Defence of the Galdrastafir

Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen

Tattoo images courtesy of Uffe Berenth from Ginnungagap Art

The Icelandic Galdrastafir are a unique, spectacular and characteristically Nordic system of animation. They cannot be reduced to misguided nonsensical fakelore!

This is a response to a recent article by by Eirik Storesund from the Brute Norse channel. Eirik challenges the use of an Icelandic magic symbol or “galdrastaf” known as the ægishjálmur, which is very common among Nordic culture enthusiasts. I wan’t to suggest a different perspective in which this symbol is a fully valid element in Nordic animism, both present and historic.

ægishjálmur in Lbs. 143 8vo

Eirik Storesund’s argument

It is important to note that the historical details of Eirik’s argument are fine. Eirik’s text is informative, well researched and fun to read. He makes a valid criticism of the use of ægishjálmur specifically in portrayals of the Viking age, and it isn’t these historic details of his argument that I want to question. What I am cricizing is the way that he uses problematic concepts to point quite bit beyond the fact Vikings didn’t know the ægishjálmur, and cast the use of ægishjálmur as polluted nonsense in the wider cultural scene. In Eirik’s witty and punchy lingo we are told that this: “Norse fakelore” is a “sacred calf of the misguided and opportunistic”. It is “misconceptions from esoteric and Neopagan communities which “pollutes” even popular culture through a “conspiracy of ignorance, with a tide of ghastly crimes of fashion and historical falsehoods” - Well, when you look at the galdrastafir from a different scholarly position than Eirik’s historical approach, then you get a very different picture. I work with animist anthropology of religion and from my analytical position ægishjálmur and other galdrastafir are fully valid components of traditional Nordic animism, historically as well as today, but let me first sum up Eirik’s argument

Contemporary ægishjálmur tattoo

He sees the use of ægishjálmur as “polluting nonsense in the portrayal of Norse culture”, i.e. the Viking age culture. He informs us that the symbol is: "not a Viking Age symbol under any reasonable definition, but a post-Medieval magical appropriation of an older concept", because the use of the symbol stems from "retrospective antiquarianism by authors of Icelandic magical texts" rather than from “a stronger and more unpolluted” continuity between Early Modern and Norse sources”. He concludes that it is “one of the greatest misconceptions about Icelandic magic (…) that it is somehow Pagan in content. It is not, at least not in any true pre-Christian sense."

This line of argumentation has some serious problems:

  1. Culture cannot be polluted. Culture IS pollution, mixing, creolization. Appropriation is a universal condition of culture. There isn’t any original Viking Age where Scandinavians didn’t appropriate Southern European religious culture into their traditional practices. That is what tradition is, it is change, appropriation, invention, mixing.
  2. All culture has retrospective aspects and is always reinvented with a degree of reflection on it’s historical background.
  3. Eirik notes there is no unambiguous continuity from the Viking age to the ægishjálmur symbol. However, all culture is transmitted through complex webs of reinvention, rupture and continuity. The term “polluted continuity” isn’t descriptive of any kind of cultural transmission that I am aware of.
  4. I also object to the idea of a “true” Pagan content in the symbol which depends exclusively on a pre-christian period. Is the meaning of the crucifix is not truly Christian because the symbol was only invented half a millenia after Jesus and the apostles, by people who believed something very different than him?

Contemporary galdrastaf inspired tattoo

As a piece of informative history of religions, I really recommend Eirik’s run-through of the ægishjálmur’s history. It is very informative, and I particularly appreciate that Eirik went out and identified what indeed does appear to be the inspiration of the ægishjálmur in the 15th century Greek manuscript “The Magical Treatise of Solomon”. Well spotted! Of course it is fine to inform reenactors that their ægishjálmur pendants (like their Android-phones) refer to a different time period than the rest of their costumes. My objection is the way that this historic fact seems to imply judgements of some sort of authenticity in the wider cultural landscape of reinventing Nordic traditional knowledge forms. The fact that Vikings didn’t have ægishjálmur tattoos doesn’t warrant the designation of this symbol in a wider sense as polluting nonsensical fakelore. Because, the symbol can not be
Pagan, in some essential and inherently more “true”
way, detatched from how people engage the symbol.
And it simply isn’t meaningful to talk of culture as
being “polluted” by culture.

Galdrastaf from the Manuscript Rún Lbs 4375

The Galdrastaf magic

I recently communicated with my friend Teresa Njarðvík, who is an Icelandic manuscript expert working on Icelandic, runes and magical tradition.

(an interview with Teresa can be found here:

Teresa explains that over a hundred magical manuscripts have been preserved in Iceland, and many more have been lost. Possession of magic books was a major ground for conviction in Icelandic witch trials, which according to Owen Davies work on grimoires is absolutely unique in the context of European witch hunts. Teresa says that only a handful of older manuscripts survived, while the bulk of grimoires are from 18th and 19th century. Many of these are from the hand of common people, which may explain that Icelandic magic has staves for luck in fishing, protecting lifestock, cure sick cows and sheep, make whetstones sharpen better, keep horses from running away etc. etc. – aspects of normal life, conflicts, love, business. Learned men have played an important role in this reception as Eirik writes, but it is still magic dealing with normal human existence. As an anthropologist of religion I would see the galdrastafir as an associative technology along the lines of what the native American Potawatomi scholar Robin Kimmerer calls a “grammar of animacy”, i.e. a system for applying the meanings and immanent forces in the natural world through traditional signs. This animation system is tied into human relating with the Icelandic environment, for instance by applying the natural materials of the environment in the carving and empowering of the staves

Contemporary galdrastaf composition.

