Witchcraft in Iceland
by Matthías Viđar Sćmundsson

My lecture today is based on a book I published last year called Galdrar á Íslandi, witch contains among other things a fascimile, edition, and discussion of a 17th century grimoire, known as Galdrabók, whitch is a unique source of information on the practice of witchcraft in Iceland during this period.

This work has no true parallel in northen Europe, where most grimoires were distroyed as a result of the persecution of witches. In Iceland a significant number of people were burnt simply for possesing copies of works such as this. This manuscript demonstrates beyond resonable doubt that pagan knowledge survived for centuries, biding its time, until the 17th century, when it exploded onto the scene in the form of grimoires, whitch circulated widely despite proscription and persecution.

The Galdrabók is not the construction of a later age, but rather a collection of magical agents or formulas, whitch represent a dangerous reality, one people were willing to risk their lives for. Contained here is sorcery af its most devastating, death-spells revealing horror and violence, but also magic which dealt with the problems of daily life, protection from desease, accident, evil beings and enemies. Here are combined traditions from norse paganism, catholicism, and cabalistic mysticism. The Galdrabók is a much more remarkable source than other works on magic from the 16th and 17th centuries, which tend to be smaller and fragmentary, and do not contain examples of black magic like this one does.

The manuscript’s history and provenance are unclear, but it appears to have been smuggled out of Iceland in the mid 17th century. It is not a homogeneous whole, having been written in four separate hands over a long period. According to N. Lindqvist, who edited the manuscript in 1921 under the title En isländsk svartkonstbok frĺn 1500-talet, it was written sometime around 1600, but Jón Samsonarson of the Arnamagnćan Institude in Reykjavík, reckons the manuscript to have been written later, sometime during the 17th century, although certainly not later than 1682, when it was purchased in Copenhagen by the Swedish scholar J. G. Sparfvenfelt. Since then the manuscript has been kept in Stockholm.

Witchcraft (galdrar) in Iceland differed in many respects from that found elsewhere; not surprisingly in wiew of the fact that the social and economic structure of Iceland differed from that of other contries. Poor, old women, living alone, for example, were not persecuted as whitches in Iceland as they were elsewere in Europe, but then there where no cities or towns to speak of — so that living in isolation was the rule rather than the exception — and everyone was for the most part equally poor; the victims of persecution tended therefore to be ordinary people, some of them even quite well-to-do. In Iceland only a very few women were accused of practising witchcraft, the principal reason for this being that witchcraft in Iceland was related to an area of knownledge that had been the dominion of men; under dispute was the control of language, and knownledge.

Most cases of eitchcraft in 17th century Iceland involved runes or magic symbols of some kind, whitch could be written on wellum or paper, or carved in wood, bone or other materials, either on their own or in connection with some spell or charm. Frequently these were simply letters from the Latian alphabet, although normally arranged in an unusual fashion, but runic letters, or characters made up of several runes joined together, or fashioned according to some other rule were also common. Some of these designs could be quite complex. In comparison with the practise of witchcraft in other contries, there was a really little else in the way of ‘equipment’ used in Iceland, due doubtless to the fact that language has always been the most important supernatural agent in Icelandic cultur. It was believed that in the language itself there was a force capable of altering the cource of events, a force that vould be used for good or evil. This belief in the power of language is clearly manifested in the documents relating to whitchcraft trials in Iceland, in the vast majority of which can be found references to written language of some kind, either on individual leaves, in booklets or on a tablets.

All these writings have as their basis a semiology quite foreign to the modern mind. An individual symbol was more than just a material sign or the physical representation of reality. Its elements were not two, as they are for us now, meaning and form, buth rather three; alongside its meaning and its physical form was another element and form, but rather profound importance that may be called symbol’s ‘power’. This power lay within the symbol itself, and was separate from and independent of external forces. It had only to be called forth, set into motion. If this could be accomplished, the result was a mysterious link between the symbol and the thing to which it was applied, the ‘meaning’ of the symbol dalling forth a similar ‘meaning’ in the natural world. In this way the practicioner, the sorcerer, was able to produce something from nothing, using only language. This semiology came under threat in the 17th century from official circles according to whom the sorcerer’s power derived not from language but from the devil: the symbols themselves had no particular power, which was seen instead as coming from elsewhere. Thus the native intellectual tradition collided with foreign demonolgy.

