Welcome the start of another series here on BulletPun about Icelandic museums. This is something I hope to continue in the future, because I love visiting museums and I always take a ton of photos that, for the most part, never see the light of day.
During my time here, here are the few that I visited and will be reviewing.
Icelandic Phalalogical Museum
Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
Þjóðminjasafn (National Museum in Reykjavík)
Bjarnarhöfn Shark Farm
Reykjavík Bird Museum
Petra's Stone Collection
Gestastofa in Hellnar
Some of these places are very small, and won't take up much of my time here and I will combine more than one review in one post. Most museums in Iceland are confined to one or two small rooms with minimal explanation for the artifacts, so it's not too difficult to blow through them in a few minutes.
I'll start with a very popular destination in the West Fjörds...Galdrasýning á Ströndum, or The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.
Located in one of the West Fjörd's many charming oceanside villages, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is a must-see in many guidebooks. Perhaps this is because, despite it's charm, Hólmavík has little else to offer. But this area of Iceland is rugged and isolated, so with a population of 400, it's definitely the biggest thing around for a long time.
From the outside, the place looks sort of promising. There are large bones and rock formations arranged around a pathway to the entrance. When we were there, there were some large, crude signs up saying something like "please go to the other door". Inside there is a small cafe, which consists of a couple of chairs and a press pot of coffee, plus some cookies in a glass jar. There is also a Sorcerer's Cottage somewhere around, but we couldn't find it, and we were unclear as to whether is was part of the museum and it's admission fee or not, so we didn't bother trying to find it. This review will obviously not cover that part of the museum.
Admission fee to the collection is 500ISK, and includes a plastic binder stuffed full of information pages. Each page is extremely text-heavy. It's like reading from a textbook, and not a very interesting one. You must follow the numbered display cases through three different rooms, and the most engaging one is first.
Probably the main reason people come to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is to gaze upon the famously creepy "necropants".
I don't believe that anyone actually ever performed this magical deed, but the story is that, with permission from a widow, you can skin the bottom half of a dead man and then wear the skin pants around for the rest of your life. The advantage of this? Well, if you keep a coin in the scrotum with a magic stave, the scrotum will never be empty of money. Again, I can't imagine that anyone actually did this. What kind of shopkeeper accepts coins that some guy just fished out of his second scrotum? The other problem with wearing necropants (besides the obvious chafing issue) is that you can never take them off. Ever. The split-second before you die, you must take one leg out of them, while your heir steps in, and in this way you can transfer them over without breaking the spell. It's sort of a tricky balancing act that you need absolute perfect timing for. Personally, I can think of better ways to make money. But perhaps this was some kind of weird motivation back then.
Here's the disappointing part about all of this: The necropants aren't real. Nothing is. There is not one single authentic artifact in the entire museum (except one, which I will mention later). The necropants are made of rubber or plastic, with hair sloppily glued down in all the wrong places. There aren't even any old books to look at. The closest you can get are some grainy photocopies of a few pages arranged in a case upstairs, where some of the props have gone missing. With all of the reading you have to do, they might as well just put the photocopies in with your textbook instead of making you go upstairs and trying to decipher detailed time-lines completely in Icelandic.
I suppose the history aspect of the museum is pretty interesting. I had no idea that so many Icelanders were burned at the stake for witchcraft (most of them in the West Fjörds, and for seemingly petty reasons like stealing a piece of driftwood.) However, I could just as easily not paid 500 kronur and read about it on Wikipedia.
Same goes for the Tilberi, which, admittedly, was a pretty disturbing display, despite it's cheesiness. A Tilberi is a little monster that only a woman can make from a human rib bone. It suckles between her breasts until it gets too big, then migrates to a nipple on the upper inner thigh. The creature can be sent out to steal milk from sheep. It gets large enough that it can suck the milk from two teats at once, and when it's full of milk, it dutifully returns home and vomits the milk into the butter churn. Then, when you're tired of it sucking on your thigh, you send it out into the countryside to gather up sheep dung, which is does with such a fervor that it explodes and dies. I have no idea how anyone was able to come up with this story, but it's one of the grossest and weirdest things I've ever heard of. I was actually a little tempted to buy one of the little Tilberar that are sold in the gift shop. It looks like the most tortured worm in the world, with a howling face, shaped like a comma, and wrapped in grey wool.
Oh, here, I found a photo for you. Aren't they cute? You can thank me in your nightmares later.
Besides some interesting fabricated "artifacts", the museum does have one real object you can look at. It's so special that it has it's own velvet-cloaked room and is kept behind a curtain in complete darkness save for a dim spotlight. An audio track of some male chanting plays softly in the background. Of course, you have to do a ton of reading before you enter the room to prepare yourself.
Should I spoil the incredible surprise for you?
Yeah, what the heck....
It's a stone.
Yep. a stone. A very special stone that was found in a nearby farm. It was carved out into a little bowl shape and may have been used for ritual sacrifice. When you start reading the impossibly long series of posters in front of the room, you get the impression that this was for human sacrifice. Then I think the writers figured most people would stop reading and just go look at the darn thing. Turns out, they did a lot of testing on it, under different types of lighting and with that spray they use to find blood on crime scenes, and they didn't really find anything. It was also probably used for animal sacrifice anyway. There's no evidence of human sacrifice in Icelandic culture. So what you get is a little carved rock on a velvet pillow that maybe was used for animal sacrifice, but probably not because no blood was found except for a few specks of something that are probably just known geological contaminants. But if you don't read all of that, then it's pretty creepy.
Two things I did find more interesting than the displays were submitted by guests. While waiting for my friend to finish reading her encyclopedia, I sifted through the books in the little sitting room and found an envelope with a letter from the United States. It was several pages long, and I didn't read it all, but the gist of it was that this person was a Pagan or something, and found out about the Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum in Iceland and was so happy that their religion was being spread, that they sent a check for $40. The check was absent, of course, but I'm not sure how easy it was to cash an American check in Iceland. I guess they figured it out.
The other thing that was interesting was this.
Another letter. Well, two letters, actually. That's a little carved pendant necklace under the glass. The letter explains that the necklace was purchased in the gift shop as a good luck charm. However, immediately following the purchase of the necklace, the writer was overwhelmed by misfortune. They sent back the necklace and asked for a replacement, and the second letter is a thank you note saying that they have been lucky ever since sending back the evil charm and getting a good one instead.
So I thought that was sort of funny. One other good thing about visiting this museum is that you can buy postcards of the necropants. It's just an image of what looks like a hairy guys' crotch and legs with no explanation, and they are perfect to send to your friends with a completely nonchalant message on the back. That might actually be worth stopping in for.
My synopsis of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is that it's not worth your time. You can get the same information and look at the necropants on the internet while you're spending your 500 kronur on an overpriced cup of coffee at one of the nearby restaurants.
There only thing magical about this place is how it has managed to remain such a popular tourist destination.