Iceland, in the seventeenth century, was certainly not the place more appropriate to lead a pleasant existence: natural disasters and difficult climate, constant pirate raids, a notable economic disparity between the different social classes are only some examples of the life at the time. Only the wealthiest citizens could afford to live in stone buildings, while the peasants lived a very hard life. As is often the case in such situations where hope was scarce and education even more so, many of the people turned to witchcraft as a last resort to improve their wretched lives.
Naturally, magical practices were not accepted, and they were also pursued up there, on the edge of the world. Christianity became the official religion in Iceland around the year 1000, but the previous pagan culture could not be eradicated overnight. The two religions, here as in many other places on the planet, have merge, mixing rituals and beliefs, so much so that some incantations used Christian symbols, such as consecrated wine, to bring benefits to those who practiced them. Interestingly the majority of the victims of the Icelandic witch hunt were male, as opposed to the overwhelmingly female victims in other parts of the world. The naturalistic magics of the time generally promised pragmatic outcomes—such as controlling unruly weather, a favorable climate or more milk from the animals—although others had more esoteric, though still useful, effects—such as invisibility. However, the incredible characteristic of much of Icelandic sorcery is the specific and elaborate rituals, which often call for some bodily tithe or gruesome sacrifice. For example, summoning a vengeful zombie required lots of spit and snot-licking.
In the small town of Holmavik, on the west coast of Iceland, there is a small and curious museum, the Strandagaldur, also known as the Museum of Magic and Icelandic Witchcraft, dedicated to occult practices spread throughout the country in the seventeenth century.
Here we can see for example “necropants” made of human skin, the nábrók. These creepy pants were the main component in a ritual that was said to bring the caster unlimited wealth, although the requirements of the spell were so “singular” that simple back to usual job was a more attractive alternative. According to the ritual, to create the necropants, the sorcerer must first make a pact with a friend, promising that once the friend has died of natural causes, the sorcerer has permission to skin them from the waist down. Once the friend is dead, the greedy magician must wait until the friend has been buried, dig up the body, and then skin the lower half of the corpse, thus creating a pair of gruesome human-skin pants. Once the pants have been created, the sorcerer must don its against his bare skin. It seems that the ritual also requires that the sorcerer steal a coin from a widow, and place it in the empty scrotum of the pants along with the magical Icelandic stave (symbol), Nábrókarstafur, written on a scrap of parchment. So long as the original coin was not removed, the scrotum should continue to miraculously fill with coins for the rest of time.
You can see magical sigils called staves, thought to offer powers ranging from the ability to see ghosts to making someone fall in love…
…or strange creatures called “tilberi”, a two-headed snake that would help people steal goat milk from some neighbor. It seems that the tilberi to be summoned by first stealing a rib from a corpse only recently buried, then wrapping the bone with gray wool (also stolen, preferably from the sheep of a widow). This macabre totem was then to be kept between a woman’s breasts, during which time she must spit out her communion bread or wafer for three Sundays, and feed it to the fetish, which would slowly grow and become alive, until it was suckling the inside of her thigh, where it left a mark like a wart. When this creature would reached maturity it would slink off to a neighbor’s land and suckle their goats’ milk until it was so full, it would roll back to its creator’s home to expel all its stolen milk.
The museum was inaugurated in 2000 by a group of people who wanted to bring a tourist flow in the area thanks to the fame of the region, that of the Westfjords, which still preserves folk aspects, stories, legends, linked to the magical traditions of the past. The collection of bizarre finds, actually reproductions, required years of research on ancient texts, annals and other sources.
Initially, the local population had opposed the creation of this type of museum, but the great tourist influx, and the consequent economic return, made everyone change their minds.
Sigurður Atlason, one of the founders of the Museum, knows that visitors are attracted by the most macabre/sensational aspects of the exhibition, but stresses that the Strandagaldur also wants to be a warning not to re-propose, in ways and with different but substantially similar ends, that witch-hunt so deprecated for centuries, but so terribly incumbent even in the modern globalized society.