Cultural appropriation as well as historical retrospection are all natural aspects of such an animation technology. Understanding these natural processes as a pollution of an otherwise continuous tradition is simply not viable. The Icelandic galdrastaf magic is a Nordic tradition of animation both in its self-reflection and in it’s dependence on European hermeticism.

Nordic peoples in the Medieval period, the Viking age and the Iron Age also retrospectively reinvented and reshaped their tradition through massive importation of motifs from their European context. The Viking age and Iron Age overflow with cultural elements of European origin. Iron age elite graves are stuffed with Roman produced prestige objects. Roman medallions inspired the amazing bracteate art, runic writing is a particularly Nordic reinvention of Mediterranean alphabets. Runic inscriptions are sometimes placed on top of Bronze age rock carvings, which clearly represents relating to a pre-history, though the carver’s
notion of his past was surely very different from the one
we have today.

Animism Changes through History

Animism is a mode of relating not a religion understood as a coherent system of beliefs and practices. These ways of relating are transformed and transmitted down through the ages, always with these aspects, historical self-reflection, appropriation, change and reinvention. When a Viking age Scandinavian adopts Merovingian drinking culture, he is appropriating European culture as he is retrospectively reinventing Scandinavian notions associated with sacred drink (See video from “The Nordic Mythology Channel”). When a Medieval Swedish farmer travels up to Uppsala and sacrifices a horse to the Catholic St. Eric, he is reinventing Nordic animism with the imported religious language of his day (Catholicism). When an 16th century Icelandic poet writes his rímur, he is self-reflexively reinventing the animacy of Skaldic language into his own age.

Ægishjálmur drawn in the margins of the Codex Regius besides the myth of Thor’s struggle with the Midgard Serpent.

According to Teresa Njarðvík it is clear that Early Modern Icelanders who created the galdrastaf tradition interpreted European hermeticism into the context of their pagan past and runic lore. As Teresa points out the exact trajectory of graphic shapes shouldn’t occlude what the Icelanders did with the symbols, what meanings they created in their adoption of these symbols. They took in European hermeticism and thereby reflectively reinvented their own traditional culture with new tools, new language. This implies a considerable Christian element in Icelandic magic, but also frequent names of Nordic gods and other pieces of culture that must have been there before.

I find the spell 67 in the Lbs 2413 interesting in this respect (Rafnson 2015). It effectuates it’s curse with eight asa-runes, nine need-runes and thirteen thurs-runes. The thurs in curses is known from the Skirnirsmál and from a medieval runestick from Bergen. The nine needs are found in two medieval formulas from Sweden and Denmark (Mees and MacLeod 2006, 118-124), and the eight asa-runes are also found in the Lindholmen runic formula dating from the Roman Iron Age. Of course meanings change. That is the way of culture, but the similarity does seem significant. However, from the perspective of animist anthropology the most interesting thing about galdrastafir is the materials with which they are made which I believe ressonate a grammar of animacy. Specifications are given for the material of carving, like; oakwood, lead, lignite, the skull of a dead man or the skin of a heifers first calf. The tool for carving can also be noted; steel, an awl, a bronze knife, an eating knife, or a knife with the tip broken . Sometimes the signs are just traced on your body with spittle on a finger, but the signs are empowered by being drawn or colored with, the blood of a wren, blood from your left arm etc.

Culture is reinvention.

The notion of cultural pollution would have made no sense to the people who imported this symbolism to Iceland. This is a notion that presumes 19th and 20th century nationalist ideas of cultures as homogeneous units, that are somehow compromised by mixing. When European hermeticism reached 16th century Icelanders, they didn’t see a different culture. They saw a functional animating system, and they did exactly what humans most often do when a new technology comes by. They infused it into their existing tradition. When an Inuit hunter gets a riffle, he doesn’t insist on using his bone spear. He puts the riffle to good use, and that doesn’t pollute his culture or somehow make him less Inuit.

When people today are getting their galdrastaf tattoos they are doing that same thing, the thing that Nordic peoples have always done. They are reinventing aspects of their tradition by looking at, and reflecting upon their own history, appropriating trends, motifs and ideas from other contexts.

This is a fully legitimate way of managing your culture, and I think it is important to make the point that the cultural meaning of a symbol is derived from the ways that people engage it and animate it, not from an analytical assessment of the likelihood of it’s existence in one specific historically narrow context such as the Viking Age. Galdrastafir are a unique, spectacular and characteristically Nordic system of animation. I personally really appreciate the creativity and dynamism with which contemporary people reshape and reformulate this Early Modern Icelandic magic into our time. I also think that it is important that we as scholars are a bit cautious about what judgements we lay down when people are reinventing their culture in natural, organic and beautiful ways.