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21 August 2007 @ 10:09 pm
Iceland: Everyday sorcery  
June 18, Part 1

(Pictures here.)

(I took way, way longer to get back to my Iceland trip reports than I intended--sorry about that!)

On June 18 we left Ísafjörður early by local standards, around 8:30 a.m. Our destination was Hólmavík, home of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, which lnhammer visited five years before (he got quite a bit of mileage out of the story of the necropants), and which I'd been wanting to visit ever since.

The drive from Ísafjörður to Hólmavík is not very long, as the raven flies. Not being ravens, our route was a couple hours longer, winding our way along a series of deep, narrow fjords, past a few lone farmhouses and clusters of colorful seaside buildings. Fun driving; the phrase "you are in a twisty little maze of fjords, all alike" got bandied about a lot. Except, of course, they weren't all alike, and I spent much of time during which I wasn't actually driving trying to look out all the car windows at once, taking in changes at every turn.

We felt the land around us changing yet again--the sharp vertical hills of Ísafjörður giving way to green-yellow hillsides and low walls of gray stone. The land was every bit as rugged before, but it was a different sort of ruggedness.

We left the fjords and crossed a bit of the interior, then descended into Hólmavík, a pleasant seaside down overlooking its fjord.

We grabbed lunch in a cafe, then headed for the museum, and spent the next two hours or so thoroughly absorbed in its exhibits. The museum's focus was on what's known of the historical practice of sorcery in Iceland. A room downstairs laid out in detail several spells that have been found in grimoires--the objects used in those spells and the runes that were written for them (very different from Fuþark runes one usually thinks of), and also many of the other small details. What ink to use to carve the signs. What fingers and toes to draw the blood for them from. What the consequences would be, if the spell went wrong.

Detailing the spells would be a post in itself, but here´s a sample to give a feel for them--a spell for creating wealth (not surprisingly, a pretty common sort of spell):

- Carve the rune hringhálmur on the skin of a black tomcat, using the menstrual blood of a virgin
- Catch a carnivorous sea mouse in a net of a virgin´s hair.
- Put the hair and the mouse in a wooden box.
- Lay hringhálmur over the mouse to prevent its escape
- Lay a stolen coin in the box
- The sea mouse will now draw money to itself from the ocean
- But ... if the sea mouse escapes, it will dive into the sea, and cause a devastating storm that will claim many lives

There were spells for healing, for turning invisible, for raising the dead, for catching thieves, for stealing milk, for making sheep easier to handle.

There were descriptions, too, of the burning times when, as in much of the western world, sorcerers were burned. Though there were fewer burnings in Iceland than elsewhere; 21 in all, twenty men and one woman.

A random fact that somehow put the scope of what burning someone to death really means in perspective: it took 20 horses to carry enough wood to burn a single human being. (And Iceland was--is--a wood-poor country; wood was expensive.)

But the most intriguing part of the museum, perhaps, was the room upstairs, which contained cases filled with the everyday artifacts of sorcery. There were random scraps of skin and wood, inscribed with runes in ink and blood; small spellbooks; raven wings (sorcery must make ravens exceedingly grumpy); eggshells; bones; wooden boxes; animal skulls; crushed herbs; black stones. One could easily see all these small bits lying around in someone's home, a thousand years ago or maybe just last week; much like the scraps of paper on which one leaves grocery lists or phone numbers one doesn't want to forget. It was those everyday fiddly bits that made the practice of sorcery feel most real to me.

Most of the artifacts were re-creations based on descriptions, but we also visited a room containing a thousand-year-old sacrificial bowl, used in Norse ritual, excavated just a few years ago; tests had confirmed that the bowl did indeed contain traces of animal blood.

Perhaps because we spent so much time in the museum, Björk, an enthnologist working there, asked if she could interview lnhammer and I for the museum's web site, which every week features an interview with museum guests. We spent a pleasant half hour chatting with her outside the museum, looking out over the harbor. The day was warm, and we were comfortable in our short sleeves. The interview is online here. (I know there are versions in both English and Icelandic, but my browser keeps forwarding me to the English version whichever version I click on.)

Eventually we did pull ourselves away from the museum, and headed out toward an annex of same, the Sorcerer's Cottage, which was built just a few years ago, and which turned out to be located right beside Hótel Laugarhóll, where we were staying that night.

On the way to the Sorcerer´s Cottage, we drove through the pass where in Njál´s Saga the sorcerer Svanur (Hallgerður´s uncle) once turned back his enemies by chanting a spell and filling the pass with fog.

Like the farmhouse at Stöng, the Sorcerer´s Cottage was a re-creation of a turf dwelling, though a more imaginative one--no one home served as its model. Unlike the farmhouse at Stöng, the Sorcerer's Cottage wasn´t concerned with the lives of wealthy landowners, though, but with the lives of poorer everyday tenant farmers.

It was also much smaller than Stöng, just two rooms (plus a third added as exhibit space) to house an entire family and all their livestock. The rough edges were allowed to show through here--I could smell the drying fish and wet wood and mold that would, of course, have been part of day-to-day life; could imagine how those smells would have been far stronger in a real home. The walls were scratchy against my skin; stray bits of straw fell onto the floor, got into my hair.

Small runes were carved everywhere in the house--in the doorway and on the beams and by the animal pens and sleeping quarters. Again, sorcery as the stuff of everyday life. Sorcerers not as wealthy landowners--though they could be that too--but as ordinary people whose names we often didn't even know.

The turf walls seemed to melt more readily into the surrounding ground than the turf walls at Stöng. I could imagine that, deprived of its occupants, a house like this would quickly disappear into the land, and no one but those who had once lived there would know.

Like in the museum, we took our time in the Sorcerer's Cottage, then headed to the hotel.

