In part two of my three part series on my recent travels to Iceland, I’ll be focusing on interesting and fun facts about Icelandic history, including how Iceland is historically connected to Canada.
It was a definite eye opener traversing through the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery in the quaint northern town of Holmavik, appropriately enough, on Halloween and then the Viking World Museum in the airport town of Keflavik.
It was fun, enlightening and definitely worth the visit. So without further ado, here are some really cool facts that I learned about Icelandic history. If you’re curious about business in Iceland, check out part one of Discovering Iceland for an overview of Iceland’s tech industry.
Delving into Iceland’s Sordid Witchcraft Past
The Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery might be on the small side, but it was chalk full of eye opening bits of history and artifacts.
One of the coolest things we came across was an actual stone bowl that held the only evidence that the Vikings held conducted ritual blood sacrifices. There was still dried blood in the bowl.
Beyond that, there was a creepy true story in the form of a letter from a journalist who visited the museum, who had purchased a talisman in the form of a necklace, hoping that it’d cure him of a recent toothache. Instead of a cure, everything went wrong. Once he sent it back, however, everything went back to normal.
The handy guidebooks we were given also had a plethora of different spells and incantations using different grimores and symbols. There were spells for invisibility, catching a thief, healing minor wounds and protecting livestock.
However, there was an entirely darker and more sinister side to the spells as well. People had been accused of harming livestock, causing ships to crash along the shores and making their neighbors to fall ill.
One of the most eye opening facts that stuck with me out of the entire excursion to the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery is that Icelandic witchcraft history is almost EXACTLY the inverse of the Salem Witch Trials across the border in the US. Of those 21 people accused and executed, only ONE of them was a woman. That’s right, witchcraft in Iceland, historically, was practiced by men. In fact, based on the museum exhibits, there was only one spell really, that women were commonly known to have conjured and it involved creating their own monstrous ‘pets’ that grew out of their thighs and that needed to be fed human milk. I couldn’t see the use of that particular spell during the 1660s so I moved on pretty quick after reading that.
The first man to be accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1652, Jón Rõgnvaldsson, had been accused of raising the dead. Clearly, even though that word wasn’t in use at the time, Icelanders feared the idea of zombies. Just seeing the creepy re-enactment on the floor of the museum was enough for your skin to crawl. It was by far, the most unique case of witchcraft I came across. Others had been accused of controlling predatory animals such as foxes to kill livestock, causing their neighbors to fall ill or stealing money and valuables.
Not surprisingly, many of those doing the accusing held positions of political power, something Iceland’s witchcraft past shares with Salem. You had mayors and magistrates doing the accusing or their family members leveraging said relationships to get people they hated into court. Of course, these judges and mayors also found themselves accused from time to time and while their influence was usually kept them from execution, they weren’t always so lucky.
We traveled to the Sorcerer’s Cottage, about half an hour away from the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery to see the flip side of how the people who often got accused, used to live. Indeed, most of the people who were accused of witchcraft were poor fishermen and their families who lived in one-room cottages and who barely scraped by when it came to food and hunting enough animals to create warm clothing for the winter. They built their homes from discarded driftwood and really didn’t have the means or the resources to often defend themselves from accusations of witchcraft. The prevailing belief was that they turned to the supernatural to try and raise their stations in life, even if that belief turned out to be false.
How the Vikings Have a Connection to Canada
On our second to last day in Iceland, we stopped in at the Viking World Museum in the airport town of Keflavik as my husband had been wanting to take in some Viking history on this trip.
Notable exhibits included a replica of the ships that were used for Viking funerals, filled with objects that meant something to the deceased in life and that would carry them on the journey to Valhalla. The boats were then lit on fire and pushed out into the water on their journey. I also enjoyed taking a look at the exhibit featuring the quern stone which indicated that early settlers to Iceland had tried-and failed-in their attempts to grind local lyme grass into flour.
There was even an interesting exhibition on Norse mythology known as Fate of the Gods with all the pieces put together by contemporary Icelandic artists and featuring the World Tree, otherwise known as Yggdrasil. Marvel Cinematic nerds like me will recognize that name as the tree that connects all the worlds together, meaning Asgard to Midgard (Earth), Helheim and more.
However, the most eye opening part of the Viking World Museum was definitely how the Vikings were connected and continue to be connected to Canada. By now, I’m sure many people have heard about how ruins of a Viking settlement had been found in Newfoundland and Labrador and that Leifur Eirikkson had made the journey to Canada approximately around 870 AD. In fact, artifacts known as Tupliaks, carved by Canada’s Inuit population have been found in Iceland, indicating that they’d come in contact with Eirikkson’s Vikings and conducted trade.
The talented shipwright, Gunnar Eggertsson, re-created a replica of Eirikkson’s ship known as Íslendingur, which he sailed to North America in 2000 to commemorate Leifur Eirikkson’s journey to the New World 1000 years before. The ship arrived in Newfoundland in July 2000 and the Special Celebrations Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, hosted a magor celebration on July 28, when the Íslendingur arrived in L’anse aux Meadows, the only authenticated Viking site in North America. They received several gifts from the mayor and the delegation to commemorate the anniversary, including a commemorative plaque, Tupliaks, a commemorative plate and even a soapstone carving. Íslendingur was suspended on ropes and we could walk onto the deck of it and remarkably, considering the ship was built in 1995 and it endured such a long journey, it was in great shape. It was definitely humbling to walk on the deck of something that had been built by hand and re-created one of the greatest historical journeys connecting Iceland to Canada.
Stay tuned for part three of my blog series on Discovering Iceland, this time focusing on aspects of the Icelandic lifestyle. In the meantime, check out my insights on the Icelandic tech industry in Discovering Iceland Part 1.