Magical symbols may be divided into two groups according to the use to which they were put. Some were used as protection against hostile forces, both of this world and the other, to restore the natural order of things if it had been disturbed, or to preserve life or property. This is what is known as ‘white magic’, which was predominately characterised by holy name-runes, bits of scripture, prayers, and symbols connected with ancient saints and sagas. This type of magic was intended to help and heal, and had been an important part of the practice og medicine in the middle ages. Before the Reformation there was a clear division made between this type of magic and so-called ‘black magic’, which was intended to assail, destroy, or confound; to cause disease, death or destruction. The difference between these two types of magic was not always clear in practice, however. Some devices were continually used although for quite different purposes, but then the meaning and form of individual symbols frequently varied. For this reason the division presented here mus be taken with caution. Some magic spells were both black and white at the same time; containing elements of both attack and defense, restoration and destruction. But all magic, whether black or white, was concerned with power of some kind — social, psychological, or physical.

As I have said, all types of magical practice, whether to good or evil intent, was considered black magic in the 17th century. According to Lutheran demonology both were satanic in origin; sorcerers were in league with the devil, whatever their express purpose might be.

The practice of witchcraft in Iceland, as elsewhere, was based on mythic thought witch shaped both its procedures and symbolism. This connection with the distant past is often obscure, but then our knowledge of norse mythology is limited. On the other hand it is likely that this knowledge was greater in the 17th century, since the names of individual magic symbols often refer to stories now lost to us. In wiew of this is may be said that the power of the Icelandic symbols derives from two things: firstly, the symbols were related to the magic power of the indivitual runes in a formal way, and secondly they were related to the mythological texts to which they referred, texts thad had a position in the scandinavian mental picture similar to the that of scripture in cultures further to the south. The characters therefore derived their effectiveness in the conteporary world through reference to the past; their inner form is both historical and ahistorical at the same time. One can speak of a law of meaning unconstrained by space and time. The role of the sorcerer is to harness this law through the use of this symbols. If the successful in this, the ordinary laws of cause and effect must necessarily give way. The power of the magic symbols is related to mythology’s power of meaning. Although the symbols relate to written and unwritten texts, in a sence they stand apart from language.

It is no co-incidence that one of the most powerful of the 17th century magic symbols was named after the Ćgishjálmur (‘helm of terror’) of Fáfnir. Myths played the same role in magical practice as they had in sacrifices and acts of worship in pagan time. The sorcerer attempted to recreate the action of the myth, in order to harness the myth’s power for his own purposes. If successful, a mysterious confluence took place: the sorcerer became reality.

There is a good example of this in the Icelandic Galdrabók in the form of a sexual charm to be used on women, in which the sorcerer tries to force a woman into congress with him, in much the same way as in Skírnismál. The wording of the text is thus based on Skírnir´s curses: the woman is threatened with all kinds of evil things if she does not submit. The idea behind this is that in this way a fusion will take place, with Skírnir and Gerđur becoming actual living persons. A given myth is brought into the present though its re-enaction.

The connection with mythology is often unclear, as I have said, because many myths have been lost to us. In a work from the mid-17th century it is said that Snorri Sturluson wrote ‘nokkuđ lítiđ úr ţeim fornu ćsubókum’, meaning presumably by ‘ćsabćkur’ works on runes now lost. Snorri himself mentions this material in Gylfaginning when discussing the names of Óđinn. Gangleri says: ‘Og ţađ…’ Sources from the 17th century also mention a number of names for runic characters that undoubtedly refer to myths no longer known to us.

Examples of witchcraft from the 17th century are to a very extent related to the god Ţór in one way or another. This is true in particular of symbols used against sorcery or destructive magic. This is hardly surprising since Ţór was a war god, as shown by his battle with the Miđgarđ-serpent, the battle between the god and the ancient dragon. His role was to defend the earth and rid it of forces of chaos and destruction. Magical practice in the 17th century was in its way a battle with alien forces, whitch the weapons used remebled those of the war-god.

