Skugga-Baldur, or Blue Fox; a book by Sjón.

Posted on 31. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Did you ever read a translation of a great book that, while a good one, was lacking a key element simply because some part was entirely untranslatable? Or even better – ever read the translated version and felt a bit smug in the knowledge that you had that key element already in your back pocket and were therefore miles ahead of other readers that were relying on the translation?

Blue Fox by Sjón, or Skugga-Baldur as its name is in Icelandic, is a book so amazing that I wish that if you could in all your life read only one Icelandic book it would be this one. It’s quite short by amount of text but the language itself is poetic, packed so full of meaning that every short burst of text deserves the reader’s full attention. It won’t take long to read but after you’re done I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt like re-reading it right away with all the knowledge that you gathered on the way. It’s simply magical, and I hope those that have read it before won’t bop me over the head for making that silly pun. :D

Skugga-Baldur tells the story of three people at the end part of the 1800’s Iceland. There’s father Baldur Skuggason, a local priest, wealthy and well respected within the community. There’s the herbalist Friðrik B. Friðjónsson who originally came to Iceland only to tie some loose ends and never planned to stay, also known as Grasa-Friðrik (= Grass-Friðrik). Lastly there’s Hafdís Jónsdóttir, a woman whose fate begins, carries on and seals the story. Allt breytist – ekkert hverfur: everything changes – nothing disappears.

In fact her appearance into the story is nothing short of suspicious when all details are put in place. She’s found on board a ship that seems like it has no crew in it what so ever, all alone, chained to a wall and heavily pregnant. There are no details on who she is and where she came from, and of course poor Hafdís herself cannot exactly explain what happened to her for reasons that later on become clearer. Not even the ship can be identified properly, it’s old and worn and only the letters “… Der Deck…” on its side and “V… …r ….ec…” on the other can be read. I’m assuming the fans of classical literature to be jumping up and down at this point and yes indeed, I share the suspicion of the ship’s origin and the reason it’s sailing alone.

She gives birth soon after and kills the child, and is then found by Friðrik who promises to watch after her and let her stay with him. Hafdís is not her real name either for the simple reason that people don’t seem to understand her when she tells them her name. Instead she gains a new official name, which coincidentally means “sea goddess”, but for most of the time the reader will know her by another one – Abba.

(As an additional detail calling someone Jónsdóttir or Jónsson is akin calling someone “Smith”, a name that tells you absolutely nothing of the person carrying it, often used for people whose parents were not known. If you come across a Jón Jónsson in historical records chances are that either that really was his name, or, that his real name was not known and he was written down with the Icelandic equivalent of John Doe.)

These three people whose fates twine among each other’s in complex and cruel ways are each unpredictable in their own style. Not one of them is quite what they seem to be in the beginning and the reader soon finds out that innocence is something that’s hard to measure and that you’ll only lose it if you let it go, and similarly that humans can sell each other really cheap. Naturally there’s also a fox in the story, but what and who the fox represents is also a surprise.

What about the part that I mentioned right at the beginning? The untranslatable piece that withholds a key element from anyone who doesn’t know Icelandic, nay, Iceland itself well enough?

It’s the title. Skugga-Baldur is no blue fox although it’s understandable why the translator chose the title they did. Skugga-Baldur is a monster of Icelandic lore, half cat and half fox, a beast that’s as smart as a human, capable of plotting your death even after you’ve first managed to kill it. It’s powerful, ruthless, eats pretty much anything that it can catch and can, according to some myths, kill you by looking at you. You don’t have to meet its eyes as with basilisks, all that’s needed is that it sees you there and you’re a goner. Its looks are something straight out of uncanny-valley where you don’t quite recognize what you’re seeing but know by instinct alone that you want to be far, far away from it immediately. It’s knowing this that will set you the story in a completely different, merciless light and tell you something else, something different and far more rich in content than to those who lack the information. Know the beast and how it operates and you won’t be fooled by it because, alas, most people who read the English translation will be.

More about Skugga-Baldur and its equally awful half-sibling Skoffín here.

The two great sorcerers of Iceland.

Posted on 24. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Icelandic museum of Witchcraft by Ben Sisto on

Last week’s entry about witchcraft in Iceland mentioned one interesting man, Galdra-Loftur (= Loftur the Magician), who’s definitely worth a closer look. The legend does not paint a very flattering image of him: he’s shown as an egoistical, cruel person who uses his talent and skills for his own profit only and does not care who he tramples underfoot on the way. In many ways he’s the polar opposite of the other famous Icelandic scholar-magician, Sæmundur fróði or Sæmundur the Wise, who used his to help others and occasionally to save his own soul from his former school master, the devil himself.

