Little is known about the pre-Christian pagan religious rituals of the Icelandic and Scandinavian people; the only remaining texts available to us are the Prose and Poetic Eddas, written (it is believed) around the 13th Century. These two texts recount the myths of the Norse gods but are frustratingly silent about actual religious practice. Some tantalizing hints are given in various sagas, recorded from earlier oral sources in the 12th and 13th centuries - descriptions of witches, shape-shifters, and alters to the pagan gods.
After the Christianization of Iceland in the year 1000 CE, pagan practice was tolerated but diminished, until it was vigorously stamped out during the Protestant Reformation, which came to Iceland in 1550. Starting in 1554, people (most of whom were men) accused of practicing witchcraft were tried and condemned; in the nearly 200 years of anti-pagan fervor, there were approximately 130 recorded trials. Most of the trials occurred along the eastern Strandir coast region of the Vestfirðir (The Westfjords) and a large portion of the records include accounts of the practices as well as collections of magical knowledge called galraskrður or galrabækir (sorcerer’s screeds, magic books, or simply grimoire). In the fear and fervor of the time, many of these collections were destroyed; only a small handful remain. The oldest is manuscript AM 434 a 12mo, (or Lækningakver - literally, “cure book”), written c. 1500CE and currently held at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen. Many are faithful copies of older, but now lost, manuscripts.
It is difficult to judge if these magical practices are in fact derived from Saga-age (790CE to 1000CE) pagan practices. There are references to the Nordic gods, but the names of God, Jesus, and Biblical characters are invoked more frequently. Some of the manuscripts are barely distinguishable from leech books (books detailing methods for healing the many ailments that plagued medieval Europe), including AM 434a 12mo.
A majority of the magical practices contained within these grimoires describe rituals or incantations, but a fair number include physical marks, staves, or runes that must be carved (or otherwise written) for the spell to have an effect. Some of the books are written in code or with non-Roman characters; later manuscripts (such Lbs 2917 4to) include exhaustive primers for unraveling these secrets. Manuscript AM 434b 12mo has never been decoded and few have been transcribed or translated.
These staves are not the same as the runes used for pre-christanizayion written communication. They are more complex; some incorporate runes or bind-runes, some are representational, and some entirely symbolic. They are usually accompanied by instructions for drawing the stave, an accompanying action that must be performed, or a incantation that must be recited for the spell to be effective. These staves should not be confused with runes used for divination (which is an entirely inauthentic and modern practice.) For a more complete examination of general Icelandic magical practices, check out Icelandic Magic by Christopher Alan Smith.
In 2013, Icelandic publisher Lesstofan released a modern interpretation of the staves collected in the 1940s by poet Jochum Magnús Eggertsson who commonly wrote under the pen name Skuggi. Eggertsson’s collection, called Galraskræða (or Sorcerer's Screed), contains numerous alphabets and staves from a variety of sources, the originals of which have since disappeared.
In Lesstofan’s edition, the staves have been reproduced digitally as simple geometric shapes. An english translation was published in 2015. Their book is inspiration for this project, in which I plan to reproduce the staves, marks, and runes found in all known and available manuscripts. The spells without marks will not be included. Each mark will be accompanied by the instructions included in the manuscript (if any).
A hearty thanks must be extended to Justin Foster who's extensive research and knowledge about the staves has been invaluable, Christopher Alan Smith for his deep understanding of the Icelandic magical practices as a whole, Strandagaldur (The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft) and Magnús Rafnsson for publishing facsimiles and translations of many manuscripts, and handrit.is, an indispensable resource containing digital copies of many manuscripts held in the collections of Den Arnamagnæanske Samling at the University of Copenhagen, Landsbókasafn Islands - Háskólabóksafn (The National Library of Iceland) and the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar (The Arni Magnusson Institute). All of the background images were taken by Justin and Adam Allan-Spencer in 2014.