In the Galdrabók there are a number of symbols relating to Ţór appear more often than others, either alone in conjunction with others. These are:

These symbols can take a variety of forms, but all are based on a type of war-spell I should like now to look at more closely. In Haustlöng, a skaldic poem from the 9th century, Ţór’s ride through the heavens is described in the following terms:

According to this, Ţór drives through the heavens in a chariot drawn by goats, accompanied by great noise and commotion, as reflected in the names of his goats, Tanngnjóstur, ‘Tooth-gnasher’ and Tanngrisnir, ‘Tooth-grinder’. It is noteworthy that Ţór controls not merely thunder and lightning but also able to make hail fall on the earth, which is ‘hrundin grápi’, as the poem says. Hail is frequently employed in battle-kennings in the Snorra-Edda, where battles are described as ‘weather of the gods’, or missiles and projectiles describes as some kind of hail or snow; arrows, for example, are hagl boga (‘hail of the bow’), and so on.

Poetic diction of this kind is based on an ancient system of beliefs described in a variety of older sources. According to this system of beliefs. supernatural forces take a direct part in battles between men, adding their own weapons to those of the battle, often in the form of storms so violent that the enemy has no alternative but to withdraw. A good example of this is to be found in Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, in the description of a battle between the Jómsvikings on the one hand and the earls Hákon and Eiríkur on the other. Hákon calls upon the ogress Ţorgerđur Hörđabrúđur, offering her his son if she will come to his aid. She intervenes in the battle, producing a great hailstorm, ant it could be seen that an arrow flew from each of her fingers. There is a clear cause and effect relationship between the hail — more like hard stones than snow — beat down upon them. Weather of this kind was known as gerningaveđur, ‘a sorcery-storm’ and its main compponents were hail, thunder, and lightning. In Svarfdćlasaga there is a reference to ‘kornél gróiđ vélum’, ‘hail-stones full of trickery’, where the sorcerer makes hail fall upon his enemies.

Hail had its own character in the runic alphabet, Hagall, which stood for the sound /h/.

These poems show that the name of the rune came quickly to be associated hail. The word hagl is neuter in modern Icelandic, while the name of the rune Hagall, is masculine. The accepted explanation for this is that the original name, hagl, was associated with the personal name Hagall, which was known in ancient times. It is possible that when the runic alphabet was divided up into ćttir, or ‘families’, each of which was known by the name of the first rune in it. Since the god Týr was first in the third ćtt, it is possible that it was felt that each ćtt should be associated with a personal name. It is of course also possible that the word hagl and the name Hagall are related etymologically. Initially the Hagall-rune resembled the H of the Latin alphabet, but occasionally with two cross-bars instead of one. Early on, this character was displaced, because by about 600 a new character appeared in the runic alphabet. This caracter was at first connected with the old j-rune, but during the first half onf the 9th century it came to be used for Hagall. Odd Nordland examined the origin and development of this symbol in an article published in 1951 entitled ‘Det vonde haglet og runeteiknet hagall’, upon which I base much of my discussion here.

The new Hagall-rune bore a very close resemblance to a lightning-symbol related to the ancient Roman and Greek thunder gods, Zeus and Jupiter. This symbol was well known around the Mediterranean during the first century after the birth of Christ, and subsequently spread with Roman coins throughout the empire, in addition to which Roman soldiers bore into battle. Archaeological remains show that Germanic warriors took up this practice, carving the lightning symbol into the heads and shafts of their spears, the idea being that their weapons would thereby carry the power of lightning and storm into battle. They have clearly simplified the design of this Roman symbol, since the central line is for the most part lacking, the little that is left of it serving only as a shaft to hold together the two-pronged forks at either end. Nordland reckons this to have been because the middle shaft was viewed as different from the others, representing the bolt of lightning for which the weapon itself was now a substitute. This is clear from the fact that the shape of the symbol is different than on Roman objects.

The archaeological find at Vimose on the Danish island Fyn shows that the treblepronged fork was known in the north even though the middle prong was often omitted; the symbol could have a variety of shapes, as demonstrated by the Hagall-rune. In Nordland’s opinion the lightning-symbol found its way into the runic alphabet, replacing the old Hagall-rune. At the same time its form was simplified and adapted to writing. This is an entirely natural development, with parallels for example in Chinese script.

