The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft tells the story of Iceland's 17th century "witchcraze," complete with "necropants"

Throughout October, I'm going to share Halloween-worthy ideas, places, and events. In that spirit, let's virtually visit Strandagaldur, The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, Iceland, which opened in 2000 and sees about 11,000 visitors a year. Visit Westfjords explains:

The exhibition tells the story of the witchcraze in Iceland in the 17th century and how witchcraft is presented in our folklore. Guests will learn about certain witchcraft cases and about different witchcraft like necropants to gather money, find a thiefe and wake up the dead.  

The museum's website succinctly summarizes their mission: "We tell tales of magic." They elaborate:

The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is a non-profit organisation responsible for operating its exhibitions, events, publications, and more. We strive towards educating, researching and innovating, and to be active in our Strandir community.

Research: From the beginning, the aim was to conduct, and collaborate on, research about the witch-hunts in Iceland, folklore, and the heritage of Strandir. The Museum has been involved in numerous research projects such as:

  • The research and publishing of Icelandic grimoires
  • The operation of a research centre
  • Research on the Spanish Killings

Storytelling: Much effort goes into disseminating stories and facts about history and culture. The Museum hosts storytelling sessions on its social media sites, and the staff are often the authority on Icelandic sorcery and witchcraft in the media and on other occasions. Scholars and university students turn to us for assistance in finding sources for instance and we welcome enquiries from everyone wanting to know more about the subject. A great deal of reading material is available on our website and in our shop. 

Atlas Obscura describes the collection, including its most famous object, the "necropants" (which we featured here on Boing Boing way back in 2013):

The museum focuses on the elaborate and esoteric spells and rituals that the regional magic called for which would provide such effects as conjuring a creature to steal goat's milk or making someone invisible. The collection features a number of artfully displayed original artifacts and entertaining replicas such as rune-carved pieces of wood, animal skulls, and a number of Icelandic magical staves. However, the most shocking and remarkable piece is easily the so-called "necropants" which is the dried skin of a man from the waist down. These horrifying leggings were used in a spell that would supposedly bring the caster more money. 

The museum also features a display of an undead skeleton breaking up through the floor to further explicate the terror sorcery once caused the local people. Strandagaldur stands as a graphic reminder that while witchcraft has been feared the world over, Iceland really turned sorcery into something terrifying.

The necropants are such a big deal that they have their own separate article on Atlas Obscura, which provides a more detailed description and more historical context: 

These vile leggings were the main component in a ritual that was said to bring the caster unlimited wealth, although the requirements of the spell were so outlandish that simple back-breaking labor seems like a more attractive alternative.

According to the ritual, to create a pair of necropants, the sorcerer must first make a pact with a friend, stating that once the friend has died of natural causes, the sorcerer has permission to skin them from the waist down. Once the friend is dead, the greedy magician must then wait until the friend has been buried, dig up the body, and then skin the lower half of the corpse without creating any holes or tears, thus creating a pair of gruesome skin pants.

Once the "necropants" have been created, the caster must don the purloined pantaloons against his bare skin. Now the ritual requires that the sorcerer steal a coin from a destitute widow, and place it in the empty scrotum of the pants along with the magical Icelandic stave (symbol), Nábrókarstafur, written on a scrap of parchment. And that's it!

The pants soon become indistinguishable from the wearer's body, and so long as the original coin was not removed, the scrotum should continue to miraculously fill with coins for the rest of time.

To learn more and to see photos of the museum and objects in its collection, check out its websiteInstagramFacebook, or Twitter.