Day Ten: Saturday 17th August
Location: Holmavik, Iceland
After driving our little rental car for about five hours along the twisting gravel roads of back-country Iceland I was very happy to finally arrive in our destination of Hólmavik. We decided to stop in Hólmavik mainly to visit the renowned Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchraft. We managed to get there no less than one hour before closing time and it was more than enough time to see everything in the museum.
The museum features a small exhibition on the witchcraft trials and subsequent burnings which took place in the Westfjords between 1625-1683. We learned that 21 people in the region were sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft, and of these 21, only one was female. This is an interesting contrast when compared to witchcraft trials in Europe and the U.S., where females were more often thought to be witches.
Most of the men who were thought to be practicing sorcery supposedly used their powers to ease such domestic tasks such as herding and butchering sheep. Some were also suspected of sinking ships or causing illness.
Besides the tales of those who were burned for practicing witchcraft, the museum also had a display of some of the more disturbing local lore related to sorcery. A few of the most memorable, and creepy, things in the display were the Necropants and the Tilberi.
Beware, disturbing stories below:
The Necropants were basically a pair of pants made from the skin of a dead man. A sorcerer had to receive permission to to use the skin before the man died. If he inserted a coin from a poor widow and a piece of paper with a particular symbol into the scrotum the pants would continue to produce coins from the scrotum. The pants had to be given to another person before death or the wearer would be sent to hell.
The Tilberi was the only example of Icelandic magic that only female sorcerers could perform. The Tilberi was created by using a human rib bone to grow a worm-like creature. This creature drank from a nipple on the sorcerer woman’s thigh and could be sent to steal milk from sheep and cows which it then gave to its mistress. To check if butter had been made out of milk stolen by a Tilberi you could draw a certain symbol on the butter. If it fell into many tiny pieces that was proof of witchcraft.
All in all the museum was small but well designed, and reading some of the stories was enough to really chill me. After the drive through the desolate Icelandic countryside it wasn’t hard to imagine how these legends about sorcery and evil creatures came about. It was also easy to see how families back then could accuse someone of sorcery simply to get back at them for something and if the person wasn’t very popular in the community it was next to impossible for him to clear his name. This museum is an interesting experience, but probably not a good place to visit if you are sensitive or travelling with small children. I love horror stories and the Necropants still disturbed me…