April 20, 2020
Johannes Gårdbäck, An Interview With a Trollkunnig
by Missy Rhysing
As a spiritual shop owner, I often get asked by customers about where to begin when it comes to witchcraft and spiritual traditions. After many moons of personally exploring and trying different paths, my answer now is usually to begin with our ancestry and exploring the spiritual paths of our ancestors. Through researching my own Scandinavian bloodlines, I was led to Johannes Björn Gårdbäck’s book Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition a few years back, and to an apprenticeship with him beginning just over a year ago. The benefits for me have been profound.
Today I caught up with my mentor to discuss what trolldom is and what it is not, how these methods apply to us today, and what it can mean for us to connect with our blood ancestry and the homelands of our ancestors.
MISSY RHYSING: Hello! Thank you so much for talking with me today! I wanted to start with the basics: What is trolldom? And how does it differ from Norse paganism or spiritual practices such as Asatru or Heathenry?
JOHANNES GÅRDBÄCK: Trolldom is first and foremost what we mostly call folk magic. And what folk magic basically means is things that are used in your everyday life, things that work. Simple stuff. It’s not so much about esoteric teachings, pantheons, theory building and so on. It’s more about getting tools to do the work, so to speak. Trolldom itself is a very old word in Swedish and other Scandinavian languages, which had different connotations over the years of course. For some time during the 1600’s it meant to kill someone using magic or seriously harm them. Before that, it was used in another way, and so on and so forth. But basically it is folk magic, things that people do to get a result. So how does it differ from Asatru? Well, Asatru and Heathenry are more inclined towards religion and trolldom is not. We do things for health, for love, for economy and so on. A trolldom practitioner does not so much use deities so to speak, it’s more interaction with the beings that surround you, that neighbor you, your farm or your house, things that you come into contact with without having to seek it out. And there are other elements that are synonymous like seidr, which most people know about. Today that’s more towards the shamanic versions of practice. But in the old days it was synonymous to trolldom. So trolldom is Scandinavian folk magic. Actually the word today just means magic, but we also use it to mark own cultural heritage and methods.
MR: How long have you been a spiritual worker or trollkunnig as it is called in the tradition, and what kinds of work do you do with clients?
JG: I have been working for 27 years, maybe about 25 of those professionally. Over the years, quite a long time, I guess I’ve done everything. In the beginning I wanted to do everything because I wanted to have experience of everything, and I took on every single case basically. So like money work, love work, people who are unemployed, people who want to pass a test, people who have problems with their kids being bullied, women being bullied by stalkers or their boyfriend or ex-husband, kidnapping cases… the whole shebang. Nowadays I mostly do just cleansings- removal of nasty stuff others put on them, cleanse people from spirits, and I teach. But yes I have done most kinds of work. I started out with healing work, and from then it took off in all kinds of directions. But now I prefer mostly cleansings. People come with curses or nasty spirits or things like that- there’s the odd interesting case I take on nowadays. But court cases, I’ve done it all! Cursing of course, helping people die, helping at birth, all kinds of stuff.
MR: When I describe what I know of trolldom to people, often people think it sounds similar to some traditions like conjure or hoodoo- do you feel that is true?
JG: I do! It’s true- the differences are mostly in needs, cultural needs. If I am a farmer in Sweden I have specific circumstances, I need my crops to grow, my cows to give birth every year, milk to come and so on and so forth. But if I’m in an urban environment working in a big city, I haven’t got those needs, but I have similar needs. And all these techniques are basically all mimicking nature in one way or another. So of course they are similar, we are observing the same kind of nature. And this is true for most folk traditions’ practical work. It’s when we start involving cultural specific deities, cultural specific spirits, and of course a lot of esoteric teachings specific to various traditions, it is then that we find these big differences. But still differences are also differences on the surface, because they are all also based upon observing nature in one way or another, and using the same basic human machine to create things and make things happen. So yeah I think the African American folk magic traditions, for example hoodoo, is extremely much like trolldom. It differs because hoodoo went more into commercial products whilst we kind of stopped caring so much about trolldom- we got urbanized and modernized, all the folk dancing and costumes was bad and went out of fashion. Whilst in America you still had a wide spread among the working classes of the techniques. I guess that’s where they went apart a little bit.
MR: What do you believe is the value of learning a traditional folk magic practice like trolldom, especially if you have Norse ancestry?
