A weathered wooden structure with a turf roof. From the outside, Hólmavík’s main tourist attraction sure doesn’t look like much, although its appearance is perhaps in line with what you would expect to find in Strandir, one of the more remote regions of the already-remote Westfjords. And the exterior is rather appropriate, as the building houses the fabled Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, which attracts around 6,000 visitors annually—quite the boon for a small town like Hólmavík, with a population of less than 400.
In Icelandic folklore and history, the Strandir region has forever been associated with sorcery and witchcraft, with records showing that alleged sorcerers were being burnt at the stake in nearby Trékyllisvík as late as the 17th century. This reputation served as inspiration for the museum, which offers visitors a chance to learn about Iceland’s folklore and witchcraft, and the various strange runes and contraptions with which it was performed.
The museum’s manager, Sigurður Atlason, prefers to go by the title ‘sorcerer’. This seems fitting: with his glinting eyes and unruly hair—often constrained by a peculiar woollen cap—one wouldn’t be surprised if he suddenly started chanting and waving around pieces of wood with magical stave carvings.
When asked if he tailored his look to fit his position, Sigurður responds in the negative. “I’ve just become a little eccentric over time,” he says. “I used to be such a gentleman, but now I don’t care what I look like. Still, with this job, being odd certainly helps.”
While not a native of Strandir, Sigurður found a home in Hólmavík in the 1970s and has been there ever since. “I came here in the summer when my brother was working here. I meant to leave in the fall, but I didn’t have enough money for the bus. I’m still saving up for that bus fare,” he says, laughing.
The idea for the museum was first floated in a 1996 report by anthropologist Jón Jónsson, where he explored different possibilities for tourism in Strandir based on locals’ suggestions. Subsequent research showed that a museum focused on the area’s history of witchcraft was indeed a viable option, and work commenced on creating the display. The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft finally opened in the year 2000, and has been steadily growing in popularity ever since.
Sigurður has worked at the museum since it opened, and he says that little has changed in the fifteen years that have since passed. “It just became a classic the day after it opened,” he says. “Changing something in here would be almost blasphemous.”
According to Sigurður, the museum would barely be able to operate without the continued interest of foreign tourists, which make up about 80% of its clientele. A unique spot by any standard, it is frequently written up in travel publications and on-line, and regularly appears on lists purporting to detail “the world’s strangest tourist destinations. This helps draw a crowd, Sigurður says, adding that he noticed a surge in popularity when one of their display items, the necropants, was mentioned on popular British comedy quiz show QI.
Because of the museum’s popularity, Sigurður himself became somewhat of an iconic character in his home region, a Strandir “sorcerer” type. “I played the part for a while, but it made me uncomfortable, so I very deliberately stopped,” he says. “Creating this character—this sorcerer— and placing him inside the museum was initially useful for drawing attention to it. Eventually, however, the focus became too much on myself, and I didn’t like that. This project is so much more than just one person.”
Indeed, Sigurður is very ambitious about his work and despite all talk of sorcerers and eccentricities, he is very much down to earth when it comes to his aims for the museum. “My greatest ambition in this project has always been to meet the goals we set out with in the beginning: to do necessary research, and to support the tourism industry and increase local employment opportunities. It has all worked out well, so we can be proud.”
A slow-growing establishment
Although it hasn’t changed in essence, there have been a few additions to the museum over the years. In 2005, a companion exhibition called ‘The Sorcerer’s Cottage’ opened in nearby Bjarnarfjörður, which shows the living conditions of the people who believed in sorcery and witchcraft. Then, in 2009, a small restaurant opened in the museum’s building, focusing on local produce.
Sigurður says they are always exploring possibilities for further expanding the museum’s operations. One idea has been to create another companion exhibition, this time in Trékyllisvík, a very important place in the history of Icelandic witchcraft. “It would be great if we could pull it off,” Sigurður says, “but financing such a project would be very difficult. Looking at it realistically, it’s only a distant dream.”
Sigurður firmly believes progress should be made in small steps. “There’s plenty left to do right here in Hólmavík anyway—even the house itself needs to be finished and made more attractive. My dream is to continue the development process slowly but surely. We don’t have to do a lot each year, just continue at a steady pace without any blood money from the banks.”