Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft: Museum Review
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
In the second installment in our MuseumCraft series, we take a look at Iceland's Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, a small but amazing museum in deepest-darkest Iceland. #ComissionsEarned this post includes Amazon Affiliate links - as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Hólmavík in Iceland is not a big place; nowhere in Iceland is, but Hólmavík is an extreme. The 2011 census put 375 inhabitants in the settlement famous, apparently, for its shrimp processing plant. So it's an unlikely location for one of my favorite museums of all time - The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.
Witchcraft is a difficult topic - there are modern believers, and many museums lean into this market. However, this is very much a museum of the social HISTORY of witchcraft and its role in Icelandic culture and society, although its (sadly now deceased) owner was famous for his eccentrics.
The museum focuses on a period of Icelandic history unknown to many, far after the Viking period for which the island is most famous internationally - the first man was not burnt for witchcraft in Iceland until the 17thC, when the Danish leadership set in place a witch-craze.
Two points of interest rise from that statement. Firstly, unlike England where the burning of witches is largely a myth (they were usually hung), Iceland appears to have rather gleefully embraced this dark method of punishment. Secondly, Icelandic witch-hunting is interestingly focused far more heavily on men than women, a trend in distinct opposition to much of the rest of Europe.
The content of the museum is as absolutely bizarre as you'd expect. An undead zombie rises from the floor to greet you, while magical staves promising protection and fortune can be found throughout. However, the undeniable star of the show is the rather morbid necropants (look away now, reader, if you are of the squeamish disposition). Constituting the skin of the lower half of a human body, necropants represent an attempt Iceland's answer to money shortages. Placed over your legs like a horrific pair of trousers, the lucky individual places a coin in the ghoulish scrotum with the promise it will duplicate indefinitely over the future. Boom. Sorted.
The museum holds a special place in my heart for two reasons. The first is that previously mentioned specificness of content. If museums are primarily a learning tool for the public, it's nice to escape the set-pieces that many museums fall back on. Of course, that's a result of my rather limited British education, but I'd assume that witchcraft generally, and the Icelandic context more specifically, are relatively unknown outside Iceland.
Secondly, few museums focus so well on the social at a bottom-up level. There are no kings here, no great men or wars - this is popular religion and superstition. In the English-speaking academic world, this general theme is well-celebrated in Thomas' exceptional Religion and the Decline of Magic, which explores popular belief in magic and superstition. To celebrate that popular focus in a museum format is refreshingly rare. This general theme is enforced by the physical form of the museum, housed in what is essentially a small hut by the side of the sea. The scale here is reassuringly small, in contrast to the awe of the Terracotta Warriors, and that smallness really contributes to the museum's overall message of community integration. Indeed, the museum was first floated as an idea when brain-storming increasing tourism in Hólmavík. With 11,000 visitors a year, it's certainly succeeded in that.
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