The reason the symbol became identified with hail and not thunder or lightning is obvious: hail was more of a denger to men in the north than was lightning, and was likely to fall during thunderstorms. The ‘magic storm’ from Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar mentioned above, was accompained not only by hail, but also ‘eldingar og reiđarţrymur’ (‘ćightning and wrathful thunder’). The same kind of connection is made by Jón Ólafsson from Grunnavík in his descriptions of runes, which may be assumed to be based on older material. They show that the Hagall-rune referred to both hail and thunder, which supports its connection with the lightning-symbol, the symbol of the southern thunder gods, Zeus and Jupiter. It is not unnatural that it should be connected with Ţór after it had been incorporated into the runic alphabet under the name Hagall, since Ţór controlled the phenomena of the heavens, thunder, lightning, and hail, as can be seen from the poem Haustlöng. In this sense the runic ćtt of Hagall is in reality the ćtt of Ţór, in the same way as Týsćtt refers to the god Týr. The symbol might therefore be named after Ţór, called for example Ţrumufleygur (‘thunderbolt’), Geigur or Eldflaug.

The symbol may also be seen as a double Man-rune, suggesting that perhaps it is meant to represent a ‘double man’, a man whose power has been increased through the power of Ţór. Here it should be born in mind that Ţór was the archetypal man, the son of God (Óđinn) and Earth (Jörđ or Fjörgyn), so that this need not involve any contradiction.

Ţór’s thunderbolt is bases for the Ćgishjálmur, probably the best known of the Icelandic magic characters. Belief in the power of this symbol was strong in the 17th century, and it appears in many magical texts. There are three separate illustrations of it in the Galdrabók.

It is clear in my mind from these pictures that the Ćgishjálmur is made up of four Hagall-runes and four Man-runes simultaneously. But the story does not end here. In the Galdrabók it is said that the Ćgishjálmur should be worn between the brows or the eyes, suggesting some kind of connection with the eyes or particular look or expression. Its form also suggests the shape of a face, where the ertical line represents the nose and forehead and the horizontal line the eyes or eye-brows. In addition, the symbol revolves around a central point where the various branches join together. Perhaps the power of this symbol lies in this ‘solar-eye’ quality; forming a beam that shoots out in the direction of the bearer’s gaze toward its target. Perhaps this, after all, is the ultimade meaning of the symbol.

The history of the Ćgishjálmur supports this interpretation. In Norse mythology it is mentioned on four occasions in connection with Fáfnir, the guardian of the gold of the Nibelungs. With this ‘helm of terror’ he was able to frighten away any who tried to take the treasure.

The first element of the word, ćgis, refers to terror or fear; the second element, hjálmur, seems to refer to some kind of covering that enfolded the bearer, giving him the power to frighten and defeat his enemies. This power concentrated itself itslef in the eyes, or between them and is clearly related to the ability of the serpent to hypnotise its prey before striking. The connection with Fáfnir is therefore understandable. This power is in some ‘lower’ animals concentrated in the pineal body, forming a kind of third eye.

Lindqvist assumes the Ćgishjálmur to correspond to the christian cross, and two symbols are used in a similar way in the Galdrabók. Lindqvist draws the conclusion that the Ćgishjálmur reflects christian religious practice. But the cross was used for protection against a variety of evils from earliest times; it was common to cross oneself on the forehead, the vertical line naturally falling between the eyes. Lindqvist believes the Ćgishjálmur to resemble a Greek cross, apart from the fact that the arms from Man-runes, which he sees as due to pagan influence, designed to increase the power of the symbol. This hypothesis is unacceptable in my opinion because it overlooks the role of the symbol in pagan mythology, apart from the fact that the cross as a symbol is in no way confined to christianity. It is not unlikely that the two symbols have a common prototype or basic form.

Having said this, the nature of the Ćgishjálmur’s power may be interpreted as fpllows. To begin with, it is related to both the Hagall-rune and the Man-rune, which are merged within a confined space, creating a powerful magic beam. At the same time, the symbol relates to the myth of the victory of Sigurđur over Fáfnir; whoever sets the magic into motion acquires the power of the serpent’s ‘helmet’. This represents a textual connection similar to that found in certain cathilic prayers, but with the substitution of a pagan text for scripture. Finally, there is a connection between the symbol and its archetypall Ur-form, which was related to the power of the eye or the gaze. The performer of the magic acquired divine power in his battle with hostile forces both of and not of this world; he entered the time of myth through a symbolic re-enactment of Sigurđur’s heroic deed, and is at the same time related to Ţór, the archetypal hero, the slaying of the dragon recalling Ţór’s slaying of giants. This connection is made plain in an old manuscript in which there is a picture of Ţór’s head together with the Ćgishjálmur and Thunderbolts. Few things demonstrate more clearly the power of the thunder god over Icelandic magic practice.

