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Rauðskinna is a legendary book that was more terrifying than most of the black magic documents ever produced. It was so dark, that most people could not believe it was written by a Christian bishop. Its main objective was to use magic to gain control of Satan himself.
Also known as The Book of Power, Rauðskinna (‘Red Skin’ in Icelandic) took its name from the red cover written in gold-lettered runes. It was a collection of the darkest rules and spells known to have been created by a man who officially worshipped the Christian God. However, it seems that its author, Gottskalk Nikulausson, wanted much more in life than serving his religion. What did he want to achieve? And why did he explore the field of black magic, which was so contrary to his position as a bishop?
The Bishop and his Holy Book
Gottskalk Nikulausson was born in 1469 in Iceland, and between 1496 and his death on December 8, 1520, he was the Bishop of Holar.
He had been born into a good Christian family. His uncle, Olaf Rognvaldsson, was a bishop and Gottskalk was his successor. However, as we will see, Gottskalk’s actions were far removed from the values he preached about in his official role.
Gottskalk had a mistress whose name was Gurdun, and two children: Odd Gottskalksson and Gurdun Gottskalksdottir. He also had a lover with a woman known as Jonsdottir, with whom he had a daughter named Kristin.
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Historical records refer to him as manipulative, ambitious and cruel. He was more interested in his status in life, than carrying out his role as a bishop. Moreover, he started to explore the dark knowledge of ancient witchcraft in its blackest form, and this became his greatest obsession.
A piece of Icelandic sorcery by Ben Sisto (CC BY 2.0)
Like the authors of the Books of Shadow, dedicated to witchcraft, Gottskalk was passionate about magic and committed many years to the task of writing Rauðskinna. The main goal of the book was to create and master such a strong magic as to have control of Satan. He wanted to make Satan his slave and rule the world.
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At the time of his death, Gottskalk was known as very dangerous and powerful person, who knew black magic better than any person who lived in Iceland at the time. When he died during the winter of 1520, Rauðskinna was buried with him, locking away its dark secrets forever.
The Follower of the Black Path
Gottskalk’s story is related to another one – about Loftur, a man who was seeking the same powers. Two centuries after the death of Gottskalk, Loftur arrived at the cathedral school in Holar, where Gottskalk had been a bishop, and studied magic. When he mastered the book known as Graskinna (‘Grey Skin’), also with black magic spells, he knew enough magic to create mischief among the town’s people. However, once he became bored of this, he began seeking the same dark knowledge that had attracted Gottskalk. One day he asked another student to help him raise all the bishops of Holar, who were buried in cathedral, from the dead. When the student refused, Loftur killed him.
According to legend, Loftur eventually fell victim to the magic and power he so desired. He was walking around the church and chanting spells to summon Gottskalk and get his book, the Rauðskinna. According to the folklore story retold by Shaun D. L. Brassfield-Thorpe:
''Despite all this, Gottskalk still did not come from his grave - so Loftur started chanting as never before. He turned the words of the Psalms into praises for the Devil and made a sorry confession of all his good deeds. The three crowned dead bishops kept as far away as possible from Loftur and faced him with their hands raised - the other dead bishops looked at them and kept their gaze away from Loftur. At last a heavy sound was heard, and a dead man arose bearing a staff in his left hand and a red book under his right arm. He did not wear a crucifix on his chest, and he looked unkindly at the other dead bishops. He gazed at Loftur, who chanted all the more during this. Gottskalk moved a little closer to Loftur and said scornfully: "You chant well, my son, and better than I would have expected. But you will not get my Rauðskinna." Loftur then seemed to turn himself inside out and chanted in a way he had never done before. He changed The Blessing and The Lord's Prayer into praises for the Devil, and the church shook like a straw in the wind. The student, watching in the belfry, thought he saw Gottskalk move again closer to Loftur and he seemed to thrust a corner of the book towards the magician. He had been frightened all this time but now he shook with his terror. He thought he saw the bishop lift the book and Loftur stretch out his hand. So, he pulled the bell rope as hard as he could and everything that had appeared vanished into the floor with a whispering sound.''
Icelandic museum of Witchcraft (CC BY 2.0)
According to legend, Loftur died soon later and was taken by the devil in the boat of the underworld. He had never become as powerful as Gottskalk.
The Mystery Continues
So what happened to the grave of the cruel bishop and his infamous Book of Power buried with him? Some say that it was destroyed in secret, while others believe that it still remains in Iceland, continuing to hide his dark book of magic.
The story of the bishop, who became a master of black magic, has remained a well-known story in Iceland, passed down through the generations. But it is one which is rarely commented on by the Catholic Church.
THE GALDRABÓK – PDF
This is a PDF version of the infamous Galdrabók (MS ATA ÄMB2).
This book is often referenced in modern work such as Stephen Flowers’, but the manuscript itself is actually really hard to find in its original form.
As I’m sure you guys know, there’s not many of these old Galdrabóks left today. Many were burned as heretic books and others were hidden away by their owners to later be forgotten and decay into nothing in some nameless hiding-spot. Those that have survived however, can now be found stored away in several Scandinavian archives, while others are tucked away in private collections.
Back in the day, there were a lot of rumours of black art books like this one in existence. Books said to contain powerful magic in the form of depicted Galdrastafir, Spells, Troll-runes and more. One of the most famous historical manuscripts of this kind is the mythical “Raudskinna” (Red Skin). This fabled manuscript was said to have been written by the Icelandic bishop Gottsálkur Nikolásson (1498-1520’s), who was considered a very cruel man, and also one of the most powerful Troldmænd of his time. “Raudskinna” was lost to the ages unfortunately, as the story says the Bishop took it with him to his grave.
The Galdrabók that I’m sharing with you guys here however, is one of those manuscripts that survived. It’s actually one of the more infamous of the surviving black art books that we still have. It’s a small book compiled on parchment, consisting of 32 sheets in all. The oldest parts of the document were written down in Iceland sometime during the 16th century. Later, the book found its way to Denmark, and at the beginning of the 17th century a Danish Troldmand (sorcerer) supplemented the manuscript with more content. Alas, a more exact date for when this happened is obscured, along with the names of those who wrote the text. Some of the content is likely to originate from other Galdrabóks, but it’s really hard to say at this point.
In 1682 the manuscript was bought in Copenhagen by the Swedish language- and forn-researcher Johan Gabriel Sparfwenfeldt. During 1689-1694 he worked hard on collecting several “gothic” memorials and manuscripts for the Swedish Antiquity Archive.
In 1786 the Swedish Antiquity Archives was placed under management of the Royal History and Antique Academy, and this is where the manuscript can be found today – indexed and shelved as ATA ÄMB2.
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They believe it represents magic and magical workings. It can be carried in a magic bag for protection against accidents psychic attacks and wandering spirits.
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Wormwood can be used to induce visions and send black magic.
Black magic ancient magic symbols. The pentagram and pentacle paganswiccans view the pentagram as an amulet of protection a symbol of balance and a representation of the elemnts and the gods. The symbol is associated with freemasonry as well as other faiths. Rauðskinna is a legendary book that was more terrifying than most of the black magic documents ever produced.
This is not an evil symbol. Symbols of magick and astrology. Curse tablet wikipedia.
Wormwood is a leafy plant found in europe. This symbol asks you to keep your heart light and pure and let truth be your guide. The ancient art of magic curses and supernatural spells.
Symbol of vengeance protection. These were important hubs for ancient peoples represe. Ancient egyptians believed a pure heart weighed as light as a feather.
The study of magic in the greco roman world is a branch of the disciplines of classics ancient history and religious studies. Wormwood can also be used to summon spirits if used with mugwort and in magic pertaining to love. Black magic symbols in black magic and astrological practices the triangle is of most significant importance in enlightening realm.
It was so dark that most people could not believe it was written by a christian bishop. Black magic revealed in two ancient curses livescience. Among the satanists and witches the double triangle otherwise called seal of solomon or hexagram is of great importance.