And then, something delightful happened. I was told, much to my surprise, that I had a phone call. It was Sigurður, the sorcery museum´s manager. It turns out he'd been reading my blog the past few months, ever since I ordered pretty much every English-language book the museum stocked and blogged about it afterwards. He´d seen Björk´s interview with us, and he was wondering ... would we like for him to come by and guide us around the Sorcerer´s Cottage?

Of course we said yes! A delightful couple hours ensued.

Sigurður arrived in full costume and showed us around the sorcerer´s hut, explaining that only those who were doing relatively well would have even managed quarters such as these. Life was hard, he told us, and sorcery gave people hope--hope that somehow, tomorrow, things would be a little better.

He offered, too, to cut us some fresh hákarl from the dried fish hanging from the hearth, but sadly had to retract the offer when he couldn't find his knife. Ah, well. We'd just have to find our rotten shark elsewhere. :-)

We learned that the weathered beams of the cottage came from an old shepherd´s hut that had been taken down. The worn wood felt smooth, cool to the touch. Lived in.

A corner exhibit was focused on Svanur's sorcery. Sigurður pulled a goat skin from the exhibit over his head, took a staff from same in hand, and chanted deep, resonant words, words Svanur might have used to call the fog.

The Cottage was within view Svanshóll, Svanur´s home, which was still a working farm. Sigurður pointed to a mountain in the farm´s vicinity, identifying a spot where Svanur was said to have stepped into the stone, taking a sorcerous shortcut through the mountains and emerging from another mountain, Kaldbakshorn, near his fishing camp some miles away.

In fact, some reports say that at the end of his life Svanur walked into Kaldbakshorn and was never seen again. lnhammer and I had plans to seek out Kaldbakshorn later, if we could find it.

Outside the Cottage, Sigurður pointed out different kinds of rocks to us, identifying which sorts of stones trolls might live within, which sort of rocks the Hidden Folk (or elves) might live beneath. As we walked along beside a stream, he explained how some people say the hidden folk are just a way to get children to behave--in the sense of, "Don't climb here; don't throw rocks there; you'll anger the Hidden Folk." But, he told us, there are also so many stories about people who have been helped by the Hidden Folk. "I think it is safer to believe," he said.

Then he asked if we wanted to see the place where the sacrificial bowl had been found.

Of course we did! So we loaded into Sigurður´s truck. he drove us through rugged green valleys and along rivers, across waters that lnhammer and I wouldn't have dared try to ford in our rental car.

The drive was worth the journey by itself, really. Earlier in this trip, I'd been places where I felt power, or joy, or a sense of the sacred. But more than anything, the Hólmavík area -- the Strandir region -- felt ... enchanted.

We reached in the valley where the bowl had been found -- isolated enough a place that I could see how the old practices might have held out longer there than elsewhere. Except, as Sigurður pointed out, the whole concept of a place being isolated is actually a modern one. Historically, when cities were few and farmhouses spread out, everyplace was isolated.

As we drove back to the Sorcerer´s Cottage and the hotel, we talked about our respective homes, and how different lands shape people in different ways. At the hotel,
Sigurður drew a couple stones from his pouch, with runes for protection drawn upon them. He gave one to each of us, and then we parted ways, promising to stop by the museum for coffee on our way out of town the next day.

As I headed back into the hotel, I looked down at my stone. I told myself the red rune was almost certainly written in magic marker, not the blood; that surely magic marker held no real power.

But I decided it was safer to believe. I slipped the stone into my pocket, and I headed in for dinner.
alfreda89alfreda89 on August 22nd, 2007 06:26 am (UTC)
This is all such great material!
Have you decided where you will use some of it first?
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Westfjords roadjanni on August 22nd, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
Re: This is all such great material!
I'm working on both an article and a novel, so yeah. :-)
Ástatheloa on August 22nd, 2007 11:56 am (UTC)
I love Strandir. My family used vacation there all the time when I was a kid (a summer house in Steingrímsfjörður - where Hólmavík is). Did you go up the coast?
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Westfjords roadjanni on August 22nd, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC)
I really fell in love with Strandir, too--I think it's my favorite part of all of Iceland so far. It was a little hard to leave, actually, and I do want to go back and spend more time there.

We did a little bit of driving up toward Kaldbakshorn, but didn't make it far up the coast--this time.
some guy named Larrylnhammer on August 22nd, 2007 03:08 pm (UTC)
We made it to Kaldbaksvík, but no further north. But that's the story of the next installment.

jess_ka on August 22nd, 2007 12:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Janni. That was wonderful to read.
incandragonincandragon on August 22nd, 2007 02:50 pm (UTC)
Okay, I don't know which is more lovely. Your comment that the notion of isolation is modern (I love that thought, and will think it often today), or the idea that the manager of a sorcery museum would call you up and ask if you wanted a special tour. Me, I'd squeee! What a wonderful day! :-)
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Westfjords roadjanni on August 23rd, 2007 12:41 am (UTC)
Yes! It was a wonderful day!
moggygoddesschristymarx on August 22nd, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC)
Hey, they don't call them MAGIC markers for nothing!

Wonderful commentary.
(Anonymous) on August 23rd, 2007 12:31 am (UTC)
Thank you Janni for a wonderful post. I so much like the writing of your visit to Iceland and all your pictures are so lovely. Specially the ones taken through the fog. Somehow so "Svanish". Oh - yes and a small note. To get the Icelandic version of the interviews, just click the Icelandic flag and it should appear. That is the magic of browsers. Im told :þ. All my best to Larry.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Westfjords roadjanni on August 24th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC)
I'm really glad you enjoyed the post! (I really enjoyed my time in Strandir and the Westfjords!)

I like the fog pictures, too. I'm glad they captured at least something of the feel of that drive. :-)