distinctive clothing and the rituals they performed. The Volva often wore a cloak adorned with various symbols and charms, believed to increase their magical abilities. They also carried a pouch of artifacts used for divination, such as runes or bones. Their rituals, often communal events, featured singing, chanting, and dancing to induce trance states. These symbols and practices not only set the Volva apart but also reinforced their identity as practitioners of Seidr and vital societal figures. The understanding of these symbols provides a unique lens to interpret the Volva’s role and the broader spiritual beliefs of Norse society.

Clothing and Rituals: Other Noteworthy Symbols of the Volva

In addition to their staffs, the Volva were known for their distinctive clothing and rituals, each deeply symbolic of their roles and power. Their unique attire and performances weren’t just for show; they were intricate components of their spiritual practices and identity.
The Volva’s clothing, according to historical texts and archaeological findings, was rather distinctive. They often wore a cloak or a pelt, which was sometimes described as being covered in feathers or made from a patchwork of different animals. This garment was likely meant to denote their status and power. They also adorned themselves with jewelry and amulets, often made of precious metals and stones. Some sagas describe these adornments as being imbued with magical properties.
The Volva’s headgear was particularly noteworthy. They usually wore a headdress or a hat, thought to be conical or hooded. In some texts, the hat is described as being blue or black, colors often associated with magic and the mystical in Norse culture.
Their rituals, meanwhile, were communal affairs and highly theatrical. These seances often involved the Volva sitting on a high seat while the attendees formed a circle around her. She would then enter a trance-like state, sometimes facilitated by rhythmic drumming, chanting, or the burning of incense.
During these rituals, the Volva would communicate with the spirit world, often relaying messages from the dead or making prophecies about the future. These performances were powerful events, full of drama and emotion, which further cemented the Volva’s role as a mediator between the human and spirit realms.
Through their clothing and rituals, the Volva created a potent visual and sensory impression, further enhancing their aura of otherworldliness and authority. These elements were not mere accessories; they were integral to the Volva’s identity and practices, providing us with a deeper understanding of their significance within Norse society and mythology.

The Lasting Legacy of the Volva

Despite the passing of centuries, the legacy of the Volva continues to resonate within our cultural consciousness. These powerful seeresses of the Norse world have left an indelible mark not only on the ancient sagas in which they appeared, but also on how we interpret and understand Norse mythology today.
The Volva’s distinctive blend of spiritual authority, foresight, and independence presents a fascinating study in the interplay of gender, power, and spirituality in ancient societies. While much of Norse mythology revolves around mighty gods and warriors, the stories of the Volva serve as a compelling reminder of the equally critical roles that women played within this societal and spiritual framework.
In a broader cultural context, the Volva offer a rich source of inspiration for modern narratives. Elements of their mystique and power can be seen in the portrayal of witch-like figures in popular literature, film, and television. They also play a significant role in the contemporary practice of Norse paganism (often referred to as Ásatrú), with many practitioners drawing on the Seidr rituals of the Volva as a form of spiritual expression.
In academia, the Volva continue to captivate historians, archaeologists, and mythologists, providing fertile ground for research and discussion. Their presence in sagas and artifacts stimulates ongoing debates about their roles, societal perceptions of magic, and the broader understanding of Norse culture.
The Volva, though shrouded in the mists of time, continue to be a potent symbol of the magic, mystery, and complexity of Norse mythology. Their legacy, etched in ancient sagas and resurfacing in modern interpretations, affirms their enduring influence on our collective cultural narrative.


The Volva, often overshadowed by more familiar Norse gods and heroes, were instrumental figures within Norse mythology and society. As ‘staff carriers’ who practiced Seidr magic, they occupied a unique societal position, providing guidance and insights through prophecy and divination. Their roles in sagas such as the Völuspá underline their significance, acting as catalysts for key events and purveyors of knowledge and wisdom.
The legacy of the Volva extends beyond the pages of ancient sagas. Their influence is discernible in modern interpretations of Norse mythology and the resurgence of interest in Norse paganism. The Volva, as complex female characters with power and agency, add a nuanced layer to our understanding of gender roles in Norse culture. In contemporary fantasy literature and media, elements of the Volva’s mystique, their prophetic abilities, and their practice of Seidr often surface, adding depth to narratives and characters. By decoding the mystery of the Volva, we don’t just gain insights into Norse mythology; we uncover a piece of our collective cultural heritage that continues to shape storytelling today.