Icelandic Sorcerers and the Books of Black Magic They Coveted
The once highly rich tradition of Icelandic books of magic of the 16th and the 17th centuries has survived only in a fragmentary state. Despite this fact, Icelandic folktales speak about the existence of famous occult books owned by even more famous historically attested sorcerers.
Famous Black Books of Legend
In Iceland, there are two main texts in the history of black books. The most famous such text is ‘ Raudskinna’. The title of this black book of magic means ‘Red Skin’ and the text was compiled by the Bishop Gottskalk Niklasson the Cruel. He was the bishop of Holar who died in the year 1520.
As for the book, it is said to be a book of the blackest of magic with knowledge preserved from the Heathen Age. It was said that this book was written with golden letters and runes on red parchment. This explains the title of the book which means ‘Red Skin’ or ‘Red Vellum’.
According to legend, Gottskalk was buried with the Raudskinna as he never wanted to pass down the magic compiled in the book. This is why the text is believed to hold great secret power.
The ‘Raudskinna’ is one of the Icelandic books of magic. (adcdsb / Adobe)
One other famous book of magic from Iceland was the ‘Graskinna’ which meant ‘Gray Skin’. This book had two volumes. One of these resided at Holar, while the other resided at Skalholt.
This text has two parts. The first is written using the Roman alphabet and it discusses the lesser magical arts such as wrestling magic (known as ‘glimugaldur’) and palmistry (known in Iceland as ‘lofalist’).
The second part was written in a type of coded runes which concealed their actual meanings. This runic code is known as ‘villurunir’ and, in the context of this book, the code talked about black magic spells.
The Diligent Student of Holar
In the times of old, in Iceland, there were two main schools of magic: one at Holar and the other at Skalholt. At Holar, there was once a very diligent student named Loftur. He always studied magic and he also encouraged his fellow students to take up such studies as well. Still, apart from Loftur, the other students only managed to learn a few basic tricks known as ‘kukl’.
Even though he was very serious when it came to his magic studies, Loftur loved to perform magical jokes on other people. He also asked his fellow students to do the same.
Once, Loftur had to go to his parents’ house for the Yuletide celebrations. In order to get there, he took a servant girl. He put horseshoes and a bridle on her and using her as a horse, he rode her in a magical ride (known as ‘gandreid’) to his parents’ house and back. After this, the girl had to stay in bed for a long time as she suffered from wounds and exhaustion. Also, the magic compelled her to be unable to talk about what had happened as long as Loftur was alive. Stephen E. Flowers discusses another one of Loftur’s pranks in his book ‘Icelandic Magic’ as follows: “Another time there Loftur got a servant woman pregnant and then killed the mother of his child with workings (gjarningar). She was used to carrying bowls to and from the kitchen and for the sake of speed some women would carry a sort of tray-shaped instrument known as a ‘bowl float’ in which they would carry many bowls at once. Loftur had a passageway open up in front of her in the middle of a wall and she went into it. Because of this the girl became frightened and hesitated since the magic worked and the wall closed up again. A long time afterward, when the wall was torn down, the skeleton of a woman was found standing upright with a bunch of bowls in her arms and the skeleton of an unborn child in the cavity of her body”.
Using magic Loftur trapped the servant girl he had gotten pregnant into the wall, where she died. (nicoletaionescu / Adobe)
Reverend Thorleifur Skaftason was the rural dean and the cathedral vicar back then and he rebuked Loftur for his behavior. Still, Loftur did not change his ways. Instead, he even began to try to harm the dean, but this could not be achieved because the reverend was a great man of God and nothing impure (ohreint) could touch him.
Loftur learned everything in detail from the ‘Gray Skin’. After this, he sought knowledge and advice from other magicians. However, no one knew more than he did. In time, Loftur became evil in temper. Therefore, all the other boys in the school began to fear him and they let him have his way every time.
Loftur learned everything in detail from the ‘Gray Skin’ one of the Icelandic books of magic. (samiramay / Adobe)
It was early winter when Loftur talked to a boy whom he knew to be more courageous. He asked this boy to help him raise the ancient bishops from the dead. The boy hesitated at first so Loftur threatened him. Fearing for his life, he asked what he could do to help as he knew no magic (galdur). Loftur said that all he needed to do was to stay in the bell tower and hold the bell rope without moving. He had to stay like this and watch Loftur until he gave the sign with his hand to ring the bell.
According to Stephen E. Flowers, Loftur had said: “I want to tell you about my plans. Those who have learned as much magic as I have can only use it for evil and must all be destroyed when they die. But if a man knows enough, then the devil (djofullinn) will have no power over the man, but rather he must be his servant without receiving anything in return, just as he served. Saemundur the Wise, and whoever knows as much as that is also his own master (sjalfradur), able to use his knowledge (kunnattu) however he wishes. This knowledge is not easy to obtain in this day and time, since the Black School (Svartiskoli) closed down, and Gottskalk the Cruel had his book, Red Skin, buried with him. That is why I want to wake him up and force him by magic (saera) to hand Red Skin over to me, but all the old bishops will also rise with him, for they will not be able to resist the powerful conjurations (saeringar) as well as Gottskalk will. So, I will make them tell me all the old lore (forneskja) they knew in their lifetimes, which is not a problem for me, as I can tell right away by looking whether a man knew magic (galdur) or not. I cannot awaken the later bishops, because they were all buried with the Scripture on their breasts. Serve me well and do as I ask you; do not ring too soon or too late, for my life and my eternal welfare depend on it. I will reward you so well that no man will be your superior.”
