9 Spooky Spells from an Icelandic Book of Sorcery

Arnar Fells Gunnarsson
Arnar Fells Gunnarsson

Jochum Magnus Eggertsson was a strange character. During his lifetime, the Icelandic writer and poet—who was born in 1896 and called himself Skuggi (or “Shadow”)—often criticized authorities and the cultural and educational elite and challenged conventional knowledge about Icelandic history and culture. He claimed to have 27 pages from a lost book, written on hide called Gullskinna (“Goldskin”), which, according to legend, would not burn. So it makes sense that Eggertsson would spend 30 years researching Nordic spells, drawing from 80 old manuscripts to create his book of white magic, Sorcerer’s Screed, which he released in 1940. After a successful reprinting in Icelandic in 2013, the Icelandic publisher Lesstofan has made the book available in English for the first time.

Each spell consists of a symbol called a stave, which is accompanied by runes that lay out the spell. Runes have a long history in Europe and an even longer one in Iceland, which didn’t convert to Christianity—or the Latin alphabet—until more than 100 years after it was settled. And even then, runes would continue to be used for several centuries. “Runes, the so-called fuþark alphabet, were usually carved on rock or wood and they always have contained some power to them,” Lesstofan's Þorsteinn Surmeli tells mental_floss via email. Post-Reformation, when the last Catholic priest in Iceland and his two sons were beheaded, “the use of magic spells started to be more prominent—even though (or because) the Lutheran church strictly prohibited the use of such symbols,” Surmeli says. “The period between 1654 and 1690 has been called the Magic Age because of the large number of cases connected to the use of magic symbols.”

Nearly 200 people were charged for use of magic, or for having a magic book; more than 20, the majority of them men, were sentenced to death and burned. “Most of these cases had to do with white magic, the way of using magic for your own benefit but not necessarily to hurt others,” Surmeli says.

Though the last case of prosecution for magic in Iceland was in 1700, Surmeli says that “magic has been part of Icelandic culture ever since. And I would argue that Icelanders still use the spells in some way. Maybe not as we did before, but we keep the tradition alive. It’s part of our identity and that’s why we like referring to the magics, using them as decoration, tattoos, publishing them in a book ... It’s part of the viking image that has been part of Icelanders since settlement.”

Surmeli and Lesstofan had been familiar with Eggertsson’s work for a long time, and they loved Sorcerer’s Screed—but the original edition was completely handwritten, and they weren’t sure how to proceed. Initially, they planned to photocopy each page—and then they heard about Arnar Fells Gunnarsson, a graphic design student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. “He is a big fan of Skuggi’s work, and was, at that time, working in a group project involving Skuggi,” Surmeli says. “Later, Arnar did some more research and illustrated every single stave and rune which ended up being his final project at the Academy.”

The publishing house teamed up with the designer and published the Icelandic edition of Sorcerer’s Screed in 2013. It quickly sold out. The English edition, initially released this summer, has been printed twice. “The reactions have been unbelievable,” Surmeli says. “Tourism in Iceland has been increasing for the last few years, and the travelers seem to want books on traditional Icelandic culture. We even know of tourists that have bought the book and headed straight to the closest tattoo parlour. That’s actually what some of us at Lesstofan did, too. It’s that cool!”

The spells in Sorcerer’s Screed deal with everything from protecting yourself from drowning and ghosts to how to make a woman fall in love with you and calm sheep. (Eggertsson had intended to publish a book of black magic, too, but never got around to it: “The world of symbols and magic is big and maybe he felt the Sorcerer’s Screed was enough,” Surmeli says. “Or maybe he thought a book of black magic would have been too dangerous for the public.”) Below, we’ve printed a few of the spookier staves from Sorcerer’s Screed. Your can buy your own copy of the book here.

1. GHOST STAVE

"Carve this stave on scrub oak or on Norway spruce, and you will see the ghost."

