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Þjóðmenningarhúsið: The Culture House

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Nothing is so important to Iceland’s cultural identity as its sagas. Transposed onto vellum leaf by anonymous scribes in the 13th and 14th centuries, these are the blood-soaked stories of the country’s settlement. Today, the best collection can be found in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið, or the Culture House.

Culture House Reykjavik

The Þjóðmenningarhúsið might be dedicated to preserving and sharing Icelandic heritage, but it’s housed inside Reykjavík’s most non-Icelandic building. The ostentatious neoclassic museum sticks out like a sore thumb amid all the painted corrugated iron of the capital, looking like a lost visitor from Vienna. In the past, the National Library and National Museum had been based here, but today the Þjóðmenningarhúsið is focused on preserving Iceland’s sagas.

Among the treasures on display is the Flateyjarbok. This beautifully lettered and illustrated document was written toward the end of the 14th century and includes the Greenland Saga, which details Leif Erikson’s explorations of North America. Also present is the hugely influential Codex Regius, the world’s oldest and most important source of information about Old Norse mythology.

For most of modern history, these manuscripts had been kept sealed away in the Royal Library of Copenhagen, requisitioned by Iceland’s callous colonial masters. It was only after a 70-year legal struggle that they were finally returned. The sagas had come to represent a missing piece of Icelandic identity and their reacquisition sparked jubilant celebrations from Reykjavík to Akureryi.

Other exhibitions found in the Culture House include modern Icelandic paintings and an examination of the life of Jón Sigurðsson, one of the heroes of independence. There’s also a small library to relax or study in. But it’s the presence of the manuscripts and the chance to learn what makes them so important which really makes the Culture House worth visiting.

Location on our Iceland Map
The Culture House: Þjóðmenningarhúsið – Website

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Culture House Lecture Hall
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September 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm Comments (0)

Hólmavík and the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft

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The first stop of our week-long tour of the Westfjords was in the tiny eastern village of Hólmavík, where we visited the unsettling Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft.

Sorcery Museum Iceland

Although Hólmavík is the largest town on the Strandir peninsula, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s home to about 300 people, and “downtown” consists of a single road curving toward the port. But despite its small size, Hólmavík is surprisingly lively. I couldn’t believe how many cars were cruising around, nor the number of tourists.

The town’s big draw is the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. The Black Arts have a long history in the Westfjords. Life was hard in this isolated, northern peninsula, and people occasionally turned to magic to meet their needs. Whether it was to manipulate the weather, gain wealth, punish enemies or win love, the budding sorcerer could always find a spell, sacrifice, rune or incantation which might prove useful.

Need to render yourself invisible for some nefarious reason? Easy. Just paint the sign of Hulinhjálmur on a piece of lignite. But you have to use a special kind of ink, prepared in the following way:

“Collect three drops of blood from the index finger of your left hand, three from the ring finger of your right hand, two from your right nipple and one from your left nipple. Mix the blood with six drops of blood from the heart of a living raven and melt it all with the raven’s brain and pieces of a human stomach. Carve the sign on the lignite with magnetic steel which has been hardened three times in human blood.”
Icelandic Sorcery

Maybe it’s not quite so important to be invisible, after all. Instead, let’s create a monster to steal goat milk. A “tilberi”. That sounds cute!

“To acquire a tilberi, a woman has to steal a human rib from a churchyard in the early hours of Whit Sunday, wrap it in gray wool and keep it between her breasts. The next three times she takes Holy Communion, she must spit the sacramental wine over the bundle. The third spurt of holy wine will bring the tilberi to life. When it grows larger and the ‘mother’ can no longer conceal it in her bosom, she must cut loose a piece of skin on the inside of her thigh and make a nipple which the tilberi will hang on to, and draw nourishment from her body fluids.”

Forget it. And I’m not even going to get into “Necropants”. You can just look that one up, yourself.

