Demonic Magic in the Icelandic Wizard Legends

Map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius ca. 1590

Demonic Magic in the Icelandic Wizard Legends

By Mark Hanford

Northern Studies, Volume 29 (1992)

Map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius ca. 1590

Introduction: The word ‘wizard’ in this paper refers to the Icelandic galdramenn as a separate class of magicians distinct from the pagan sorcerers of early medieval literature. The wizard legends represent a large body of Icelandic folk-tales and the magic practised in the legends reflects a wide range of beliefs, however, allowing for a few exceptions, some generalisations can be drawn. Many of the wizards are priests and the legends often have a strong Christian element. Terms referring to old or pagan knowledge are reserved almost exclusively for the evil magicians.

This paper will be primarily concerned with the migratory legends. These are legends which have been recorded in roughly the same form in several different countries. For the purpose of this paper we will assume that these legends originated elsewhere and were imported into Iceland. This assumption is consistent with the orthodox Christian beliefs from the early Middle Ages. The influence of these beliefs is especially strong in the legends concerning the wizard/priest Saemund the Learned.

Saemund Sigfusson is the earliest of the Icelandic wizards. According to the annals he was born in the year 1056. He was educated in France and returned to Iceland in 1076 or 1078. Once home he erected a large church on his patrimony at Oddi in the south of Iceland and played an active role in both the ecclesiastical and political life of the country. He was instrumental in passing both the law of tithes and the ecclesiastical law of 1125. Through his efforts he helped to raise his family to a position of power and prestige which it was to enjoy for several generations.

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