Heavy clouds hover only dozen of metres above the ground, confirming the presence of an approaching blizzard. I slide my fingers over the cool hood of the car, carefully tracing invisible lines and arches. Adding the last circle, I’m done. With a Vegvisir—the magic stave for finding one’s way through bad weather—to guide us, we set out on our journey to Iceland’s mysterious hotspot of sorcery.
The eastern coast of the Westfjords, known as Strandir, has a population of under 1000 people. For centuries, this remote region has been known for its ties to the practise of magic. Driving over the quiet hills that guard the way to the Westfjords, I feel a strange mix of exhilaration and anxiety. The serene scenery faces the merciless winter winds as if they were mere summer breezes, hinting at the land’s ancient power. Imagining long-lost secrets and chants, we greet Strandir.
The small town of Holmavík is home to the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft—the perfect place to commence our investigation. Sitting in the warm dining room, we enjoy the company of its manager, Sigurður Atlason, also known as The Sorcerer.
With a peculiar woolen hat on his head and a cheeky smile in his eyes, Sigurður says that one possible source of Strandir’s reputation, besides its severe and longstanding seclusion from the world at large, could be the almost supernatural bargaining skills of its past inhabitants. This region’s coast at one time had a forest of driftwood to be found along its beaches, attracting people from the north, who came to barter for it. Most of the time, they’d find themselves paying well above the expected price. This was taken as proof that the people of Strandir obviously knew spells that made visitors give in to these deals.
The Westfjords also have a dark history of witch trials as well, mostly from the 17th century. But again, as Sigurður points out, they aren’t connected to true magic. At the time, accusations of witchcraft were used as a political instrument—a manipulation used to gain more wealth and power.
Magic of hope
One characteristic of Icelandic magic is its connection to nature—respecting it, and being a part of it. The spells are mostly carried out as invocations, chants and rituals or drawing staves. But reading descriptions of some spells, I feel a shiver run down my spine. They often involve the use of blood, and in the case of the famous “necropants,” even skinning a corpse. Look it up. Just not while you’re eating.
But necropants aside, most Icelandic spells were quite practical, mainly helping with daily activities like fishing and farming. As Sigurður puts it, they were a way of providing hope for a better tomorrow, which was essential to endure the harsh conditions of Iceland’s Middle Ages.
For better or worse, many spells have been lost to the time, so practicing Icelandic magic nowadays isn’t easy. Nor is it always safe. Even when refraining from blood rituals or ill-meaning chants, it’s best to take caution. Each stave and chant has its own purpose and power, but many of the details are lost, and nobody has full knowledge of how they work. So, if you’re thinking of getting a runic tattoo, make double sure you’re not getting a zombie-making one.
We part company with the museum’s hospitable master with new knowledge in our minds, and a weather spell in our pocket. After a quick look up at the stormy sky, and a quick glance at each other, we’re ready for some practice. We follow the instructions and find a grass hillock, then run clockwise and counterclockwise, have a freestyle chanting session, kick and shout, and order better weather. The magic is cast. Giggling and flustered, we retreat to the warm car. Two minutes pass, and to our great amusement, the continuous rain suddenly stops. Our day ends in the hot pots at Drangsnes, looking over the ocean under a clear, star-scattered sky. Beginner’s luck?
The Sorcerer says that the people of Strandir are no different to other Icelanders, and that the reputation for magic is probably just tall tales. But noticing a stave medallion around a local knitter’s neck, a magical sign in the old restaurant’s bar, the cheeky smile on the face of the Sorcerer, and the whispering wind of the ancient hills and shores: there is, without doubt, something magical about Strandir.