Thorvard glanced warily at the furry carcass sprawled, lifeless and mauled, ashen in the silver light of dawn. He ran a trembling hand across his sweaty brow and sighed. It was the third goat slaughtered in a fortnight.
Some forces at play were stronger than the magic staved onto the horns of every head in the herd.
Thorvard though to call on Aud, his wife, to carve out whatever flesh was left on the bones—the family could not afford to waste what little nourishment they had. Winternights were drawing to an end, along with the last weeks of starvation. Soon Sunna would return and grace the land in her iridescent, golden light, and all hoped Frey would bless pastures with the yield of fertile crops. Until then, Thorvard, his wife and six children (seven, if he counted the newborn Aud feared would not live to see Spring) would subsist on goat milk, the remaining meagre rations of barley and the scraps of meat abandoned by the strange, lurking predators.
Staves (Galdrastafur in Icelandic) are ancient symbols believed to hold magic, and were once used in the daily practices of witchcraft.
The origins of magical staves are obscure, possibly rooted in early Germanic traditions, later drawing on medieval and Renaissance marginal occult beliefs. In Iceland witchcraft and religion were part of daily life, alongside one another, although not equally tolerated. Magic existed, wrought in superstitious folktales, and was rampant among the laboring class, exposed as they were to daily ailments and harsh living conditions.
Examples of the common use of witchcraft can be found in staves recorded in Icelandic grimoires dating back to the 17th century. Many staves called upon spells and incantations to keep harm at bay (for instance, to keep from drowning). Others were meant to make life easier with staves carved on scythes for mowing, or on whetstones to ensure the sharpest blades. Some staves helped with caring for livestock, while others boosted physical prowess in battle. Folks drew on the magic of staves to tap into the power of witchcraft, or oppositely to protect themselves against it.
The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft has a comprehensive list of runes and staves to be discovered. Enjoy it here.
Stave against Thieves
This stave was said to confer protection against thieves.
The carving was to be placed below the threshold of the house, to trap the trespasser within the confines of the home being looted.
This rather familiar marking, reminiscent of the widespread 5-pointed-star pentagram, attested to the fact that a farmer had turned milk into butter without resorting to witchcraft. Butter made through the use of magic was said to cuddle and separate when exposed to this stave.
Love Stave: To Make a Girl love a Man
This stave was used by a man to ease his attempt at conquering a woman’s heart.
The Helm of Awe
This powerful stave, also known as the Helm of Terror, is said to induce fear in one’s enemy and confer protection, even invincibility, to the bearer during battle. Sagas describe the symbol being worn on the brow, between the eyes, perhaps stamped onto the skin by firmly pressing an embossed, metal carving of the stave. Nowadays the symbol is known as the Algiz. It is a popular stave, often tattooed onto skin or worn as jewelry.
There are accounts of darker shades of magic with macabre overtones—even if the purpose of the stave holds no evil.
Witch Ride Stave
A rather complex spell using staves can be found in the magic needed to make a Witch Ride, which confers the ability to travel through air, water and land with tremendous speed.
The steps recorded for infusing a Witch Ride stave with magic require exotic and bizarre components, such as combining the blood of a man and his horse to use as ink, and paint the stave on a horse’s skull using the feather of a chicken. The steed’s bridle is then crafted from various pieces of a dead man’s body.
All Staves or Galdrastafur were carved in a medium (holy wood, stone, bones or skins), and the grooves were filled with the caster’s blood, obtained through specific directives commanded by the spell being cast.
The use of blood for magical purposes was believed to bestow power upon the spell, and intimately connected the caster to his or her intended deed.
Throughout the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Europe underwent waves of devastating plagues and diseases, and congruently episodes of inquisitions, when one and all were accused of witchcraft and sorcery. I can’t help but wonder if the latter was not seen as the cause of the former.
In a world without proper medical care and science, how else could one palliate against the devastating, lethal threat of a rampant pan epidemic?
Burn the witch. Burn!
Echoes of the Church’s attack on heresy (associated or not with the practice of white or black magic) had far reaches, crossing the Atlantic into the New World. The Salem Witch Trials are famous accounts of torture and confessions, all the while driven by questionable motives. Such events left trenches in their wake, inspiring some of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, centuries later. The Dream in the Witch House is a prime example of the dark, phantasmagorical legacy of the rumored practices of witchcraft in New England.
The last witch trials of Iceland took place during the 17th century, a period referred to as the Magic Age, when men (and one woman) accused of sorcery were sentenced to burn for their convictions and practices—or because there lacked palpable explanations for the strange illnesses of pious Christian folks.
Despite a stigmatized past wrought in occult mystery, Icelandic staves are currently undergoing a reappearance, thanks to an international interest in the legacy of Scandinavia’s Norse heritage, the second coming of a Viking Age (as described by Bjørn-Andreas Bull-Hansen), and the rise of Ásatrú (meaning beliefs or loyalty to the Gods), a resurgence of Norse Paganism , one of Europe’s last polytheistic faith.
More can be learned about the magic of staves by picking up a copy of The Sorcerer’s Screed, an original piece by Jochum Magnús Eggertsson, who wrote under the pen name “Skuggi” (meaning “The Shadow”). The first print was released in 1940, and Skuggi’s work was recently reprinted in 2013 by the Icelandic publisher Lesstofan.