One of the more curious of the spells in the Galdrabók is known as the fretrúnir, literally ‘fart-runes’, due to the fact that it is designed principally to have a physical effect (to put it delicately). In it, the sorcerer is called upon to draw a blood from his thigh and write with it thirty runes on white wellum — átta Ása, Nauđir níu og Ţursa ţrettán. These runes are then illustrated following the text of the charm which is composed of powerful curses, a reference to the binding of Loki, and invocations of christian and pagan deities, such as God, Óđinn, Ţór, Satan, and Beelzebub. The Ás-rune and the Ţurs-rune, which formed are linked in the runic alphabet, are forced together for destructive purposes. Under ordinary circumstances they are balanced, each requiring the presence of the other. This balance is extremely preoarious, however, and is the source of endless conflicts-war between them can break out at any time. The function of the Nauđ-rune — probably the rune of fate — is to bring about this conflict; rubbing the two runes together like two stones to start a fire. The result is massive destruction: the annihilation of the victim’s body. The mythological connection of this charm is quite clear: through his words and actions the sorcerer recreates his conflict between the god (Ásar) and the giants (ţursar) at Ragnarök. It is unclear against whom this curse is meant to be directed; it could be either a curse against thieves, or a sexual charm — the wording could suggest either. There is however on the 17th century source relating to its use suggesting that it was the latter.

Despite the christian references in the text, this cource is fiercely pagan in origin. The runic formula átta Ása, Nauđir níu og Ţursa ţrettán has behind it a long history that is investigated in my book. The formula has for ex. parallels in a Swedish runic inscription discovered at Sigtuna in 1931, and in Eddaic poems.

In all these examples nauđ is linked to the number nine, as it is in the spell under discussion here. One might well ask therefore wether this might be due to some deeper semantic connection between them, or whether the is simply a standardised narrative topos preserved from the viking age to the 17th century. The same may also be asked of the eight Ásar; is this too simply a stock phrase? In my opinion this can hardly be the case, since the formula has parallels of great antiquity in a runic inscription fpund in Lindholm in Skaane, Sweeden, dated to the fifth century, the period of migration. According to a Swedish scolar, Ivar Lindqvist, this inscription is a sexual-charm, intended to induce love or lust in passive females, although this is in no way received scholarly opinion. On the other hand, the relationship between this inscription and the fretrúnir of the Galdrabók rather supports Lindqvist’s conclusion. In both cases there are eight Ásar, and the nine Nauđir are thrice the sacred number three. This suggests a clear connection between the two, although the use to which the spell was put may have changed. In addition thi same formula appears in a sexual-charm from the 19th century.



One might well ask where these numbers come from; why have the numbers eight and nine been put together in thi fashion? Perhaps an explanation can be found in Adam from Bremen’s descriptions of the Swedes’ religious practices at Uppsala. According to christian witnesses there were hanging from the trees 72 corpes — including those of men, horses, and dogs — following a great sacrifice lasting nine days. According to this, eight different creatures had been sacrificed each day, 8 times 9 equals 72. Probably they had been offered to eight different gods, one of whom received a man, another a horse, and so on, bearing in mind that to each god belonged a particular animal according to norse mythology — Ţór’s animal, for example, was the goat.

If this interpretation is correct then the runic formula of the Galdrabók must have corresponded to a curse something like Ţórr vígi ţik! (‘May Ţórr slay you’); the eight Ásar referring to the eight gods to whom sacrifice was made in the distant past. Thue the 17th century fretrúnir can be traced back through the time of the vikings and the eddic poems to the period of the great migrations in the 5th century A.D. Somehow, this curse was preserved by the common people for all that time. This demonstrates beyond doubt that practices of great antiquity can survive alongside offical religion for centuries. Associations with love or hate, fear or disgust, can survive, even though the reasons for these feelings have been lost. It is as if logic and experience have no effect on these traditional modes of thought.

Written by Matthías Viđar Sćmundsson