Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.

Login with username, password and session length

Witchcraft in the Sagas

Witchcraft in the Sagas
August 11, 2012, 04:11:48 PM
The world of the sagas is very rugged and grim.  The writing itself reflects this, but there is just enough quirkiness and humor (and it's hard to tell sometimes whether it's intended or unintended) to balance things out and keep you smiling.

The Saga of Vatnsdal primarily revolves around the sons of Ingimund.  The sons, primarily Jokul and Thorstein, have been dealing with the evil Mother and Son, Ljot and Hrolleif.  It is said that Ljot is a witch and that Hrolleif is also some sort of sorcerer:
   They journeyed and came to As and there was no one outside.  They saw firewood piled against the wall on both sides of the gable.  They also saw a little hut standing in front of the door, and a gap between it and the door to the main building.
   Thorstein said, “That must be the place of sacrifice, and Hrolleif is meant to go there when his mother has completed her rites and all her witchcraft – but I don’t like it much at all.  Go now and wait round the corner by the house and I will sit up above the door with a stick in my hand, and if Hrolleif comes out, I will then throw the stick towards you, and you must all then run over to me.”
   Jokul said, “It’s easy to see, brother, that you want to gain honour from this as everything else, but I won’t have it, and I will sit with the stick.”
   Thorstein said, “You want your own way, even though things will not go any better, because it seems to me that you are liable to be the cause of some mishap.”
   Jokul positioned himself in the pile of firewood, and soon a man came out and looked around by the door, and did not see the men who had come there.  Then a second man came out and a third, and this was Hrolleif.  Jokul recognized him clearly and gave a violent start, and the log pile collapsed, but he was still able to throw the stick to his brothers, and jumped down and managed to grab Hrolleif so that he could not run away.  There was no difference in their strength, and they both rolled down the bank, each lying alternately on top and underneath.
   When the brothers approached, Hogni said, “What monster is this coming towards us here?  I do not know what it is.”
   Thorstein replied, “This is Ljot the old witch – look how bizarrely she has got herself up.”
   She had pulled her clothes up over her head and was walking backwards, with her head thrust between her legs.  The look in her eyes was hideous – the way she could dart them like a troll.
   Thorstein said to Jokul, “Kill Hrolleif now; you have wanted to do this for a long time.”
   Jokul said, “I’m quite ready for it now.”
   He then hacked off his head and told him he would never haunt them again.
That's that.  Who's next?
    It is now time to tell of the man who was mentioned earlier and was called Thorolf Sledgehammer.  He developed into an extremely unruly individual.  He was a thief and also much inclined towards other troublemaking.  It seemed to folk that his settling in the area was a very bad thing and that no sort of evil from him would come as any surprise.  Though he was without followers, he was the owner of creatures on whom he relied for protection – these were twenty cats, they were absolutely huge, all of them black and much under the influence of witchcraft.
   At this time men went to Thorstein and told him of their difficulties – they said that all the governance in the region was in his hands, and that Thorolf had stolen from lots of people and done many other wicked deeds.
   Thorstein said that what they said was true, “but it is not easy to deal with this man of Hel and his cats, and I’ll spare all my men that.”
   They said that he could hardly retain his honour if nothing were done.  After that Thorstein assembled some men and wanted the backing which came with their numbers.  With him were all his brothers and his Norwegian follower.  They went to Sleggjustadir.  Thorolf would have no dealings with them; he could never abide the company of good men.
   He went inside when he saw the troop of men arriving on horseback and said, “Now there are guests to receive, and I intend to have my cats take care of this, and I will put them all outside in the doorway , and the men will be slow to gain entry with them defending the entrance.”
   He then fortified them greatly by magic spells and after this they were simply ferocious in their caterwauling and glaring.
You can't make this stuff up folks.

