Please note that this post is subject to change as I learn more about galdr, and the version you read now might not be the version that will be available later. I am posting this quite tentatively because it is undoubtedly unfinished, but all the same, I promised to post new articles on galdr/runic divination semi-regularly, so here we are, and here this is.
So what is galdr?
To put it simply, galdr is the Old Norse word for poems that were possibly, but not for certain, composed in the meter of Galdralag (lit. “meter of magic spells”), and the chanting of these poems was typically accompanied by an action or elaborate ritual meant to bring about a certain effect, like creating a storm, inflicting madness upon a person, causing coins to spontaneously appear in the skinned remains of a dead man’s scrotum (no, that’s not a joke), or making the process of childbirth smoother. Ceremonies involving galdr were performed by vǫlur (singular “vǫlva”).
The lack of surviving records of actual magic poems suggests that these poems were not formally composed or recorded at all, but were rather more spontaneously created and given to the ephemeral and corruptible nature of spoken words. It seems to me that the use of galdralag was simple enough as to make relatively casual utterances of galdr possible and even common, and it is probably due to the ease of access to the creation of these magic spells that they were rarely recorded. In colloquial terms, it seems that magic poems might have been “a dime a dozen,” not worth the time and effort of ancient writing practices. (And indeed, writing in ancient times took quite a lot of time and effort, and not to mention “higher education.”)
In addition, since we have no surviving records of actual galdr, it cannot be said for sure whether or not galdralag was actually used in the magic spells themselves, or was used simply to talk about their use, as in The Havamal. The word “galdralag” itself does not seem to support or disprove either theory.
The chanting of galdr is known to have been performed at times by groups of young men and women, referred to by Ralph Metzner as “choirs.” Whether or not the chanting involved any actual tune though remains uncertain. The closest surviving relative of the practices of Ancient Norse vǫlur is the shamanistic practices of the modern Sami people, a culture indigenous to Scandinavia that, despite widespread Christianization, still retains many of its indigenous cultural beliefs and practices. One of those practices is the communication between living mortals and the dead, the gods, and other spirits by noaidi, priests that are still similar to the ancient vǫlur in significant ways, and whose divinatory ceremonies mirror ancient seiðr rituals. The noaidi’s use of percussive instruments (such as the two types of ceremonial Sami drums) alone would not be enough to suggest one way or another whether the chanting of galdr involved any sort of tune, but the Sami people’s use of a flute called a “fadno” is. By nature, flutes are employed in order to create a tune, and so we may infer from the existence of Sami flutes, and from the considerable extent of cultural exchange between the ancient Sami and Norse peoples, that galdr probably did involve melodic chanting at least sometimes.
In any case, and probably obviously, the amount of what we actually know for sure about galdr is very little. Even so, I will attempt to reconstruct it as best I can, in the most historically accurate way I can, in what follows.
- The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe
- Norse Galdr [Magic Spells] and Galdralag (Patreon questions), Dr. Jackson Crawford
- Sami Culture: Language Policy and the SÃ¡mi Languages: an Investigation Using the Comparative Perspective Internet Article, Laura Welch