Pagans use the pentagram with a point facing up like the one see above. While in the western world it is synonymous with fascism being the centerpiece. When used in black magic the pentagram is called the footprint of the devil the star with two points upwards is also called the goat of mendes because the inverted star is the same shape as a goats head.
We enlisted the help of mysti cool eco conscious jewelry line alex ani to help us tune into the magic symbols sending us cosmic downloads right now. The pentagram is a well known occult symbol used extensively in black magic. The pentagram is one of the most used magical symbols by pagans and wiccans.
Ancient symbols of magic astrology the horoscope zodiac and alchemy are based on a common symbolic alphabet composites created from smaller symbols. In classical antiquity including the hellenistic world of ancient greece and ancient rome historians and archaeologists view the public and private rituals associated with religion as part of everyday life. The swastika is a symbol that has been used for at least 12000 years.
Knowing how to recognize these smaller units will allow you to decipher many of the larger symbols whenever you encounter them. Examples of this phenomenon are found in the various state and cult temples jewish synagogues and churches. Paganism isnt the only religion that uses a 5 pointed star.
The famous icelandic book of black magic ancient origins. Pentagrams originated in ancient greece and babylonian but people who practice neopagan faith still use it.
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In Defense of the Vegvisir Symbol
The Vegvisir. One of the most loved . and despised symbols within the Viking enthusiast community. Because this symbol is known as 'The WayFinder' and because it comes to us from Iceland (which was founded and populated by Vikings and their descendants), a popular nickname for this symbol has since become 'The Viking Compass.'
However, it is important to acknowledge upfront that there is indeed zero proof that this symbol was ever actually used by the Vikings, and that the oldest known mentioning of this symbol is found within three different 19th-century Icelandic books which are a collection of old spells and magic symbols.
Anyone sharing the above facts would be making an accurate and fair statement. However .
It is the popular assumption/theory that this symbol is of 'Christian mysticism origin' (or that it has nothing to do with post-Viking history) that we would like to challenge. There are two main and understandable reasons why people believe this. And yes, we are well aware of the online articles that make this claim. Some of them are written by friends of ours, in whom we highly respect. We propose that there is a lot more to the story (including the supposed Solomon connection).
These three Icelandic magic books (that contain the Vegvisir symbol) do indeed mention elements of Christianity and one of the three books specifically mentions Christianity with the Vegvisir symbol. However all three books also mention Norse gods and a number of Norse mythology related elements and topics. This last point cannot and should not be ignored. A more honest take would be to acknowledge that this type of blending of the two extremely different cultures was not only prevalent in 19th century Iceland, but such blending can be traced all the way back to the Viking era.
To start with, it is important to point out that even if the 'Christian mysticism' theory was correct (which we challenge below), it would STILL not prove that it could not have been a symbol that was passed down by their Norse ancestors. Why? Because those very same Viking ancestors were already heavily blending Christianity and other European beliefs into their Norse culture by the end of the Viking era. Anyone who has studied Viking history knows this. There are numerous runestones that were commissioned by Viking kings to dedicate their land to Christ. In fact, the percentage of runestones that include traces of Christianity is a LOT higher than most people realize. Whether or not those Christian conversions were for political reasons will forever be debated. But the belief that anything related to Christianity immediately means it has nothing to do with Viking history is simply incorrect.
With that understanding, we propose that it is certainly possible that the one book that ties Christianity to this symbol was for one of two reasons:
1) They were simply guilty of describing this older magical symbol (of unknown age and origin) within a '19th century Christian context'.
2) Or . similar to modern day voodoo practioners, it is documented that magic practioners purposely like to blend two divergent forces (Christian and non-Christian) to add more power. This is what most people do not understand about the term 'Christian mysticism' or the inaccurate term 'Christian magic'. More on this in our Solomon section below.
An example of the first idea can be found in yet another Icelandic manuscript when Helgi hinn Magri (Helgi the Lean), one of the Viking founders of Iceland (as reported in the Book of Settlements) summed up this mindset,
“On land I pray to Christ, but on the stormy sea I pray to Thor.”
This manuscript is from the 12th century . far closer to the actual Viking era and yet no one reads the above statement and assumes, "Thor must therefore be of Christian origin."
Most of what we know about Norse mythology comes to us from various Icelandic documents, written well after the Viking era had ended. Most of us believe that these stories (such as when the giants stole Thor's hammer) were probably indeed p assed down through generations of Vikings . in spite of the fact that they did not get written down until centuries later in Iceland.
As for our voodoo anlogy in the second idea: elements of Catholicism are often included in their rituals. Yet, historians would agree that Voodoo's 'magic related' elements (such as casting spells) are far more connected to historic African religious practices, such as animism and spiritism . than they are to the teachings of Judiasm or Christianity. Again, this supports the idea of magic practioners purposely diverging two completely different forces together in belief of creating more power behind what they are doing.
Voodoo today includes its own collection of symbols known as veves. Now imagine someone posting a picture of their brand new veve tattoo and having people ridicule them saying, "Ummm, you do know that is actually a Christian symbol, right?" The reality is there is far more to the story than simply jumping to such conclusions. We encourage you to take a deeper look at the history behind this very popular symbol.
Vegvísir and the Ægishjálmur symbols: What are They?
Vegvísir (i.e. “the Wayfinder”) and Ægishjálmur (i.e. “the Helm of Awe”) are both magical symbols that fall into the category of rune staves or galdrastafir. So, this is a good time to pause and mention that we are talking about magic here. Magic has been a part of every human culture. For the purposes of this article, though, we are not talking about whether magic is real or not. We are only talking about people’s belief in and attempt to use codified formulae to exert control over their lives and environments through supernatural means.
The world of our ancestors was a tough place, and people were desperate for any way to shift their luck towards the good. They tended to make little distinction between the natural and supernatural world and to take their faith systems literally. Thus, it was perfectly normal for people to attempt to interact with the supernatural world in hopes of obtaining good fortune in the natural world. One side of this has always been religious practices, such as prayers and offerings to gods and spirits. The other side of this is magic, the attempt to exert influence on the spirit world in order for the spirit world to exert positive influence back on this one.
Vegvísir means “That Which Shows the Way.” It is an Icelandic magical stave, similar in shape to the Helm of Awe, but while each of the arms of the Ægishjálmur is the same, the arms of the Vegvísir are all different. Vegvísir was a visual spell of protection against getting lost (particularly at sea) – something that was very, very dangerous in pre-modern times.
Besides the fact that the Vegvisir is known as a wayfinder and comes to us from Iceland which is heavily populated by direct descendants of actual sea-traveling Vikings, the Vegvisir is also referred to as a compass because it has 8 points. However, this is something of an anachronism. Vikings did indeed use the concept of 8 directions (not all cultures do, by the way) and they may have had directional finding instruments of their own, such as sunstones or the Uunartoq disc. However, most of their navigation came down to visual cues (the sun, stars, flight patterns of birds, the color of water, etc.). Rather than being a representation of a compass as we think of it, Vegvísir’s 8 “arms” are each thought to be a charm against specific dangers of travel.
The Ægishjálmur, or Helm of Awe, is a magical Icelandic symbol of protection and victory. The Helm of Awe is mentioned in several of the Eddic poems and in the Volsung Saga. In these sources, though, the Helm of Awe is referring to an actual, physical helmet and not a symbol. This magic helmet had the ability to strike terror into the hearts of enemies. As Fafnir (the dwarf-turned-dragon) says,
“I wore my terror-helmet [Ægishjálmur in Old Norse] against all men … and I feared no weapon. I never faced so many men that I did not feel myself much stronger than they were, and everyone feared me.”
The symbol by the same name that was believed to be imbued with similar properties survives from later Icelandic grimoire (books of magic). Eight arms or rays emit from the center point of the symbol. The arms themselves appear to be constructed from two intersecting runes. These are Algiz runes for victory and protection intersected by Isa runes, which may mean hardening (literally, ice). So, the hidden meaning of this symbol may be the ability to overcome adversity through superior hardening of the mind and soul.
Such a combination of runes is called a “bind rune.” There is also controversy over runes and bind runes having inherent magical properties or secret meanings, but we will go into it in another article. First, though, let’s try to put this whole discussion in context by taking a look at the culture that brought us these symbols.