Re: Witchcraft in the Sagas
August 11, 2012, 08:22:42 PM
Is this an unadulterated version? A lot of the Christianizing process not only involved documenting the tales that were once oral tradition but also recasting concepts through the Abrahamic lens giving us the (for north and west Europe folk) newer binary good and evil rather than beyond good and evil of the (Indo-European) originals. The lessons we, or some of us as the offspring are supposed to receive these many centuries later have since been tainted by a Judaized modification layer designed for a different branch of mankind. Beowulf set out to prove his exceptional worth among lesser men by overcoming the superhuman beasts Grendel and momma, not to serve the Good Lord by banishing "evil demons" in the world as the monastic scribes would have it. Homer's Odyssey is an unadulterated example too.

Re: Witchcraft in the Sagas
August 12, 2012, 08:46:00 PM
The Sagas were originally written during a time of Christianization so the disclaimer is correct.  Christianity looming in the Sagas is part of the territory.  In some Sagas it’s more pronounced than others.  Here would be a “defense,” however:

If you isolate feuds whether in the Vatnsdal or Laxardal Saga, you may pick up on a re-casting of good and evil (it could be debated).  But, it’s the scope and the pace of the Sagas that, in sum, always keeps it beyond good and evil.  Jog my memory if this is a mischaracterization, but in Beowulf, the feud is an ultimate showdown, whereas in the Sagas, it’s just another day at the office.  I say this as a serious point but also with good humor intended:  these guys aren’t doing anything for the Good Lord – any Christian message gets lost in the mayhem.  The Ingimundssons are doing it for the benefit of the townspeople, sure, but it is in fact their own honor and family name that is at stake.  Jokul and Thorstein have already proven their exceptional worth and that’s exactly why they’re called on.  Their father was the founder of Vatnsdal, so they’re already at the top of the pecking order.  When Beowulf is king he has to go back out and slay the dragon.

Any slave morality gets lost in the sheer magnitude and also the nonchalance of the writing.  When everything is dealt with so soberly, and an axe to the back of the head is no big deal, it’s hard to pick up on a recasting of good and evil.  The effect of the sagas is not done justice by isolated quotes.  Furthermore, once you’ve read several of them, it doesn’t do justice to isolate one saga from the rest of the sagas.  There are 48 of them so you get to compare and contrast.  This creates more magnitude and minimizes any particular lesson.  Any lesson learned from one saga will have to be squared with other sagas and some of them are less concerned with recasting good and evil than others, if at all.

It could be said that the Sagas are more Christian than Beowulf or Homer.  Beowulf and Homer are more essential, and they should be “read first.”  It’s a good disclaimer but I think good readers will be able to see what is still beyond good and evil in even the more “Christian” Sagas.

Re: Witchcraft in the Sagas
August 13, 2012, 02:31:18 PM
Title: "Jim For the Win"

For a time period, I considered relocating myself to Boston, the university of Amherst, to obtain a master's degree in the Icelandic Sagas, and become a voice in the anthropological world of Magic and  Medieval European Literature. Though I ended up in the educational field, this was certainly not what happened. Regardless, this topic has been a favorite of mine for years.

Witchcraft, the mighty pomp of the superstitious world. The garden of delights for the early scientist and explorer, while also the desert of delusion for some. Witchcraft is as much a part of the European spirit as are the elements which compose its manifest and aetheric dimensions. Magic for many of us seems as natural a faculty, even as an ideal as breathing or eating. Contrary to the medieval literary and martial campaigns against the practice of magic, the European man and woman has always felt akin to the spiritual imposition of will amongst his or her immediate surroundings. Even in times of extreme duress, magic and witchcraft survived throughout the ages, crossing aeons and exists still, across the boarders of the known world, in virtually every country. Where there is tradition, and even the slightest vestige of ritual, there- the spirit of witchcraft will always be. Sometimes magic is seen hidden within a tradition like Santeria or Hoodoo/Voodoo, mixed with Christianity, and though considered in origin to be a staple and practice of Paganism, found it's academic, "calculable" and public resurgence was within the lens of the Hermetic Qabalah of the Golden Dawn, a Rosicrucian or Christian Pantheist-styled society of scholars and intellects. Considerably through the years, the discipline of a European Magic or Witchcraft has seen many revisions and "purified" itself to the point where some accept a general Hermetic variation of such that echoes a more archaic and primordial time of rustic Goddess cults and folkish nature worship that combines the systematic arcane of the new as well as the traditions of the land which has always been.

