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The macabre necropants, made from dead man's skin, on display in Hólmavík

By Sara McMahon

  • The sorcerer Sigurður Atlason, known as Siggi, manages the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík. His knowledge of local legend and folklore is extensive. Photo/Björn Árnason

Imagine a place where time stands still, where the uncanny lurks behind every rock and hillock, and where nature still prevails in all its glory. This is Strandir, one of the most remote areas in Iceland, where, in the 17th century, twenty-one people were executed for practicing magic

 

In the quaint fishing village of Hólmavík stands the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery. Curator Sigurður Atlason’s knowledge of local folklore and history is vast and inexhaustible. His right hand and closest confidante is a handsome British Shorthair named Hippó (the breed that was the inspiration for Tenniel’s illustration of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland). Together they have become legends in their own time.

In the beginning …

The exhibition at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft combines interesting historical facts about the grim events of the Icelandic witch hunts with local folklore linked to the supernatural. The museum was rated one of the ten best museums in Iceland in 2014 by satisfied TripAdvisor users. This is the second time the museum has received such an award and for that Siggi is thankful. 

“Our museum is somewhat off the beaten track, which makes this even more of a feat. Running the museum has been a challenge – this is the first year since we opened that we’ve been able to hire staff all year around. We’ve finally become a solid business,” he says with a smile.

I was only going to stay a fortnight, but those two weeks proved to be so much fun that I decided to stay on."

It all began in 1996 when the Strandasýsla District Committee discussed how they could lure more travelers to the remote area. One of the ideas proposed was to create an exhibition that would focus on the witch hunts that took place in 17th-century Iceland. The first part of the extensive exhibition, at the Museum itself, opened on Midsummer’s Night in 2000.

The second part of the exhibition, called Kotbýli kuklarans, opened at Klúka, near Bjarnarfjörður, in 2005 and is dedicated to the poor tenants of that time, focusing on the magic they practiced in order to try and make their lives more bearable. Most of the people accused of witchcraft were from this class.

“It’s important to visit Klúka after having visited the Museum of Sorcery. This part of the museum allows guests to experience the harsh conditions many Icelanders lived in at that time,” explains Siggi.

The two final parts of the exhibition have yet to be created.  They will be a memorial in Trékyllisvík, where most of the executions took place, and a documentary about the gruesome events.

 

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Sigurður Atlason became fascinated with folk tales early on. Photo/Björn Árnason

 

Still saving up to go back home

Siggi, the man behind the museum, was born and raised in Reykjavík, moving to his adoptive home-town in his early teens. He first came to Hólmavík to visit his older brother who was working there for the summer.
“I was only going to stay a fortnight, but those two weeks proved to be so much fun that I decided to stay on. By the end of summer I’d partied all my money away and couldn’t afford the bus fare back to Reykjavík. So I stayed. One could say that I’m still saving up for my fare back home,” he says, giving a hearty laugh.

His life-long interest in local folklore, he says, came from the stories his grandmother told him when he was a child. When he got older, he read Jón Árnason’s collections of Icelandic folk tales and legends whenever he got the chance, favoring tales about trolls and hidden people.

“My fascination with these stories and the reality behind them made me extremely afraid of the dark as a child. On the other hand, they made spending time outdoors that much more fun. I know very little about local flora and fauna, but I do know the stories linked to every rock, hill and tussock.”
 

The horror!

The museum’s most popular object is the macabre “nábrækur”, or necropants, which are magical pants made by skinning a dead man from the waist down, featured in several old Icelandic folk tales.  By placing a coin inside the scrotum of the pants, the wearer was guaranteed an endless flow of money. 

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The infamous necropants. Photo/Sigurður Atlason

Renowned stage designer Árni Páll Jóhannsson created the necropants and the museum’s other relics. They have gained worldwide attention, with British comedian Stephen Fry even featuring them on his BBC quiz show, QI.
“The show caused havoc,” Siggi admits. “People came rushing through the doors, demanding to know whether this was the home of the necropants shown on the BBC.”

However, given the nature of the pants, not everyone is a fan. Some guests are in fact quite disgusted by the necropants. But don’t worry! According to Siggi, no one has ever attempted to create necropants.
“Whenever someone asks me whether they are real or whether a pair ever existed, I’m forced to tell the truth: Necropants have only ever existed in local folk legends.”
 

Homegrown mussels

The infamous necropants are not the only thing that attracts visitors; the museum’s restaurant has become famous for serving delisious homegrown mussels, and Hippó, Siggi’s partner in crime, is also a big draw.

 

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Siggi and Hippó. Photo/Björn Árnason

Siggi adopted Hippó the cat from a lady living in the Strandir region, and the two have become inseparable friends. Hippó follows Siggi to and from work each day, and now serves as the museum’s administrator as well as overseeing the museum’s charity department that collects donations for Kattholt, a cat shelter in Reykjavík.

“Hippó is a unique character and brings much joy to those who meet him. Some visitors come specifically to meet Hippó – he’s become famous. But fame doesn’t come cheap, it has turned him into something of a diva. Nowadays he won’t pose for pictures unless he’s in the mood for it.”

The small restaurant in the front of the museum opened in 2009 and is renowned for its specialty: mussels grown in Steingrímsfjörður fjord. Siggi admittedly enjoys pottering around in the kitchen and does much of the cooking himself.

“I’ve always enjoyed dabbling in cooking and one simply can’t go wrong when you’re handed such a delicious product. They are a joy to serve,” Siggi says.

 

The Icelandic Witch Hunt: What was it about?

During the 17th century, twenty-one Icelanders were burnt at the stake for practicing magic. Those condemned were mostly sorcerers who were accused of using magic runes. The first person to be burned as a sorcerer was Jón Rögnvaldsson, who was charged with raising a ghost to cause harm to people and livestock. In 1654, three people were executed in Trékyllisvík cove in the Strandir area.
The Icelandic witch craze took place much later than in Europe and was imported to the country by members of the ruling class who had been educated in Denmark and Germany.

What made the Icelandic witch hunts unique was the fact that most of those accused of witchery were men. Of approximately 120 trials, only 10 involved women and of the 22 people burned as witches, only 1 was a woman. 

 

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