Norse Mythology and Magic are not exactly Strangers
Stories of magical runes and spells are extremely common within Norse mythology. Below is just one example (from Egil's Saga) that has the same 'flavor' as what we find within the Icelandic magic books containing the Vegvisir symbol. In this example we find Viking hero Egil realizing a rune spell has gone wrong and replaces it with one of his own making:
When Egil had eaten his fill he went to where the woman was lying and spoke to her. He ordered them to lift her out of bed and place clean sheets underneath her, and this was done. Then he examined the bed she had been lying in, and found a whalebone with runes carved on it. After reading the runes, Egil shaved them off and scraped them into the fire. He burned the whalebone and had her bedclothes aired. Then Egil spoke a verse:
No man should carve runes unless he can read them well
many a man go astray around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw ten secret letters carved,
from them the linden tree took her long harm.
Egil cut some runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where she was lying. She felt as if she were waking from a deep sleep, and she said she was well again, but still very weak. (chapter 73)
The Unique 'Norse Cultural' Environment of Iceland
Iceland was founded by Vikings beginning in the 9th century. According to the sagas and the Landnámabók (the Book of Settlements), most of these Vikings were fleeing the political changes happening in mainland Scandinavia. They wanted to preserve their way of life including their democratic self-government. According to DNA research (and supported in the sagas), about 30% of the founding population of Iceland were Irish and Scottish people came with the Vikings. Whether or not they were mostly slaves, or Vikings who were children of Nordic fathers and Celtic mothers, or a combination of both, is an on-going debate. But what is known is that most of these Gaels (Celts), and even some of the 100% Nordic Vikings would have come a Christian belief system, and so Iceland was multi-religious from the very beginning.
The Norse and Gaelic cultures are both well-known for their storytelling, spirituality, and strong sense of tradition. While the Norse of Iceland were primarily an oral culture, the Irish and Scotts were already very literary people. So, it should be no surprise that Icelanders became known as tremendous lore masters and poets. In the Viking Age, Icelanders were recruited by kings not only as warriors but as court skalds (bards). Talented Icelanders like Egil Skallagrimsson and Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue traveled the Viking world receiving as much welcome for their words as for their sword skill.
But the Icelanders did not just have a way with words, they had an eye for detail and the memory to pass it all down. The Icelandic sagas (not written down until the 13th century) not only tell the stories of the warriors, farmers, feuds, legal battles, explorations, and love lives of the first 300 years of Icelanders – they also contain family trees and a social structure that remains remarkably cohesive across dozens of volumes. Critics of the sagas assert that these stories are merely historical fiction and they only appear to have lifelike and watertight detail because they were constructed to seem real. Even if that were true, the sagas are a remarkable literary accomplishment that reveal the extent of Iceland’s literary genius and ability to preserve the past.
Iceland’s population contracted between the Viking Age and modern times and did not experience significant influxes of peoples from elsewhere. Thus, Icelanders are more connected to true, sea-traveling Viking ancestors than virtually any other country. The Icelandic language is very close to Old Norse – far closer than Swedish, Norwegian or Danish. It should be no surprise, therefore, that almost everything we have from Viking history, lore, poetry and faith, and history (from their perspective) comes to us directly from Iceland. The sagas, the Eddas – nearly all of it. The exception would be the 12th century Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) by Saxo Grammaticus – but even Saxo admitted that he owed a heavy debt to Icelandic lore masters in the writing of his masterpiece.
But there is another essential element to Iceland’s culture that allowed for the survival of so much Viking lore. As previously mentioned, Iceland started its history as a place with multiple faiths. In the year 1000, the Althing (the democratic governing body in Iceland) addressed mounting religious strife and the need to “keep up with the times” by reaching a strange decision. They voted to make Christianity the official religion in the country, while still allowing freedom of religious practice in private. This period of religious pluralism lasted about 120 years. Even after it ceased, legally speaking, this strange conversion story and the lack of social pressures from the outside led to Icelanders showing a far more tolerant attitude towards their pagan heritage.
Icelandic Magic in a Religious Age
Professor Kenneth Harl of Tulane University speaks to the conversion experience in the Viking Age, “It usually took Vikings two or three generations to figure out what monotheism was” (2005). In the meantime, there was a mix of faiths interacting in the Vikings' minds. Another poignant example can be observed in the archeological excavation in Scandinavia of a Norse sorceress who had – among other talismans – a cross around her neck. Many other graves, too, have shown Mjolnir (Thor's Hammer) amulets along with Christian crosses. Clearly, the Vikings were not sticklers for exclusionary doctrine.
Witch Hunts and Executions
This laissez-faire attitude continued to some extent during Iceland’s Catholic period (circa 1000-1550). But when the King of Denmark (then the ruler of Iceland) cast out the Catholic clergy and instituted Lutheran Protestantism in Iceland, this was challenged. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was in the throes of religious and civil wars. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation were at a fever pitch. With these politico-religious climates in Europe came the phenomenon of witch burnings and the Inquisition, which claimed thousands of lives.
During the same time these Icelandic magic books were written, there existed places in Europe that would have literally burned you at the stake if you were caught with one in your possession.
Iceland was not immune from these things, but while an appalling number of people died in Spain, England, or France, in Iceland there were only about 29 witchcraft executions. While in mainland Europe, most of these condemned witches and heretics were women, in Iceland, only one woman lost her life during these religious purges.
But, unfortunately for those of us who study all these things now, one thing was not going to escape the fires of fervor and suspicion so easily …and that was Books.
Archeology and Burned Books
There are no surviving examples of Vegvísir or the Ægishjálmur in archeology before they appear in these three Icelandic books. None. No Wayfinders carved on a ship’s prow, no Ægishjálmur engraved on a helmet, nothing. The archeological record is completely quiet when it comes to Icelandic rune staves (galdrastafir).
This is no surprise, however. Here are some reasons why this may be:
Ólafur Davíðsson, writing in Iceland 120 years ago, when many there still practiced these arts and took them seriously, offers,
The magic symbols were mostly written on paper … calfskin or parchment. Sometimes they were scratched on various types of wood: mostly on oak, but also on fir, spruce, beech and maple or on different implements: wooden plates, basins, spoons, hinged lids or on ships, to hinder people’s industrial or whalebone fishing. There are occurrences where magic symbols were to be scratched on bones and in one particular spot it is stressed that one should scratch it on a human bone. Also magic symbols were scratched on various ores or rocks (silver, lead, brass, whetstone) and food (bread, cheese). Finally magic symbols were scratched on ‘surtarbrandur’, the shell of a chicken egg, the skin of the Water Rail and many more items like this have been used. It also happened that people drew magic symbols with their saliva on certain body parts, such as the forehead, and these or other symbols could only be drawn with certain fingers. Sometimes the magic symbols were also formed out of metal and pressed on different body parts, and even some magic symbols were applied only on certain days or at certain times of day. The magic symbols would have usually been well written with ordinary ink, but there are examples where you had to write them with human blood. (Translated J. Foster, 2015).
Not many of these methods Davíðsson mentions would leave many traces in the archeology, where organic materials quickly decompose. While the archeology of Greece and Rome is clear because it is carved in marble, Viking archeology has always been more difficult. But here we have the archeology of trying to find something that even in its own time was meant to be concealed.
A much older source, the Sigrdrifumal of the Poetic Edda tells a similar tale. In this poem (written down in the 13th century but composed well before that) the Valkyrie Sigerdrifa (Victory Driver) advises Sigurd to carve magic runes on a drinking horn, on the back of one’s hand, on a fingernail, on tree bark, on the needles of a pine, on an eagle’s beak and many stranger things besides. How much confidence could anyone have in missing archeological signs of such things?
Most magic was taught by word of mouth and passed on from teacher to apprentice, as it always had been. There was an effort throughout the Middle Ages though to compile this information into books. A few of these books were grimoires (magic books in the European tradition, like something you would see on Harry Potter), including the famous Rauðskinna of Gottskálk Nikolásson, Bishop of Hólar in the early 1500s. Though a bishop, Gottskálk the Grim was “the greatest wizard of his day” and a practitioner of the black magic “practiced in pagan times.” His Rauðskinna was allegedly a red-leather gilded volume written in runes, but it followed him to the grave and is now lost.
