The early 17th century was a particularly difficult period for Iceland, a time of famines, volcanic eruptions, and poverty...
Witchcraft gained in popularity in these dark times, a service rendered to solve problems and protect people from harm in any shape or form.
Witchcraft could be sold for everything, became a panacea protecting against disease or even thieves, or people could buy curses to cause storms or harm enemies. The Lutheran Church stepped in to eradicate paganism, with a recorded total of 170 witch trials, some of which ended with the death sentence.
The region where this witchcraft took root the deepest was Strandir in the far north-west of Iceland. Symbols of magic or witchcraft can still be seen carved or painted or scrolled on any number of surfaces, such as the “Aegishalmur “, probably the best known of these symbols (photo), known to make the user invincible and strike fear into the hearts of enemies.
Holmavik with its 300 inhabitants is a remote town in Eastern Vestfirdir famous for its witchcraft museum, the “Strandagaldur”. This museum with its giant crows to welcome you through the door is definitely a must-see if you are in the Strandir region. The institution is located right in the middle of Hólmavík, very close to the port.
Open all year round from 11AM to 6PM, the rates are 950 ISK for adults, 800 ISK for students, 700 ISK for seniors/disabled visitors, and free for children up to 17 years of age. The museum is small, so count about thirty minutes to visit.
It's a small but fascinating collection, filled with ancient scrolls with esoteric texts, magically-charged objects used by sorcerers and some surprisingly gruesome exhibits... Nábrók, for example, was a garment made by a necromancer from a dead man's skin and designed to enrich the person who wore it.
The museum will provide a multi-language guide that includes English and French, and it will teach you more than a few things. For example that most of the witchcraft recorded in Iceland was in fact practised by wizards or warlocks, almost entirely men, and that of the 21 people condemned to burn alive for the crime, only 1 was a witch of the feminine variety.
A spell to change the weather is described: “Take the head of a ling and carve the stave Vindgapi on it and with a raven's feather apply blood from the right foot into the stave. Put the head on a pole and raise it here land meets sea, point the mouth in the direction you want the wind to blow from and the higher the mouth is pointing the more forceful the wind you call will be.”
A map of Iceland lists the locations of all recorded acts of witchcraft, very obviously concentrated in the North West. There are all sorts of sacrificial objects and other magical objects on display that add to the strange and disturbing atmosphere.