A. Kendra Greene is a hunter of museums. Or, more specifically: a hunter of museums in Iceland. Or, even more specifically: a hunter of the many small, community-based museums that have sprung up all over Iceland in recent decades, museums that celebrate natural history and cultural nooks and crannies in danger of being lost in this now modernized country. In The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, Greene guides us through collections devoted to rare local birds, rocks, and even penises (yes, you read that right), as well as collections of “old things” such as bone skates, turf knives, and washing cudgels. Then there are the speculative museums that seek to preserve the invisible: sorcery, witchcraft, and sea monsters. Greene is also entranced by the creators of these museums, and she happily presents us with the unusual histories of their obsessions.
We here at Ninth Letter wish we could excerpt the entire book for your reading pleasure. Instead, we offer a short section from the chapter “On Necropants: The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.” We hope this taste will encourage you to learn more about The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, which you can do by clicking here, where you can catch yourself a copy and also listen to the author read a passage from this delightful book.
The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
If you are poor, you have options. You might begin to collect strands of hair from a virgin. You might weave those strands of hair into a tiny net and drag it through the sea. And when you pull from the sea a sea mouse, twitching in your net, you will make a deal. The sea mouse released into servitude. The sea mouse thrown back in the sea but returning to you every so often, dripping, with lost coins in its clutch.
Or you might dig up a body. Rob a grave for a rib. And bind that rib with twine and say the right things and make yourself a rib baby. The rib baby, you should know, is voracious. At first it will be satisfied with a few drops of blood pricked from your finger, but it will grow. You will score your flesh to make a nipple of your thigh and it will suckle there. Which is fine—which is fair—because the rib baby has been stealing cream for you. Every night. The best cream. Nicking it from the neighbors while they sleep. And for a while this cream will nourish your children. The color will return to their cheeks.
But eventually the rib baby will grow too big, will want too much, and you will find you can’t support it. What can you do then but thank it for the cream that has been feeding your family, look at it breathless from the raids, and shoot it dead with a silver button? Perhaps you have no button. Perhaps you have no gun. Perhaps instead you give rib baby an impossible task: send it to skim the cream from every farm in the country. You know when you say it—you hope when you say it—that it will exhaust itself and die in a field before it ever makes it home. Maybe, when you went to the grave, you saved another rib for later.
Yes, it is wretched to be poor, to sleep on sheets washed once a year in a turf house with one hole to vent the smoke from the hearth and the room crowded with sheep penned in for the winter. But perhaps you have a friend. Not a friend, but a man. A man who agrees, of his own free will, that upon his natural death you may flay him. From the waist down. Tan the skin and sprinkle the solution and say the words. If you’ve done it right, you will step into his skin. Your foot in his foot. Your calf flexing his.
I cannot tell you for sure about the fit. Sometimes, I imagine the necropants as a second skin, a skintight skin you could forget was not your own. Sometimes I am convinced they would require a belt. Or suspenders. A rigging of some kind to keep them up. No one dwells on whether you wear them under your regular pants or in lieu of them, because the point of this is wealth. Poor as you are, you will find yourself in want. And reaching down, dipping your hand into the scrotum like a change purse, you’ll retrieve a few coins. Do not be greedy. This part is key. Don’t go rooting and scratching and digging around for all you can get. Trust in the necropants. There will be more lucre. Take just what you need.
But, whatever you do, don’t die in the necropants. That would be bad. Like burning-in-hell bad. You don’t want that. What you want is someone who wants an endless groin bank but without the effort of flaying anybody. You want an heir. You want someone who will step into the left leg when you step out of the left leg, step into the right leg when you step out of the right leg. That’s the thing about the necropants: You cannot take them off without someone else taking them on. Not to dry-clean or air out or mend the rip in the knee. There must always be a wearer. Someone is always responsible. But once you’ve made the transfer, once you’ve settled someone else into their skin, it is done and the necropants are no longer your concern.
There is no museum of poverty. Not per se. Not in Iceland. Not in a country where there are no tracks and no wrong side of them. Not unless you count the turf houses, or the folk museums full of things from the old days, the poor days, the scraping-by scrap days, whole centuries of days in the smoky dim foul of cod-liver-oil lamps while all the whale oil, clean burning and bright, was shipped south and east to illuminate Hamburg and London.
