Holmavík and the West Fjords

No, this blog is not about a band, but dibs on the name. It’s about the mini road trip I, along with four other international students, took to see the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Holmavík, a small town located in the West Fjords of Iceland.

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Although with a population of 325, it’s actually pretty big by Iceland standards.

It’s about a three hour drive from Reykjavik to this booming metropolis, which is how I know that you can rent a car here at 20 and both British and American drivers are equally prone to accidentally driving on the left side of the road, but for very different reasons. In my case, the line separating traffic directions is white instead of yellow, and one turn I made looked an awful lot like an interstate on-ramp. In the Brit’s case, they just… live like that.

Six hours of driving (okay actually seven because one turn looked less like a highway and more like a driveway) in one day might sound miserable, but the scenery of west Iceland is as diverse as it is breathtaking. Plus there were sheep everywhere, including on the road in front of the car at one point. It’s hard to be anything but delighted with fluffy little Icelandic sheep and Icelandic horses at every turn.

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Despite seeing upwards of a thousand of these, I never actually took a picture. Of the signs or the sheep.

We eventually arrived in Holmavík, although I have very few photos to share in this blog because I took most of them with my camera and won’t be able to upload them to my computer until I move into my flat tomorrow. Phew, how’s that for a run-on sentence?

Anyway, we went straight to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, since that’s what we drove four hours to do. It’s not a big museum, but it’s very thorough and matter-of-fact– which can be hard to find when the subject is something many people consider silly. I’m not saying I believe drawing a certain symbol on the inside a black cat’s pelt in blood from your right thumb and left nipple (yes, the grimoires were that detailed) is going to bring you money, but these pagan beliefs are a part of Iceland’s past, and they facilitated in part a fascinating web of law enforcement, nepotism, and finger-pointing during the 17th century.

As an island nation, Iceland’s history has always been a little bit different from mainland Europe’s, so its run-in with witches took a little bit different of a tone. First of all, they took place much later than Europe’s, in the mid to late 1600’s, after the Reformation had settle comfortably in the West Fjords (where the vast majority of witch trials took place). Also, contrary to the popular image, only one of the twenty-some people burned in Iceland for sorcery was a woman. But they just dressed her up like that.

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Did you really think you’d get through this whole blog without a Monty Python joke?

In the upper floor of the museum, they had a family tree that denoted individuals who were sheriffs in the West Fjords and who was on record of accusing someone of practicing sorcery. What this tree showed was a veritable dynasty of authority and finger-pointers. The museum leaves visitors to come to their own conclusions; since this is my blog, I’m going to tell you mine like it’s the gospel truth.

Essentially, the patriarch of this family tree (whose name I don’t remember and can’t look up because all the relevant articles are in Icelandic) returned from studying in Denmark with a religious fervor to eradicate all heathen practices and a newly ordained position to do so. His sons became sheriffs, their daughters married them, and this pattern continued for quite a long time. Those who did not hold titles themselves often accused their neighbors of witchcraft; essentially it became a cycle of power that started with prosecuting “sorcerers” and stayed within the family. And as long as witches were to be found, that power was to be maintained. I only went to one small museum on the matter, but I imagine if I dug deep enough I could uncover a web of social intricacies complex enough to make an HBO miniseries.

What’s interesting about the accused themselves is how many of those burned for witchcraft confessed to the crime. Charges ranged from resurrecting a ghost to summoning storms to keeping the devil at one’s beck and call. Towards the end of the witch hunt spree, three or four separate people were burned for causing one single woman’s recurring illness. You’d think after the second one they’d just decide that she deserved it, either through karma or from pissing off three separate people enough to curse her.

The other thing at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is the necropants.

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You’re here to live vicariously through me and if I had to suffer then so do you. (Not my picture.)

Here’s the deal with necropants. You make a deal with someone while they’re alive that you can skin their legs after they die. They die, you dig them up and do just that– making sure you get all the skin in one piece– and then you wear them. You put someone else’s legs on your body and you rob a widow of a coin that you put in the dead man’s scrotum along with a magical symbol for an endless supply of cash. But you can’t die in the necropants, or else bad things will happen, so you have to bequeath them to someone else. You step out of one leg and they have to step into it before you can remove your other leg, and then the pants are theirs, to be passed on for generations until someone puts them in a museum.

Once we’d all made it through the museum, we sat outside and had lunch and coffee in the fresh, cool Holmavík air. It really was beautiful weather, I’m not saying that sarcastically. I can understand why you might assume that, but this is in all sincerity. We then walked up to a church up on a hill and admired the view, although the doors were locked so we couldn’t see the interior. Since it was a pretty modern building, I wasn’t too disappointed.

The Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft had a second location about 25 km north of the city, so that was our next stop. We had a hell of a time finding it, and had almost given up, until we figured it was worth a shot to stop at a hotel and ask. At first it was embarrassing to learn that we had driven right by it, since it was next door to the hotel, but when we saw what the building actually was I felt much better.

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They blend right into the hillside. (Not my picture.)

The point of the Sorcerer’s Cottage was to show visitors what the average home in 17th century West Fjords would have looked like (for those linked with witchcraft, not those prosecuting it. That’s an important distinction to keep in mind.). The interior is dark, cramped, and, in a word, creepy. Magic symbols were to be found on a handful of tools and appliances, as their primary use back in the day wasn’t for devil worship, but for surviving in Iceland. They were charms to increase profit and health and decrease work and disease. Honestly, I’d have probably done the same if I had to live through Icelandic winter after Icelandic winter.

The next stop after Museum Part 2 was Reykjavik. It was another three hours back, but I wasn’t driving this time so I could take in the scenery. We stopped about an hour outside of the city to walk in a lava field, which is one of the most beautiful, alien landscapes I’ve ever seen. Being in Iceland really is sometimes like being on another planet. A beautiful planet with lovely fjords, supermodel horses, and 5 km-long tunnels, but not ours.

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