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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Back issues
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New Danish exhibit highlights priestesses of Viking mythology

Highly valued in male-dominated Viking society, female Norse seers or vølver guided Vikings of all social standings through life challenges. An unorthodox new exhibit, opening next week at the Danish National Museum, aims to give visitors the full vølve experience.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — In Norse Mythology, the Norns were a group of goddesses who spun and shaped each person’s destiny like a strand of thread in a great cosmic tapestry. 

The criss-crossing of strings in the sky guided one’s fate and life choices. Each string also led to a vølve or Viking seeress, a priestess-like figure who mediated between this world and the next.

So explains an innovative new exhibit at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, entitled “The Viking Sorceress.” 

The exhibition, which opens to the public next Thursday, June 27, focuses on seeresses or vølver, as they’re called in Denmark. (Vølver is the plural form of the noun vølve, which literally means “prophetess.”) These female figures held high standing in Viking Age communities across Scandinavia, including in Iceland and Greenland.

This isn’t your typical museum exhibit, where artifacts are displayed alongside explanatory placards. Instead, the Danish National Museum teamed up with Kasper Holten, a world-famous director at the Royal Danish Theatre, to dramatize the role of these soothsayers. The museum has promised "The Viking Sorceress" will be an exhibition unlike any other, uniting new scientific discoveries with storytelling and scene-setting.

The Danish National Museum's new exhibit features depictions of plants supposedly used to create drugs for psychoactive experiences lead by vølver. (Roberto Fortuna/Denmark’s National Museum)

A vølve was said to have many abilities. She could foresee the future, putting herself in a trance state to travel to the realm of gods. She provided her services for everyone, regardless of social class or status.

Even Odin, considered the father of Norse Mythology, received aid from a vølve. "Man has always tried to understand the world and his own existence, and for that we have called for help throughout the ages," said Rane Willerslev, director of the Danish National Museum. They've done so "with shamans, in religion, in self-help books, with the psychologist, Google or ChatGPT" — but "the Vikings went to a vølve,"

While Viking sagas and poems referenced vølver, later sources questioned whether they actually existed, said Peter Pentz, an archaeologist who helped organize the exhibit. They were considered the stuff of legends, such that for “many years, it wasn’t exactly appropriate to talk about vølver in my field of expertise, archeology.”

That changed in the 1950s, when researchers uncovered a vølve grave in the Viking ring castle of Fyrkat near the town of Hobro on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The grave matched descriptions of vølver from the Viking Age, including with the container for drugs found inside.

It’s “the only [vølve] grave in Denmark where we are almost 100% certain on the profession,” Pentz said. Researchers believe this specific vølve possibly served on behalf of Viking King Harald Bluetooth, who played a major role in bringing Christianity to Denmark. Still, the seer’s mere existence suggests Bluetooth may not have fully renounced his Norse beliefs.

A representation of Yggdrasil — the tree of life in Norse Mythology — is at the center of a display depicting Ragnarök, the Viking's vision of doomsday. (Roberto Fortuna/Denmark’s National Museum)

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors will find themselves in a room full of depictions of tall plants and mushrooms, with the giant white face of a vølve in the center of it. The face is modeled after a vølve from “Völuspá,” an Old Norse epic poem in which Odin seeks out the help of a seer.

Also on display are relics the seers used in their work, including a box for holding psychedelics. Found at the grave in Fyrkat were traces of black henbane, a poisonous plant in the nightshade family that can cause hallucinations. Vikings believed these psychoactive experiences could help them get a glimpse of the unknown.

Visitors to the Danish National Museum will enter a room in the exhibit that aims to recreate the experience of the Ragnarök prophecy by a vølve, with screens showing scenes of running warriors, sailing Viking ships and burning nature. Elements from the Old Norse sagas are also included in the imagery, such as Fenrir, a wolf monster from Viking mythology who kills Odin and helps usher in the end of the world.

The screens surround a representation of the Yggdrasil tree, the tree of life in Norse Mythology. The experience is quintessentially Viking and yet evokes familiar themes like war and natural disasters. “The Vikings were just as worried about the same issues we worry about today,” Pentz said.

Some believe the idea of Ragnarök — Norse mythology’s version of doomsday — might date back to the volcanic winter of 536, when eruptions in Iceland cast a three-year-long winter upon the Nordic countries. And indeed, there are uncanny similarities between Ragnarök and modern fears about climate change-induced catastrophe.

“What balance is there between the culture we have created and nature? Who destroys who?” Pentz said, summarizing some of the questions Viking may have had during their vølve appointments. “Those questions were relevant 1000 years ago” — and in the Viking way of thinking, “the vølve foresees everything.”

Floodings, falling stars, conflicts and a multitude of other problems were all within the purview of a vølve, Pentz said. As visitors sit in front of the Yggdrasil tree, he hopes the experience will get them thinking like Vikings.

“The idea is that we get access to the Viking’s mind and try to understand it, because we have a bit of a romantic view on the Viking Age,” Pentz added. “They also had an inner chaos. We are all fighting with things in our heads.”

A commercial for ”The Viking Sorceress,” an experimental exhibition focusing on Viking vølver or seers, in front of the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen on June 12, 2024. (Lasse Sørensen/Courthouse News)
Follow @LasseSrensen13
Categories / Education, History, International

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