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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

Sunny with a hint of poisonous gas.

Posted on 09. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Volcanic eruption in Holuhraun – Iceland, by Sparkle Motion on

The whole capital city region has been engulfed in a sulfur dioxide cloud since Monday, and it seems to go on for at least until the wind changes direction. Yes, the volcanic eruption is still going on. The world may have forgotten it by now but a volcano does not care about whether it’s being watched or not, it has quietly scaled itself on VEI5 level and is now comparable to the eruption of St. Helens (link).

Indeed, these last few days the volcano has been much in the news. An eruption below Vatnajökull is still discussed as a possibility due to the continuing seismic activity and the top of the ice having sunk noticeably, although everyone of course hopes that won’t happen. Last time an eruption occurred below the glacier at Grímsvatn large clouds of ash polluted the drinking water in all of the nearby areas – and an eruption of this scale is not a laughing matter. You can see the area that would be hit the worst here.

As for the sulfur dioxide there’s nothing much that needs to be done while it stays below hazardous levels. People who are in any of the risk groups – elderly, ill or with lung-related problems – are advised to stay indoors as much as possible but for the majority of people life just goes on as normal (link). We’re following the moves of the sulfur dioxide cloud here.

But not all’s bad news about the volcano – Eric Cheng managed to get an amazing view at it! You can see the resulting film and Eric himself explaining some things behind the scenes here. Besides, the sunsets and dawns, though always beautiful, have turned rather unusually so in the last few days (link)(link).

Holuhraun by Sparkle Motion on

Holuhraun by Sparkle Motion on

Big horses, big fish, an unkindness of ravens

Another theme for the most recent news have been animals and the weather in general. Icelandic horses, for example, have grown taller. This article mentions that the average height of an Icelandic horse has grown for about 12cm is the last 20 years. Watch out world, they’re catching up in size! :D

Meanwhile Eysteinn Örn Garðarsson has had some serious fishing luck by catching a cod weighing 50kg! The Atlantic cod can grow to over 90kg at best but this is still one huge fish. Eysteinn himself says that in all his 16 years fishing this is by far the largest that he’s seen. You can have a look at his catch here and compare its size to the man who caught it.

Ravens, though usually well-liked, do have some well-earned enemies: the sheep farmers. The story of how the ravens killed a lamb is a little gory so you may or may not want to read more about it, but what makes this news truly Icelandic is the farmers first reaction when he saw what they had done… he composed a poem about them.

Hrafn á að hengja og skjóta,
höggva, stinga og brjóta.
Það er ekkert rugl,
þetta er andstyggðarfugl,
með söguna svarta og ljóta.

Raven should be hung and shot,
beaten, pierced and broken.
This is not nonsense,
it’s an abominable bird,
with history black and ugly.


And now – the weather

We also had snow (link). People were of course very excited and social media sites were flooded with photos of this strange phenomena, although in all honesty it’s typical for Iceland that you see some snow in early October. It usually won’t last long, but although it happens almost every year it still manages to surprise everyone. :D

In fact the winter used to fall in much earlier just a few years ago, and the real anomaly has been the general warmth of the most recent ones. As a Finn I’m not going to judge people too harshly though – in my home country people get surprised by the fact that ice is slippery each winter, causing accidents left and right…

But back to Iceland, I’ve been saving the even more typical autumn weather phenomena until last. Have you ever seen a waterfall fall sideways? We do, on what Icelanders describe as slightly breezy days such as this one (there’s also a video of a sideways waterfall in the link). Autumns in Iceland are dark, rainy and windy, storm warnings are the norm and when Icelanders warn about a storm it means business. A storm here can mean winds so strong they strip asphalt off the roads, tear off roofs and topple cars. If, for some reason, you’d like to travel in Iceland during the autumn, keep an eye on weather forecasts. Búist er við stormi (= a storm is expected) in particular is the sentence you want to look out for, especially if it’s followed with ekkert ferðaveður (= no traveling weather/not a good weather for driving around). Even if it goes against your plans, do not drive out of towns and into the countryside on those days. Trust me, it’s a bad, bad idea.

This has been one interesting week in the news in Iceland, let’s hope the nature will settle down a bit by Halloween!