No, not a scene from the latest horror flick, but for me an average day at work last summer. It was only a plastic skeleton, but this shiny, clean heap of bones was destined to end up in the Ghost Museum at Stokkseyri. The Museum is a great addition to the range of museums found in Iceland, and should serve as fine entertainment for everyone interested in what has been lurking about in the darkness of Iceland’s winter nights. And it shouldn’t only tickle the curiosity of foreigners but also any Icelander who enjoys a good tale.
Maybe you don’t believe in ghost stories? In that case you could probably do with a trip to some desolate spot in the country. It’s amazing what pitch darkness, devoid of civilisation, will do to any man’s belief in the eerie. You might not come back believing in ghosts and goblins, but you’ll definitely have a better understanding of the soil from which Icelandic ghost tales have sprung. People tend to think up such stories when they’re faced with nothing but darkness for the better part of the year and soon they’ll find themselves believing them. Iceland is no exception for here abound stories of resurrected bodies, haunting spirits, killer seals, trolls, men turning into beasts of all kind, and even the devil himself.
The one word they can´t say
Anyway, back to ghosts. Here no one is so entirely dead as to be unable to walk once more. The deceased longs to return and this is exactly what the living must prevent him from doing. For this there is a procedure. Firstly, close his eyes so he cannot see. Secondly, carry the corpse feet first to the grave so that it can´t find its way back. It is usually the wrongdoers or those who died swiftly or disastrously and can’t abandon what was left behind, who become ghosts capable of haunting the living.
Icelandic ghosts generally are far more physical than the spectral apparitions we’re used to in the movies. They wreak havoc and can be strong as an ox. These ghosts even touch humans; the most relentless ones will pursue a person’s descendants for up to nine generations. There is also the occasional hopeless romantic who comes back for the love of his life, mad with jealousy because she will eventually wed another (which definitely brings the concept of a jealous boyfriend into new dimensions).
While possessing many supernatural powers, Icelandic ghosts can’t say the word Guð (God). Whenever a traveller came upon a farm, he would knock three times and say “Hér sé Guð” (Here be God) to prove that he was but a human visitor. This was important to do because the common belief was that ghosts only came to visit after the sun had set, as they had difficulty walking in sunlight.
Red sweaters and big hats
In the Viking era, a spirit could be helpful or serve as a premonition. Those spirits could be in the form of an animal or somehow representative of the person’s character. Later, the Roman Catholic Church denied the existence of ghosts and punished those who believed in them. But superstitions die hard and although the edicts from the Church changed some minds, the common people refused to give up entirely – they adapted instead. As an example, ghosts cannot bear to hear Catholic verses being spoken and the most effective of them all is Lilja, written by the monk Eysteinn Ásgrímsson in the 14th century.
Accompanying spirits of the 17th century and onwards seldom helped the living, but such behaviour wasn’t entirely unheard of. The mean spirits were distinguished by gender. Móri is the male spook and he usually wore a reddish sweater and a big hat or something similar to a coif. Skotta is the female spook and she could be recognized by her red cap which had a tail.
Reciting poetry with a troll
People had huge faith in the spoken word, especially poetry, and a poet of power could spellbind with his uttering. Ghastly creatures such as ghosts and trolls sometimes sought to increase their power by using poetry, but they then made themselves vulnerable to their victim who could either finish reciting their poem before they could, or reply with another poem. If that happened, the ogreish being was powerless against the measly human. No matter how fiendish the creature, the right protection is always to be found in folklore. And there are many ways to protect yourself, depending on your means. Burning the hooves of a bull inside your house will ward off any possible intruders of an otherwordly nature, as will the burning of ram horns. It is also possible to scare them off by throwing urine on them, but for those who do not wish to resort to such desperate measures, it is quite enough to hang a horseshoe over the door. The horseshoe has to turn upside down though (i.e. being the image of a frown, not a smile) or it won’t be of any use at all.
Should you be in close proximity to a corpse, you could always stick some needles in the soles of its feet, making it unbearable for the poor wretch´s ghost to walk. Another, probably simpler method would be to give the corpse a fierce slap on the cheek. The ghost should then go off to haunt someone else.
If all else fails you can at least be comforted in the knowledge that ghosts usually don’t live much longer than 300 years.