Most Icelandic magic books were not grand grimoires like the Rauðskinna, though. They were “little” magic books called galdrakver or galdraskr æður. These were basically notebooks or booklets where various spells and symbols were compiled. We know about them mostly from documents in witch trials. That’s right – the galdrakver, grimoires, and most other evidence we would have to trace the evolution of Icelandic magic was burned. Usually, the accused witch was spared but his or her books and accouterments were publicly destroyed. Others may have destroyed or hidden their own books to avoid persecution.
This is why most of the surviving books (which are a very small number) only date back to the 1800s. It was only after the Age of Enlightenment, the waning of the Church’s punitive legal power, and the renewed interest of the Romantic Era that made it safe for magic to come out of the shadows. But by this time, all you have are scraps of information that are compiled ad hoc from what was available. The grimoires we have do not present a cohesive doctrine or discipline but are eclectic collections of magical fragments. This is partially because of how the information was collected and preserved, but part is also by design. The galdrakver and grimoires were not meant to be used by the uninitiated or to be a beginner’s guide. Rather, the information contained in them was meant to supplement and enhance oral transmission from a skilled teacher.
Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur on Paper
Vegvísir can be found in a manuscript from around 1860 called the Huld Manuscript. This manuscript is thought to have been compiled by Geir Vigfússon, who gathered it from numerous other sources, including old books of folk medicine in addition to other magic books. The manuscript is noted for its beautiful presentation and calligraphy. It is relatively short, though, and quite a few pages have been removed and lost.
The Huld manuscript begins with 329 runic futharks and alphabets. That is right – when it comes to magic, there are not just the Elder and Younger Futharks but many other ways in which runes can be used or written. Some of these include villuletur or false letters. Runes, false runes, bind runes, and Latin letters were sometimes even combined (not whimsically, but as part of magical formulae). Bind runes could be used so that “a whole word or a whole sentence could be hidden in a symbol” (Davíðsson, 1903, p. 152). For example, in the galdrastafur, Þjófastafur (To uncover Thieves) which appears near Vegvísir in the Huld manuscript, the eight symbols represent eight of the Aesir. Considering hidden meanings like this, the religious alignment of Icelandic magic is more difficult to ascertain than some might assume.
The Huld contains two completely different versions of Vegvísir on page 60. One is the rune stave that we all know and love, but the other is a very different type of symbol that is horizontal and without arms or spokes. The caption for Vegvísir translates: “Carry this sign with you and you won't get lost in storms or bad weather, even though in unfamiliar surrounds.”
Vegvísir appears in a second grimoire set down a few years after the Huld in 1869. This book is usually called by its descriptor, Galdrakver, or manuscript Lbs 2917 a 4to. This book, penned by Olgeir Geirsson (1842-1880), is a fantastic resource with a large number of rune staves. It is the only one of the manuscripts that has both Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur. The caption under Vegvísir is more or less the same as the Huld manuscript’s caption.
The third and final old manuscript featuring Vegvísir is also known as Galdrakver, or manuscript Lbs 4627 8vo. This author is unknown but the book is believed to be from the 19th century. It is this book that is often quoted as proving the symbol is “Christian”, but we will address more on the full context of this later.
"The Vegvísir is Young" Argument
The sources mentioned here are only from the mid- 19th century. Well, again, these sources were compiled in the 19th century from many other books that are now lost. Those books, in turn, were compiled from other books now lost, and so forth.
So just how far back does this symbol go? Well, there may be oblique references to Vegvísir in witch trial documents. For example, Davíðsson (1903) reports a case in 1664 wherein a schoolmaster confiscated a book of magic from his students. This book would have been a great treasure to us today because it contained 80 spells and 237 figures. The book was destroyed, but the contents were catalogued first. They included “#41: To get no storms at sea, accompanied by a figure” and “#51: A further 30 symbols (with no details), which you should have on hand.” Now, indeed, this may seem unconvincing to some critics, as it is not mentioning Vegvísir by name or by image, only a similar idea of safety in travel and a reference to “figures” and “symbols,” however, it does show that similar ideas were in place.
Probably the most interesting thing about the 1664 report is that it does mention Ægishjálmur by name (number 20) showing that this was recognizable as a symbol and common enough that it was known to men who could not identify many of the other items in the grimoire. Aside from this early mention in the 1664 report, the oldest surviving example of a fully formed Ægishjálmur symbol called by that name is in the 1670 Galdrakver manuscript Lbs . 143 8vo.
The compilers of magic books were interested in magic – they were not scholars trying to find only spells that were authentically 'Viking' or only used in great antiquity.
Archeology and the literary record are clear that Vikings were avid believers and practitioners of magic. It is difficult to find a Norse saga or poem that does not mention magic, symbolism, or engrained faith in the supernatural! Vikings had contact with about 50 different cultures, and acquired many new ideas from them. So, we would not expect Vikings to miss an opportunity to acquire new spells.
Iceland was founded by Vikings and in the centuries that followed the population even shrank and remained largely insular. This does not mean that there was no foreign influence, though. In fact, Icelanders were naturally curious and happy to incorporate things from other cultures. They translated and adapted courtly romances from France and told stories about Alexander the Great. They also picked up foreign magic.
According to Ólafur Davíðsson (1903) much of this foreign magic came to Iceland in the Middle Ages (especially the 13th-14th century), with priests and scribes being likely (but not exclusive) culprits. Davíðsson states that though foreign magic was incorporated early and well-mixed with other Icelandic (Norse mythology related) magic, the galdrastafir made from bindrunes were considered more serious and more dangerous “because they were pagan” (p. 151).
But what kind of foreign magic do we see in the Icelandic manuscripts? The source that is most often pointed to is the Clavicula Salomonis (The Key of Solomon), which was written sometime before 1426. The Clavicula Salomonis should not be confused with the Lesser Key of Solomon or the Notary of Solomon (both written in the early 1600s) nor the Testament of Solomon written all the way back in the 1 st -3 rd century. To help differentiate it from these other sources (which are similar in theme but very different in presentation) the Clavicula Salomonis is sometimes called The Greater Key of Solomon. The Clavicula Salomonis has been called “the most famous and important of all grimoires,” and is a lengthy book (by the standards of the day) covering many aspects of astrology, demonology, exorcisms, and spells. The element that draws the most comparison to Icelandic magic (and especially to the Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur) are the astrological pentacles. Like Vegvísir, these symbols have eight arms or rays, usually with different lines at their termini.
Though the pentacles found in this book bear a resemblance to Vegvísir, it is important to note that Vegvísir itself does NOT appear in the Clavicula Salomonis or ANY other known source outside of Iceland. Moreover, the pentacles are only a small part of the Clavicula Salomonis. As for the other “Solomon” books, such as the Lesser Key or the Notary, there are also superficial similarities in formula (such as calling on multiple spirits, applying specific conditions to spell casting, etcetera) but this can be said for most European magic.
Are Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur Christian? . or Christian Mysticism?
Recently, people on the internet (including some well-researched and well-written pieces) have taken to calling Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur “Christian” symbols or claim that the symbols had their origin in “Christian mysticism”. Though this is a perfectly understandable assumption, it is incorrect for a number of reasons:
- Christianity (through its Bible) unequivocally condemns magic, often in strongly-worded terms. As well, the Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant denominations have always prohibited magic, and generally deemed it the domain of the devil or at least false prophets. Recall that it was the Church that burned the magic books (and occasionally the magician too) which is why there are so few surviving sources for Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur. In the history of Icelandic magic, there have been a number of noted wizards and warlocks who were also Christian bishops, such as Gottskálk the Grim, but at that time being a bishop had more to do with learning, wealth, and family connections and was not especially dependent on piety. These bishops and priests were usually purged by the Church when their magical dealings could no longer go ignored. Icelandic magic has therefore never been “Christian” in the sense of being accepted by the Church.
