Aims, Tools and Techniques of the Icelandic Sorcerers
by Christopher Alan Smith
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and I won’t do that, even if in this case it seems very uninspired and bland, almost to the point of being boring. I mention this only because the contents are far from being boring, and for what it’s worth, first impressions count. However, if you were to crack open my copy and flick through its pages, you would be met with a multitude of marginalia generously scattered throughout. I say that the amount of marks made by the reader, in some cases, possibly provides a much better method of judgment of the quality of a book.
First of all, this book is not at all as dry as the cover suggests. Even if it might tend to be quite dense at times, as the author is trying to cram a lot of information into a relatively small space, it never actually becomes dull. Especially all the references to Fart Runes provide lots of entertainment. Although I need to make it clear that Fart Runes were serious business, to the point of being deadly, as there are court documents of a Witch trial where a man got executed for using them against a woman.
And I think this is as good a place as any to say that when it comes to witchcraft and grimoire magic, Iceland is weird, Very weird. Not just for the fact that there seems to be an inverse of who mostly practiced these “black” arts, which consisted of the lower class farmers and fishermen, but also because it runs completely counter to the narrative of it being predominately female “witches” who were persecuted for and accused of practicing witchcraft. You see, in Iceland, out of the 22 cases of executions, 20 of them were men, while just 2 were women.
Another interesting fact is that accusations of so-called “diabolism” do not play any part at all in the Icelandic court cases. Although there is one case in 1685 in which Halldór Finnbogason is burned for reciting “ Our father who art in hell…” witchcraft isn’t even mentioned at all, and instead, his crime was that of blasphemy. What is perhaps just as fascinating, is that the grimoires themselves featured heavily in the trails, something that rarely appears in Europe at the time. Sadly though, part of the punishments often entailed the book being burned in front of the accused.
Old Norse Whispers
Grimoire magic in general is very little understood by the modern-day materialist witches, but especially Icelandic magical staves seem to be amongst the most misunderstood parts of all in this tradition. And it is part of a tradition, or you could say that is a part of THE tradition. Because this has very little in common with vikings and other proto-norse forms of witchcraft and / or shamanism. It most definitely belongs somewhere in the linage of the medieval European “Christian” grimoire tradition. Yet, this isn’t exactly “Christian”, but it’s not really pagan either? So what is it? It comes across as a strange whispered echo of an echo from the aforementioned European grimoires, that along the way has turned into a twisted sort of mutation, incorporating long forgotten memories hailing from the pre-Christian collective memory. Once more of the actual Icelandic grimoires get transcribed, translated and studied in greater detail, I hope that this transformation process will become much clearer, but as it stands as of today, it comes very much across as being neither completely of the heathen persuasion nor heavily infused by Christianity, and more like its own fusion of both.
What also is very intriguing, is to see what people’s fears were back then. There’s a lot of magic concerning the prevention of theft. Iceland was a relatively poor country way back in those days, so any kind of tools, like farm or fishing equipment, would be expensive, not to mention the value of cattle. The book generously grants us some data analysed from the six grimoires, and tells at that more than half of the 383 spells are benign in their intent. Nearly half of these again are strictly meant for protection in some way, and while some are for specific events or situations, most are intended to have a long lasting effect. There seems to be a lot of concern about some form of evil or harm of unspecified nature, and many of the wards are focused directly on protection against this. Especially talismans that are explicitly intended to avert effects of magical attacks features prominently.
It is really interesting to see the variety of magical operations and procedures covered here. Some of the spells/staves and workings are extremely ad-hoc, using common household objects featuring simple and basic instruction, while others again are surprisingly precise, utilizing specialized tools and have detailed steps including timing, location, and ingredients. This certainly isn’t sorcery for any kind of elite or even clergy for that matter, yet it shows a huge variety of complexity and sophistication. However, we can assume that along with these texts and drawings/staves, there came an oral transmission, which sadly has been lost, so we are missing the bigger picture. Probably there was a set of common knowledge, passed on from teacher to student, and since paper and writing equipment was scarce and costly, they only wrote down the parts that they were afraid of forgetting.
As this truly offers glimpse into authentic Icelandic Magick, in a bizarre anachronistic way, it almost becomes a genuine grimoire in and of itself. Christopher Alan Smith goes through the various practices, granting insight into all the steps required, and while it’s certainly presented in the correct historical context, we occasionally get some examples form the author on how he has used this himself, as well as suggestions on how one might go about trying out some of the staves in general. The being said, this most definitely is not a how-to or step-by-step manual, even if it is possible to piece together how to perform magic in this vain by this text alone. It will only take you so far though, but for some it could act as a great springboard.
In Icelandic Magic, Christopher Alan Smith draws from 5 manuscripts previously translated into English, in addition to one that he has translated as well as translations of folk tales and legends.
This book balances the line perfectly between being academic as well as entertaining, which is something we can never take for granted. Thankfully we get a decent index, which helps a lot in looking up specific references. What I would have loved though, was an appendix with all the statistics presented. However, until more grimoires are complied and translated, such a feature still might be a little limited.
I think this is the perfect sourcebook for anyone interested in an accurate portrait of Icelandic magic, whether it’s to supplement your own personal praxis, or if you are interested in obtaining some trustworthy historical evidence and information about real witchcraft for whatever creative project you are working on.
This review was sponsored by Varda