Shamans have always functioned as intermediaries between our ordinary human world and other beings. These could include the denizens of nature as well as the many other spirits. This work was accomplished by traveling between these worlds in a state of trance. A shaman’s work benefits the human community while keeping harmony with the environment, the ancestors, and other beings. It is humankind’s oldest spiritual tradition.
One ancient European shamanic practice that was fairly well documented in the Icelandic sagas is seiðr. The Icelandic sagas, written down in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries have been given more credence by archeological finds such as the Oseberg ship burial. This Viking longboat was buried under a large mound in the year 834 CE in Vestfold, Norway. Buried inside were two women, one in her fifties and the other in her seventies, who were surrounded by lavish grave goods. Their high-status burial accouterments included unusual ritual objects such as staffs with iron rattle heads, which made it clear that these women were not royalty as early twentieth-century investigators once thought. These women were Viking Age shamans. Women in ancient Norse society were the ones who primarily practiced shamanism or seiðr. A woman who practiced with art was known as a seiðkona or völva.
The seið worker is one who is adept at entering trance. She, or in some cases he, was able to alter consciousness for the purpose of gaining information, to seek council with the spirits of nature or the ancestors, to work magic on behalf of the people, and to generally attend to the spiritual wellbeing of the community. For these reasons, a Viking Age seiðr practitioner may be considered that culture’s shamanic equivalent.
For the Norse shaman, one method of gaining spiritual wisdom involved útiseta, or “sitting out,” which involved a time of introspection in nature to receive a vision or to perform divination. During this vision-questing ritual the völva would sit with her staff and sing in concert with the elements, animals, birds, and transcendent nature spirits that were called landvættir. These land wights or spirits of nature were thought to protect and promote the vitality of the places where they live and were a source of wisdom. Sitting out and immersing oneself in the world of nature to receive inspiration and wisdom may have provided the original seed for the völva’s songs. The Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala has a passage that speaks beautifully to this connection:
Many runes the cold has taught me,
Many lays the rain has brought me,
Other songs the winds have sung me.
Many birds from many forests,
Oft have sung me lays in concord
Waves of sea, and ocean billows,
Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation,
Oft have been my guide and master.
The word útiseta is derived from a thirteenth-century Icelandic law that outlawed “útiseta at vekja tröll upp ok fremja heiðni,” which translates to, “the act of sitting out to provoke/wake up trolls and practice paganism,” in other words those spiritual beliefs that lie outside of the Christian paradigm. This practice has many parallels to shamanic traditions of spending time isolated from other human beings in nature for the purpose of connecting with spiritual resources or to receive a vision.
Wilderness vision questing is an ancient, cross-cultural practice that involves spending time alone in nature while fasting. It is a spiritual tradition that has been practiced for millennia by people seeking to receive revelation and to reconnect to nature, to the spirits—especially ancestral spirits—and with their deeper selves. This time of deep introspection in nature has many beneficial effects on the psyche and the spirit.
During the Viking Age, the útiseta, or “sitting out,” ritual was specifically used by those who practiced shamanic magic to commune with the spirits of the natural world and the spirits of the dead for divinatory purposes.
However, this ritual is especially vital for the twenty-first-century shamanic practitioner as we experience a deep cultural separation from nature. This disconnection weakens our individual connection to power. Without making intentional, undistracted forays into the natural world, we become like rechargeable devices that have spent too long without being plugged into an electrical outlet. We become weak and ineffective, not only in our spiritual practice, but also in our ordinary lives.
Spending time alone in nature allows us to be replenished. We refresh our passion for living and consciously reconnect ourselves to the larger web of life. Since most of our species’ time on the Earth was spent outside, we also reconnect ourselves to the thousands of generations that have gone before us. When we immerse ourselves back into the natural world, we experience awe. As we become reacquainted with the beauty of the world, we simultaneously feel a profound connectedness with All That Is and develop humility about our tiny place within it. This in turn nurtures a sense of reverence for the natural world and sparks a desire to protect Mother Earth from our collective desire to exploit her resources.
Wilderness questing provides several layers of benefits. They include connections to Self, personal empowerment, and connection to others. These “others” will include other humans, but more importantly, the quester experiences a much deeper connection to the natural world and its spirits. Increasing degrees of connection to the Self can include self-discovery and a deeper sense of purpose. In addition, a stronger sense of clarity, awareness, and self-acceptance may begin to unfold.