The museum is full of fascinating/horrifying information like this. Along with the specifics of the spells, it tells the stories of people who were executed for employing them. Twenty sorcerers were put to death during 17th century witch hunts in the Westfjords, almost all of them men. The most infamous persecutor of witches was Jón Mangússon, a Lutheran pastor from Ísafjörður who had the tendency to accuse neighbors who had slighted him in some way.

We loved the Sorcery Museum. It’s not very large, but was one of the rare museums in which we avidly read every bit of information posted. Hólmavík is worth seeing in its own right, but this collection of stories from the Westfjords’ dark past warrants an extended stop.

Location on our Iceland Map
Strandagaldur: The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft – Website

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Cafe Hólmavík
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August 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm Comment (1)

Modern Art at the Hafnarhus

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With three venues spread across the city, each dedicated to a different discipline, the Listasafn Reykjavíkur is the largest art museum in Iceland. One ticket will get you into all three locations. We chose to start at the Hafnarhus (Harbor House), which focuses on modern Icelandic art.

Hafnarhus Reykjavik

Iceland is an isolated island in the middle of the North Atlantic which gets about thirteen seconds of sun during the winter. Unbroken darkness tends to make people a little eccentric, which perhaps explains why Icelanders have embraced the absurd in everything from fashion to politics to music. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to discover that their modern art sits squarely in the realm of the surreal.

Even so, an exhibition which must be smelled? A video of people wearing hats pierced by long sticks, humming and muttering jibberish while a woman recites a poem in the background? A sound exhibition in the elevator which (according to its description) “produces a series of palimpsestic overlaps defined more by slips and discrepancies than by conjunctions”?

Most of the museum is dedicated to such weirdo temporary exhibits, but there’s a permanent collection featuring the work of Erró, Iceland’s most renowned postmodern artist. Erró concentrates in pop art, with heavy influences (and a lot of straight-up swiping) from the world of comics and Picasso. His pieces are strange, often political, occasionally perverted, and a lot of fun.

Location of the Hafnarhusid
Listasafn Reykjavíkur: Hafnarhusid – Website

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August 24, 2013 at 10:21 am Comments (0)

The Saga Museum

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Like most countries, Iceland has its share of legends from the time of its founding. But unlike most countries, Iceland’s legends are about Vikings, guaranteed to be bloody and exciting. For the uninitiated, the country’s sagas have been brought to life in the excellent Saga Museum.

Cutting Off Breasts

(Note: The Saga Museum has moved to a new location down by the harbor. This post was written when the museum was still found within the Perlan Building — please check with the official website for the new location.)

The Perlan is one of Reykjavík’s most distinctive buildings. Set on a hill just south of town, its glass dome sits atop four huge water storage containers, and is visible from all over the city. The building is a touristic sight in its own right, with artificial geysers both indoors and outside. There’s a souvenir shop, a cafe with an excellent panoramic view of the city, and a revolving restaurant on the fifth floor. And there’s the Saga Museum, found within one of the water tanks.

At 2000 krona ($16), the museum’s entry price probably puts a lot of visitors off, but if you have any interest in the sagas or Icelandic history, it’s worthwhile. An audio guide is included, leading you between the various exhibitions, almost all of which are engaging. You’re immersed in the world of the Vikings, and introduced to their most famous legends, taken straight from the sagas.

The models are eerily lifelike, and some of the scenes are terrifically violent. Perhaps the most striking is the one of Freydís Eiríksdóttir who, when threatened by the natives of Greenland, terrified them into retreat by threatening to chop off one of her own breasts. (Unconventional, but it would scare the crap out of me too. “Just leave your boob alone, lady! I’ll leave!”) You’ll also see the martyrdom of Jón Arason, Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, who met a gruesome fate after the island embraced the Reformation.

The audio guide takes about 45 minutes to complete, bringing you to seventeen different displays. At the end, there’s a chance to don some Viking gear, and a video demonstrating how the museum came to life.

