Iceland is a place with many imaginaries. It is host to a great richness of oral and supernatural traditions. Although sorcery, prophecy and the like are found worldwide, there are clearly distinct Icelandic variants. Did you know that Iceland’s many sorcerers and witches are almost entirely male, for example, and that they never ride broomsticks? Furthermore, Icelandic witches take constant saunas deep under the earth. There they beat themselves into a frenzy with leafy branches causing much steam to rise up through vents that people on the surface can see (and hear). How classically Nordic is this?
My exploration of the occult in Iceland started with the Prophecy Museum in Skagastrond. This place honors the first lady of the area, Pordis, who lived in the 10th century and was known for her fortune telling skills. A wonderful wax figure of Pordis stands in the center of the museum’s main room and creates a feel of how she must have presented herself in her traditional cottage setting. The museum carries on the tradition of strong Icelandic women being able to see into the future by offering visitors palm readings, tarot cards, runes and more. This gender-linked skill is clearly attested to in the Vatnsdaela Saga about which I will write more soon…
While passing across the interior on one of Iceland’s many peninsular shortcuts, the one between Steingrímsfjörður and Bjarnarfjörður, I came across a somewhat related tradition, a small monument called Selkolla’s Stone. The place is linked to the story of a small baby set down unattended for a few minutes while a man and woman taking it for baptism spent a few minutes enjoying a secret love tryst. When they returned the baby had disappeared. It is said to have been whisked away by a large malevolent female spirit who had the head of a seal and regularly stole sheep. The Icelandic landscape is enlivened by many such spirits who can make things change form and place just as fast as Iceland’s unpredictable weather can. The stories here defy easy classification. Instead there is a sliding scale, all the way from tiny elves and smallish trolls, through huge spirits that inhabit the hills. Size, form, visibility and moral intent are all variables to be considered in this land of creative, magical and often scary stories!
Next we came across the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Strandagaldur. This excellent display is well researched and very informative. There is only room here for a taste of its many interesting artifacts and ideas.
First, on the museum wall facing the entering visitor, there is a huge magical sign call the “helm of awe.” This is a protective image that is said to secure victory in battle and also defend one against the anger of authorities. The design reminded me of the kolams women paint on the door sills of their homes in South India to protect the family against malicious forces that might otherwise enter. This and similar auspicious signs were often carved on bits of wood and then tied to the being meant to be protected, such as a sheep.
And of course every sign had its opposite, a sinister design meant to send bad fortune to trouble an enemy. Here one is painted in blood on an animal skin. Far more sinister (and amazing) was this pair of “necro” pants used by a sorcerer. This is an actual and graphically complete skin pulled off of a dead man from the torso down, complete with genitals, toes and even toe nails. Apparently the sorcerer literally steeped into this set of skin pants in order to merge himself with the dead man’s soul and then send evil spells generated by this boundary crossing, out to others. This tradition amazed me, not just for its physicality but also for the way it appears to draws on several witchcraft-related concepts of reversal all at the same time!
An adjunct part of this fascinating Sorcery Museum is found out in the countryside not too far away. Here one finds a replica of a poor man’s cottage. Apparently many of the poorest peasants were thought to turn to sorcery as a means of moderating the pain of their otherwise rather miserable lives. We see the cottage exterior from two perspectives in my photos.
Inside the cottage my first photo shows its central hearth area and the paucity of its implements and tools. The second photo shows its inhabitant, presumably practicing sorcery, lying under a black hood with only his hands extended. Perhaps he is writing out magical signs on bits of cloth or skin? In sum, the rich Icelandic imagination spans a wide gamut. There are benign little elves, marauding animalistic spirits and truly wicked practitioners of sorcery all having a role to play in this country’s story traditions. How all these concepts of the supernatural make an appearance in the Saga of Vatnsdal, Iceland’s Legend of Ponnivala equivalent, will be the topic of my forthcoming visual essay.