When you stumble into a performance by Læknishljómar, you might think you have traveled through time. Two men are sitting on stage, and their enigmatic throat singing is resonating in the air. One of them is chanting from his book of Icelandic magical staves and sometimes blowing on a musical horn called Shofar, an ancient Jewish instrument. Two percussionists bang on the Sami drums, traditional to Northern Finland. The ambience is sombre and mysterious, and the audience is silent.
In English “Læknishljómar” means “healing sounds.” A project started earlier this year by Icelander Sigurboði Grétarsson, the group have had some performances in Reykjavík in autumn. Unlike other musical performances, Læknishljómar “performs rituals,” according to Sigurboði.
Runes and Icelandic magical staves
“The initial idea was to start off with rune magic,” Sigurboði says. Runes are a set of ancient letters used in Nordic countries and Germany between 150–1100 AD. “Not many people know that each rune has a meaning,” Sigurboði explains. “For example,is ‘h,’ but it also means ‘hail.’ is ‘s’ and it means ‘Sun.’”
Besides runes, Læknishljómar also uses Icelandic magical staves. The magical staves are symbols credited with magical effect and were used mostly by farmers from the 17th Century and later. Some traditional staves have various meanings, such as, “To prevail in battle,” “to win in court,” “for luck in fishing” etc.
In Sigurboði’s very own book of magical staves, there are around 40 staves he created himself. Each stave has a unique purpose. He explains, “For every gig I make a new stave specifically for what I want the purpose to be. During the ritual, I activate the stave so others can use it”. He also assigns specific runes to each stave, commenting, “Because I made it, I need to infuse it by chanting these runes over and over again with ritualistic words.”
“I believe that with music there is energy,” Sigurboði says. “All I want is to unlock the imagination of people so that they’re different from when they came in”. The acoustic nature of Læknishljómar’s performance gives listeners space for their imagination to run wild. “When you can free your mind, there is a form of healing in that,” Sigurboði muses. “It won’t cure cancer but it will certainly help.”
As for the effect of staves, Sigurboði thinks it all comes down to intent and faith. He says, “It’s not magical, but if it helps you, gives you faith, and makes you feel better, then I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Læknishljómar uses throat singing from Mongolian Tuvan tradition, the Shofar horn from Jewish culture, Sami drums from Northern Finland, and a flute of Native American influence. How much more eclectic and multicultural can you get?
“I looked into a lot of influences from all over the world,” Sigurboði explains. “The overall feel to the ritual was inspired by Bön, the old religion of Tibet before Buddhism took over.” While preserving Icelandic and Nordic roots, Læknishljómar is open-minded and absorbing from different cultures. “We are still developing and finding out new things to do for the ritual,” Sigurboði concludes.