You could for example compare their attitudes towards women who were pregnant out of wedlock. Sæmundur saved a servant girl who the devil had fooled into promising him her unborn child, Loftur murdered the mother and the child he himself had fathered in cold blood. In general Sæmundur seems to have valued women to a great deal, yet he, too, caused the death of the woman who bore his children.

The story goes that he once told the women of his household that each day bore a short wishing moment during whatever wish was said aloud would come true, but that he alone knew which moment it was as it changed every day. One day he saw the moment approach and let the others know, at which one of the servant girls made a wish that she could bear Sæmundur seven sons. Sæmundur was taken by surprise and angrily replied “and die at the last one” but alas the wishing moment had not quite passed… the two did end up married, she did indeed give Sæmundur seven sons and, sadly, died giving birth to the seventh. Sæmundur himself was said to have regretted his words right away, so though both men caused the deaths of their lady friend and wife I’d still say Sæmundur had no actual wish to harm her, whereas Galdra-Loftur had it all planned out.

Icelandic sorcery by Ben Sisto on

Loftur mistreated women quite badly otherwise as well. Killing was one thing, but he also turned another servant girl into a steed and rode her, injuring her gravely in process. The scene reminds me of an even earlier legend, that of the kveldriða (= night rider). They were female and used their skills to overpower others and ride them until their victims  died or were at the verge of death. Eyrbyggja saga in particular has such a scene between an old woman who was infatuated with a young, beautiful man. He turned her down, disappeared one night and was found in the morning unconscious and so battered it took him months to heal. The details of the two legends bear such similarities that it does give Loftur’s story a hint of sexual violence, and well, that too would fit the description of his character.

What cemented the legend of Loftur though was neither of these stories that are actually quite typical for Icelandic witches. No, unlike Sæmundur the Wise, Loftur the Sorcerer was never happy with the amount of knowledge he had amassed and even lamented that the Black University (which Sæmundur went to) was no longer open for human students and therefore he had no way of ever learning enough magic to fool the devil, which to him was just as crucial as to Sæmundur. Sæmundur had broken a deal with the devil using his own cunning and skills but Loftur had no such means, and he knew that once death approached his soul would be doomed unless he would somehow become smarter than the devil, too. He hatched a plan.

Book of Magic

Book of Magic by Randen Pederson on

A bishop by the name of Gottskálk grimmi Nikulásson (= Gottskálk the Cruel) who had written one of the most legendary books on black magic called Rauðskinna (= red skin) and who had been buried with his own creation sprang to his mind. Galdra-Loftur threatened a fellow student until he agreed to help him out with his plan, met him at the church that the bishop had been buried under and together they began to rise him from death. The nameless student was to stand by the bell ropes and ring the bells at Galdra-Loftur’s command while Galdra-Loftur himself began a Black Mass. He turned each prayer into a curse or a celebration of the devil, and the dead began to rise from under the church, last of which was Gottskálk who indeed held onto a red book. He leered at Galdra-Loftur that he’d never gain his book and teasingly held it just outside of his reach. Galdra-Loftur replied by more satanic verses and the whole church began to shake, which was too much for the student by the bell: he grabbed the ropes and began to ring them and all the dead vanished.

Thus Galdra-Loftur never gained the book he had been after. He confessed that Gottskálk had been vastly more powerful than himself and that had he kept on chanting the whole church would have fallen underground, which had been the bishop’s plan. What was worse he now knew his death day approach fast, and though a local priest attempted to help him, in the end the devil grabbed Loftur’s boat as he was rowing and pulled him under, the boat and all.


Sæmundur fróði defeats the devil (once again).

What’s most interesting about Galdra-Loftur, as with Sæmundur the Wise, is that they were both real people. Loftur’s real name was Loftur Þorsteinsson (1702 – ?) and he indeed studied at Hólar, though he never seems to have graduated as he died at an early age – or at least there are no records of him past the age of 20. Gottskálk grimmi Nikulásson was likewise a real bishop who was born 1469 and died 1520, Norwegian of origin and famous for his strict and merciless ways of gaining more property to the cross. There’s also a variation of the legend that states Loftur had had not one accomplice but three, Einar Jónsson, his brother Galdra-Ari and Jóhann Kristjánsson, all men who lived in his time and studied at the Hólaskóli (= School at Hólar) at the same time with him. All of them had a reputation for knowing magic or having a natural tendency towards it, something that’s often linked to scholars in Iceland in general. Although suspecting students of getting too ambitious in their knowledge on dark arts is nothing unusual in old legends, what makes Iceland stand out is that it was not always considered a bad thing and that even gaining your skills from Old Nick himself was not automatically a sign of evilness. All depended on how the witchcraft was put to use – to serve the community like Sæmundur’s, or one’s self only like Galdra-Loftur’s.