JG: Well, first of all, you have to connect with the dead, because that is pretty fundamental in trolldom- which means you get closer to your ancestors. But you also get everything connected to the ancestors: a connection with land, connection with root, especially in specific land. And I think for many people that’s super important today. To feel grounded because that takes away so many other unnecessary needs and efforts to get that very same thing, that core spiritual connection with family, feeling of belonging and being at home somewhere. That feeling goes through the ancestral line and through the earth. So I think the value of doing trolldom- first of all connecting with the dead, but also connecting with what they did and how they lived in a sense. Because anyone who read my book has realized that this is old country folk stuff, right? And most people who live in a big city can’t go out, fish up a pike, piss in it’s mouth, or anything like that, that doesn’t work! But for someone that’s fishing alot, like farmers here, that’s not unusual, a pike is not an uncommon thing. So it’s also a way of connecting with what surrounded them, what kind of tools they had at that point. And they will recognize that, they will recognize your interest in these things and maybe draw closer. And of course all kinds of magical work and experiences opens you up. If you are taught correctly, the first thing you are taught to learn about is yourself alot. So anyone with Scandinavian heritage, most that I’ve come in contact with, especially in America, will feel that touch of homey-ness, that kind of root to the ground where you feel this is real, there is something responding in me when I do these things. It has a great value that way, for some maybe the greatest value because you might do magic as an effort to connect to spirit and so on, but what you really looking for is that sense of home, that groundedness. That will allow life and energy to go through you and run through you again, make you feel connected to the planet and with a purpose. That’s what I think is the benefit, apart from being able to do a lot of interesting things with magic.
MR: Yeah, I have definitely found that to be true, and I feel like we really haven’t even gotten quite into the actual trolldom techniques yet, which I was really surprised by! When I started working with you I had no idea that I would be doing what we’ve been doing for the last year! It’s been a lot of personal work and now I see why, I’ve never felt as rooted and connected as I do now.
JG: When I teach magic, as you have noticed, I don’t teach the spells and the trolldom cultural stuff right away because I have noticed that people don’t understand the concept and the meaning behind it. It’s like we take ourselves out of the equation- it’s supernatural. And that’s not the way to connect. We need to connect first, then do magic. If you try to do magic without connection it gets in all kinds of strange directions and you don’t get the spiritual thing. You just get entertainment and story and other things. So I feel that it’s very important to go back to the very basic things that will make this work. Which is the individual, the individual’s own mind. Take that out of the equation and people don’t understand. It’s in the plant alone, or it’s in the technique alone, there’s a special rune- if I only understand this rune it will open me up to some Odinistic magic or something. It won’t- unless you understand where will this show within, what is your relationship to this formula, what is your input in this work.
MR: Your book Trolldom is a treasure. I believe it is the only book written specifically on trolldom in the English language, correct?
JG: Yes. Well we have two parts in trolldom- the oral tradition and the black book tradition. The oral tradition has never been presented in English. Pieces of the black book tradition have been presented for example by Fredrik Eytzinger and Thomas K. Johnson, a Seattle-based guy who wrote a fantastic dissertation on a compilation of all kinds of Swedish black books. So those are out there too. But what I’ve tried to do is take the core techniques known by folks here on the countryside, the old folks used throughout history, and this is the main streams where all these techniques can be found and varied in various ways. No one has done that, not even in Swedish. If you ask a Swede why is there no books on trolldom in Swedish, it’s because here that is a loaded word. People don’t do magic here. We outgrew that! If you ask guys on the countryside, they’ll say yeah I do steeping… Is that trolldom? No no, that’s not trolldom! I asked my grandmother before she died if she did any trolldom, and she did like this *spits over his shoulder* no, no I don’t do trolldom! She knew a lot of different techniques, but she didn’t want to connect that to trolldom or magic. It’s loaded! I’ve met two 90+ year olds who cried when they met me because they have not been able to talk about these things for 70 or so years. So that’s really heart touching when that happens because of the social stigma.
MR: How do these old spells and methods apply to us in a modern world?
JG: Well if you understand them, you’ll understand the principle used. Why are they doing this and saying these words- once you understand that and the process, you can so easily apply it to all kinds of things. All kinds of materials regardless of where you are. That’s the red thread throughout my book, it’s not a recipe book per se, it is a principle book. It teaches you to look through how are they building this, what kind of steps are they taking to build this spell. Then you will find the real treasure, rather than this odd collection of spells that many of which you cannot perform. Like in the black books- so much is assumed and not written out. You have a spell that just covers one line- how are you supposed to use that? Yes if you’re a chef you understand what that means, but if you’re not then you have no idea. So if you look at how the spells are built, what kind of ideas are they using rather than a pike? The pike itself is not what is really magic, but you understand if you have ever fished a pike- and you have that in your experience, you’ll know what that feels like. When the fish comes up and you take it out, there is a lot of energy going on. And that energy put into motion, put into action, channeled by direction and all of these kinds of things, will most likely produce a good result.
MR: Well, thankfully you take students! How do you select students and what does an apprenticeship with you look like?
JG: How do I select students? Well, I have two kinds- apprentices and a course. Apprentices are one-on-one teachings. I used to do only face-to-face because I thought that was the only way to teach. Because then you can really feel where is the other person, you can see all their stuff going on, where is their consciousness now, move it here, see that spirit, now come closer, all of these kinds of things. And I thought that won’t work on video link. But after having tried for two years with a student it works excellently. Then after having had a lot of one-on-ones over video link, I decided to try with a group so I made an online course. Now of course with big groups you cannot put the students all to great tests all the time. You can’t put a spell on them and say ok I put a spell on you, what is it? You can do that one-on-one, and really get that experience, but you can’t do it with a whole group, it’s impossible. With a whole group you don’t see everyone, 5 don’t have video on, 10 watch it later, and so on. You can’t follow them like you can follow with an apprentice. You can still learn a lot from the course! The principles and all these things. It’s the experience piece, the one-on-one experience that belongs to the apprenticeship.
