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Necropants and other extraordinary tales of 17th-century Icelandic sorcery

4 min read

Iceland in the 17th century wasn’t the greatest time (or place) to live. There were natural disasters, constant pirate raids, and even a crushing class system that left all but the richest citizens living in stone huts.
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 try to improve their miserable lives.
Of course, when the practice was no more accepted in 17th-century Iceland, a number of accused parties were burnt at the stake.
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 characteristic of much of Icelandic sorcery is the specific and elaborate rituals, which often call for some bodily action or a gruesome sacrifice. For instance, summoning a vengeful zombie required lots of spit and snot-licking, but one of the crazier examples was the spell for summoning a creature called a “tilberi,” a sort of two-headed snake that would help people steal goat milk.
It was said to be summoned by first stealing a rib from a corpse only recently interred, then wrapping the bone with gray wool, also stolen, preferably from the sheep of a poor widow. This macabre object 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.
Once this gruesome creature 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 it’s stolen milk.

But probably there is an even more macabre story.
However scary you think your Halloween’s costume is, we can say with certainty that it is not nearly as grim as this vintage Icelandic garment.
I’m speaking about nábrók, often referred to as “necropants”, but more clearly translated as “corpse breeches”.
Nábrók are exactly what the name implies: a pair of pants fashioned from the flayed skin of a dead man’s waist, legs, and feet.
Although no examples of genuine nábrók have ever been found, they feature in numerous Icelandic tales dating at least as far back as the 16th century AD.

Why, you might reasonably ask, would anyone resort to wearing such a garment?
Was this truly the only material that 16th/17th century Icelanders had to work with?
And no, the explanation has nothing to do with a wool shortage.
According to the legend, nábrók were capable of magically producing an endless supply of money.
And, even better, in one version of the legend the procedure was as simple as dropping a coin from the dead man’s widow into the scrotum of the trousers, before sitting back and waiting until the sack was filled with duplicates of the coin, over and over again, as long as the bank was being regularly emptied.
You have not, surely, missed the awful conclusion that this leads us to: these pants were worn with genitalia still attached and in place.

If you want to make your own necropants, you have to get permission from a living man to use his skin after his death.
After he has been buried, you must dig up his body and flay the skin of the corpse in one piece from the waist down.
As soon as you step into the pants, they will stick to your own skin. A coin must be stolen from a poor widow and placed in the scrotum along with the magical sign, nábrókarstafur, written on a piece of paper. Consequently, the coin will draw money into the scrotum so that it will never be empty, as long as the original coin is not removed.
To ensure salvation, the owner has to convince someone else to take ownership of the pants and step into each leg as soon as he gets out of it. The necropants will thus keep the money-gathering nature for generations. And that’s it!

However, without any surviving archaeological examples, it is reasonable to question if they were ever actually made, or if they are merely a piece of macabre folklore.
At the very least, it appears that they were taken seriously enough by those who believed in sorcery, as old Icelandic grimoires, magical textbooks, feature the symbol that should be drawn on a scrap of paper to be deposited with the coin.

If you are curious about how nábrók might look, there is a replica (fortunately, not made according to code) on display at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, Hólmavík, Iceland, alongside models of the tilberi life cycle. The translucent pair of empty legs is standing on a bed of dull coins, which assumedly sprang forth from the desiccated scrotum hanging above it.

Images from web – Google Research. A a special thanks to Ivan for help me to write this article.

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