Tuesday's Tales - another Icelandic tale

Loftur the Sorcerer

Once upon a time, there was a student at the seminary at Hólar.  His name was Loftur, and his only interest was the study of sorcery.  He concentrated all his efforts on his studies until he had learned everything contained in Gráskinna (‘Greycover’).  Once he had mastered this, he sought to gain more arcane knowledge, but he found he had surpassed every other scholar of sorcery, and there was nobody who knew more than he did.

One winter, Loftur confided his plan to another student, whom he considered to be a brave man.  He wanted this student to help him resurrect the ancient bishops.  Horrified, the student refused.  But Loftur pleaded with the man, insisting he must help otherwise Loftur would be doomed.  Perturbed, the student asked how he could possibly help Loftur for he knew nothing of sorcery, and Loftur it was who knew more of sorcery than anybody else.  Loftur told him that all he was required to do was to stand in the belfry and hold the bell rope, while watching Loftur closely.  When he saw Loftur’s hand signal, he was to pull on the bell rope and ring the bell.

Even though his task seemed a simple enough one, still the student was reluctant.  “Why, Loftur?” he asked.  “Why do you have to do this deed?”

“Those who have studied sorcery as I have done,” replied Loftur, “can only use it for evil, and they will perish completely when they die.  But if one has more knowledge than what mortals deem sufficient, then the Devil will have no power over that human.  Instead the Devil will be obliged to serve the human, with no reward forthcoming.  Anyone who knows so much that he can command the Devil can use all the knowledge he has gained with no fear to hold him back.  But such knowledge is nigh on impossible to come by ever since the Black School was closed, and Bishop Gottskalk the Evil had Rauðskinna (‘Redcover’) buried with him.  And that, my friend, is why I plan to resurrect him, to obtain the book from him using the sorcery I have learned.”

So it was that, in the night and by moonlight, they made their way to the church.  The student climbed the steps to the belfry while Loftur made his way to the pulpit, and there began his chanting.  It did not take long for the ancient bishops to arise, one by one, from their graves.  Three wore crowns; the first, the one in the middle, and the last.  They begged Loftur to stop, but he was deaf to their pleas.  There was one particular bishop he wanted, and there was no sign of him; Gottskalk the Evil had yet to appear.

Raising his voice, Loftur continued to chant.  Taking the holy Psalms, he turned the words around to praise the Devil instead.  The three crowned bishops stood as far from Loftur as they were able with their hands raised.  The other resurrected bishops turned away from Loftur.  Then a heavy noise echoed through the church, and a man arose, bearing a staff in his left hand, and clutching a red book in his right.  He did not have a crucifix on his chest, and glared at the other bishops.

Gottskalk the Evil moved closer to where Loftur continued to chant.  In a scornful tone, he said, “Well chanted, my son, better than I expected.  But you will not obtain my Rauðskinna.”

Turning pale, still Loftur continued to chant.  He turned the Blessing and the Lord’s Prayer around to praise the Devil instead, and, as if in protestation, the church shook like straw in the wind.

Up in the belfry, the student, trembling, stared as Gottskalk moved closer to Loftur and thrust a corner of the book towards him.  If the student had been frightened before, now he shook with terror.  The evil bishop lifted the book; the student saw Loftur stretch out his hand.  As the church continued to shudder under him, the student, almost overcome with horror, pulled the bell rope.  As the peal of the bell sounded clearly through the church, everything vanished into the floor with an eerie whispering sound.

Loftur stood, exhausted and trembling, in the pulpit while the student came rushing down from the belfry.  Staring hollow-eyed at his companion, Loftur said, “Now my worst fears will be realised.  I only had to wait for the dawn, and the bishop would have had no choice but to relinquish his hold on the book.  But he was close to overcoming me in our encounter.  If I had chanted one stave more, the church would have sunk.  I chanced a look at the crowned bishops and their faces startled me enough that I realised the doom of the church was Gottskalk’s goal.  But the book was so close, I was certain I could take it from him.  I touched a corner, but lacked a good enough grip to wrest it from him.  Now, there is nothing more for it, my welfare is doomed.”

Loftur became convinced that he would die on a certain Sunday.  His friends advised him to seek refuge with the priest at Staðastaður, who was very religious and helped those in dire need.  Loftur made his way there and stayed with the priest until that Sunday that he feared.

It happened that the priest could not remain with Loftur that day for he was required to give the last rites to an old friend.  Anxious and fearful to the point of illness, Loftur chose to remain in the priest’s house instead of accompanying him.  After the priest left, Loftur began to feel better.  Deciding that he would feel even better for spending time out of doors, he went for a walk.

As he approached the next farm, which was close to the sea, he asked the farmer if there was a boat he could use, and the farmer floated a small one for Loftur to go fishing.  There was no wind that day, but neither Loftur nor the boat were ever seen again.  A man walking nearby would not swear to it, but he thought he had seen a grey hand rise from the waters, grab the stern of Loftur’s boat and pull it under.


That’s a bit of an eerie tale, very different from last week’s.  I guess at the end of the day, Loftur’s ambition was his downfall – he already knew more of sorcery than anyone else, and he continued to learn more even though, as he said, it could only be used for evil and the user would perish completely – I wonder if he meant the soul would be forfeit.  But to have the ‘Devil’ at your beck and call?  And would Loftur have used his increased knowledge for evil?  Hmm ... Interesting that the one with the full knowledge of sorcery was not just any 'evil' person, but a bishop who'd been buried in the church alongside the other bishops; that I don't remember ever having come across in similar stories.