Witchcraft in Iceland.

Posted on 17. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Sheep bones that were used to predict the future.

As October is halfway done what better time to write a little about witches? Icelandic ones that is, so alas the pretty ladies riding brooms won’t come into picture. The grand majority of Icelandic witches were male and though female ones did exist and were even punished for witchcraft, fact is that of all of the 21 witches that were executed by burning 20 were male.

Note the wording though, because more than that were executed by other means all depending on the severity of the crime. A more typical way of execution for men was hanging and for women drowning, a punishment that was also used for women who became pregnant out of wedlock. If you visit Þingvellir you’ll see the drowning pool used for this purpose, and far as I’m aware most executions by burning also happened nearby. On the other hand people were often given milder punishments, especially if their suspected crimes had not been successfully proven, had had little effect on the planned victim or were otherwise correctable.

A tilberi, photo by Ben Sisto on

What was then severe enough a reason to merit execution? For women the main thing would have been creating a milk-stealing tilberi, an unusual act of magic in that only women were capable of it. For men the matters were more varied. Causing someone’s death by magic was of course one, although nowadays many such cases seem to boil down to a witch causing a drunken row, being thrown out of the bar, cursing the bar owner who then falls off his horse and breaks his neck. Magic or an unfortunate coincidence in times when an untimely death was a far more common occurrence than now, who knows?

Another crime, even worse, was to create an afturganga of the uppvakningur -type (= a woken-up) and send it to destroy someone. Afturgöngur were ghosts that would follow their target until they had successfully killed them, or in some cases destroyed their sanity. To create one a witch would start by either finding a fresh corpse no one had noticed, or selecting a victim, killing them in some manner that often suggests making the victim aware they were being killed such as drowning them, bringing their body back to un-life and start giving it orders. The big risk in creating an afturganga was that if it ran out of people its maker had pointed out for it to destroy it would return to its master and kill him instead.


One of Iceland’s most famous afturganga, Djákninn á Myrká – although he most likely woke up all on his own!

Witches did not necessarily kill their victims every time someone angered them, not immediately at least. More typical was to simply make the target ill, possibly in a humiliating manner such as was the case with Jón Jónsson the younger who was said to have drawn fart runes against a woman. This was seen not only as public humiliation but also a sneaky attempt at her life, seeing how easily stomach problems could lead to death in the time.

Harming someone’s farm animals was definitely on the list of the worst offenses. Especially milk-giving animals, which is quite understandable considering what life was like in Iceland back in the day. Running out of food in the middle of the winter was one of the worst things that could have happened so although it doesn’t seem quite worth a death sentence now, your ordinary 1600’s Icelander would strongly agree with the punishment.

A magical stave, photo by Ben Sisto on

Simply learning magic could on occasion be punishable by death, but let’s not forget that one of Iceland’s most-loved, legendary heroes was Sæmundur fróði Sigfússon, Sæmundur the Wise, a priest who had apparently learned his skills from none other than the devil himself! And though the records of criminals may include accusations of f.ex. rune-writing, the act itself was not punishable. Carving runes or magical staves was only considered evil if they were used to harm someone.

Did people ever file false accusations against each other? Oh yes they did. In fact Icelanders seem to have treated each witch accusation with suspect. An example can be made of Jón Jónsson and his father, also Jón Jónsson, who were both executed by burning. The accuser, pastor Jón Magnússon, was awarded their earthly belongings after the execution. He continued by suing the daughter of Jón Jónsson elder but this time the accused was found innocent and she eventually counter-sued, and was awarded the pastor’s belongings as compensation.

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Let me introduce you an archetype of and Icelandic witch, Galdra-Loftur or Loftur the Magician, a man who thoroughly sums up how Icelanders saw witches to be like. Ruthless, power-hungry and stopping at nothing to further his means, Galdra-Loftur is one of the most famous examples – but we’ll return to his story next week in full detail!


Meanwhile why not read more creepy stuff about Iceland?

Draugasetrið, the haunted ghost museum. A museum that reputedly has ghosts; you’re allowed to try sleeping one night in a haunted area but so far no one’s lasted through a night.

The moon is shining, the dead man’s riding. The story of the horseman whose photo you saw in this post, a man who couldn’t let go of his love.

The heartbroken girl who became a legend. A similar, although scarier story of a woman who couldn’t let go of hers… and she was a real person, not just a ghost story.