I’m driving through a moss-covered lava field, dark ocean on my right, a glacier creeping down the mountains on my left. Parking on a dirt road, I hop from the car into the arctic air to take a picture of… rocks.
My sister doesn’t get it, until she sees the photo. “Ooh, that is pretty.”
Pretty? The piled stones are magical, evocative, even with my poor photographic skills. But that’s Iceland. Around every bend in the road I feel like I’ve entered a new section of a Tolkein story. And when we visit the Culture Museum in Reykjavik and I learn that Tolkein drew heavily from the Icelandic sagas for his Middle Earth [Tweet this!], I give a sigh of understanding. The Icelandic sagas of gods and heroes also supply much of our knowledge of medieval Norse life, including their religion, magic and shamanism (Seidr). [Tweet this!]
But Icelandic magic isn’t just a relic of the medieval period. In Strangandur, we visit the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. There, you can not only view a collection of staves (or sigils) with descriptions of their attached spells, but also learn the history of the Icelandic witch hunts. These came slowly to Iceland, and the persecuted were primarily men.
If you do travel to Iceland, there’s one stave you’ll see most often on t-shirts and shot glasses and key chains: the Helm of Awe. It’s a general protective spell and also protects against abuse of power by authorities. The cheerful curator of the museum explains that the stave must be carved in lead, then pressed to one’s forehead while the incantation is recited. He pinches his fingers together and presses them to his skull in demonstration, his voice ringing with the incantation.
There’s a trick to incantations. You have to commit, speak them like you mean them, and he does. I want to compliment him on his vocal power, but the conversation goes in another direction and I drop the issue. Days later, I regret this when I see the curator identified in a video as a sorcerer. It was an opportunity wasted, and I’m annoyed with myself, particularly since the curator was such a friendly and open person. Fortunately, much of his research is available online, but if you’re in Iceland, his museum, home of the infamous necropants (the legs and pelvic skin of a deceased volunteer, spelled to provide money from the scrotum when worn) is well worth a visit.
But the real magic of Iceland is in the landscape of the country itself. Mists rise from geothermal springs, ice lays scattered on black sand beaches, and everywhere, dramatic natural rock sculptures pierce the skyline. It’s little wonder some Icelanders build “elf houses” to propitiate the Huldufolk (hidden people). It’s certainly not hard for me to imagine the Huldufolk living amidst the twisted moss-covered lava rocks, or the rock stacks along the beach as trolls turned to stone. In October, the sun is always low on the horizon, casting a magical glow. The entire day is dusk, the liminal “between time,” when the supernatural world is close, and crossing between the two seems possible.
About the Author:
Kirsten Weiss works part-time as a writer and part-time as an international development consultant. She is the author of the Riga Hayworth paranormal mystery novels. Her fifth book in the series, The Elemental Detective, will be published in December, 2013, and she is currently at work on a Steampunk novel.