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Loftur wanted to conjure the old bishops as well as Gottskalk to obtain one of the Icelandic books of magic. (shaiith / Adobe)
Raising the Dead
At night, the two boys snuck out into the cathedral. The moon was shining bright. Moonlight lit even the inside of the church. While the schoolboy went into the bell tower, Loftur went into the pulpit and he began to conjure (saera). It did not take long and a man wearing a crown rose up through the floor. He was the first bishop of Holar.
He is said to have told Loftur: “Stop this, you wretched man, while there is time, for my brother Gvendur’s prayers will weigh down heavily upon you if you bother him.” Still, Loftur ignored his words and continued to utter his own conjurations. As he did this, one by one, all of the ancient bishops rose up from their graves. Stephen E. Flowers writes: “All said a little something to Loftur, but it is not known what was said. Three of them wore crowns; the first, the last, and the middle one. None of them was concealing any magic lore (forneskja).”
Loftur rose the ancient bishops from their graves. (WavebreakMediaMicro / Adobe)
Up until this point, Gottskalk had managed to resist the young man’s conjurations. Therefore, Loftur became more serious with his conjuring. He turned his speech to Gottskalk alone.
“Then he turned to the penitential psalms of David rededicated to the devil and made a confession of all the good he had ever done as if it were sin instead. The three crowned bishops now stood at the other end of the church with their hands uplifted and turned their faces toward Loftur, while the others looked away from all of them. Then a great rumbling was heard, and a man rose up through the floor with his crozier in his left hand and a red book under his right arm; he did not have a pectoral cross. He cast an unfriendly eye toward the other bishops and then turned and grinned at Loftur, who was now conjuring as hard as possible. Gottskalk moved a bit closer and said in a sarcastic tone, “Well sung son and better than I thought you would, but you won’t get my Red-Skin.”
The End of the Affair
Enraged at hearing this, Loftur conjured as he had never done before. “He gave the benediction and recited the Lord’s Prayer, both with the name of the devil (djofulinn), until the whole church shook and rocked as if in an earthquake. To the other boy it seemed that Gottskalk edged nearer to Loftur and unwittingly reached a corner of the book out to him. Before this he had been frightened, but now he shook with terror and everything turned black before his eyes, but it seemed to him that the bishop held up the book and that then Loftur stretched out his hand to grab it. At this moment he thought Loftur had given him the signal and he pulled the bell rope, and at once all the dead sank back down through the floor, with a great rushing noise.”
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Loftur attempted to get one of the Icelandic books of magic from Gottskalk. (akarb / Adobe)
Upset, Loftur went to his comrade and told him: “Now this went worse than it should have, but I don’t blame you. I could well have waited for the dawn, when the bishop would have had to give the book up, and he would have handed it over to me, since he would have to have made this payment to be allowed to get back into his grave, nor would this have been allowed by the other bishops. But he was more enduring than I in the contest between us, because when I saw the book and heard his mockery I became enraged (odur) and thought I could get it immediately by force of conjurations (saeringar); I came to my senses when, if I had chanted just one conjure-stave (saeringarstafur) more, it would have sunk the whole cathedral into the ground, which is what he intended. In that moment I saw the faces of the crowned bishops, and so faltered, but I knew that you would turn weak and grasp the bell rope to sound the bell, while the book was so close to me that I felt I could grasp it. As it was I touched the corner, and I really did think I had got a grip on it and would never drop it! But things have to go as they have been ordained (audid), and now my salvation is lost forever – and your reward as well. We must both keep quiet about it.”
After this experience, Loftur became more and more depressed and fearful. He finally left school and he sought solace from a nearby priest. This priest was specialized in helping people recover from magical attacks.
Firstly, the priest stayed with Loftur day and night, guarding him and making sure he did not do anything foolish or reckless. After some time, the young man seemed to be doing better. Therefore, one day, the priest left with some business. He had made Loftur promise not to leave the house while he was away. Despite his promise, as soon as the priest left, Loftur went to a nearby fisherman. He had him row his boat out into the calm sea.
According to the eyewitness reports of the time, a large gray hand had come up from the sea and dragged the boat to the depths. Nobody saw Loftur, the fisherman or the boat ever again.
After Loftur tried to steal one of the Icelandic books of magic, his boat was dragged to the depths of a calm sea by a large gray hand. (Clivia / Adobe)
Top image: Icelandic books of magic, occult books. Source: samiramay / Adobe.
By Isa Vald
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