Secret Staves of the Icelandic Witches
Grimoires and secret books of spells have always had the power to ignite the imagination. From Victorian occultists to fans of Harry Potter, a dusty tome filled with strange symbols is a rare and wonderful discovery. A series of finds from Iceland has recently been published and features many "staves" that are now well known amongst fans of Norse lore. But are they really Viking? And what do these books tell us about the people that wrote them?
In order to understand the Icelandic staves, we need to look at their use within Icelandic society.
Most of the symbols and spells appear to be for the use of simple problems in life, from catching a thief, to overthrowing an enemy. Others help heal livestock, whilst others look at cursing the animals of another. We also see charms to help preserve food and ale, staves to bless the bearer with strength or courage, or symbols to help with fishing or prevent death by drowning.
These paint a picture of life in 17th Century Iceland. With long dark winters, little arable land for crops, and icy seas, life here was unforgiving. Luck seemed to play its part in society, and the inhabitants would do what they could to influence their fortunes themselves. In times of famine, neighbours would be tempted to steal from each other, and disputes would often end in violence. Reputation and the ability to intimidate seems to have been an important factor in survival, and many staves were created to allow the bearer to do this or cast back negativity upon their perceived attacker. It was a very superstitious time.
Witchcraft was used by some in secret as "folk remedies" for a particular situation, whilst others practiced more openly, sometimes charging for their services. By using these mystical staves, a person felt that they were able to control and influence their predicament without direct confrontation.
The Origin of the Staves
It is hard to pinpoint the precise date when the staves were developed.
The earliest manuscripts date from the 17th Century, with the others being a little younger. It is thought that these tomes recorded symbols and formulas used around Iceland by a particular family line, or within a certain area. So their use may have been much older than the manuscripts themselves.
The staves appear to be drawn by using Scandinavian runes and later mediaeval and renaissance occult symbols. They are at least influenced by later charms used on mainland Europe. Some even appear to be influenced by kabbalistic symbols. Some charms that accompany certain staves mention the old Norse gods such as Odin and Thor, whilst others mention Solomon and Christ. The system seems to be an interesting blend of old and new magical beliefs, in a similar fashion to how the Anglo-Saxons blended their practices with Christianity in rites such as the Aecerblot which is recorded in the Exeter Book of 10th Century origin. During these periods of transition, Odin was still appealed to or mentioned, but his role had shifted from being an All-father figure to that of a sorcerer. The Christian God had taken the place of the Father of men on earth, with the Old Gods being pushed into the positions where they were only called upon by the superstitious or "evil magicians".
The Huld Manuscript  contains several pages at the front of the tome with tables of runes recorded. This shows the various styles of runes that were sometimes customised by the magician, which helps us to recognise their appearance within Icelandic stave symbols. It would seem that many staves are made of patterns of these runes that magnify the effects of the symbol. Other staves appear to have no logical pattern behind their form, and are likely to have been created through "trial and error" by the magicians over the years.
The Witch Trials
Between the 14th and 17th Centuries, witches were hunted down with zeal and tried and punished for their sorcerous arts. Interestingly, unlike mainland Europe, the majority of Icelandic witches that were executed were male; punished by being burned at the stake. Women were drowned.
Like so many other examples of hysteria and bitterness that peaked during such times of persecution, accusations of witchcraft seemed to be a powerful tool to be rid of enemies and improve one's own situation. One such tale suggests manic superstition, or possibly a personal vendetta against a family.
In 1656 in Kirkjuból (now known as Ísafjörður), a pastor called Jón Magnússon was suffering from ill health and other misfortunes. He accused two members of his congregation of sorcery against him. The accused were father and son, both named Jón Jónsson, who sang in the church choir. After being interrogated, the father confessed to using magic against the pastor and having a book of magic in his possession. Jón Jónsson junior confessed to making the pastor ill, and of using Fretrúner against a girl. The latter was a stave that caused the subject to fart constantly. Far from being a joke, it was intended to humiliate and cause terrible abdominal discomfort. The pair were found guilty and were burned at the stake. Pastor Jón Magnússon was awarded all of the Jónsson's holdings, but later accused the daughter of Jón Jónsson senior (sister of Jón Jónsson junior) of witchcraft as his ills still continued. Thuridur Jónsdóttir stood trial and was found not guilty. She counter-sued the Pastor and won. As compensation, she was awarded the Pastor's belongings .
Folk magic went underground, and became hidden. Some records that exist of the staves, their uses, and other magical practices of the Icelanders were made by the courts during such trials. Ironically, it is this act that has preserved some of the old customs to this day. Without being recorded, they would simply have been forgotten or would have died with their practitioners.
Keeping in theme with the Icelandic traditions drifting into shadow, the "Huld" manuscript literally means the "Hidden" manuscript. The people practicing it also sensibly disappeared.
20th Century Revival
It was only in the last century that it became safer to explore the practices of folk magic in Europe and Scandinavia. Whilst still frowned upon as superstition and nonsense, the Icelandic staves have seen a surge in popularity, particularly within American descendants of Norse settlers and also Heathens.
The staves have been the subject of books by recent esoteric authors. Edred Thorsson was pivotal in raising awareness of these symbols in his now out of print "Galdrabok". Other takes on the arcane tomes include "Aegishjalmur" by Michael Kelly.
Many of the staves are used in art and decorative wares, whilst some people have taken to having them tattooed onto their bodies. The Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk has the Vegvísir stave tattooed on one of her arms.
The Icelandic staves have evolved over the centuries, and whilst certainly incorporating Norse runes, they cannot be considered exclusively of "Viking" culture as they are influenced by other esoteric practices from mainland Europe and beyond.
Whilst many of the staves appear as body art, there is much speculation and confusion about their authentic application.To anyone interested in studying the Icelandic staves more comprehensively, I would strongly recommend obtaining copies of the original tomes which can be found in the sources list below. Lithographs of the books can be purchased from the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft's online store.
Viewer discretion is advised at watching the above video, which describes items within the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. Contains human body parts.
Further reading on staves and Icelandic magic
 The Huld Manuscript http://handrit.is/en/manuscript/imaging/is/IB04-0383#0000r-FB
 Galdrakver http://handrit.is/en/manuscript/view/is/Lbs08-0143
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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© 2014 Pollyanna Jones