By Stephen Mitchell
Norveg, Vol. 38 (1998)
Introduction: If students of medieval Nordic culture are familiar at all with “love magic,” it is likely that their exposure comes from a single famous context, and that is because few eddic poems attract more attention than does For Scirnis, a work that takes up Skirnir’s wooing of Gerdr on behalf of his master, the god Freyr. The poem culminates when Skirnir threatens Gerdr with wishing for no other loves than three-headed trolls and desiring no other drink than goat’s piss if she will not agree to marry his master. This scene may not compete well in the minds of many with Horace’s presentation of Candida and the other witches ritually starving a young boy to death in the preparation of a love potion, yet it is the best-known, and most dramatic and stylized, representation of a love charm in Old Norse literature. Indeed, this poem, so fundamental to our impression of Vanir’s fertility function within the Nordic pantheon, dominates our sense of “live magic.” That such a tradition indeed existed in the medieval Nordic world is underscored by literary, ecclesiastical and historical references: one of the last known events from the Norse colony on Greenland, for example, concerns the burning of a man in 1407, who had used “black arts” to win the will of a married women. Of course, the modern semantic associations present in most European languages between the practice of magic and sexual desire, that is, remarks of the “She’s glamorous,” “It was an enchanting evening,” “Isn’t she bewitching” variety, are well-known etymological testimonials to this relationship (here in English, but equivalent terms exist in the Scandinavian languages, such as Norwegian fortryllende ‘charming, fascinating’, Icelandic tofrandi ‘alluring, bewitching, charming’ Swedish fortjusande ‘enchanting, delightful’ and so on).
This essay, however, looks to explore, not this seductive form of charm magic, but rather its opposite, ie charm magic that prevents the consumption of a relationship, or that makes a fruitful union impossible. The Nordic world was not alone in believing in such magic, which became a common charge against witches in medieval and early modern Europe. Both the Malleus maleficarum and the Compendium maleficarum, for example, explore in some detail the ability of witches to prevent coitus through ligature, and the topic is routinely brought up by Ivo of Chartres, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians. Indeed, the question of witchcraft-related impotence and infertility is cited by Pope Innocent VIII in his bull of 1484, Summis desiderantes affectibus, as one of the principal reasons for assisting Henrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger in the war against sorcery and magic: “many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying for the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offences, have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb[…] they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands.”