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Short description: Old Norse word for spell or incantation

The völvas were pagan priestesses that specialized in chanting galdrs.

A galdr (plural galdrar) or gealdor (plural ġealdru) refers to a spell or incantation in Old Norse and Old English respectively; these were usually performed in combination with certain rites.[1] It was performed by both women and men.[2] Some scholars have proposed they chanted it in falsetto (gala).[2][3]


Old Norse: galdr and Old English: ġealdor or galdor are derived from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *galdraz, meaning a song or incantation.[4][5] The terms are also related by the removal of an Indo-European -tro suffix to the verbs Old Norse: gala and Old English: galan, both derived from Proto-Germanic *galaną, meaning to sing or cast a spell.[6][7] In Old High German the -stro suffix produced galster instead.[8]

The German forms were Old High German galstar and MHG galster "song, enchantment" (Konrad von Ammenhausen Schachzabelbuch 167b), surviving in (obsolete or dialectal) Modern German Galsterei (witchcraft) and Galsterweib (witch).

From these terms are descended words such as the Icelandic verb að gala "to sing, call out, yell", Middle English: galder "magic" and as a component of nightingale (from nihtegale), related to ġiellan, the verb ancestral to Modern English yell.[9][10] The words are also cognate with Dutch gillen "to yell, scream".


Old Norse

Some incantations were composed in a special meter named galdralag.[2] This meter was similar to the six-lined ljóðaháttr, also used for ritual, but added at least one more C-line.[11] Diverse runic inscriptions suggest informal impromptu methods. Another characteristic is a performed parallelism,[11] see the stanza from Skirnismál, below.

A practical galdr for women was one that made childbirth easier,[2] but they were also notably used for bringing madness onto another person, whence modern Swedish galen meaning "mad",[3] derived from the verb gala ('to sing, perform galdr').[12] Moreover, a master of the craft was also said to be able to raise storms, make distant ships sink, make swords blunt, make armour soft and decide victory or defeat in battles.[3] Examples of this can be found in Grógaldr and in Frithiof's Saga.[3] In Grógaldr, Gróa chants nine (a significant number in Norse mythology) galdrar to aid her son, and in Buslubœn, the schemes of king Ring of Östergötland are averted.[13]

It is also mentioned in several of the poems in the Poetic Edda, and for instance in Hávamál, where Odin claims to know 18 galdrar.[1] For instance, Odin mastered galdrar against fire, sword edges, arrows, fetters and storms, and he could conjure up the dead and speak to them.[14][15] There are other references in Skírnismál,[1] where Skirnir uses galdrar to force Gerðr to marry Freyr[13] as exemplified by the following stanza:

34. Heyri jötnar,
heyri hrímþursar,
synir Suttungs,
sjalfir ásliðar,
hvé ek fyrbýð,
hvé ek fyrirbanna
manna glaum mani,
manna nyt mani.[16]

34. "Give heed, frost-rulers,
hear it, giants.
Sons of Suttung,
And gods, ye too,
How I forbid
and how I ban
The meeting of men with the maid,
(The joy of men with the maid.)[17]

A notable reference to the use of galdrar is the eddic poem Oddrúnargrátr, where Borgny could not give birth before Oddrún had chanted "biting galdrar"[2] (but they are translated as potent charms, by Henry Adams Bellows below):

7. Þær hykk mæltu
þvígit fleira,
gekk mild fyr kné
meyju at sitja;
ríkt gól Oddrún,
rammt gól Oddrún,
bitra galdra
at Borgnýju.

8. Knátti mær ok mögr
moldveg sporna,
börn þau in blíðu
við bana Högna;
þat nam at mæla
mær fjörsjúka,
svá at hon ekki kvað
orð it fyrra:

9. "Svá hjalpi þér
hollar véttir,
Frigg ok Freyja
ok fleiri goð,
sem þú feldir mér
fár af höndum."[18]

6. Then no more
they spake, methinks;
She went at the knees
of the woman to sit;
With magic Oddrun
and mightily Oddrun
Chanted for Borgny
potent charms.

7. At last were born
a boy and girl,
Son and daughter
of Hogni's slayer;
Then speech the woman
so weak began,
Nor said she aught
ere this she spake:

8. "So may the holy
ones thee help,
Frigg and Freyja
and favoring gods,
As thou hast saved me
from sorrow now."[19]

Old English

In Beowulf, gealdor is described as having been used to protect the dragon's hoard that was buried in a barrow:

Him big stódan bunan ond orcas
discas lágon ond dýre swyrd
ómige þurhetone swá híe wið eorðan fæðm
þúsend wintra þaér eardodon,
þonne wæs þæt yrfe éacencræftig,
iúmonna gold galdre bewunden
þæt ðám hringsele hrínan ne móste
gumena aénig nefne god sylfa
sigora sóðcyning sealde þám ðe hé wolde
--hé is manna gehyld-- hord openian·
efne swá hwylcum manna swá him gemet ðúhte.

Beside them goblets and ewers stood,
and dishes lay and precious swords,
rusty and eaten through, as had they dwelt there a thousand winters in the earth's embrace.
In that day that heritage had been endowed with mighty power;
gold of bygone men was wound with spells,
so that none among them might lay a hand upon that hall of rings,
unless God himself, true King of Victories,
granted to the man he chose the enchanter's secret and the hoard top open,
to even such among men as seemed meet to Him.

Old English text[20] —Tolkien Translation[21]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The article Galder in Nationalencyklopedin (1992)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen 1998:72
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 The article galder in Henrikson A., Törngren D. and Hansson L. (1998). Stora mythologiska uppslagsboken. ISBN:91-37-11346-1
  4. "galdr" (in en). 14 October 2021. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/galdr. 
  5. "gealdor" (in en). 15 October 2021. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gealdor. 
  6. "gala" (in en). 22 July 2022. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gala. 
  7. "galan" (in en). 24 October 2020. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/galan. 
  8. Hellquist, E. (1922). Svensk etymologisk ordbok. C. W. K. Gleerups förlag, Lund. p. 177
  9. "galder" (in en). 14 October 2021. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/galder#Middle_English. 
  10. "nightingale" (in en). 4 July 2022. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nightingale. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 The article Galdralag in Nationalencyklopedin (1992)
  12. Svenska Akademiens Ordbok: galen
  13. 13.0 13.1 The article galder in Nordisk familjebok (1908).
  14. Turville-Petre, E.O.G (1964). Myth and Religion of the North: the Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. Holt, Rinehart and Wilson. ISBN 0-837174201. 
  15. Schön 2004:86
  16. Skírnismál at «Norrøne Tekster og Kvad», Norway.
  17. Skirnismol in translation by Henry Adams Bellows.
  18. Oddrúnarkviða at «Norrøne Tekster og Kvad», Norway.
  19. The Lament of Oddrun in Henry Adams Bellows' translation.
  20. "Beowulf". https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ascp/a04_01.htm. 
  21. Tolkien, J.R.R. (2014). Beowulf : a translation and commentary, together with Sellic spell. London: Harper Collins Publishers. pp. 102. ISBN 9780007590070. 


  • Schön, Ebbe. (2004). Asa-Tors hammare, Gudar och jättar i tro och tradition. Fält & Hässler, Värnamo. ISBN:91-89660-41-2
  • Steinsland, G. & Meulengracht Sørensen, P. (1998): Människor och makter i vikingarnas värld. ISBN:91-7324-591-7