(This article is reposted from my pseudonymous writings on Elhaz Ablaze).
We tend to think that galdor has something to do with rune magic, in particular due to certain authors who have promulgated this view despite the lack of any historical evidence to that effect. The word’s roots run to the meaning of “magic song”, with the intimation of a birdsong. There is nothing in there about runes. Indeed, we could even refer to the vardlokkur, the magic song used to facilitate seidh working referred to in the Saga of Eirik the Red, as a type of galdor.
Indeed, the “birdy” aspect to the word brings to mind the myth of Sigurd. When Sigurd tastes the heart of the dragon Fafnir he is granted the ability to understand the speech of birds and proceeds to experience some kind of magical initiation or expansion of consciousness. Perhaps hearing the speech of birds is a convoluted way of saying he became conscious of galdor: of the presence of magic suffusing all things.
Once we realise that the term galdor is not nearly as specific as some misinforming writers would have us think, we find ourselves in a position of immense freedom. While presumably there were various specific forms of galdor in days of yore of which no records remain, it also seems likely that there was a proliferation of styles of galdor, just as the old myths, customs, and even the rune alphabets varied from place and culture to place and culture.
Presumably individuals of magical inclination back then were as idiosyncratic as they are today (myth, sagas, and folk tales all seem to imply this conclusion).Consequently it seems reasonable to propose that song-magic innovation, undertaken with sensitivity to the mythic corpus, is perfectly “authentic”, at least in the sense of recapitulating exactly what the old sorcerers were up to.
Given the poetic proclivities of the Heathen folk (and the existence of an Old Norse poetic form called galdralag) it also seems appropriate to include rhythmic speech and poetry set to magical purpose under the category of galdor.
Recently I have been experimenting with singing in public: walking down the street, on the platform at train stations, in shops, you name it. It takes a bit of courage to openly sing in public: we are programmed to suppress ourselves, to package ourselves away from visibility (or audibility, more specifically), in contemporary Western society. At first I found it rather terrifying, and indeed my mind would turn constantly around that impossible question, “are the people around me judging me?” Sometimes I would feel so anxious that I would end up silencing myself.
Then I realised that the opinions of my impromptu audience were completely irrelevant, and that they were almost certainly not going to act on them if in fact they didn’t like the idea of me singing. Occasionally children laugh, or more commonly, stare in bewilderment, when I walk past them, singing happily away. Often I am shocked by the number of people who have no idea that I am singing because they have headphones in their ears, or because the surrounding traffic is so loud. Modern life is definitely not what our ears evolved to handle.
Apart from the fact that my singing technique is improving and I am feeling more creative (since I am now exploring musical ideas every time I go walking in public), I am experiencing deeper changes as a result of my public singing practice, and this leads me to conclude that I am practicing a form of galdor, at least in my own specific sense of psychological reconstruction.
My public singing is having effects that might be deemed magical in two senses. Firstly, it alters my relationship to my environment, including my relationship to other people. It modifies my experience of myself and the world around me, causing various fears to weaken, and correspondingly, causing me to feel more powerful.
Secondly, it is opening up the channel of my spirit. For example, when you sing your throat opens up. The vocal chords and neck muscles get massaged and strengthened, becoming more fluid and more definite. Normal speech becomes clearer, more compelling, and a little musical – all subtle “magical” effects. Even more importantly, this singing provokes feels of great joy and a lightening of life’s burdens. I feel very energised by my regular galdor, and unwittingly break into song in all sorts of moments – even when doing simple things like cooking.
If one of the central purposes of magic is to alter one’s consciousness (we might loosely call this seidh), and another is to bring empowerment (a purpose some see as a specific purpose of the runes) then I think I have hit on an exceptionally potential-rich form of magical practice with my personal type of galdor.
What do I sing? Mostly improvised, wordless melodies. Sometimes I chant the names of runes or gods. Sometimes, rarely, I will sing songs from my band Ironwood, but mostly I just embrace the art of exploring my voice.You don’t necessarily have to sing to make this work for you – even just to recite poetry in a projective fashion would probably suffice.
Other advantages for this type of magic are that 1) you don’t need any special skills (since you aren’t singing to produce a “quality performance” and will in any case improve your “quality” of singing organically just by doing it a lot); 2) it doesn’t require any special preparation, memorising pages of middling-to-bad poetry, waving of obscure magical artifacts, dressing up in silly costumes, or anything else like that. All you need are a set of lungs and a throat. Magic that works in the here and now of daily reality is always preferable to me.
If you are not brave enough to sing in public straight away then I suggest starting by singing in “safe” contexts: while driving, or at home. Needless to say this will necessitate turning off your television (or better, driving a steam roller over it), and choosing to listen to music less (although I suppose you could always sing along to your favourite CDs).
When first singing in public, start off almost sub-vocalising or humming to yourself; don’t even bother with opening your mouth. There is no need to freak yourself out – just gradually increase the volume and physical obviousness of your singing as your comfort zone expands. It is perfectly alright to moderate your singing as appropriate for specific circumstances – I won’t sing as loud indoors for example.
One particular challenge is to not fall quiet or silent automatically when someone walks towards you. It might be scary, but once you can happily sing despite passers-by and the opinions of strangers you might start to feel a lot more cheerful and powerful. Certainly this is gradually unfolding in my experience.
The more I sing, the easier it feels to take other kinds of action in the world, to assert myself, and so forth. For example I have always had a strong telephone phobia, but recently it seems to have almost completey entered into remissiobn. Singing is very personal, yet also very public, and it enables one to reach a valuable equilibrium between internal and external worlds. If the philosopher’s stone is a thing of thought that can directly transform matter, then singing must surely be some alchemical agent – perhaps mercury – to help facilitate the process of transforming oneself into such a stone.
Of course, as alluded above, the names of the runes do lend themselves very nicely to song, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t apply runes to the art of galdor, even if strictly speaking rune-magic and galdor are two different things.
To my mind this sort of literally empty-handed magic is much more interesting, powerful, useful, healing, and deep than a lot of the more elaborate and effortful approaches. It draws on spontaneity rather than will and creativity rather than intellectual artifice. The old Heathens lived in a tough, often brutal, world, and from necessity I think they tended to prefer the quick and practical over the unwieldy and impractical. Hence my ancestors are reborn from the wordless song on my lips.