What about the supposed Solomon conection?
Some claim the symbols are Christian because they came from continental books of “Christian mysticism.” First, it cannot be established that Icelandic galdrastafir are directly and solely descended from the star-shaped pentacles of the Clavicula Salomonis or any other known work. Further, this Greater Key of Solomon is associated with Kabbalah, not Christianity, as is the Testament of Solomon (which contains no symbols, by the way). The Lesser Key of Solomon and the Notary of Solomon do feature Christian notions and imagery, but these works have even less to do with Icelandic magic and any link has not been convincingly established. Further, Christian mysticism is a religious practice where the monk, nun, or devotee attempts to achieve the experience of the divine, and is not 'practical magic' as one clearly sees in the grimoires.
So why the misunderstanding? Well, all the surviving grimoires are full of Christian sentiments and imagery. Within the various books one finds numerous invocations of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as well as references to Solomon, David, Joshua, Saint Olaf (the 11th century Viking) and (oddly) the Christian emperor, Charlemagne.
HOWEVER, within these same exact Icelandic books there are also numerous invocations to Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods. There are also appeals to trolls and Jötnar (Norse giants). Last but not least, there are numerous invocations of Satan/Lucifer/Beelzebub, devils, and demons.
The would-be witch or wizard is instructed to conjure these many divergent and opposing spiritual forces to charge the spells in order to make them work. As Davíðsson (1903) elaborates, sigils and protection charms are usually ascribed to positive spiritual forces. Professor Glenn Holland of Alleghany College stated the following:
"Magical practices . are a product of syncretism. Syncretism is the combination and identification of one religious culture with another, the exchange of elements from one religious culture and another."
This hodge-podge of religious appeals and assigning of spirits is typical of magic around the world and throughout time. One need only to visit New Orleans or South America to see ready examples. If magic was a means to influence the spirit world to affect the natural world, then recruiting the right spirits for the job only makes sense. Which would better explain why we see in the Icelandic grimoires non-Christian magic symbols being connected with Christian invocations.
Here is where the Christian influence anxiety (pertaining to Vegvísir) comes from: One of the three books, the Huld and Galdrakver manuscript Lbs 2917 a 4to the caption for Vegvísir reads: “Carry this sign with you and you won't get lost in storms or bad weather, even though in unfamiliar surrounds.” But in Galdrakver Lbs 4627 8vo, Vegvísir is accompanied by relatively lengthy and decidedly Christian instructions:
“To avoid getting lost: keep this sign under your left arm, its name is Vegvísir and it will serve you if you believe in it – if you believe in God in the name of Jesus – the meaning of this sign is hidden in these words, so you may not perish. May God give me luck and blessing in the name of Jesus.” (Vlasatý, 2020).
These instructions are unusual, but understandable in a charm of protection within the context of describing an older symbol within the usual Icelandic magic hodge podge context of that time. The quote above appears in only one late manuscript and not within the older two. So there is no way to know at what point or to what extent these prayers were part of the Vegvísir story. It is also possible that invocations like these formed a disclaimer – an assurance of the spell’s safety while removing the magical purveyor from blame if it did not work.
Ægishjálmur (and indeed many other spells and symbols) is assigned instructions that make no mention of deities or spirits. In the 1670 Galdrakver Lbs. 143 8vo the caption reads:
Terror Helm. It shall be made in lead, and when
a man expects his enemies he shall imprint it
on his forehead. And thou wilt conquer him.
In the 1862 secondary source by folklorist Jón Árnason it also reads irreligiously:
I wash from me my enemies’ hatred,
the greed and wrath of powerful men.
However, in the famous Galdrabók (published in 1920 but believed to be written sometime between 1550-1650) a different, simpler version of the Ægishjálmur comes with the instructions to call on the Holy Trinity as well as Odin, along with two other spirits, Ölver and Illi. It also mentions Mary in the same passage. Foster (2020) remarks, “This is a reminder that everything about galdrastafir was fluid and flexible, almost at the whim of the galdramenn [magic users] who created them.”
It is perhaps worth noting that almost none of our sources for anything Viking is completely free from later Christian influence. The sagas were written by Christians of later centuries. The Prose Edda lore of Snorri Sturluson contains blatant attempts to euhemerize gods and reconcile the Pagan past with the Christian present. Saxo Grammaticus moralizes at length in his biographies of Ragnar Lothbrok and the rest. Even some of the poems of the Elder Edda may have been “tampered with” by medieval Christian scribes. Indeed, the Vikings themselves were usually caught in the middle between these two world views. The Christian-Pagan interface is a feature of Norse studies (and an interesting one) and should not scare anyone away.
Icelandic magic is a fascinating and frustrating subject that eludes easy classifications and defies quick explanations. It is a living tradition with a long and obscure history, and so any attempt to force order and clarity upon it are automatically wrong. This article has only scratched the surface of this topic. Our purposes, though, were to investigate questions concerning Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur, so let us summarize our findings.
The truth is no one really knows how old Vegvísir is, or where its true origin is from. Though our oldest proof is the 1800s, the symbol was already thought to be old at that time. It is possible that it comes from the Middle Ages. It may have some connection to foreign influence but this has not been fully established. Vegvísir has only been found in Iceland, and connecting it to other symbols is based on superficial comparisons. It should be noted that star-shapes exist in the natural world (sun rays, flowers, the spokes of a wheel) and simple star-shaped symbols go back even before the Viking Age.
It is, therefore, accurate to point out that there is no way to definitively call Vegvísir “Viking” due to lack of evidence. However, in fairness, the Vegvísir is part of an intellectual tradition found in three books which are each inclusive of Norse mythology elements . which CAN trace its roots back to the Viking Age.
Ægishjálmur (Helm of Awe) as a symbol was known by name in the 1600s. As a symbol made from bindrunes, it is certainly not unrealistic to think Ægishjálmur could have been conceived by Vikings, but again there is no physical evidence that this symbol was ever used by Vikings.
Both Vegvísir and Ægishjálmur are occasionally found with Christian invocations. Why? Because the sources we find them in had a blend of Pagan/Christian frames of reference. They are magic symbols, not religious indicators. Their adoption by Neo-Pagan or revival religions is up to the practitioners of those religions.
So, while far too much time has passed and far too much has been lost for Icelandic magic and “Viking” to be proven as the same thing, they are certainly both connected to Icelandic's post-Viking era, Nordic heritage.
And while we would certainly understand why the conservative re-enactor would want to refrain from using an Ægishjálmur or Vegvísir while in a Viking re-enactment context, we would also state that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Viking enthusiast finding these Icelandic symbols interesting and respectfully using them as they see fit. For all we know, the true origin of this symbol may have very well been from Scandinavia and passed down to other locations of Europe over time. Botom line: While all can speculate one way or another, no one truly knows where the Vegvisir symbol originally came from . because none of us were there.
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Rauðskinna: The Famous Icelandic Book of Black Magic - History
Icelandic museum of Witchcraft by Ben Sisto on Flickr.com
Last week’s entry about witchcraft in Iceland mentioned one interesting man, Galdra-Loftur (= Loftur the Magician), who’s definitely worth a closer look. The legend does not paint a very flattering image of him: he’s shown as an egoistical, cruel person who uses his talent and skills for his own profit only and does not care who he tramples underfoot on the way. In many ways he’s the polar opposite of the other famous Icelandic scholar-magician, Sæmundur fróði or Sæmundur the Wise, who used his to help others and occasionally to save his own soul from his former school master, the devil himself.
You could for example compare their attitudes towards women who were pregnant out of wedlock. Sæmundur saved a servant girl who the devil had fooled into promising him her unborn child, Loftur murdered the mother and the child he himself had fathered in cold blood. In general Sæmundur seems to have valued women to a great deal, yet he, too, caused the death of the woman who bore his children.
