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."
2. STAVE TO RAISE THE DEAD, EXORCISE EVIL SPIRITS, OR LAY A GHOST
"Inscribe on the scalp of a horse, using a mixture of seal blood, fox blood, and human blood. Recite this verse over the stave when you wish to use it:
"Thick blood, fighters grow weary.
The nation endures centuries of hardship,
great destruction, men die,
wealth is lost, the destitute are shunned.
Perilous ruin the people dread,
storm upon storm, plagued by misery,
heavy remorse, relentless warfare.
An evil stir haunts the world."
3. WITCH RIDE STAVE
"He who wishes to ride through the air like a witch shall inscribe this stave on a bleached horse’s skull with two types of blood: from the man himself as well as from a horse, combining it in thirds, two parts being the horse’s blood, from beneath the frog of the hoof of the right foreleg, and the third part from beneath the big toe of the man’s left foot. The stave is to be drawn with a chicken feather, and he who has a witch-ride bridle will then be able to ride through air and water, wherever he feels like going. A witch-ride bridle is created by digging up a newly buried man and cutting a strip of skin from the length of his spine. This will be used for reins. Next, the dead man must be scalped, and the scalp will be used for the bridle. The dead man’s lingual bone is to be used for the bit and his hip bones for cheekpieces. A spell also needs to be recited over it, and then the bridle is finished. All that needs to be done is place the witch-ride bridle over a horse’s head. It will then fly into the air with whomever is riding it, and fly faster than lightning wherever its rider wishes, creating a great whistling sound."
4. GREATER SHIELD OF TERROR
"This stave is to be drawn on black paper with raven bile, and then placed in the nest of a brooding raven. It is to be left there until the raven has hatched its eggs. Then take the paper, and it will be of great use to you. Even if a hundred men were your enemies, and they attacked you and wanted to kill you, this stave would save you easily. If you hold it up before you when facing your enemies, it will appear to them as innumerable black dragons, and that you are preparing to set them loose."
"Carve on oak and color the grooves with your own blood, and then place it in secret on the crown of a man’s head."
6. LOOKING GLASS
"Reveals backwards and forwards, for years and centuries, throughout the world.
"This stave is to be drawn on calfskin that has never been out under the bare sky, with the water from within a raven’s eye, and blood from the heart of a man and woman, who have loved each other with all their hearts but never consummated their love; and the stave is to be drawn with a water rail’s feather. Then myrrh is to be strewn over the entire stave. When the stave is dry, go to a spring whose temperature remains constant winter and summer, and over which no bird has flown that day, and strike the water with it, making sure to turn the stave downward. Then let the stave lie still in the water, while circling the spring four times counter-clockwise. Take the stave from the water and peek through it, and he who drew the stave will be able to see, if he wishes, throughout the world, backwards and forwards through the four cardinal directions. Then the stave is to be enclosed in an amnion, and never taken out unless it is to be used."
"Inscribe on a fox pelt and color with blood from your right ring-finger and you will not be haunted by ghosts."
8. DREAM STAVE
"This stave is to be carved on lignite with a dogfish spine when the moon is three nights old, and placed beneath your head. You will then dream whatever you wish."
9. STAVE FOR WAKING THE DEAD
"This stave is to be carved in oak, and the groove colored with blood. The blood is to be from the big toe of the right foot, and the thumb of the left hand, and then place this stave on the grave and walk three times clockwise and three times counter-clockwise around the church. Watch carefully to be sure that dirt spouts from the grave three times, and at the third spout it is imperative that you be prepared to receive the ghost, because it will then pop its head up. Immediately grab it by the throat and squeeze tightly, and hold it fast until it asks you to let it go. Then apply the necessary and appropriate methods, and tell the ghost what it is to do. If the ghost is to be animated greatly and sent a long distance, more robust methods will be necessary, and more than one sorcerer."
Text courtesy of Lesstofan. All graphics and photos by Arnar Fells Gunnarsson.