In Scandinavian (and related) culture, Witchcraft assembles into a few categories or schools of thought that span from ancient to modern:

Seidr: The Scandinavian Shamanism. Emotive, oracular, prophesying Witches that would enter into trances to bring a piece of information or essence back with them into the material universe. IE: “That must be the place of sacrifice, and Hrolleif is meant to go there when his mother has completed her rites and all her witchcraft" and then she's moving around like the exorcist. Common amongst females and attributed to the clan or tribe of the Vanir (the nature divinities, early and considered more fair or feminine), Seidr when practiced by men were criticized for such things as "Ergi" (which means Gay). Odin was critiqued by Loki for practicing Seidr in the Eddas.

Galdr: The verse, the mighty chant of the song. Attributed to the clan or tribe of the Aesir in their poetic ways. Very little is known of Galdr, other than what is left in the prose Edda, and how to compose Eddic styled poetry in the "Galdic" sense. Ways to harness such runic combinations and structures are completely lost, but there are revivalist groups who either continue to search or claim the knowledge of such systems within their secretive teaching.

Staves: basically, sigils. The most famous one being the Helm of Awe. Similar to runes, these symbols claim by their castors and carvers to contain magically conductive properties.

Hex Signs: undoubtedly influenced by staves. Common amongst the Germanic countries in the farmlands. Mathematical and mirror imagery claim to have magically conductive properties.

Most likely, these many different microsystems where employed by a Witch or Sorcerer that composed the entirety of their craft, these are just some of the common ones from Scandinavia. If anyone has anything else that I've so idiotically forgotten and would like to add to the equation, please contribute.

Re: Witchcraft in the Sagas
August 17, 2012, 05:19:06 AM
Nightspirit:  I literally just came across “seidr” in my glossary a few weeks ago and did chuckle to myself that magic rite is essentially considered effeminate, yet Odin, himself, practices it.  I suppose only Odin is manly enough to begin with that he can get away with it.  Yet something like this is exactly the kind of quirky detail that I’ve come to expect in the world of the Sagas and Eddas – exceptions to rules, consistently inconsistent, sometimes there is just no rhyme or reason.  It is for the most part a supremely realistic and consistent world, but then you encounter Ljot the witch, or Thorolf Sledgehammer and his cats, and all you can do is scratch your head with a big, dopey grin on your face:   :o ;D

Much like Hoskuld’s legitimate sons are all great men, yet his “illegitimate” son, Olaf Peacock, is the greatest of them all, or the all-powerful Father God, Odin, practicing the effeminate and taboo arts.  Consistently, protagonists will “help the townspeople” or generally act like “white knights” more often than not, but just when you think you have everything figured out, a townsperson will flatly be denied help or an otherwise “good” hero will do something dastardly.  So, to be clear, magic and witchcraft is not exclusively cast as “dark” or “evil” in the sagas.  Primarily it is, but magic is also sometimes beneficial or simply neutral.
Similarly, some sagas concern themselves with magic and the supernatural whereas others do not - there are many fantastical elements in the Vatnsdal Saga, but less so in the Laxardal Saga.  I liken the Sagas to a panorama or giant tapestry.  The background is grey, black, and white – mountains, landscapes, and sky.  From far away, that’s all you can make out, but upon closer inspection you see details, human beings, and flashes of color.

Re: Witchcraft in the Sagas
August 17, 2012, 11:55:45 AM
Egil's Saga:
Egil took a hazel pole in his hand and went to the edge of a rock facing inland.  Then he took a horse’s head and put it on the end of the pole.

Afterwards he made an invocation, saying, ‘Here I set up this scorn-pole and turn its scorn upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild’ – then turned the horse’s head to face land – ‘and I turn its scorn upon the nature spirits that inhabit this land, sending them all astray so that none of them will find its resting-place by chance or design until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from this land.’

Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there.  He turned the head towards land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole.

Alternate translation:

And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse's head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: 'Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse's head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.'

This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse's head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.