I’ve noticed a growing trend of people having Icelandic magical staves tattooed on them lately. Some of the choices, alas, range from weird to unintentionally funny and inappropriate.
On its own having such a stave tattooed is not a bad thing at all. Icelanders themselves often get them as tattoos and it’s not considered insulting if a foreigner does the same, but there are dangers there that you’re well to be aware of. The most important one might be that just because a culture is Western does not make adapting its symbols any safer than getting a tattoo in f.ex. hanzi/kanji. To avoid embarrassing mistakes you’ll have to do your research first, and for the love of everything do not trust any chart that you see at a tattooist or floating around online, especially if they describe the meaning of the stave in only one or two words!
One such example can be found here, a picture that’s been going around Tumblr for a while now and unfortunately seems popular. The irony behind is that the person who put the chart together did it precisely to warn people against getting the wrong kind of a tattoo (source), and many of the staves on that picture are examples of that. Some won’t work alone, such as Gapaldur and Ginfaxi. They have to be present at the same time to have any effect at all but that’s not enough, they also have a specified location. Gapaldur has to be placed under the heel of the right foot, and Ginfaxi goes under the toes of the left one. Worn in this manner they will ensure their bearer victory in battle!
That’s if you’re a pro wrestler. Gapaldur and Ginfaxi are not generic battle runes, they only help in the ancient Icelandic wrestling, Glíma.
I’d also like to point out that although good, this person’s list of rune explanations is not exact. The Svefnþorn (= sleep thorn) for example, that’s stated to give restful sleep, which according to the book Huld (= hidden/secret) is indeed accurate. The book then adds that if the staves are not removed there’s a chance that the sleeper will never wake up again, so perhaps it’s a good idea to list these ones as “do not self-medicate”.
Another interesting fact about Icelandic magical staves is that they’re not entirely Icelandic, nor entirely for Ásatrú. A part of them definitely are Icelandic in origin but many come from the continental Europe, which may mean that the meaning behind some of them may differ in the place of the stave’s origin – be aware of that when making permanent choices. Some of them (such as all the swastika variants and some of the other sun wheels) may even be illegal and/or offensive in some countries. As for the latter point, Christians in Iceland have also used these staves and have done so for centuries. There’s nothing in the generic idea of using them that Icelanders have seen as immoral or heathen as such, and to create some you’ll have to include a very Christian prayer! Here’s a good example of that:
The above one’s translated name “End Strife” is accurate, its Icelandic name is similarly “að stilla alla reiði” (= to calm all anger). First of all, it’s place-specific, meant to be drawn on your forehead and no other place. Secondly it has a very detailed way in which it has to be made: you draw it with the first finger of your left hand (instructions don’t state that it has to be visible, so perhaps just tracing the symbol will do). Then you recite: “Ægishjálm ég ber milli augna mér. Reiðin renni, stríð stemmi. Verði mér svo hver maður feginn sem María varð fegin sínum signuðum syni þá hún fann hann á sigurhellunni. Í nafni föður og sonar og anda heilags.” (= I bear Ægishjálmur [another magical stave] between my eyes. Anger to drain, fighting to reconcile. May I with others be as glad as Mary became when she found her son victorious in the cave. In the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.)
…and it’s not yet done. You still have to do a small incantation in the end and for those in Ásatrú, note that this incantation may be thought of as being insulting to Óðinn.
What about something that sounds really epic, such as the Óttastafur (= fear stave) that’s supposed to strike fear in your enemies? Well… there’s a few reasons why it might be a bad idea. First of all most rune workers agree getting a negative stave such as this one tattooed on you, or even using one, is not smart. What if you draw it wrong? Icelandic staves have a direction to which they have to go or you’ll risk turning the effect of the stave against yourself, meaning that instead of striking fear in your enemies the stave may perhaps make you deadly ill, or paranoid for life, neither of which is probably the warrior-like quality you were after. Besides it may have a different effect on other people than you wished for: in the sagas the use of attack runes tends to mean that the user is a weakling who would not inspire fear in anyone, thus the need for magic.
Besides that creating Óttastafur, like all Icelandic magical staves, is a serious business ritual and not just a fancy scribble. It’s not only place-specific but also material- and usage-specific: to make it work in your favour you’d have to carve it to a shield made of oak and then manage to throw it at your enemy’s feet.
The staves were drawn for many reasons from preventing barrels to leak, creating the famous necropants (link)(link is safe for work), helping you become a great rower, or to assist you in mowing hay. Yet no matter how strange they now seem to us they were once made for a reason, and for example the mowing hay -stave was seen so important that to make it work it had to be carved to the scythe and then coloured in blood from the main artery of one’s left hand.
It’s important to bear in mind that the descriptions on how the staves were to be created were written down by Christian authors, which means that especially the dark magic ones may have some added flair to the creation just to underline how evil they are and/or confuse a reader who would want to try making one, thus ensuring they’ll make a mistake in creating the stave. However, since many staves were considered perfectly acceptable the authors have had no particular motive to colour their making further. It’s also good to remember the time in which they were created, and that certain things such as oaken shields were perhaps a little more common then than today. Some things like strengthening a stave with blood will also seem a lot more dramatic to us than to the people back then: Egill Skalla-Grímsson himself drew runes on the side of a drink he suspected poisonous and filled them with his blood, and all this in the middle of a party.
But does any of the above really matter if you’d just like a stave for decoration and don’t particularly believe in Icelandic magic? Tattoos are taken for one’s own self first and foremost after all, some may even be in places you would rarely show to another human being. The answer to this is maybe and maybe not, it entirely depends on why you’re getting that tattoo. If you’re following any religion you may want to see that they don’t go against it. If you believe in magic be doubly careful. If your motive is that you like to study the staves or runes you might also want to wait for a few months and read up on your choices, maybe ask a specialist before getting inked, because getting the wrong kind of a stave or a misspelled piece of runic text tattooed on you will be your eternal reminder of getting that tattoo before you had earned it. Still, there are some staves that are positive in their effect and therefore safe choices so why not pick one of those?
The Vegvísir (= route shower) for example will help you find your way to your destination no matter what. It’s a popular protective tattoo; Björk, for example, has a vegvísir tattooed on her. Ægishjálmur (= helm of awe/terror) is also considered void of negative effects to the bearer despite its name. I’ve come across translations such as “making you irresistible” and while correct, it only grants you one kind irresistibility – it’s worn to inspire awe and fear in people who oppose you and simultaneously keep you safe from your own higher-ups using their position to abuse you. The difference between ægishjálmur and óttastafur is in their basic use: while óttastafur is meant to be used as a weapon, ægishjálmur, like its name suggests, is meant for defense and protection.
Names of various magical staves and short descriptions on their usage.
If you’re interested in the subject there are some original Icelandic books on magical staves available on the net such as Huld (here) and Galdrakver (here). I also found a really interesting article about ægishjálmur here.
Source of the images used in this entry here, the rest of the images belong to me.
If you don’t already know of Svavar Knútur, now’s definitely the time to find out! He’s often described as a troubadour, which I’m full ready to agree with, and has one of the loveliest voices I’ve ever heard. Also check his band Hraun – in fact since their song Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum (= love story from the mountains) is somewhat popular it’s possible you’ve already have.
Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum (link). Lyrics here, English translation available.
Ölduslóð (link). You can find the lyrics to this and the next song here. English translations available.
Yfir hóla og yfir hæðir. (link)