Par Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Iceland is a nation of many fascinating quirks, peculiarities, customs and traditions that captivate the attention of many travellers all over the world. Almost every facet of Icelandic culture and history holds its roots in very ancient practices. The first settlers of Iceland arrived over a thousand years ago. When they arrived they brought with them many Old Norse traditions and due to the nation being an island, they remained quite isolated from the rest of the world for quite some time.
The result of this isolation meant that many of the traditions that were eventually lost in mainland Europe stuck around much longer here. Today the remnants of much of this can still be seen. Even the Icelandic language hasn’t really changed that much over a millennium and most Icelanders can perfectly understand ancient texts at a glance.
One particular element of the past is still present in Iceland today but it might not be as obvious as strange letters that don’t appear in English, fables about child-eating trolls and folklore about the northern lights. This is a set of intricate symbols called Galdrastafir, but what exactly are they? What were they used for and what do they mean? Read on to find out more.
What are Galdrastafir?
The galdrastafir are a group of magical symbols from Scandinavian folklore. Many people associate them with the Vikings but they don’t actually come from this time period. The galdrastafir do have roots in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folk magic but their origins actually stem from European mediaeval magic in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Galdrastafir is a compound word containing ‘Galdra’ which means ‘Magic’ and ‘Stafir’ which roughly translates to ‘Stave’ but not in the musical kind of stave. In old Norse, the word Stafir was more like the word for spelling or writing. So to give this word a modern translation, it basically means ‘Magic Writing.’
Most people have seen these symbols in pop culture like movies and video games that involve Vikings or Nordic people or even tattooed on the left arm of the Icelandic singer Björk.
What Are Icelandic Stave Symbols Used For?
Traditionally the Icelandic stave symbols were a visual representation of magic spells. They have been found in many old manuscripts, often accompanied with a description that details what they are, what they mean and the method of utilising them to gain the benefits of the proposed magic.
The use of these symbols wasn’t unique to Iceland but most of the best preserved examples of it come from Iceland due to the nature of ancient Icelandic practitioners and their meticulous nature of recording information.
Types Icelandic Stave Symbols
There are galdrastafir for almost every conceivable desired effect that a person could possibly be resorting to magic for. You could say that there are even more of them than Old Norse gods, or Icelandic sagas. To give you a bit of an overview, the symbols can be broken down into groups based on the core issue or effect. These are; protection, finance, love, causing harm, sleep and dreams, and other.
Below are the galdrastafir that were believed to be associated with protection. This could be protection from other people, the elements, misfortune or even the gods.
Helm of Awe
The helm of awe is mentioned in the Icelandic sagas and was a feared set of symbols that traditionally was seen to protect the user from the abuse of power. It was typically carved into lead and then pressed into the forehead of the user. It exists in a few different forms.
The Nine Helms of Awe
The nine helms of awe were usually used by all who dealt in knowledge.
If Something is Unclean
This symbol was said to protect from unclean things. Think less ‘dirty home’ and more ‘disease.’ To get the full effect, the user needed to use a carving tool made of silver or juniper and carve it over the entrance to a home.
If Evil is Approaching
This symbol was believed to protect from evil if you know it is coming. To gain the full effect, it needed to be carved into oak and then painted with blood taken from the hand of the user. Hanging the carved piece of wood over the front door would make sure that very little evil could enter your home.
This symbol was said to protect people who had long journeys over sea or land. The traveller needed to carve the symbol into a soft type of rock called lignite and colour it with their blood (you’ll see blood is a real theme here). It was normally turned into a necklace because the magic only worked if the symbol was located ‘between the breasts’
The Lesser Hagall
This stave protects against all forms of magic. To get the full effect, the user needs to carve it into the shoulder blade of a seal then stain the carving with the blood of a mouse and carry this with them at all times.
Rings of King Charlemagne
Iceland adopted christianity around the year 1000. The kind of christianity practised could be referred to as ‘Christianity light’ because many Icelanders still practised pagan rituals but changed names or included biblical elements so that their traditions wouldn’t be banned. This series of galdrastafir reflects this as the legend states that nine rings were sent by god to Pope Leo by an angel and on each ring was a symbol that would offer protection.
The first three rings were said to protect against pranks by the devil, troubled minds, sudden death and enemies who become troubled when they look at you.
The second three rings protected against sword injuries, getting lost and persecution by evil people.
The third set of rings would bring victory in legal matters, popularity and personal vices so that the body, mind and spirit could be performing in optimal condition.
To get the full effect, the user of the nine rings needed to wear them on the chest or to the side of the torso.
This symbol was believed to turn the user into the best and most efficient rower on a boat. It needed to be carved into leather and stained with the user’s blood. The leather needs to rest underneath the oar for the entire journey and it must be carried onto and off of the boat by the user.
The following were some of the magic staves that were believed to grow or protect the cash flow of the user, so let’s see exactly how the old Icelanders tried to ‘make it rain.’
Blood-Oxen – Earth-Oxen
These two symbols protect against financial theft. One of them works during the day and the other works at night. Both symbols need to be carved on the interior side of the lid of the chest where the wealth is stored.
This galdrastafir was said to bring good luck to the user when trading with others. To get the full effect, the symbol needs to be drawn on old paper and concealed secretly under the left arm.
The necropants are a legendary piece of Icelandic folklore and sorcery. This was a gruesome means to allegedly gain untold wealth and was a very complex spell. The user needed to make a deal with a living person that when they died, their body could be dug up and skinned from the waist down. The skinning needed to provide the entire lower half of the body in one single piece so as to create a pair of trousers.