MR: Yeah they are both very beneficial! Going back and watching the video classes now, of some of the work we have already done in the apprenticeship has been great for me! It’s a different way of teaching, but still I have gotten so much out of watching them.
JG: Yeah. I would also like to say that since we are talking about folk magic, we are talking about really basic actions. Really basic situations, everyday life. So I always try to keep that. And when it comes to explaining spirits or inner stuff I have kept that- I don’t go to esoteric teachings and supernatural hierarchies and things like that. Because I found that these simple interactions that we have everyday works much better to describe an accurate way of approaching spirits, things that we already know. The whole procedure is about showing the student that they already know these things, they just apply it here and see what happens.
MR: Yeah. I’ve benefitted greatly from that, even from the lesson we did recently on the tomte, your house spirit. It’s something that seems so simple but until you really work with it and interact… Now I’m hearing her talking to me while I was painting my fireplace mantle! She was chatting with me the whole time about how she loved what I was doing even though it’s a little more modern for her taste, etc… Just working with something as simple as a house spirit has changed the climate of my house and how my house feels. It’s done more for me than running around my house with herbs and doing cleansings in my house. It’s really changed the overall feeling in my home.
I know besides the courses and mentorships there are other ways to learn from you in 2020, do you want to talk about that?
JG: Yes! Me and a colleague from Maine and some others put together something called Swedish Magic Tours. Which holds basically two things: opportunities to come here and learn over a week or so, immerse in trolldom on location on the countryside so that you can really feel that connection to the ground. You can really do what they did- the ancestors, and what these people in my book did. So you get to do that and I will teach one-on-one. And we will also go to the slightly more historically and legendary interesting places to meet with the spirits of the land, dating back to not only the iron age and Viking era, but all the way 5000 years back, so it’s very old. I discovered that really does something to people- especially when you have not felt that ancestral connection. You will get that, and get that very strongly interacting at these locations. And of course if you’re interested in the sagas and so on, it’ll be twice as yummy because we are going to these places mentioned in the sagas. It might sound odd but for us it’s not a big deal! This farm where I’m at now for example is mentioned in the Heimskringla, where one of the Norwegian kings hid when his brother was hunting him. It takes place here, it’s not odd! But we will see with Covid-19, we have a plan for the whole year. We will see what happens with August but October, for those who want that witchier kind of feeling, when the nature is more of a grimmer touch to it with the mists and fogs and moss and darkness and drippier things. October is really something else. Going to these mounds in October is really nice. August is still open at the moment we will see, but October and beginning of December is one too.
MR: Do you have any other upcoming projects that you are working on that you’d like to talk about?
JG: Well yes and no. I’m working on the second book. I promised that I would write a trolldom materia magica book too, it’s started! It’s coming along but it’ll take a few years before it’s ready. It’ll be something different, it’ll be much more easy to practice from the book so to speak. Besides getting to know all these materials that people have used here over the centuries. It’ll be interesting!
MR: Can’t wait for that! Well, lastly, as you know the world is a bit chaotic right now and many people are struggling. How are your spiritual practices helping you to stay grounded and sane through this pandemic?
JG: Well, I’m sane by default because if you are connected to spiritual practices then you are connected to nature if you do them correctly. If you’re connected to nature you’re connected to home, and that keeps you sane. And if you’re connected to ancestors- well for them this is a sneeze! I mean the Spanish disease, the plague, starvation- this is another day, not even a sneeze. And that’s a comforting thing. I had a discussion with another student the other day, I said we are going to start with trolldom divination… And the most prominent question in trolldom divination, old style, is who is going to die this year? Then question number two is who is going to be my partner, my husband, my wife. That tells you a lot about the old culture! It is also comforting because when you are connected to nature, when you are grounded, that is not so far away, right? It’s when you are standing so far up and you can’t feel the ground, it’s then that everything falls as soon as death’s little scythe comes running like this. We live, we die, yes. That’s the way it is right? In nature and in us. So when you’re connected to it, of course you’re scared but you’re also home. If it comes, it comes. And now that spring is here, the flowers are out, the butterflies are playing around, the birds are singing like crazy- if death comes now, it ain’t too bad.
Johannes Björn Gårdbäck is an internationally respected healer, teacher and spiritual worker of Swedish folk-magic. A practitioner of hoodoo and conjure, he is also a founding member of AIRR, the Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers. He brings solid, firsthand knowledge of Norse, Scandinavian, and African-American folklore to his practice. He currently lives in Göteborg, Sweden with his wife, two daughters and a dog named Bob.
MAIN WEBSITE: http://therootdoctor.se
COURSE SITE: http://www.nordic-magic.com
TOURS SITE: https://www.swedishmagictours.com