The stronger connection with Self generates a sense of empowerment. In facing any fears that may arise during the time in nature, a trust grows in the Self, in nature, as well as in the quester’s spiritual resources. Confidence at having performed the ritual generates powerful feelings of inner strength.
As a person gains confidence with the Self, the spirits, and with nature, a profound feeling of connectedness often blossoms. The quester feels a palpable sense of connection to nature and the other beings who share the planet. Deep healings can occur and a desire to work in community for the greater good may also be stimulated.
These benefits occur even in those people who do not practice any form of shamanism. This is because we are all a part of the natural world. It is only an illusion that we are in any way separate from other beings or nature as a whole. When we reintroduce ourselves to our original context, we begin to feel more enlivened, awake, and aware than ever before. For the person with a strong spiritual practice, the effects can be even more powerful.
An útiseta would entail siting outside overnight while holding the magical staff or seiðstafr and wearing the cloak and hood. To be safe, the quester would also be merged with their protective spirits to remain protected from any unbeneficial wandering souls. The quester’s protectors might be a fylgia (power animal), a dis (female protector spirit), or a familiar ancestral spirit. The seið worker would sing and chant in concert with the elements, animals, birds, and transcendent nature spirits or landvættir. If the sitting out ritual was being performed in the forest, the skogsrå (female forest keeper) would also be contacted and the practitioner would provide an offering to the land wights’ willingness to participate. Our ancestors understood that these beings were guardians of the land and were also capable of sharing a great deal of wisdom so caring for them would have been seen as a way to insure a good life.
During útiseta, the seið worker or völva would use their shamanic songs, or varðlokur for awakening the staff, gathering the helpful spirits, and for entering into the shamanic state of consciousness. During the course of the útiseta, the quester would continue to sing their experiences and offer galdr (incantations or poetic songs) to the spirits. These periods of singing and chanting would be alternated with long periods of silence to receive the spirits’ wisdom and to feel the connections being woven with the unseen and the natural worlds.
To prepare for this time of sitting out in nature, it is important to clarify your purpose. This ritual can be used to spiritually prepare for a transition, ritual or event, to regain clarity when life has become confusing, to connect with an ancestor to gain their insight, to inspirit yourself after a long illness or traumatic situation, to reconnect to your home spirits after traveling, or to strengthen your ties with your power animals, teachers, and nature. While vision-questing ceremonies like útiseta can last over the course of several days, with proper preparation and a strong intention it is possible to have a powerful experience over the course of one night.
When preparing for útiseta the practitioner finds a place in nature where she or he will be safe. The wilder the space in which you experience your útiseta the better, but working within the parameters that one’s life and physical abilities require is always best. The idea is to find a place where you can safely experience nature’s vitality.
Over the course of the night, the seið worker offers songs, prayers and allows experiences of inner and outer vision to unfold. These visions from guides and ancestors and the physical aspects of nature all collude to inform and infuse the practitioner with wisdom.
You will likely experience some discomfort during your sitting out time, but it is not necessary to suffer! For instance, while most folks can easily sit on a folded wool blanket or ground cloth during an útiseta, I have mobility limitations that interfere with me getting down on the ground. For this reason, I have a folding camp chair that ritually I set up for útiseta. I alternate being seated and standing over the course of the night. My body is still uncomfortable but I am not suffering. Another concern in my area is the many deer ticks infected with Lyme diseases. For this reason, I use an insect repellent as a part of my preparation. Since you may need to relieve yourself during the night bring what you need for that purpose, as well.
The idea is to find a kind of balance. You need to be uncomfortable enough that you won’t drop off to sleep but not so uncomfortable or anxious that you can’t remain in ceremony all night. Útiseta begins just before sunset and ends with the sun’s rise over the horizon. In the morning, eat lightly and drink plenty of water to rehydrate yourself. You also want to have time to record and assimilate your experience afterwards. Make sure you can have a few hours of uninterrupted time to allow the experience to be fully anchored in your being.
© 2016 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
This post is an excerpt from Evelyn’s new book, The Norse Shaman.
Internationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of The Norse Shaman, Spirit Walking a Course in Shamanic Power, A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools, Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, and contributor to Spirited Medicine: Shamanism in Contemporary Healthcare; Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. Her web site is http://www.evelynrysdyk.com.