Belief in witches stretches across almost all cultures in history, and the Vikings definitely did not invent them. Vikings believed in magic and never took it lightly. There are about 40 different words for magic and magic users in their language of Old Norse, showing the range of understanding and the importance they placed on it. Freyja, the most venerated of the Norse goddesses, was a goddess of magic and taught her arcane arts to Odin. Freyja is sometimes called a witch in the Eddic poems and was much maligned for this by later Christians. Freyja traveled in a chariot drawn by black or gray cats. These quiet, intelligent, ruthless creatures are her familiars or messenger spirits. A Viking who looked up to see a raven might see it as an omen from Odin, just as he might see a black cat as a sign that Freyja was watching.
Witches, sorcerers, and wizards were taken seriously and respected in the Viking world. This is further attested by the many Viking Age graves archaeologists have discovered that have grave goods (valuables deliberately interred with the body) associated with magic users. One tell-tale sign of a witch’s grave is an iron staff. It is thought that these iron staffs were used by Völva sorceresses in certain magic rituals, held between the thighs as the witch entered a shamanistic trance. At such times, it was thought that the witch’s layers of inner self left their outer body (what occultists now refer to as astral projection).
One passage referring to this is in the Havamal:
I know a tenth spell
If I see witches
at play in the air
I can cast this spell
So that they get lost
So they can’t find their skins
So they can’t find their minds
If the Viking Age, witches used their iron rod as a means of traveling across levels of consciousness, it is easy to see how later Medieval Christians would say that witches “flew through the air riding on brooms.”
So, the pagan Vikings respected (and feared) witches and often turned to them for help, but when the Vikings gradually became more Christian, witches were targeted as public enemies by the Church. Witchcraft never wholly died out, though. In Iceland, in particular, witchcraft survived in a well-documented line from early Viking times until the present – though it certainly changed and took on elements and influences from other cultures.
It is not just the Medieval Christian that shifted the perspective of the witch from medicine woman and soothsayer to evil, hexing hag, though. Viking lore is replete with frightening or “wicked” witches. There are at least three Eddic poems in which the speaker is a dead witch awoken by Odin or Freyja’s necromancy, and forced to lend her wisdom to the gods though she is full of spite for them. The worst of the evil witches were sometimes referred to as “Troll Wives” and were Jötnar rather than human. Like many fearsome beings in Norse lore, Troll Wives are seldom described in detail. However, the impression given fits the Halloween image of a lank-haired, green-skinned disfigured distortion of the elderly.
But it is clear that there is a broad range of witches. Only some of them could really be classified as good or evil – which is typical of the moral complexity and honesty that has made Norse lore so poignant and enduring.
Source: Sons of Vikings