A happy Storm-Moon to all our readers! This month we have a tiny excerpt from Christopher Smith’s 2016 ground-breaking study ‘Icelandic Magic’. I reviewed the book here and would recommend it highly for anyone interested in Northern European magic.
Abridged extract from “Icelandic Magic” by Christopher A. Smith (Avalonia, 2015)
More than any other country, perhaps, Iceland has an iconic status for students of ancient Germanic lore and culture. The reasons for this are not hard to seek. The environment itself is dramatic, the perfect setting for tales of heroism and magic. A sub-Arctic island, oft-times battered by the cold waves of the North Atlantic Ocean and storms from the polar region, it is a land of glaciers and volcanoes where the primal forces of fire and ice compete to increase the hardship of the small population. Summers are brief and winters long, while spring and autumn struggle to find any place at all among the seasons. Arable land is hard to find, and even good grazing is at a premium. The earth itself shakes and rumbles from time to time. It is a land of liminality, where the world of men is squeezed and constricted between vast and hostile forces.
Remarkably, however, Iceland is less famous for its geography than for the vast outpouring of literature that its people have produced, especially in the Middle Ages. The very word ‘saga’, meaning ‘story’, has passed into English to denote a tale that is epic and heroic. From the earliest settlement at the end of the ninth century, Icelanders developed, passed on, and eventually recorded the tales of their lives, first by oral tradition and eventually through the establishment of a strong tradition of vernacular literacy.
The people of Iceland jealously guard and preserve their culture. Though predominantly Lutheran by religion these days, they are as familiar with the mythic tales of Thor and Odin as they are with tales from the Bible. Even young children are taught at school to recite “Þat mælti mín móðir”, the first poem of the famous Viking, poet and sorcerer Egill Skallagrímson. The Icelandic language has changed little over the past thousand years, certainly in comparison to its linguistic relatives in Scandinavia, the European mainland and the English-speaking world, and the country’s educational establishment does its best to prevent the adoption of foreign words.
From the elaborate sagas of the Middle Ages to the folk tales and legends collected and recorded by Jón Árnason in the nineteenth century, the stories of Iceland are shot through with magic and dealings with supernatural beings such as elves, land-wights, ghosts and trolls. Even today, many Icelanders attach credence to the continued presence of the ‘hidden folk’; even if they do not absolutely believe in elves, they would not go so far as to categorically deny their existence. It has even been known for a major road to be diverted so as to avoid disturbing a place where the hidden folk are reputed to have their home.
The grimoires (galdrabækur, or ‘books of magic’) in the Icelandic National Library and the Arni Magnusson Institute, together with other old manuscripts relating to runes and magic, are, or certainly should be, of great interest to anyone with a serious interest in the authentic practicalities of Germanic magic. They are certainly not hidden from view, as many of them have been catalogued on the website www.handrit.is together with others in the Arnamagnaean Institute in Copenhagen, and even made available as digitized copies, which one can download. The earliest, AM 434a 12mo ‘Lækningakver’ dates from between 1475 and 1525; the most recent, ‘Rún’, dates from 1928
Given the availability of this material, it comes as something of a surprise that nobody has yet attempted a comprehensive survey of Icelandic magic in the early modern period. Much has been written about magic and witchcraft in the Middle Ages, but most of these works tend to focus on the anthropological, ethnographic or sociological perspectives without much consideration for the practicalities, the ‘nuts and bolts’ if you like, of magic in northern Europe
An even greater surprise is that these preserved volumes of Icelandic sorcery have been so little exploited and largely ignored by modern practitioners of Rune magic. Instead, much emphasis is given to the characters of the various Futhark rows (Elder, Anglo-Frisian and Younger) and their esoteric interpretation, mainly based on the evidence of three Rune poems and a handful of archaeological finds whose magical significance will always remain the subject of debate. Considering that the use of Runes plays a relatively minor part in the early modern magic of Iceland, is it possible that we have been barking up the wrong tree all the time?