Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Iceland Index Previous Next
THE MYSTERIOUS power of the word, whether for prayer, benediction or malediction, has been felt at all times. And at all times, both good wishes and imprecations have been apt to clothe themselves in some kind of metric-rhythmic form for greater expressiveness and impressiveness, for enhancing their magic power. And no sooner is the “formula” fixed than the need is felt to perpetuate the passing sound of words of such power and value by symbols through which their effect may be multiplied, and even conveyed to some distance in time and space. In the Germanic North the runes—alphabetic signs which were adopted, it seems, from some Mediterranean alphabet, say, about the beginning of our era1—served this purpose, especially when verbal curses had failed.2 They were scratched (“written”) on stone and wood and bone and metal, on weapons, clothing, implements of all kinds to be used by him in whose favor, or against whom, the magic was to take effect.
Old High German and Anglo-Saxon literature offers us a wealth of examples of healing, or defensive, magic formulae—some of them of literary value, like the Merseburg Incantations; but for extended instances of offensive magic we must go to Old Norse literature. The Eddic poems abound with magic of all sorts. As illustrations of “offensive” magic we may point out the “classic” curses of Skírnir and of Sigrún, and the shorter malisons of Lokasenna, Fiólsvinnsmól, Atlamól.3 A monument wholly devoted to the purpose of wishing ill “on” some one, and perhaps the most instructive of its kind in literature, though admittedly on a lower plane in æsthetic value than those mentioned, p. 77 is the Buslubœn of the Bósa saga, a Romantic fornaldar saga (legendary tale) of the thirteenth century. Neither is the curse, as a whole, much older; witness certain phrases and views; which, however, does not preclude some portions breathing rank age-old heathendom. It will be noted, by the way, that the last stanza, containing the fiercest rune-magic, does not seem to belong here originally; for whereas all the others contain some proviso, the effectiveness of this curse is dependent, not on King Hring complying with Busla’s demands, but on his not solving the runic riddle. Very likely, the monument is fragmentary, whether through the pretended squeamishness of the clerical scribe or, as seems more likely, through his not remembering more.
The saga tells how, impelled by untoward circumstances, young Herrauth and his companion at arms, Bósi, fight a pitched battle with Herrauth’s father, King Hring. They are subdued and bound, to be put to death on the morrow; but old Busla, Bósi’s fostermother, a hag most experienced in witchcraft, approaches the king at night “and began that curse which is since called Busla’s Curse. It has become famous. In it are many turns which are bad for Christians to have in their mouths. And this is the beginning of it:”
|1||“Here liest thou, Hring, Lord of the Gauts,4|
the most headstrong of human kind—
minded, to-morrow to murther thy son:
will this foul deed be told far and wide.
|2||“Hear thou Busla’s song5— ’t will be sung full soon;|
so that it be heard the whole world about—
harmful to him who heareth it,
but fellest for him whom fain I would curse.
|3||“May wights be wildered, and wonders happen,|
may cliffs be shattered and the world shaken,
may the weather worsen, and wonders happen,
p. 78 but thou, King Hring, forgive Herrauth,
and eke to Bósi no ill threaten.
|4||“O’er thy chest such charms now chant I shall6|
that evil asps shall eat thy heart,
that thy ears henceforth shall hear no more,
and thy seeing eyes leave their sockets,
but thou with Bósi wilt bear, hereafter,
nor harbor hate against Herrauth, either.
|5||“If boat thou sailest, shall burst the ropes,|
if boat thou steerest, shall break the tholepins7—
shall the sail-cloth be slit and sag downward,
and all the tackle be torn asunder,
but thou harbor no hate against Herrauth,
and but thou with Bósi will bear hereafter.
|6||“Shall the reins ravel when thou ridest forth,|
shall horses go halt, and nags be hamstrung8—
shall both highways and bridle-paths
take thee where trolls may tear thee straightway,
but thou with Bósi wilt bear hereafter,
nor harbor hate against Herrauth, either.
|7||“May thy bed be for thee like burning straw,|
thy high-seat unsteady like heaving sea-wave.
Yet woe awaits thee much worse by far:
if with maid thou meanest a man’s joy to have,
shalt lose thy way then:9 doest wish to hear more?”
(The king attempts to silence her and to rise, but finds himself charmed fast to his bed and unable to wake his attendants. As he is still unwilling to give in, Busla chants the second part of her curse:)
|8||“Shall trolls and elves and tricking witches,|
shall dwarfs and etins burn down thy mead-hall—
shall thurses hate thee and horses ride thee,9
shall all straws stick thee,10 all storms stun thee:
and woe worth thee but my will thou doest!”
(Then the king is ready to pardon his son Herrauth, but to declare Bósi outlaw.) Then started she to chant what is called Syrpuvers (i.e., “the Verses of Syrpa”), in which is the strongest magic, so that it is not permitted to chant them after nightfall; and toward the end it goes like this:
|9||Come here six fellows: say thou their names:|
I shall show them to thee unshackled all.
But thou get them guessed as good meseemeth,
shall ravening hounds rive thee to pieces,
and thy soul sink to hell-fire!”11
(Then, after the king’s swearing an oath that he will do her bidding, she “takes the curse off.”)
1 The theory long accepted, that they originated through some adaptation of a Greek or Latin alphabet by the Goths along the Black Sea has recently been challenged with some force, and an earlier origin from Etruscan or Thracian script suggested.
2 Cf. Skírnismól, 38, note.
3 Skírnismól, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana, II, 30-33; Lokasenna, 65; Fiolsvinnsmól, 45; Atlamól, 30. Cf. also Hervararkvitha, 12, 21.
4 The inhabitants of Gautland, the present Swedish province of Gotland.
5 Literally, “prayer”; but the incantation is meant, of course.
6 The translation of the line is doubtful.
7 In Germanic antiquity, vessels were steered, not with a rudder, but with an extra oar on the “starboard,” i.e., the steering side. Oars were held by thongs to the tholepins. Cf. Haraldskvæthi, 17; Atlamól, 34.
8 Literally, “become weak.”
9 To be understood in malam partem.
10 Proverbial for all things “going against one.”
11 There follow these runic signs:
ᚱ᛫ᚨ᛫ᚦ᛫ᚴ᛫ᚢ᛫ ᛬ ᛁᛁᛁᛁᛁ ᛬ ᛍᛍᛍᛍᛍ ᛬ ᛐᛐᛐᛐᛐ ᛬ ᛁᛁᛁᛁᛁ ᛬ ᛚᛚᛚᛚᛚ
As a solution, Uhland (Schriften, VI, 248) suggested that with the letters of the first group of runes successively placed before the five others, the six words (or “fellows,” as the text has it) resulting would be ristill “plowshare,” aistill “testicle,” thistill “thistle,” kistill “box,” mistill “mistletoe,” vistill “?”—words whose sense in malam partem is still partly discernible.