Locations on our Map: Saga Museum | Perlan Building (New Location)
Saga Museum – Website

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August 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm Comment (1)

The Icelandic Phallological Museum (NSFW?)

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It was my birthday, and Jürgen had thought of the perfect present: a trip to the Penis Museum! After all, what could possibly delight a birthday boy more than a building full of animal dongs?

Penis Exhibition

ne of Iceland’s most bizarre attractions is the Phallological Museum in downtown Reykjavík, near the Hlemmur bus station. For reasons of his own which I’d rather not dwell on, Sigurdur Hjartarson of Húsavík decided to start collecting animal penises in 1974, eventually turning his passion into a museum. It was an immediate hit, and in 1997 the collection was relocated from Holmavík to the capital, so that even more of the country’s citizens and visitors could bask in its virile glory.

Sing along with me, kids: Whale penis! Bear penis! Walrus, goat and hamster penis! Dog penis! Cat penis! Giraffe, bear and human penis! ♫ All in formaldehyde jars

What’s that disgusted look you’re giving me? Why yes, I most certainly did say “human penis”. You see, an Icelandic man by the name of Páll Arason so appreciated the mission of the Phallological Museum, he bequeathed to it his equipment upon death. I can only imagine Mr. Arason looking down from heaven as visitor after visitor peers into his jar, trying to puzzle out what this mysterious pickled lump of skin and hair might be. It’s not an attractive sight, but I shouldn’t judge. I would hate to see what Li’l Mikey might look like after years in a jar. But then, I would hate for anyone to see that. Which is why there will be strict instructions for my jar to be kept under lock and key.

I’d like to say that the museum was as instructive as it was entertaining, but I can’t. But that’s only because it’s extremely entertaining. I’m sure there are some penis scholars out there who take this stuff seriously and would huff at the sight of us taking selfies in front of the massive walrus penis (well done, Mr. Walrus!) But it’s hard to apologize. It’s a penis museum, for the love of God. If you can tour it with a straight face, you’re probably a weirdo.

Location on our Iceland Map
Icelandic Phallological Museum – Website

-Penis Books

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Phallological Museum
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Signing Off Penis
And that’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.
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August 4, 2013 at 10:36 am Comments (11)

The 871±2 Settlement Exhibition

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Iceland welcomed its first permanent resident in the 9th century, when Ingólfur Arnarson landed on the shores of Reykjavík. Today, most physical traces of early Viking culture have vanished, so it was a big deal when, in 2001, a longhouse was discovered in the center of the capital. After careful excavation, it’s been opened to visitors as the the 871±2 Settlement Exhibition.

Settlement Exhibition Reykjavik

The strange name of the exhibition refers to the year the discovered settlement has been dated to, plus or minus the two-year range of error. And since Ingólfur was thought to have arrived in 874, it’s safe to say that the remains found on Aðalstræti are among the very earliest traces of humanity anywhere in Iceland.

Apart from the longhouse itself, there isn’t a whole lot to see within the exhibition; just artifacts found around the grounds like an axe handle or a flint stone. But the house itself is interesting and there’s an incredible amount of information about the settlement era. It can be rewarding for those who don’t mind taking time to read. The exhibition is fairly high-tech, with multimedia exhibits recreating life in the era, and interactive programs that illuminate early Icelandic language and culture.

The Settlement Exhibition is perfect for a rainy day in Reykjavík, when you have time to kill and are in the mood for some history. A comprehensive visit takes about an hour, and provides a nice overview of the Vikings who settled Iceland.

Location our Iceland Map
The Settlement Exhibition – Website

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August 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm Comments (0)

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jmenningarhsi: The Culture House Nothing is so important to Iceland's cultural identity as its sagas. Transposed onto vellum leaf by anonymous scribes in the 13th and 14th centuries, these are the blood-soaked stories of the country's settlement. Today, the best collection can be found in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið, or the Culture House.
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