The story goes that he once told the women of his household that each day bore a short wishing moment during whatever wish was said aloud would come true, but that he alone knew which moment it was as it changed every day. One day he saw the moment approach and let the others know, at which one of the servant girls made a wish that she could bear Sæmundur seven sons. Sæmundur was taken by surprise and angrily replied “and die at the last one” but alas the wishing moment had not quite passed… the two did end up married, she did indeed give Sæmundur seven sons and, sadly, died giving birth to the seventh. Sæmundur himself was said to have regretted his words right away, so though both men caused the deaths of their lady friend and wife I’d still say Sæmundur had no actual wish to harm her, whereas Galdra-Loftur had it all planned out.
Icelandic sorcery by Ben Sisto on Flickr.com.
Loftur mistreated women quite badly otherwise as well. Killing was one thing, but he also turned another servant girl into a steed and rode her, injuring her gravely in process. The scene reminds me of an even earlier legend, that of the kveldriða (= night rider). They were female and used their skills to overpower others and ride them until their victims died or were at the verge of death. Eyrbyggja saga in particular has such a scene between an old woman who was infatuated with a young, beautiful man. He turned her down, disappeared one night and was found in the morning unconscious and so battered it took him months to heal. The details of the two legends bear such similarities that it does give Loftur’s story a hint of sexual violence, and well, that too would fit the description of his character.
What cemented the legend of Loftur though was neither of these stories that are actually quite typical for Icelandic witches. No, unlike Sæmundur the Wise, Loftur the Sorcerer was never happy with the amount of knowledge he had amassed and even lamented that the Black University (which Sæmundur went to) was no longer open for human students and therefore he had no way of ever learning enough magic to fool the devil, which to him was just as crucial as to Sæmundur. Sæmundur had broken a deal with the devil using his own cunning and skills but Loftur had no such means, and he knew that once death approached his soul would be doomed unless he would somehow become smarter than the devil, too. He hatched a plan.
Book of Magic by Randen Pederson on Flickr.com.
A bishop by the name of Gottskálk grimmi Nikulásson (= Gottskálk the Cruel) who had written one of the most legendary books on black magic called Rauðskinna (= red skin) and who had been buried with his own creation sprang to his mind. Galdra-Loftur threatened a fellow student until he agreed to help him out with his plan, met him at the church that the bishop had been buried under and together they began to rise him from death. The nameless student was to stand by the bell ropes and ring the bells at Galdra-Loftur’s command while Galdra-Loftur himself began a Black Mass. He turned each prayer into a curse or a celebration of the devil, and the dead began to rise from under the church, last of which was Gottskálk who indeed held onto a red book. He leered at Galdra-Loftur that he’d never gain his book and teasingly held it just outside of his reach. Galdra-Loftur replied by more satanic verses and the whole church began to shake, which was too much for the student by the bell: he grabbed the ropes and began to ring them and all the dead vanished.
Thus Galdra-Loftur never gained the book he had been after. He confessed that Gottskálk had been vastly more powerful than himself and that had he kept on chanting the whole church would have fallen underground, which had been the bishop’s plan. What was worse he now knew his death day approach fast, and though a local priest attempted to help him, in the end the devil grabbed Loftur’s boat as he was rowing and pulled him under, the boat and all.
Sæmundur fróði defeats the devil (once again).
What’s most interesting about Galdra-Loftur, as with Sæmundur the Wise, is that they were both real people. Loftur’s real name was Loftur Þorsteinsson (1702 – ?) and he indeed studied at Hólar, though he never seems to have graduated as he died at an early age – or at least there are no records of him past the age of 20. Gottskálk grimmi Nikulásson was likewise a real bishop who was born 1469 and died 1520, Norwegian of origin and famous for his strict and merciless ways of gaining more property to the cross. There’s also a variation of the legend that states Loftur had had not one accomplice but three, Einar Jónsson, his brother Galdra-Ari and Jóhann Kristjánsson, all men who lived in his time and studied at the Hólaskóli (= School at Hólar) at the same time with him. All of them had a reputation for knowing magic or having a natural tendency towards it, something that’s often linked to scholars in Iceland in general. Although suspecting students of getting too ambitious in their knowledge on dark arts is nothing unusual in old legends, what makes Iceland stand out is that it was not always considered a bad thing and that even gaining your skills from Old Nick himself was not automatically a sign of evilness. All depended on how the witchcraft was put to use – to serve the community like Sæmundur’s, or one’s self only like Galdra-Loftur’s.
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5) William Shakespeare’s ‘Cardenio’ and ‘Love’s Labours Won’
Shakespeare’s work is already taken as a treasure to literature, so imagine the impact that not only one, but two of his works are still recorded as being lost! During the 17 th century, it was rare for a full script ever to be written. The primary reason for this is simple practicality – rather than write out an entire script for each member of the cast, playwrights, like Shakespeare, would only write the lines for each character independently, giving only the intro (or clue) line to the actor so they would know when to speak. As such, complete scripts only came about when the individual scripts were brought together and copied, as such, some plays were never fully recorded by even the playwrights.
In 1613 Shakespeare’s own theatrical group, the King’s Men, were known to have performed a play for King James I, called ‘Cardenio’. No script of this play has ever been found, giving it as the first lost treasure of Shakespeare. The second lost play is one called ‘Love’s Labours Won’. This title was first found in a list of plays dated in 1598, and was assumed to have been an alternative name for Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’. Although when it appeared again in a separate list 1603, in which ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was also listed, it was accepted as a lost play.
The strange thing is, a possibility exists for them still to be found. Theatres, during the 17 th century, were big business and the popularity of a play could be very lucrative, as such, playwrights would have problems of some members of the audience attempting to memorize and later write down the scripts to sell them. As such, copies could still exist, possibly with the title changed and sold to alternative theatres to perform. The hunt continues.
The 10 Best Books on the Runes
The first known inscription of the Elder Futhark in order (on the Kylver Runestone, Gotland, Sweden, c. 400 CE)
Those who want to begin to study the runes are immediately confronted with the deluge of books that have been written on these fascinating and mysterious symbols from the ancient Norse/Germanic world.
Since the runes are a vital part of the pre-Christian northern European mythology, worldview, and spiritual practice, I thought it would be fitting and helpful to provide some recommendations in this field. This list assumes no prior knowledge of the runes, just a willingness to understand them on their own terms.
Books on the runes, especially those of the “how-to” guidebook variety, vary greatly in quality and in the approach they take to studying and working with the runes. As with anything else in life, different approaches are appropriate for different people. This list reflects that necessary diversity, and includes works from several different perspectives that all have something to contribute to the modern study of the runes and practice of runic magic (last updated November 2018).
The works that comprise this list should be considered starting points in one’s journey of discovering and working with the runes rather than being representative of that path in its totality. While there’s a core body of traditional lore to be mastered, the runes speak to everyone at least a little bit differently. What you learn from the runes directly, through experience and intuitive insight, is always more important than anything you read in a book. The books are really just there to help you get to the point at which you’re able to learn from and interact with the runes directly, without the mediation of any second-hand sources.
The books on this list are numbered according to their newbie-friendliness. #1 is the most accessible, while #10 is the least accessible, but #1 is not necessarily “better” than #10.
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
1. Nordic Runes: Understanding, Casting, and Interpreting the Ancient Viking Oracle by Paul Rhys Mountfort
If you’re looking for a single, comprehensive book that gives you descriptions of the meanings of each rune, its role in Norse mythology, the cosmology that provided the context for ancient runic magic, advice to guide the reader through the contemporary practice of runic magic, and much more, Mountfort’s Nordic Runes delivers all of these things outstandingly well. It’s also refreshingly non-ideological, and encourages the reader to develop his or her own runic practice. If it has a weakness, it’s that the practical advice tends to focus on divination at the expense of many of the other uses to which runic magic can be put. That qualm aside, I think that, overall, this is the best single-volume introduction to the runes and runic magic out there currently. Click here to view or buy Nordic Runes at Amazon.
2. Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic by Edred Thorsson
“Edred Thorsson” is the pen name of Stephen Flowers, a runic scholar with a Ph.D. in Germanic studies from the University of Texas in Austin (for his dissertation, Runes and Magic, see #9 below). As you’d expect from someone with that background and those credentials, “Futhark” is, of all of the guidebooks on runic magic, almost certainly the one most thoroughly informed by the historical practice of runic magic, both in the ancient Germanic world and in its earliest revival in the nineteenth-century German Romantic movement and the works of pioneers such as Guido von List. As with all books on runic magic, however, the book is also heavily colored by Flowers’s own insights gained from several years’ experience in practicing runic magic firsthand. That’s far from a bad thing, of course especially given how fragmentary the surviving primary sources on historical Germanic religion are, it’s absolutely necessary to use one’s intuition to fill in the gaps, and Thorsson’s intuition is exceptionally lucid.
Futhark is extremely thorough and well-informed, and I recommend it very highly. It will especially appeal to indigenists and traditionalists who seek to eschew “New Age fluff” and to base their own practice on historical runic magic as completely as possible. Click here to view or buy Futhark at Amazon.
3. Runelore: The Magic, History, and Hidden Codes of the Runes by Edred Thorsson
Edred Thorsson’s Runelore: The Magic, History, and Hidden Codes of the Runes is something of a sequel to his earlier Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic (#2 above). Earlier editions were published with the (in my opinion better) subtitle A Handbook of Esoteric Runology.
Runelore is divided into two parts, both of which occupy roughly half of the book: “Historical Lore” and “Hidden Lore.” The section on “Historical Lore” gives a history of the origins, development, and use of the runes from before the Viking Age up through the modern runic revival. This section relies heavily on the author’s excellent Runes and Magic, his Ph.D. thesis in runology published under his real name, Stephen Flowers (see #9 below). A particularly delightful chapter in this section is “Rune Poems,” where Thorsson provides translations and discussions of the Rune Poems, one of the foremost primary sources for our knowledge of the runes today.
The section on “Hidden Lore” is more philosophical and psychological. The contents of this section are all firmly rooted in traditional Germanic lore, but go well beyond it. And that’s inevitable in any good book on the runes due to the paucity of information on the runes in the primary sources, which are themselves of a rather fragmentary nature, one has to round out the available facts with supplemental intuition and explorations of other fields (while still staying true to the sources, of course) in order to (re)construct anything like a coherent, workable system of runic philosophy and/or magic. While I don’t agree with everything in this section, it’s one of the best attempts that have been made so far in this regard.
Any student of the runes will get a lot out of Runelore, whether as a standalone book or in conjunction with Futhark. Click here to view or buy Runelore at Amazon.
4. Runecaster’s Handbook by Edred Thorsson
Edred Thorsson’s Runecaster’s Handbook is the third and final installment in his trilogy on runic magic for the lay reader. (The first two installments are Futhark, #2 above, and Runelore, #3 above.)
Whereas Runelore is the most philosophical, theoretical, and scholarly of the trilogy, Runecaster’s Handbook is the most directly practical. To make sure you’re not aimlessly spinning your wheels or inadvertently doing counterproductive or even dangerous things in your rune workings, however, Runecaster’s Handbook still provides at least some basic theory.
Nevertheless, the primary focus of Runecaster’s Handbook is on the practice of runic magic itself. The book includes numerous different methods and pre-established rituals for rune readings, runic divination, etc. It really takes you step by step through the whole process, from creating and charging the necessary tools to what to expect from the outcomes. Click here to view or buy Runecaster’s Handbook at Amazon.
5. Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick by Jan Fries
First, a disclaimer on what Jan Fries’s Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick is not:
Helrunar is not as academically scrupulous as, say, Stephen Flowers/Edred Thorsson. There are several claims in here that no scholar in this or any related field would take seriously. Nor does it particularly strive to be “Germanically correct” in the way that many traditionalists and purists demand. Nor, at the other end of the spectrum of the expectations people usually bring to the runes, does it offer prepackaged rituals, spells, etc.
In the book’s words, “I do not believe in any tradition except ‘Find out for yourself!’… Instead of asking you to believe in my interpretations, I ask you to examine them critically. I do not want you to adhere to my dogma… but to explore with an open mind in the joy of self discovery.”
Fries’s book is a thoughtful, perhaps even “existential” guide to the runes in the context of, in the book’s words, “pagan nature religion.” Nods to the likes of Aleister Crowley abound. Its primary strengths are its psychological depth and its applicability to true self-transformation.
While Helrunar may not be the most historically accurate book on the runes out there, it’s one of the most experientially valid and useful, and that alone makes it worthy of a high recommendation. Click here to view or buy Helrunar at Amazon.
6. The Rune Primer: A Down-to-Earth Guide to the Runes by Sweyn Plowright
Sweyn Plowright probably has little but contempt for some of the books on this list. If you’ve found yourself having the same reaction, and scornfully muttering, “Just the facts, please,” then The Rune Primer: A Down-to-Earth Guide to the Runes may be for you.
The Rune Primer is probably the only book on rune magic out there where the author goes out of his or her way to separate factual information from the sources on the one hand and intuitive insights on the other, and to eschew the latter in favor of the former as much as possible. It devotes a significant amount of space to critiquing some common “sacred cows” in the field of rune magic.
Personally, I find some of the general thrust of this book to be quite simplistic and lacking in philosophical nuance. This kind of “stick to the facts” approach is, in and of itself, just a sacred cow of modern positivism, and doesn’t stand up to the trial by fire of the world as we actually perceive and experience it. People who take concepts like “objectivity,” “subjectivity,” and “bias” at face value often live in a world that’s no less fantastical than those of the “New Agers” they (often rightly) love to criticize.
Nevertheless, The Rune Primer makes lots of great points along the way, and the author’s critical rigor is highly commendable. Simplistic though some aspects of it may be, it is indeed a refreshing antidote to some of the cringe-inducing tripe and groundless wishful thinking that have been written on the runes – which is to say, a rather large proportion of the field. Click here to view or buy The Rune Primer at Amazon.
7. Rudiments of Runelore by Stephen Pollington
The final four books on this list aren’t guidebooks on rune magic. Rather, they’re scholarly books on the runes as historical phenomena.
Independent scholar Stephen Pollington’s Rudiments of Runelore is a highly accessible, engaging, and accurate introduction to the study of the runes. While rigorous and reliable, it’s written with a lay audience in mind – the best of both worlds.
Pollington discusses the origin of the runic characters, their meanings and associations, their variations across the Germanic world, their linguistic properties, their historical uses, and more. Since Pollington is first and foremost a scholar of the Anglo-Saxon world, the Old English runes get much more treatment here than they typically would in an introductory work like this. So if you’re especially interested in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, as that runic alphabet is called, you’ll be particularly pleased with this book. And if you’re looking for a pan-Germanic approach, you’ll certainly find that here, too, even if Pollington doesn’t go into as much detail about the other areas of the Germanic world.
If you’re looking for a concise, accessible, single-volume introduction to the scholarly study of the runes, Rudiments of Runelore is an excellent choice. Click here to view or buy Rudiments of Runelore at Amazon.
8. Runes: Reading the Past by R.I. Page
Raymond Ian Page’s Runes is one of the classic texts of runology, the academic study of the runes. It’s probably the most widely-read single-volume introduction to the subject in print, and deservedly so.
While perhaps a bit drier than Pollington’s Rudiments of Runelore (#7 above), Runes is certainly not difficult reading. Another difference is that Pollington’s book is clearly written for an audience interested in the runes for spiritual/magical reasons, whereas Page’s book is clearly written for a general academic audience that probably has no “esoteric” ambitions in mind.
Some will find that to be a positive aspect because Runes could be perceived as more “impartial” and therefore more reliable, whereas others with might see it as a negative aspect in that Runes might not feed into their esoteric pursuits as directly as Rudiments of Runelore.
Nevertheless, both are excellent and written to a high scholarly standard, even if Pollington can’t claim to be one of the great luminaries of the field like Page can. Either way, you can’t lose. Click here to view or buy Runes: Reading the Past at Amazon.
9. Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition by Stephen Flowers
Stephen Flowers’s revised doctoral dissertation on historical runic magic is far and away the best scholarly work out there on the ancient practice of runic magic. Flowers (the author of Futhark, Runelore, and Runecaster’s Handbook under the pen name Edred Thorsson) discusses the role of the runes in the pre-Christian Germanic religion and mythology, establishing a firm conceptual basis for his subsequent discussions of the particulars of the ancient and medieval uses of the runes. He identifies patterns within the surviving source material concerning the runes, ultimately describing certain “formulas” or structural commonalities within ancient runic magic.
This book should be required reading for anyone of a more traditionalist bent, and even those who aren’t of that persuasion will likely find it to be an inspiring and profitable read. After being out of print for a long time, it’s now finally available for a very reasonable price once again! Click here to view or buy Runes and Magic at Amazon.
10. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia by Catharina Raudvere
This 100-page essay on Viking Age magic by Professor Catharina Raudvere, one of three essays in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume III: The Middle Ages, edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, is the best single introduction to pre-Christian Norse/Germanic magic (“trolldómr”) out there. While runic magic is only one kind of magic amongst the several that are covered, this essay’s philosophical insights into the runes and pre-Christian Germanic magic more generally make this text a formidable aid to anyone who wishes to understand the runes on an intellectual level as well as an experiential one.
This is definitely the most difficult text on this list, and I’ll confess that I’m not exactly a fan of Raudvere’s writing style, but I still recommend this essay very highly due to the quality of her insights. Click here to view or buy Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume III: The Middle Ages at Amazon.
If you’ve enjoyed this list, you might also be interested in these other guides of mine:
9 Spooky Spells from an Icelandic Book of Sorcery
Jochum Magnus Eggertsson was a strange character. During his lifetime, the Icelandic writer and poet—who was born in 1896 and called himself Skuggi (or “Shadow”)—often criticized authorities and the cultural and educational elite and challenged conventional knowledge about Icelandic history and culture. He claimed to have 27 pages from a lost book, written on hide called Gullskinna (“Goldskin”), which, according to legend, would not burn. So it makes sense that Eggertsson would spend 30 years researching Nordic spells, drawing from 80 old manuscripts to create his book of white magic, Sorcerer’s Screed, which he released in 1940. After a successful reprinting in Icelandic in 2013, the Icelandic publisher Lesstofan has made the book available in English for the first time.
Each spell consists of a symbol called a stave, which is accompanied by runes that lay out the spell. Runes have a long history in Europe and an even longer one in Iceland, which didn’t convert to Christianity—or the Latin alphabet—until more than 100 years after it was settled. And even then, runes would continue to be used for several centuries. “Runes, the so-called fuþark alphabet, were usually carved on rock or wood and they always have contained some power to them,” Lesstofan's Þorsteinn Surmeli tells mental_floss via email. Post-Reformation, when the last Catholic priest in Iceland and his two sons were beheaded, “the use of magic spells started to be more prominent—even though (or because) the Lutheran church strictly prohibited the use of such symbols,” Surmeli says. “The period between 1654 and 1690 has been called the Magic Age because of the large number of cases connected to the use of magic symbols.”
Nearly 200 people were charged for use of magic, or for having a magic book more than 20, the majority of them men, were sentenced to death and burned. “Most of these cases had to do with white magic, the way of using magic for your own benefit but not necessarily to hurt others,” Surmeli says.
Though the last case of prosecution for magic in Iceland was in 1700, Surmeli says that “magic has been part of Icelandic culture ever since. And I would argue that Icelanders still use the spells in some way. Maybe not as we did before, but we keep the tradition alive. It’s part of our identity and that’s why we like referring to the magics, using them as decoration, tattoos, publishing them in a book . It’s part of the viking image that has been part of Icelanders since settlement.”
Surmeli and Lesstofan had been familiar with Eggertsson’s work for a long time, and they loved Sorcerer’s Screed—but the original edition was completely handwritten, and they weren’t sure how to proceed. Initially, they planned to photocopy each page—and then they heard about Arnar Fells Gunnarsson, a graphic design student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. “He is a big fan of Skuggi’s work, and was, at that time, working in a group project involving Skuggi,” Surmeli says. “Later, Arnar did some more research and illustrated every single stave and rune which ended up being his final project at the Academy.”
The publishing house teamed up with the designer and published the Icelandic edition of Sorcerer’s Screed in 2013. It quickly sold out. The English edition, initially released this summer, has been printed twice. “The reactions have been unbelievable,” Surmeli says. “Tourism in Iceland has been increasing for the last few years, and the travelers seem to want books on traditional Icelandic culture. We even know of tourists that have bought the book and headed straight to the closest tattoo parlour. That’s actually what some of us at Lesstofan did, too. It’s that cool!”
The spells in Sorcerer’s Screed deal with everything from protecting yourself from drowning and ghosts to how to make a woman fall in love with you and calm sheep. (Eggertsson had intended to publish a book of black magic, too, but never got around to it: “The world of symbols and magic is big and maybe he felt the Sorcerer’s Screed was enough,” Surmeli says. “Or maybe he thought a book of black magic would have been too dangerous for the public.”) Below, we’ve printed a few of the spookier staves from Sorcerer’s Screed. Your can buy your own copy of the book here .
1. GHOST STAVE
"Carve this stave on scrub oak or on Norway spruce, and you will see the ghost."
Black cats, things of evil
- Dark as the night, black cats have captured unsolicited attention from people with inclinations to cooking up stories based on assumptions. Back when the world felt threatened by the power of witches during the middle ages, black cats quickly began to be perceived as major culprits in the plot.
Black cats, witches’ companions and partners in crime.
The cats were associated with the companionship of women practising witchcraft, and were even thought to be the physical vessel carrying witches’ spirits. People would, therefore, stay away from black cats because of the fear that was widely propagated. But, did you know that it all started even way before then?
2. Greek mythology is full of narrations depicting black cats as evil. They were commonly known as death omens.
3. Black cats are also thought as being harbingers of bad luck, specially for someone who has one cross his path. This is a common belief in North America where some people also believe that a white cat crossing your path brings good luck. Yet other communities belief the opposite: people from the UK view white cats as bad luck and black cats as good luck.
Watch out. Black cat crossing your path.
Because humans have an extreme ability to play with their imagination, many more detailed superstitious beliefs have been documented throughout the ages.
4. In some countries, black cats appearing in dreams has a more intricate meaning. Someone delving into the supernatural and dreaming of a black cat will be interpreted as experiencing fear in exploiting his psychic powers.
5. A more gruesome belief: a black cat at a funeral means that another family member will die.
6. Also, people would once stay away from black cats if they were sick. According to a 16th century belief, having a cat lie on the bed of a sick person meant that the latter would die.
7. Also, seeing one from behind you, or having one walking away from you, is also bad luck coming right at you!
These beliefs (obviously baseless and unjust) have proved to be harmful to the animals. Cat owners, staff of pet shelters, and animal rescuers have increased difficulty at caring for them because of the dark myths that people have come to believe. Black cats have been mercilessly slaughtered just because of superstition.
5 On the Writing of the Insane
This book actually isn't about magic or demons and it isn't a grimoire, but it may be the eeriest book on this list. Written by G. Mackenzie Bacon, medical superintendent at the Fulbourn asylum near Cambridge, England, the book contains the complex diagrammatic writings of an asylum patient who filled every centimeter of his pages with wild musings and diagrammatic text.
He was asked to abandon this writing style, to which he replied: “Dear Doctor, to write or not to write, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to follow the visit of the great ‘Fulbourn' with ‘chronic melancholy' expressions of regret (withheld when he was here) that, as the Fates would have it, we were so little prepared to receive him, and to evince my humble desire to do honour to his visit. My Fulbourn star, but an instant seen, like a meteor's flash, a blank when gone. The dust of ages covering my little sanctum parlour room, the available drapery to greet the Doctor, stowed away through the midst of the regenerating (water and scrubbing – cleanliness next to godliness, political and spiritual) cleansing of a little world. The Great Physician walked, bedimmed by the ‘dark ages' the long passage of Western Enterprise, leading to the curvatures of rising Eastern morn. The rounded configuration of Lunar (tics) garden's lives an o'ershadowment on Britannia's vortex…”