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 Actors Who Could Play the Next Batman

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by Natalie Zamora

Ben Affleck's casting as the Caped Crusader wasn't exactly met with a lot of excitement. While many DC fans were (and still are) happy with the casting, many definitely weren't, and even took it upon themselves to think of who could replace him. Now, with Affleck's role in Matt Reeves's upcoming The Batman completely unknown, it's worth looking at who has been actually rumored to take his place.

5. JAKE GYLLENHAAL

Jake Gyllenhaal attends the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival - 'The Sisters Brothers' premiere at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 8, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

As early as November 2017, Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal has been rumored to be playing the next Batman. Reportedly, Gyllenhaal had a meeting with Matt Reeves, something reporter Rob Keyes tweeted out at the time. When asked about the possibility, the actor shot it down, saying, "Wow, that’s a very difficult question. The answer to that question is no."

4. RYAN GOSLING

Ryan Gosling attends the 'First Man' press conference during 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 11, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

Another acclaimed actor, Academy Award nominee Ryan Gosling has also been rumored to take on the role of Bruce Wayne for some time. When recently asked at the Toronto International Film Festival if he would consider, Gosling simply said, "I don't know," before joking that if his First Man and La La Land director Damien Chazelle made it, he'd be in.

3. JOSH BROLIN

Josh Brolin attends the 'Sicario Day Of The Soldado' Photo Call at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

Although Josh Brolin now plays two major Marvel characters, Cable and Thanos, he once confirmed he was in the running for Ben Affleck's role in 2016. Ultimately, Brolin backed out after he had disagreements with Zack Snyder on how the character should be played. Ever since Affleck's departure from directing The Batman, Brolin has been rumored to take the role.

2. MATTHEW GOODE

Actor Matthew Goode attends the 'The Imitation Game' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater in 2014
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

Like Brolin, Matthew Goode was also one of the actors in the running to play Batman before Ben Affleck was cast. He was also reportedly considered for the roles of both Superman and Lex Luthor. Clearly, Goode would be welcomed into the DCEU. Now would be the perfect time.

1. JON HAMM

Jon Hamm attends the Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures And New Line Cinema's 'Tag' at Regency Village Theatre on June 7, 2018 in Westwood, California
Jerritt Clark, Getty Images

Ever since Jon Hamm played the dark and brooding role of Don Draper on Mad Men, fans have been rallying for him to play Batman. Though rumors have been circulating for years, Hamm just recently revealed that he has never had a conversation about the possibility. However, he did say he would be interested, if the script was good.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

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