Saturday, July 11, 2015

Drangsnes to Sauðárkrókur

Not far from Drangsnes is Hólmavík, a seaside town of only 375. However, the entire region, called Strandir, is known for its history. A good part of that history centres around witchcraft and sorcery, which is why they've made a museum to that effect, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. Superstition was rife for many years in Iceland, but sorcery and witchcraft as it is more commonly known started to come to light in the 17th century.

When you look at the history presented in the museum, it is very clear that the fear of sorcery and witchcraft, and subsequent accusations, trials, and executions, was really just an effort by a wealthy family or group of families to maintain their wealth and power. They have a very detailed genealogy in the museum that shows that the majority of those accusing and persecuting the sorcerers and witches were from one large family. They even did so to some of their own, likely those who entered the family that other family members did not approve of. Interestingly, in contrast to the history of the witch hunt in Europe and North America, only 2 of the 21 documented cases of execution were of women. The rest were all men.

The museum had exhibits of various books of incantations and wooden plaques called staves into which one would carve certain symbols to carry out a spell of their choosing. There were three particularly interesting things I came across. 

One was an exhibit showing an ancient spell used to conjure sea storms against your enemies. You needed the dead dried head of a ling (kind of like a cod), which you put on a pike, and inserted a special stick with the proper runes engraved in it. You then pointed the head of the ling in the direction from which you wanted the wind to blow. One of the men executed in the region was sentenced because a man he was known to dislike got caught in a terrible storm. After the storm ended, amid the wreckage was a piece of driftwood with runes on it, a dead ling head, and a stick. I wonder how many shipwrecks end up with fish heads and driftwood washing up alongside? But coincidence didn't fly with these folks, so they figured it must be the man they "knew" was a sorcerer, and so charged him, tried him, and executed him.

The second was the necropants. So here's how this worked. You had to make a deal with a friend to allow you to dig up their body when they die. When you do, you flay their corpse, and then step into the skin of their legs from the waist down. You then have to steal a coin from a poor widow and place it in the scrotal sack of the necropants, along with a piece of paper bearing a certain sign called nabrokurstafur. The scrotum will then magically draw money into it, as long as the original coin remains. But you must find someone to take the necropants from you before you die. Good luck with that.

Finally was a cool stone that locals found nearby that had a clear indentation identifying it as a bowl-like vessel. Scientists analyzed the stone with fluorescein, that stuff they use to fluoresce blood in CSI. It glowed slightly around the edges of the bowl but very strongly at the bottom, where fluid would collect. Because it did not glow elsewhere in the stone, it is unlikely the fluorescing was due to contaminants in the stone and so the scientists studying it postulated that it was used to hold blood for mixing things needed for spells.

All in all, the museum was super cool.

We then went to the Icelandic Sheep Museum. This is a museum dedicated to the history of sheep farming in Iceland, which goes back a long way. Long enough that sheep are partially blamed for the deforestation of Iceland. It is highly unlikely they are the cause, but popular history posits that after the Vikings stripped the land bare of all its trees, the heavy grazing of the sheep ensured continued erosion of the land and inability of the trees to reestablish. Regardless, sheep farming is huge in Iceland. Like massive. And they do it very differently. 

They basically let the sheep roam freely in the hills and mountains all spring and summer. Then in the fall the whole community gets together and rounds up all the sheep in the area. They even bring out helicopters. Seriously. They always get their sheep. Each farmer in a region has ear tags that mark his sheep. When they are all corralled, they then go through a sorting process where each farmer has to separate his sheep from the rest. Finally they are taken home and put in the barn for the winter, where they are often shorn twice. It is still a very important industry in Iceland and lamb goes for a very high premium in Iceland's restaurants. They are very proud of the fitness and health of their sheep and the farmers seem to be held in quite high regard. 

Finally we headed off to Sauðárkrókur. But we'd been told there is excellent seal viewing near a town called Hvammstangi on the Vatnsnes peninsula. So we took the drive off the main road. It was kind of worth it. Sort of. There were about 6 seals chilling out on the rocks. But it was SO DAMN COLD that it was hard to enjoy it. 

But we finished off the night in a cozy little restaurant in Sauðárkrókur called Olafshus. I had a delectable minke whale steak that was to die for. And we stayed in a great little hotel called Hotel Mikligardur. 

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