From Iceland — What Was The Purpose Of Witchcraft In Iceland?

What Was The Purpose Of Witchcraft In Iceland?

Published September 19, 2023

What Was The Purpose Of Witchcraft In Iceland?

You can summon money using a stolen coin, an ancient symbol drawn upon the skin of a black wildcat, a sea mouse and the menstrual blood of a virgin. Yes, all these things together will make you rich. So says an old Icelandic grimoire, or magical spell book. But what purpose did other old spells serve? And how did Icelandic witchcraft differ from that in Europe? We went to Magnús Rafnsson, historian and one of the curators at the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, for some answers.

“I did a lot of work on these grimoires and their signs, and the main parts of them are all about making life easier in some way,” Magnús explains. “I think people were primarily looking for a better life, be it becoming rich, or getting rid of or preventing sickness.”

“There were signs you were supposed to put on the door of your abode to protect you from passing thieves. Then there are very simple, maybe naive signs for people trying to prevent sickness among their sheep or cows. So many of the signs in the grimoires are preventative – that’s the thought behind it more than anything else.”

There are some “classic” spells in the books, like those to make someone fall in love with you or to keep someone away but, as Magnús points out, “much of it just comes very close to ‘leechbooks’ or healing manuals from medieval times, telling you which plants and materials to use. We have a lot of stuff like that in the manuscript collections. The line between the grimoires and the leechbooks is pretty narrow.”

There are, however, distinct differences between Icelandic and European witchcraft, the former most likely dating back to heathen times and runic lore. “It’s really amateurish in a way, compared to how European magicians were working with the classical stuff. Some things obviously survived from the earlier times, though.”

How magic popped up on the radar and how it was handled likewise differed, according to Magnús. “One of the main differences between European Witch Hunts and Iceland was that in Europe you had villages and a huge majority of the cases popping up there, connected to these communities,” Magnús explains. “For example the famous lonely women, or hags – social outcasts from a tight knit group.”

“In Iceland you had no villages of any sort; you didn’t have many people living closely together.” As such, Magnús says that isolation played a much bigger role, especially in the Westfjords, where most accounts popped up and farms were few and far between.

Instead poverty is a common factor. “Almost all the people mentioned in the documents and the court records as witches are poor leaseholders who don’t own their farm. Usually a sheriff or priest would own a lot of farms around them and the accused are mostly poor farmers.”

Additionally, the devil shows up in Iceland surprisingly late. There don’t appear to have been any exorcisms, but he does appear in clergy writings, mostly from clerics educated in Europe.

“Witch hunting in Iceland was definitely imported by a king’s decree and it took roughly 15 years before any case appeared in Iceland – and it was a minor one,” Magnús explains. “Even when it went to the high court in Alþingi, most people there said ‘he wasn’t trying to do any harm, he was just trying to help with a sick cow and it’s now dead.’”

“Then a lot of European educated priests and sheriffs came, people who were studying in Europe while the witch hunts were going on,” Magnús continues. “Some of them wrote booklets about how to prevent the devil from taking over and what you have to be aware of, but that’s all European magic, not traditional Icelandic. What they were talking about is completely different from what the grimoires and court records show us and doesn’t fit Icelandic society at the time.”

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