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Galdrabok, The Medieval Grimoire That Sheds Light on the Occult Practices of Iceland

Galdrabok, The Medieval Grimoire That Sheds Light on the Occult Practices of Iceland

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Perhaps not as well-known as other grimoires, the Galdrabok, an Icelandic ‘book of magic’, is one of the most important surviving documents for the practices and understanding of occult practices in Iceland in the late Medieval era. It offers a unique insight into the various elements that contributed to a national magical tradition in Iceland at the time of its compilation.

The Galdrabrok was written during the reformation age in Iceland (1550-1650) and was first translated into English by Stephen Flowers in 1989. It is one of the very few translated documents dedicated to this unique manuscript. According to Dr Flowers, no other document of comparable age gives so many details about the archaic Germanic gods, cosmology, and magical practices, as does this manuscript.

Stephen Flower’s translation of the Galdrabok

Stephen Flower’s translation of the Galdrabok ( Amazon.com)

History of magic in Iceland

There are good historical sources of information regarding the practice of Icelandic magic. More than any other non-classical European people (meaning the non-Greco-Roman traditions), the Icelanders have left behind a clear record of their beliefs and practices, and have given us clear accounts of the contexts in which their magic was practiced.

Runes and Magical Signs

The Galdrabok displays two main graphic features in its spells: runes (or rune-like signs) and galdramyndir, which are magical signs that may or may not have runic origins. Although runes were commonly present in Icelandic magical sigils, other encoded runic variation, called ‘ villuletur’ or ‘ villurunir’, were also used as a means to confuse or conceal secrets instead of revealing the true meanings.

 

Codex Runicus, a codex written in Medieval runes

Codex Runicus, a codex written in Medieval runes ( public domain )

“Another feature apparently inherited from ancient runic magical practice is the very terminology used to describe the figures and ways of using them. Most often the figures are referred to in Icelandic as ’ stafir’, meaning ’staves’. This is inherited from the old technical designation of runes as staves or sticks because they were often carved on such wood objects for talismanic purposes”, as Dr. Flowers described.

A striking feature of the Iceland books of magic is their use of complex magical signs. Most efforts at classifying these signs come from attempting to understand their relationships with the runes and their magical functions. There are three main types of signs used: the ‘ bandrúnir’, or binding runes, which are made up of combinations of runes; ‘ galdrastafir’, or magic staves, which were possibly binding runes but became so stylized that they adopted their own meaning; and ‘ galdramyndir’, or magic signs, which appeared to have always been nonionic abstract signs.

A galdrastafir that is present in the Galdrabok

A galdrastafir that is present in the Galdrabok ( Asatru)

The text of the Galdrabok

The manuscript does not represent a comprehensive composition but rather it is a collection of spells that appear to be randomly pieced together. The current known version of the Galdrabok is known to have been written by four scribes, working over a period of around one hundred years.

“The first magician, working in Iceland during the latter half of the sixteen century, wrote down spells 1-10. Soon thereafter it was passed on to another Icelander, who added spells 11-39. Perhaps sometime later a third Icelandic scribe came into possession of the book and added spells 40-44. This latter ‘ galdramadhur’ wrote in cursive style of the 17th century”, related Dr. Flowers. A remarkable detail about this last writer was that he added to the book a rich set of references to the older gods and to Germanic lore. Not long after the additions of the third scriber to the Galdrabok, the works was taken to Denmark, coming into the hands of a Danish magician who added spells beginning with the last section of 44 through 47. 

Dr. Flowers added that “in 1682 the book was acquired by the Danish philologist J.G. Sparfvenfelt and was later acquired by the Swedes (sometime between 1689 and 1694) for their great collection of “Gothic” monuments and manuscripts. Eventually it found its way into the Academy of Science (State Historical Museum) in Stockholm, where it is now”.

Man dressed in traditional Icelandic clothing and a displaying the Ægishjálmr symbol, which can be found in the Galdrabok.

Man dressed in traditional Icelandic clothing and a displaying the Ægishjálmr symbol, which can be found in the Galdrabok. Credit: Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft

The Galdrabok is essentially composed of two kinds of spells: a groups of spells working by means of prayer formula, invoking higher powers and by which the magical end is effected indirectly. Only a small number of spells in the Galdrabok (8 in total) fall into this category. The second group consists of more commonly used spells which supposedly worked as a direct expression of the magician’s will, expressed in forms of signs, written, or spoken formulas. Three of the spells in the Galdrabok do not involve either prayers or signs but are more like a recipe, or a potion, using natural substances that were supposed to work with magical effects. This kind of natural magic is often found in “leech-books”, or physician’s manuals.

Stephen Flowers took great interest in the religious elements expressed in the spells. “A full twenty-one of the spells have a predominantly non-Christian or overtly heathen (or even diabolical) viewpoint. This is not unexpected, as the whole practice of magic had been associated with the heathen past and with demonic sources from the time of the introduction of Christianity”. Despite this fact, there are about nine spells which are purely of Christian outlook, citing Christian figures or using Christian formulas. There are also some spells with Judeo-Gnostic roots.

The Galdrabok spells can be roughly placed into six categories of intentions and magical motivation, the most common being protective formulas for the magician or just general spells to bring good fortune. There are also spells devoted to more aggressive forms of magic.

It was in the background of a ‘heathen’ and Catholic past that the magic contained in the Galdrabook was practiced, and it was during this period of religious persecution that the works were actually committed to parchment.

Top image: Representational image of a grimoire. Source: Fotolia

By Marina Sohma

References

Christopher Smith, ‘The Icelandic Magic: Analysis of Late-Eighteenth Century Icelandic Galdrabok’, https://www.academia.edu/4969347/The_Icelandic_Tradition_of_Magic_Analysis_of_a_Late-Eighteenth_Century_Icelandic_Galdrabók_Contents (accessed on Nov 20, 2016)

Listverse,  http://listverse.com/2014/10/18/10-ancient-books-that-promise-supernatural-powers/  (accessed on Nov 20, 2016)

Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pantheon/2010/08/wyrd-designs-understanding-the-symbols-part-6-–-vegvisir/ (accessed on Nov 20, 2016)

Stephen Flower (trans), ‘The Galdrabok: An Icelandic Grimoire’ (1989) https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxhc3Ryb2xvZ2lhY2FiYWxpc3RhfGd4OjM1MDUzZDMzZTEwOTc4MjI  (accessed Nov 19, 2016)

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