The Home of the Necropants

Today we visited the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery in Hólmavík, which was about an hour and a half drive from our guesthouse. We went through exactly one town on the way–it’s about a 20 minute drive from our guesthouse. After that, nothing until Holmavik.

We did see massive, eroding plateaus of ancient lava, their sides crumbled into scree. Tons of wildflowers, buckets, and baskets and bowers of flowers.

Sheep are everywhere, largely unconstrained by fences, so you have to watch out for them. And the fjords. It was an overcast day with a few spatters of rain–but not terribly cold. The fjords are like gray-blue silk beneath the ancient volcanoes, calm as mirrors.

Hólmavík is a minuscule harbor town. But it boasts the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, which was one of the key things I wanted to see. The museum is housed in a sod-roofed building with a small cafe in front. I had zero expectations of the cafe, but it was lunchtime in Hólmavík, and there wasn’t a plethora of choices. I ordered a lamb steak, which was delivered perfectly prepared, tender and tasty, with a bearnaise sauce. A lovely roasted potato on the side with a few slices of cucumber posing as the vegetable portion of the meal. I am eating all the veggies served to me (except the beets, of which there are an abundance), because they are a bit scarce.

These are white cotton flowers. The flower looks very much like a tuft of cotton or wool. Valdis said they were used to stuff pillows and mattresses, like kapok.

To digress for a bit, Iceland started growing produce in greenhouses in about 1920. They started with–drum roll–bananas. That worked out fine until the country dropped its tariffs on importing fruit, at which point the banana business in Iceland slipped under. But they still grow a lot of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. The ground stays warm because of the volcanic heat, and they have virtually unlimited geothermal energy.

At the witch museum, I asked for a certain individual who turned out to work for another museum entirely–but hit the jackpot. The lady at the front desk sent my email address and info on what I was researching to the director of the museum, who promptly responded with THREE names of experts with their telephone numbers and email addresses. I will contact them tomorrow and hope they are willing to assist a needy author.

The museum itself was somewhat less than useful in my research. It focuses on the witch-hunts of the 16th century. Iceland, in common with many other countries at the time, went bonkers over witches. However, it was only really one region that went crazy in Iceland, Strandir in the Westfjords. Based on what we learned, one woman, Helga, married to a minister, was responsible for a disproportionate number of witch burnings. Helga kept getting sick and blaming this person or that, and these innocents were summarily executed, often without trial. Helga was a minister’s wife, and therefore beyond reproach. But Helga wasn’t the only hysteric who went after witches.

It seemed to me that the practices mentioned in the museum were degenerate remnants of the old religion–the worship of Odin, Baldur, Thor, etc. They used the old runes and sigils (“staves”) in combination with the blood of a virgin, or blood from the left nipple, or other noxious substances–if, in fact, any of these people were actually attempting to practice witchcraft, which is doubtful. During the 17th century, being burned as a witch could likely come about because people just didn’t like you–no evidence required. Nonetheless, there were lots of supposed evidence of witchcraft used to convict people–runes, sigils, charms, and so forth. I rather suspect these were planted on the victims.

There were some truly gruesome exhibits, the necropants being the worst. Here’s how it worked: the witch or sorcerer would obtain permission from a man to dig up his body after burial ( I was so relieved that they asked first). The witch would then skin the corpse from the waist down, penis, scrotum, feet, toenails and all, being careful to never puncture or tear the skin. He (Icelandic witches were almost all male) would place a coin in the penis and wear the pants over his own skin. The coin in the penis would call money to the man and his descendants for many generations–always assuming his descendants didn’t barf at the idea of wearing the gross things. I didn’t take a photo of the disgusting pants, complete with hair, but if you are attracted to the gruesome, you can see them here.

The visit was more than worth the time and effort, just for the experts’ names I was given. But I think I will set my book sometime earlier–during the transition from. Christianity (started in 1000 C.E.), and before the Lutheran Reformation.

The next stop was at the Dalir Heritage Museum. I thought we had been misled by our GPS, because we found ourselves at the end of a road with nothing but a hotel in sight. Further investigation revealed that the museum is IN the hotel. So is a pool fed by hot springs. Up the hill is a natural “hot pot,” as they call it, which is a natural hot spring, free to all. (Most hot pools charge.)

The museum focused on farm life in the immediate area (next door to Leif Erickson’s place), and had a genuine turf house from around 1850. The lady who talked to us, Valdis, really knew nothing about Icelandic magic, but had a wealth of information about how the people lived. She also provided me with a contact for research.

We checked out the pool and asked about the hot pot. We had bathing suits with us, but no towels, so we decided to get some cheap towels and come back. We returned to the only village south of Holmavik (at least on that route), and discovered that there is no store in town that sells towels, cheap or otherwise. (You can, however, buy any number of hand-knitted sweaters there.) We dined at a different restaurant (there are only two), and I had lamb again, not wanting fried haddock or pizza. The lamb was not quite as good as at the Museum of Sorcery, but tasty. AND it was served with a large portion of salad with tomatoes and cucumbers. I ate that first. Veggies are not to be overlooked when you can get them here. French fries–potatoes in general–are superb. But woman cannot live on potatoes alone.

On the way back, we stopped to let me say hello to the Icelandic horses at Saudafell. I must find out why they have so many horses–what do they possibly do with so many? There must be 20 or 30 here, eating their heads off. It is interesting that these horses, introduced by Vikings, have evolved into a distinct breed capable of dealing with long, harsh winters that would kill other breeds.

My new friends.

Tomorrow: contact the experts!

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