Written by Andrew Evans
Like dentists, actors, and mechanics – some witches are better than others. In Iceland, the most talented sorcerers lived in the West Fjords and most notably in Strandir. Witches might cause dense fogs that make you lose your way, a fox to kill your sheep, some strange sickness to befall you, or your cow to give sour milk. Other spells could help you secure love or find money.
In the 17th century, Strandir was the epicentre of a widespread witch-hunt and pointing a finger at a neighbour was enough to get him killed (most witches in Iceland were men). To be cleared of any wrongdoing, the condemned had to find 12 peers who could testify to his innocence and good nature (quite difficult in a sparsely populated region). If unsuccessful, the witch was burned to death on a pile of 20 horseloads of wood. As timber was scarce, the fire was usually built from the prisoner’s disassembled house. Also, the accuser was given the dead man’s property as compensation. The hysteria in Strandir can be traced back to one greedy sheriff and his family who killed dozens and dozens of ‘witches’ and amassed quite a fortune.
Jón ‘Iærði’ (‘the learned’) Guðmundsson (1574–1658) was a pastor from Strandir who was charged with devil worship after he was summoned to deal with a terrible ghost in Snæfellströnd. To exorcise the spirit, Jón penned three powerful poems, or fjandafæla (‘to make fiends fear’). He escaped execution by moving around Iceland and to Denmark, later to become one of the most important scholars of the time.
The most powerful Icelandic grimoire was the 17th-century Galdrabók, detailing magical symbols, runes, spells, and charms. (A piece of lignite cached in one’s trouser pocket makes one invisible; for eternal friendship, take two silver rings and put them into a sparrow’s nest for nine nights, then give one ring to a friend and wear the other.) Signs were cut into wood, bone, or flesh for protection or a wanted outcome. These became everyday talismans (to prevent drowning, to have good dreams, to stop theft, etc). In today’s Iceland, many of these Old Norse designs have been revived and used in jewellery, crafts, tattoos, and decorations.