2. STAVE TO RAISE THE DEAD, EXORCISE EVIL SPIRITS, OR LAY A GHOST

"Inscribe on the scalp of a horse, using a mixture of seal blood, fox blood, and human blood. Recite this verse over the stave when you wish to use it:

"Thick blood, fighters grow weary.
The nation endures centuries of hardship,
great destruction, men die,
wealth is lost, the destitute are shunned.
Perilous ruin the people dread,
storm upon storm, plagued by misery,
heavy remorse, relentless warfare.
An evil stir haunts the world."

3. WITCH RIDE STAVE

"He who wishes to ride through the air like a witch shall inscribe this stave on a bleached horse’s skull with two types of blood: from the man himself as well as from a horse, combining it in thirds, two parts being the horse’s blood, from beneath the frog of the hoof of the right foreleg, and the third part from beneath the big toe of the man’s left foot. The stave is to be drawn with a chicken feather, and he who has a witch-ride bridle will then be able to ride through air and water, wherever he feels like going. A witch-ride bridle is created by digging up a newly buried man and cutting a strip of skin from the length of his spine. This will be used for reins. Next, the dead man must be scalped, and the scalp will be used for the bridle. The dead man’s lingual bone is to be used for the bit and his hip bones for cheekpieces. A spell also needs to be recited over it, and then the bridle is finished. All that needs to be done is place the witch-ride bridle over a horse’s head. It will then fly into the air with whomever is riding it, and fly faster than lightning wherever its rider wishes, creating a great whistling sound."

4. GREATER SHIELD OF TERROR

"This stave is to be drawn on black paper with raven bile, and then placed in the nest of a brooding raven. It is to be left there until the raven has hatched its eggs. Then take the paper, and it will be of great use to you. Even if a hundred men were your enemies, and they attacked you and wanted to kill you, this stave would save you easily. If you hold it up before you when facing your enemies, it will appear to them as innumerable black dragons, and that you are preparing to set them loose."

5. SLEEP-THORN

"Carve on oak and color the grooves with your own blood, and then place it in secret on the crown of a man’s head."

6. LOOKING GLASS

"Reveals backwards and forwards, for years and centuries, throughout the world.

"This stave is to be drawn on calfskin that has never been out under the bare sky, with the water from within a raven’s eye, and blood from the heart of a man and woman, who have loved each other with all their hearts but never consummated their love; and the stave is to be drawn with a water rail’s feather. Then myrrh is to be strewn over the entire stave. When the stave is dry, go to a spring whose temperature remains constant winter and summer, and over which no bird has flown that day, and strike the water with it, making sure to turn the stave downward. Then let the stave lie still in the water, while circling the spring four times counter-clockwise. Take the stave from the water and peek through it, and he who drew the stave will be able to see, if he wishes, throughout the world, backwards and forwards through the four cardinal directions. Then the stave is to be enclosed in an amnion, and never taken out unless it is to be used."

7. MOON

"Inscribe on a fox pelt and color with blood from your right ring-finger and you will not be haunted by ghosts."

8. DREAM STAVE

"This stave is to be carved on lignite with a dogfish spine when the moon is three nights old, and placed beneath your head. You will then dream whatever you wish."

9. STAVE FOR WAKING THE DEAD

"This stave is to be carved in oak, and the groove colored with blood. The blood is to be from the big toe of the right foot, and the thumb of the left hand, and then place this stave on the grave and walk three times clockwise and three times counter-clockwise around the church. Watch carefully to be sure that dirt spouts from the grave three times, and at the third spout it is imperative that you be prepared to receive the ghost, because it will then pop its head up. Immediately grab it by the throat and squeeze tightly, and hold it fast until it asks you to let it go. Then apply the necessary and appropriate methods, and tell the ghost what it is to do. If the ghost is to be animated greatly and sent a long distance, more robust methods will be necessary, and more than one sorcerer."

Text courtesy of Lesstofan. All graphics and photos by Arnar Fells Gunnarsson.

5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

iStock.com/bhofack2
iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

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iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Terminology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

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