Witchcraft and wizardry haves been the subject of fascination for centuries—just look at the success of a certain magical franchise written by She Who Must Not Be Named. But in the past, the relationship between everyday folk and the dark arts was less millennials running around in Hogwarts jumpers, more townsfolk suffering from mass hysteria and burning their neighbours.
While locations like Salem in the US have long been notorious, in recent years other countries have been sheepishly stepping forward to acknowledge their pasts. Only last month, Scotland’s First Minister issued a formal apology for the execution of around 2,500 people convicted of witchcraft between 1563 and 1736.
Iceland is not excluded from this ugly history. But while there are similarities between what happened here and the mass witch hunts that swept across Northern Europe in the 16th-18th centuries, the Icelandic situation had some strange and noticeable differences. To learn more about all things magical, we decided to pay a visit to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft.
A sleepy seaside town
Hólmavík is a small fishing village located in the eastern part of the Westfjords. Although more accessible than some other towns in the region, in the midst of the snowiest winter in recent years getting there is still an endeavour. Nevertheless, we were greeted by glorious sunshine on arrival, belaying the area’s dark past.
The museum sits on the town’s main street and is unmissable—painted black, of course, and due to the weather, decked with a row of deadly–looking icicles. Slightly apprehensively, we headed inside, only to be greeted by a blast of warm air, the smell of delicious food, and a cheery hello. Turns out, in addition to being an informative centre for learning about Icelandic history, the museum also operates a cosy cafe. Somewhat caught off guard, but massively relieved to not be instantly murdered by a warlock, we made our way to the exhibition.
The first exhibit is simply a map of Iceland, with red dots denoting where witchcraft trials took place. Just over 200 dots adorn the map, starkly showing the extent of the mis-directed fear and madness that drove people to accuse their fellow townspeople of sorcery.
What sets Iceland apart from most other countries, however, is the gender of the individuals accused, and the method of dealing with the supposed sorcerers. The vast majority of those charged, and killed, for witchcraft in Iceland were men; dark magic was far less associated with women here. And while many nations dealt with witches by drowning them, Icelanders apparently came to the grim conclusion that the only safe sorcerer was a burnt sorcerer. At least 21 people were burned alive for their supposed crimes, with others being sentenced to banishment, which was almost worse. The exiled had to live alone in the wilds of Iceland, and if they attempted to return or sought help they could be killed on sight. The waist–deep snow outside was a bleak reminder of the impossibility of this situation.
By far the most famous exhibit in the Sorcery & Witchcraft museum, and perhaps of any museum in Iceland, are the necropants. They take pride of place, beautifully lit behind a glass door, in all their horrific, hairy glory. Luckily, for those who are unable to make the visit, the museum provides detailed instructions on how to create your own.
Firstly, the sorcerer must make a pact with a living man to make him into skin trousers after his death. Apologies to those of you who’ve already murdered your unsuspecting victim, but let this be a lesson to always read the full instructions before you start a complex spell. Only once your sinister skin–graft buddy kicks the bucket can you finally remove his leg skin, making sure to avoid holes—other than those that nature intended. The museum assures that once you step into your new pants, they will immediately ‘become one with you’—but unfortunately the work is not yet done. The last task on the list is to steal a coin from a poor widow on a Holy day. Pop that in the handy… purse, let’s say, that comes pre-installed in your trousers, and legend says you will never find it empty again.
Rune-ing a good day out
If other people’s skin isn’t for you, the Sorcery & Witchcraft museum has plenty more to offer. Upstairs there is an extensive collection of Icelandic runes, including those to inspire love and to reveal a ghost. The delicate, spidery markings of the original runes are nothing like the modern derivatives re-designed to be sold to tourists, and are fascinating to see in person. And although most of the information panels are in Icelandic, there are well-written guide books in English and a variety of other languages, making the exhibits accessible to visitors.
Despite most of the events catalogued in the museum having taken place more than 400 years ago, the exhibits are a good reminder of the harm that can be caused by disinformation and fear. Around the world, people are still being killed for supposed witchcraft. At the end of the day, it’s not sorcery we need to fear, but our own human nature.
Accommodation for article provided by: Hólmavík Guesthouse
Car for article provided by: Go Car Rental
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