Galdrastafabók: "A Book of Staves" by Jesse Bransford (Review)

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To pick up your first mail order is an unspoken pleasure of moving house. It may be the last thing you need at a point where you are living out of bags and boxes, but there is truly no better inauguration for a new home than to once again sink into such habits of quotidian life.

This rings particularly true when you go to pick up the things that make a house a home. A good chair, a book, a piece of art. I found two out of three waiting for me recently, in the form of Jesse Bransfords' latest monograph A Book of Staves, or Galdrastafabók, released this year through the UK based esoteric publisher Fulgur. I didn't know too much about the author in advance, but I did know he was an artist and co-organizer of the biennial Occult Humanities Conference. Though a vague point of reference, it was a promising start. I landed in town just too late for the release party, which coincided with Bransford's solo exhibit The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. Luckily the show was still ongoing by the time I had settled down and come to my senses, and I was fortunate enough to catch a lecture by the artist in question and Elizabeth Insogna, mediated by another Occult Humanities Conference organizer, Pam Grossman. All in all a great occasion to see some of the book's eponymous staves up close.

 The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

Certain expectations follow the Fulgur catalog. As the common ground of art and magic forms their main scope of interest, Fulgur's books and journals seem to burst with pictures, poetry, and colorful illustrations. In the case of their often oversized volumes, they are a far cry from the ubiquitous pocket format fodder found in the new age section of your local bookstore, and truly worthy of rare hours of retreat and contemplation. Their artsy and bookish alibi recalls the old times when it was self-evident that art, magic, and academia were parts of the same trinity.

A Book of Staves does not diverge from this esoteric art book tradition. Nicely bound in its coffee table format, a debossed visual palindrome in the form of a charm hides beneath the dust jacket. With its 120 pages it is not a dense book by any means. The word count is front heavy: The book begins with a statement from the artist, superseded by an introductory essay by the British archaeologist and art historian Robert J. Wallis. Both supplied with a parallel Icelandic translation. From there on, most of the text consists of titles and quotes from the Hávamál in Old Norse besides Carolyne Larrington's popular English translation. This is intended to complement the artwork.

As for the artwork itself, it would be more fitting to refer to the individual images – like the artist does – as spells. For all intents and purposes, A Book of Staves is not a typical "art book", but a neatly curated series of visual charms: It contains 39 individual galdrastafir, 18 of which are based on the equal number of magical charms reckoned by Odin in the ljóðatal section of the eddic poem Hávamál (stanzas 146 through 163). Then, under his “Moon Rituals” follows nine astrological staves, then eight non-sequential “Small Staves” on various magical themes, and finally four staves for the elements.

I was immediately surprised at how well the “songs” of ljóðatal worked with Bransford's visual re-imaginings. In hindsight, Odin's secretive charms sound exactly like the sort of things you'll find in many books of magic, whether in continental grimoires, or the Scandinavian “black books” and Icelandic staves the early modern era. His “Small Staves” come across as faithful developments of this tradition as well. Yet his is no sterile contribution. The artist's playful signature, whether by his use of watercolor, or the sketchwork revealing the underlying geometry of the charms, removes the usual anonymity of his source material. Though unsaid, Icelandic staves work excellently as abstract art.

 The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

This wouldn't be a true review without some critical remarks: While I found myself nodding along to the opening essays, there were one or two points where terminological inaccuracies and anachronisms eased my initial groove. Such as the seeming use of seiðr as an umbrella term for "Icelandic magic". Strictly speaking, seiðr and galdr aren't necessarily associated with one another at all, but the book does seem to make this association somewhat by default. As I have pointed out in previous entries, though, this is a common misunderstanding of Old Norse magic (read: generalizing the particular), so Bransford can definitely be excused. Besides, the author's reason for mentioning seiðr in the first place seems to serve the purpose of contextualizing magic as an example of the transgressive in-between. I can hardly argue with that, even if I disagree with the terminology.

I also wish the book made a clearer statement about the kinship between the galdrastafir and the solomonic magic of the wider European tradition, which much of the Icelandic tradition is directly descended from in form and content. Though the essays refer to the Western mystery tradition and hermeticism here and there, it feels as if the alignment is treated as somewhat of a coincidence or artistic quirk. In fact, the galdrastafir have a closer relation to classic Western esotericism, than they have to historical viking era sorcery. Not to even mention the conjecture and antiquarian tricks involved in the original galdrastafir,  which many people are either unaware of, or reluctant to admit. But when all is said and done it is not Branford's responsibility as an artist to correct the wrongs of how Icelandic magic is sold to the wider audience. Perhaps I can put this on the wishlist for future editions?

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Some nerds may raise an eyebrow at the disregard for runic chronology displayed between the covers of the book, but I see no issue here. The book does not pose as a source of historical magic, as so many modern books on Nordic magic quite fraudulently do. Instead, Bransford's book represents a successful attempt at demonstrating the common ground of past and present, as well as different traditions. I think that to the majority of people, it can be difficult to understand what magic has to offer in such a materialist and disenchanted society as our own. Icelandic magic, actually all forms of folk magic, could introduce them to the idea that magic exists even in the most mundane expressions of the human condition. Jesse Bransford has created a playful and worthy contemporary contribution to the Icelandic magical tradition, which I will heartily recommend to anyone interested in the long-term artistic and cultural legacy of the North Atlantic.


Verdict:

FIVE FROTHY HORNS

Buy Jesse Bransford's A Book of Staves here.

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