If that isn’t enough, there’s another step. After the pants are ready, the user needs to step into them and then steal a coin from a very poor widow on either Christmas, Easter or white sunday. The coin must be placed in the scrotum of the pants and it will draw wealth to the wearer.
There are some risks to the necro pants though. The wearer must find a new owner for the pants before they die, otherwise their dead body will become infested with lice. Once the wearer has found a new owner, they must step out of the pants at the exact moment the new owner steps into them.
This symbol protects from theft. The user needs to place this on one of the doorposts to the home and under the threshold. If it’s effective, any thief who enters will find themselves stuck and unable to leave.
The galdrastafir weren’t all doom and gloom. Some of them were said to bring nice things like love.
To Win a Girl
For a lovelorn Icelandic man, all he needed to do was carve this stave into bread or cheese and then give it to the object of his affection and she would love him back eternally.
Although the ancient people of Iceland came from Vikings, much of their everyday lives centred around the land and trying to live off it. For this reason, there were a whole bunch of spells dedicated to farming and the gathering of food.
The Fishing Stave
This stave was said to bring the holder a good catch out at sea. The stave needs to be written with the blood of a raven in a pen made from a raven’s feather, then placed in a small hole at the bow of a ship.
If a Cow’s Milk is Bloody
Blood in cow’s milk could be a sign of illness or infection but instead of seeing a vet, many Icelanders would carve this symbol in oak and place it underneath the cow while it was being milked.
Ensuring Ewes Will Have Twins
If a ewe has twins, it means more lamb meat for the family so this was a popular galdrastafir for farm life. It was a bit more complicated than some of the others. To get the full effect of this symbol the farmer needs to carve it into sheep’s manure using the rib bone of a mouse dipped in raven’s blood. The carving needed to take place on a slab of basalt and then the manure was to be burned and the smoke allowed to waft over the sheep on ‘Old St John’s Day.’
To Benefit Your Sheep
If a farmer carved this symbol into oak wood then buried it in the ground and let his sheep walk over it, it was believed all the livestock would be healthy and hearty.
Mowing the lawn is not new, it’s been around for a really long time and even the Icelandic settlers used to cut their grass, except they would painstakingly do it with a scythe. To ensure the lawn mowing was hassle free, the owner of the scythe would carve this stave into the upper handle and stain it with blood from the main artery of their left hand.
To Prevent Drowning
With sheep grazing freely for much of the year, occasional sheep drawings were sometimes a problem, but carving this symbol into the horn of your oldest ram should sort this out.
To Guard Against Foxbites
The arctic fox is the largest native land mammal in Iceland. It’s not really big enough to take down an adult sheep but it can be a problem for babies, and a fox bite on a grown sheep could lead to infection and eventual death. Using this stave was a bit extreme though because it would involve carving this symbol into the forehead of a gelded ram.
To Make Your Sheep Docile
To make sheep a bit more chilled and easy to work with, farmers would take a juniper and willow tree that grow facing the east and carve this stave into it. They would then take the sheep who needs to take a chill pill and have them walk over the tree in summer or under the tree in winter.
To Fish Well
To ensure a great catch, a fisherman would write this symbol on a fine piece of parchment made from the skin of a young animal called ‘Vellum’ and tie it to their fishing hook.
The galdrastafir weren’t just used to bring prosperity, they were also believed to be a tool that could cause great harm to others.
Break The Leg of a Horse
Horses were the main form of transport for early Icelanders so if a horse had a broken leg it could devistage a person or family. To do this, the user needed to take a knife they use for eating and carve this stave into a clay tablet then drop it on the path that a horse is expected to travel along.
This rune was normally used to kill an enemy’s animal and not the enemy themself. The image needed to be placed on paper and thrown into the tracks of your enemy’s horse.
The Fear Stick (Óttastafur)
Carving this stave into a stick and throwing it at someone’s feet would drive fear directly into their heart.
Sleep and Dreams
Dreams were an important part of Icelandic culture. People often believed they were omens of things to come so it stands to reason that there were staves and runes created to make dreams a bit nicer or even worse.
The Sigil of Salomon
This sigil was basically the nordic version of a dreamcatcher. Carving this symbol into lignite and placing it under the head would help to create pleasant and fulfilling dreams that would help someone to become even wiser.
If someone wanted to be able to control what they dream about all the needed to do was carve these staves into silver or white animal hide then sleep on it when the sun is at its lowest point on a midsummer evening.
Other Stave Symbols
The categories of stave symbols literally could go on forever. Here are a few other interesting ones.
This stave was believed to make the person who marked themselves with it completely invisible. There’s no way of knowing if it worked because the evidence would have vanished.
This one was probably very handy for ameteur spies. After placing this stave on a lock, the person who placed it there would be given magical, lock-breaking breath.
This was considered to be one of the most powerful of the magic staves. Interestingly enough, all it did was prevent barrels from leaking, but when you lived in a country where the threat of starving to death was very real, it’s understandable that a symbol like this would be so important.
This stave was carved into a wand and stained with blood from under the tongue. It was said to give the want the power to open hills and allow the holder to travel into them, to hidden worlds.
This stave was used by witches to create an evil monster called a Tilbury which they would use to steal milk.
Why Are Icelandic Staves and Rune Symbols Important to the Culture?
Modern day Icelanders don’t necessarily believe that the galdrastafir actually have magic powers but they are still fond of them. This is because the staves and runes connect Icelanders to their ancestors. They help them to understand the struggles and hardships that the first settlers faced and the many sacrifices they had to make in order to survive.
Delving into the folklore, symbolism and history of Iceland can truly give you a great insight into how the first settlers of this otherworldly land made sense of the world they lived in.