by Eric Beebe
My girlfriend brought me back a spell book from Iceland. She’d asked if I wanted a drinking horn, but I already had two or three. A decorative belt pouch for my Ren Faire Viking garb? Nah, I could get that at a Ren Faire. So a six-pack of Einstök and The Sorcerer’s Screed it was.
The book was pretty austere for something containing spells for summoning ghost-horses and killing people’s livestock. It was just a red paperback with a serif font and some staves—magical symbols—printed in white on each cover, none of that skin-bound Necronomicon kind of stuff. But it was written by a guy who called himself Skuggi (“shadow”) and scorned Christianity’s self-proclaimed monopoly on communing with the powers that be.
This wasn’t my first book of Scandinavian spells. I’d bought Dr. Stephen E. Flowers’s second edition of the Galdrabók months earlier. Skimming through his foreword (read: thesis) on my way to the juicy stuff, I read how spells and incantations of the late- and post-Viking-Age North show evidence of a unique dynamic between Christianity and Norse Paganism, one of more compromise than the mutual resentment I thought had persisted until one old, bearded man in the sky won out over the other. Even Skuggi wrote that sorcery was an attempt to understand a single creator and his works versus a pantheon, although he lived from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.
Neither should have come as a total surprise. The Norse were as much traders as raiders, and it’s only fitting that there would be aspects of cultural exchange noted in a people known for traveling as far from their home as the Middle East and even Newfoundland. So finding spells calling on equal parts God, Satan, Thor, and Loki, among others, to curse someone with explosive bowels was just ye olde multiculturalism at work.
That last bit of info might make it sound like this is all a joke to me, but that couldn’t be further from true. The occult has always been the source of my greatest fears. Reading any of these texts after sundown leads to me alternating between a bedsheet cocoon and switching my bedside light on at the slightest hint of movement through the night. I regard the supernatural with equal parts wonder and fear.
I still have yet to test any spells from the Screed. The most I’ve done is to leaf through its pages, jotting down which ones require minimal animal sacrifice or law-breaking to cast, which could be feasibly integrated into trinkets without upsetting the associated ritual. Some simply require the reader to carve a stave into a specific wood and carry it with them. Years before I acquired either book, I drew a stave I’d found online for luck in romantic pursuits onto a scrap of paper, nicked my finger with a pocket knife to trace the stave in my blood, then ate the paper. This bore no measurable results. Maybe that’s why I hesitate to try any of these new spells. Whether I botched that old stave or just helped cement science’s superiority, I have reason to be skeptical I’d find any luck with fresh ones.
Still, curiosity draws me in. If not for some attainable result, why were these rites and symbols recorded? The Norse believed love poems were a type of sorcery, the words themselves bearing magical significance. Today we usually just call that art. I’d like to think all the mammary blood and raven bile connects to something we might understand today too, as if mysticism was just some ancient method of manipulating physics in minor ways that became lost to the ages. Wishful thinking, I know, but speculation is part of the fun with such things. I think we all want to believe there’s some untapped potential for the extraordinary in ourselves, in this world, in a book—something we’re one good push away from obtaining to liven up the status quo. Maybe there is, or maybe I’ve just had a harder time letting go of the fantastical than others my age. I’ll probably never feel sure of either.
Eric Beebe is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently works as a substitute teacher for grades K–12 in New Hampshire.