January 15, 2013

Olaus Magnus and Nordic Magic

        Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) was a Swedish Catholic who was involved with scholarship, diplomacy, and the church.  His first major work was the Carta marina map of Scandinavia, which I've mentioned before.  It is inhabited by a number of excellent monsters of both land and sea.  But Magnus's most famous work is Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, (History of the Northern Peoples), of 1555.  Written in Latin, this work was considered the ultimate authority on Swedish matters in the rest of Europe, but wasn't translated into Swedish until 1909.  Like most books of its day, it was illustrated with wood block prints drawn by anonymous artists and carved and printed by anonymous craftsmen.  As usual, I'm sorry not to be able to give credit where credit is due, because among the many many woodcuts in Magnus's work are quite a few dealing with magical and mythical themes close to my heart.
        This first one shows the secret chamber of a Swedish wizard.  He has made a magic snake and a toad of copper, but all this sorcerous work has sent him into a trance, so his wife has to guard him.  I'm not sure whether the dragon is of the wizard's creation or whether it's one of the things the wizard's wife has to protect him from.
       Here's another strong woman, this one a wicked witch.  By pouring a magic potion from her cauldron into the sea (you can see her holding the pot upside-down with the potion falling out) she's brewed up a storm to wreck the ship on the left side.  I love her wild hair and dress swirling about in the wind of her own storm, but her assistant, holding the staff below, looks rather stupidly delighted by the drama.
        The faun-like woodland fairies in this piece are called in the title "ghosts," which I take to be a translation issue.  Whatever they are, they've got a bagpipe and a banjo, as well as a flower and a snake, so you know it's got to be a good party!
        The word "ghosts" is used again in this one illustrating the uses to which magical creatures can be put.  Perhaps the word translated as "ghost" means something more along the lines of "summoned spirit."  In any case, there are lots of interesting magical things going on in this one.  You've got (counter-clockwise from top right) a coach driving without a
horse, a witch riding a dragon, a gnome quarrying stone, some other critter sweeping a stable, and my favorite, a wind troll sailing a boat without any sails.  Unlike the other magical beings in this illustration, the wind troll looks quite pleased with his task.  Presumably it's because he gets to revel in the use of his natural talents.
        And finally, here is a soothsayer prophesying for a king.  You can see some of the portents he's interpreting, including stars, mountain sounds or echoes, and the behavior of fish.
        In all these woodcuts, I love the format with the lovely fancy decorations to the sides of each panel.  Though the images may be fairly rough and crude, those extra details show that Magnus wanted this to be a book of beauty and artistry.  But there are so many fun and interesting woodcuts in Magnus's work that I'd better stop now and save some of the others for another time!

[Pictures: On Magic Utensils in Bothnia, woodcut from Book 3, Chapter 17 of Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555;
On Women Skilled in Magic, woodcut from Book 3, Chapter 15;
On Nocturnal Dance of Fairies, in Other Words Ghosts, woodcut from Book 3, Chapter 11;
On the Service of Ghosts, woodcut from Book 3, Chapter 21;
On the Art of Prophecy, woodcut from Book 3, Chapter 13 (All images from Lars Henriksson.  Thanks for the great resource!).]

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