But there is, out in a remote fjord, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. It doubles as the tourism office. There to greet you is a man petting a cat. They’ve recently added a restaurant. And though outside in the streets it smells like fish, inside it smells like cookies.
Twenty years ago, there was just the tourism office, and its goal was to help you find your way back to wherever you had meant to visit before you lost your way and wandered in here. Hólmavík’s hospitality then comprised a grill at the gas station and a little hotel in the stone house, though let it be said that the stone house had a great cook. Hólmavík was a far-flung hamlet of four hundred souls. Then, twenty years ago, a group of people came together wondering what they could do for the place.
If you have a big enough problem, you go to your local sorcerer. Should that prove insufficient—if no one else can help—well then you upgrade to a Strandir sorcerer. That’s the gold standard. It’s basically fail-safe. Only once did a Strandir sorcerer ever fail to get the job done—an issue with a lake monster in the east—but happily there were still the Sami people to appeal to, back in northernmost Europe, and though even they cannot totally rid you of your lake monster, cannot banish this giant writhing worm, cannot bind it bodily to the bottom of the lake, they can at least tether it, tip and tail, so that only occasionally does some section of its middle surface, and far rarer still is that surfacing so much as sighted. The solution is perhaps imperfect, but it’s much better than it was. You could almost forget that the monster is there.
Strandir is a region on the eastern edge of the Westfjords. The road that goes through it forks just north of Hólmavík, hugs the coast, and dead-ends at the thermal baths of Krossneslaug. Strandir was for a long time very inaccessible, with no roads going anywhere, and laws that would cost you your life if you dared trade with the foreign ships sometimes sailing past. If it has been congenial to any transportation, it is as the beaching shore to much of the driftwood that spends years, sometimes a decade or two, floating from Siberia, seasoning in the currents.
Even now, in peak tourist season and modern times, a bus connects to Hólmavík from the south no more than five days a week. Three days a week, a different bus company on a different schedule will link you to points north. The denizens of the Strandir region don’t think of themselves as a strange, closed people. They do not think of themselves in magical terms. But if magic is not a part of their identity, it has long been a part of their reputation. Historically at least, other parts of the country would talk—about them, about their famous sorcerers, about how people from Strandir always win in athletic competitions. Amazing! What good wrestlers they are! Too good, if you think about it . . .
It could have been whatever else—a whale museum, or whatever. In 1995 Jón Jónsson wrote a whole report on the potential for tourism in Strandir. But when it came down to it, for this group of Strandir people casting about for how to help, they were interested in folklore, not in the sense of things passed down but in the sense of tales told. They thought about the local stories. They thought about the distracted trolls caught in the first rays of the sun and turned to stone. They thought about the seal-headed woman bent on revenge. They thought about the sorcerer calling in the fog to make his escape.
Oh, it was a struggle. The subject of sorcery and witchcraft touched on religion, and there was pushback. There was talk on the radio, for instance, and statements from the church. But for the would-be founders of the would-be museum, the real issue with the content was not so much ideological as material. “There was nothing you could put your fingers on,” they say. These were people who wanted to tell about things they could not prove existed. And so they stumbled upon a particularly Icelandic problem: how to display what can’t be seen.
This is a dilemma also for the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum. And the Museum of Prophecies. And any of the Saga museums. And certainly Icelandic Wonders, a museum of ghosts, elves, trolls, and the northern lights. When it came to sorcery and witchcraft, there were at least court records and written descriptions and the occasional grimoire to work from.
“It is possible to show an invisible boy,” co-founder and Chief Sorcerer Sigurður Atlason reminds me one day in the gallery.
“In fact, it’s easy,” he continues. The man steps to the side with a flourish: “Here he is!”
A. Kendra Greene is a writer and artist who has worked at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Chicago History Museum, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, and the Dallas Museum of Art, where she was a writer in residence. She has an MFA in nonfiction and a graduate certificate in book arts from the University of Iowa and has been the recipient of a Fulbright grant, a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, and a Harvard Library Innovation Lab Fellowship. She lives in Dallas, Texas, where she is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Texas, a guest artist at Nasher Sculpture Center, and an associate editor at Southwest Review.
“On Necropants: The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft” is excerpted from The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by A. Kendra Greene.
Author photo: Space Giraffe Studios