The Necropantsers of Iceland

thingvellir
Thingvellir National Park today, site of the one major gathering in Iceland for centuries. Photo Credit: Lucette Moran

Hovering half forgotten on the edges of Europe Iceland was not immune to the witch craze, but the associations of the Sabbath fit poorly over the actual magic still practiced on the island. Iceland had been a late convert to Christianity, and only then under duress. At the annual gathering known as the Allthing in 999 AD, Iceland’s populace had formally voted to change the official religion of the island to Christianity by a narrow vote. That the entire affair was arranged in advance, and enacted in response to a threatened invasion from Norway likely had to with the less than universal adoption for the new faith. Old traditions lingered, including magic.

Iceland in general had its own established magical practices, which for the most part did not align at all with the perception of the witch. If anything Icelandic magic drew back to the Nordic pantheon, a family of practices known as Seiður. Highlighting the contrast Seið-menn were men of the magic ritual, while vísendakona were women of science. Regardless, magical practitioners in Iceland were both still a fact of life by the time the witch craze was catching fire in Europe, and for most part solitary men paying the equivalent of house calls.

iceland stave
Máladeila, for those in need of supernatural legal council. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

For most Icelanders, life was difficult, lonely, and isolated. There were no urban centers, and no way for a witchy accusation to leap from person to person like a communicable disease. Moreover, Icelandic life was constantly threatened by starvation in the harsh climate. Until the Industrial era mass famines were a cyclical occurrence on the island. Practically any edge a farmer could gain had a practical value to the mostly subsistence farmers and fishers of the island. Magic drew from runes and knowledge that was held outside of the Christian world, written in forbidden books and conjured with staves and runes. In one stave to raise the dead:

“Inscribe on the scalp of a horse, using a mixture of seal blood, fox blood, and human blood. Recite this verse over the stave when you wish to use it:

“Thick blood, fighters grow weary.

The nation endures centuries of hardship,

great destruction, men die,

wealth is lost, the destitute are shunned.

Perilous ruin the people dread,

storm upon storm, plagued by misery,

heavy remorse, relentless warfare.

An evil stir haunts the world.”[1]

Necropants jennifer boyer
The world’s worst jeggings in question. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bayer

Not exactly an image of the Sabbath, but a more direct call back to the magic preceding Christianity. More bizarre and considerably less fashionable were the necropants, a set of pants made from the flayed skin of a man. For the interested and destitute sorcerer, creating the world’s most horrifying jeggings required the consent of the flayee, who would die of natural causes. The sorcerer would then dig up the corpse, flay it from the waist down, steal a coin from the corpse’s widow, and then insert said coin into the scrotum. The sorcerer would then be required to wear the pants against his own bare skin, whereupon the scrotum would magically produce coins so long as the original coin remained.[2] It is unclear whether anyone actually went ahead with this skin deep solution to financial solvency, but a latex recreation of the necropants hang in the Icelandic museum of witchcraft and sorcery to this day.

But those were more the exception than the rule. Other staves were infinitely more practical than the original horrid skinny jeans. The stave Máladeilan would help its carver win their day in court. Smjörhnútur, the butterknot, would ensure butter could be procured. Others helped ensure safe passage in stormy weather, or in a pair carved on the underside of shoes, helped their owner win bouts of Icelandic wrestling. As with so many traditions these were normal ways for communities and individuals to cope with the everyday problems and uncertainties of life that faced them. In a world where at least one God was a given, and magic a certain, carving a stave was either a way of gaming the system in one’s favour or some added insurance.

Not that the Danish baliff Magnus Björnsson saw Seiður in this light when he travelled to Iceland in 1487. Bundled over for the thankless task of asserting Copenhagen’s authority he brought along the first book on continental witchcraft, and slowly appropriated the local traditions to fit his perception of Satanic witchcraft. The resulting persecutions began in 1625 with the burning of Jón Rögnvaldsson for practicing rune magic. Over the coming decades Danish directed persecutions continued, with an imposed “decency law” enacted in 1654 to crack down on any traditions perceived by priests as un Christian. At a slow trickle cases continue. The same year the priest Jon Magnusson blamed two members of his congregation for the persistent ill health of him and his family. Jón Jónsson, and his imaginatively named son Jón Jónsson, were both duly brought to trial. The elder Jón duly confessed to owning a book of magic, with his son Jón doing him one better. The younger Jón admitted to having cursed Magnusson’s daughter with a farting rune, both for the ill health and the added social damage inflicted by permanent flatulence. The period known in Iceland as the Age of Fire would last until 1686 before the craze tapered off, after yet another Danish Vicar accused Thuridur Olafsdottir and her son of hexing his wife. After Thuridur had burned for the charge and the Vicar’s wife persisted in flinging new accusations, the Icelanders seemed to have finally pushed back and ended the persecutions.

[1] Olafsson. 2016. Witchcraft and Sorcery in Iceland. Guide to Iceland. Available at: https://guidetoiceland.is/history-culture/witchcraft-in-iceland

[2] As the downside of this monkey’s paw bargain, it seems difficult to believe anyone would want a sorcerer’s scrotum coinage.

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