Review – Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition

We’ve had a good number of books lately, but I’ve been working on them steadily over the summer.  I knew I’d eventually have to get to Trolldom, Johannes Björn Gårdbäck’s work published by the Yronwode Institution for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology.

Trolldom, as Gårdbäck reassures us, does not specifically refer to trolls, but rather to the gamut of supernatural forces with which a person may treat to earn good fortune or ward off bad.  Such magical procedures, whether native or transplanted from Germany or surrounding lands, were used throughout Scandinavia for centuries, and made their way to North America via immigration.  Folklorists in their home countries have collected an astounding collection of trolldom, although most of it remains untranslated.

Gårdbäck’s goal seems to be to create a book intended for practitioners of folk magic, whether that be those interested in Norse practice or a more eclectic approach.  Although the book does include introductory discussions of the history and principles of trolldom, but the bulk of it consists of individual charms, mainly Swedish, but also including material from Norway, Denmark, and western Finland, translated from various works into English.  These are organized upon the basis of purpose, and include labels identifying the country and century from which it originates, as well as explanatory notes covering unusual concepts or contemporary usages.

All of this is admirable, and yet I think that this book is not as good as it could be, simply due to the organization.

One of my deep frustrations with the book is the lack of attribution for particular sources.  Trolldom‘s bibliography is stunning in the amount of material it covers.  Yet, when it comes to actual entries, we aren’t often told which book or article includes them.  I found myself frustrated, as I’d find a great piece on wax images or witch bottles that I wanted to track down, only to find I had no idea where to begin that search.  This might be less of a problem for the main audience, save that it closes off the potential for interested readers to explore particular sources.

What is more problematic is the lack of a structure for finding  particular incantations and usages.  Although these are classified by function, the labels in the table of contents are often quite wide.  The author includes subsidiary tables of contents at the beginning of each section, which does help somewhat, but the section on divination in particular does not include those.  A more robust table of contents, or an index, would have been a greatly appreciated addition.

Nonetheless, this is only troubling because we have so many riches in the book.  There are brief sections devoted to the årsgång, or year walk, various supernatural helper spirits for the household, and extravagant curses that take up entire pages.  One simply cannot dislike a book in which spells are given accurate but evocative titles such as “Liver Slap against Stuttering,” “Cause a Scandal Using a Mushroom,” and “Smacking Blood Sucking Elves with a Hammer.”

One obvious question is how this book stacks up to the late Thomas K. Johnson’s dissertation.  I prefer Johnson’s work, but that’s because it’s much better sourced.  Those looking at it from a different angle might prefer the new book.  Trolldom does not refer to Johnson’s book, but it’s far too much work to determine whether there might not be overlap between the procedures described in each.

Please note that ordering from YIPPIE itself is, unfortunately, highly expensive ($10 shipping US), as the Institution does not provide a media mail option.  I hope they will make adjustments to their rates for future publications, especially given the impressive quality of this one.

Published in: on September 5, 2015 at 9:25 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Source: Review – Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition […]

  2. Thank you for reading the book and reviewing it. I intentionally left out the sources used by Thomas as a courtesy. His dissertation is very good apart from some unfortunate translational errors in the spells.

  3. […] from Sweden who might be able to access the sources in their language.  Also, Gårdbäck’s Trolldom contains a couple of pages on the topic that might be of use to […]

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