HOLMAVIK, Iceland -- Now that another season of "" has drawn to a close, how will you get your fix of fresh action for the next several months? According to centuries-old lore, all you need is a piece of oak, a grave that's easy to ascend from, and something sharp to prick the big toe of your right foot and the thumb of your left hand.
That's the start of the simple recipe for waking the dead that I came across at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft here in the tiny, remote fishing village of Holmavik in the Westfjords (if you think of the island as being shaped like a duck, the northwest section would be its head).
Following the Reformation, the Westfjords was a hotbed of accusations, and even burnings of those suspected of practicing witchcraft and sorcery (most of them men; only one woman was burned) in the 17th century. Handwritten accounts of the practices have survived through the centuries and form the foundation of the museum at Holmavik, along with a bizarre replica of a pair of "necropants," which I'll get to in a moment.
But first, back to that recipe for raising the dead, which will require you to carve a magic symbol into a piece of oak and then follow certain steps, which the museum describes this way:
"The sign you should carve on oak and then color it with blood. The blood must be from the big toe of your right foot and the thumb of your left hand. Lay the sign on the grave and then walk three times clockwise and three times anti-clockwise around the church."
At this point, according to the myth, you should see three spurts of earth above the grave as the corpse begins to punch its way to the surface, George Romero-style. Back in the 17th century, nobody worried about catching a fatal zombie-fying virus from the dead, mainly because nobody knew what a virus was. Instead, raising the dead was often seen as a means of acquiring cheap labor, which is why the first thing to do when receiving the dead was to grab it around the neck and "squeeze until it asks for lenience." Once you get your new ghost pal to say "uncle," he's basically your slave for whatever pranks you've got planned.
If word got around, however, that you were going around waking up the dead in a small town, you'd also want to be able to work some other useful bits of magic, like making yourself invisible to avoid the local sheriff and that ultimately nasty threat of being burned alive.
For some reason, preparations for this original cloaking device are significantly more intricate, involving carving another magic sign onto a piece of lignite and then staining it with a complex blood mixture. This ink recipe involves certain amounts of blood from your fingers and nipples mixed with "six drops of blood from the heart of a living raven" and then boiled with the raven's brains and pieces of a human stomach.
Oh, and don't forget to carve the symbol in the lignite using a piece of steel "which has been hardened three times in human blood."
Beyond skinny jeans
Now, wandering around invisible and ordering your undead indentured servants to do your bidding is all fine and good, but a 17th-century Icelandic peasant still has to do something to earn some coin. One possible means of literally conjuring up cash from nowhere involves the nabrok, or "necropants," I mentioned earlier.
This is where it finally starts to get a little weird.
To get this process started, a sorcerer first needs permission from an actual living man to dig up that man's corpse soon after his death and flay the skin from his lower body to quite literally make a pair of pants from it. This will require someone who has taken nice care of their lower half -- no holes or scratches allowed. When the magic practitioner dons the necropants, the dead man's skin is said to immediately become one with his own. But that's not even the strange part.
Next, a coin must be stolen from a poor widow at either Christmas, Easter or Whitsun (typically celebrated the seventh Sunday after Easter) and kept in the scrotum of the nifty new pants. (In case I wasn't clear earlier, the necropants are made from the entirety of the lower half of the dead man.) The scrotum then becomes like a bottomless, er... sack (sorry) of riches, drawing money from others, and always containing cash whenever its owner checks, which should be part of a healthy daily hygiene regimen, of course.
There is a catch to using magic to constantly generate both sperm and coin from the same region of a man's body, however. According to the museum, if someone should die while wearing necropants, it could have seriously negative consequences for the soul. To avoid this fate, it is necessary to find someone else willing to take on the pants, which is itself an intimate process requiring the owner to remove one leg from the pants and have the new owner put his leg in before the other leg is removed. This way, the necropants can be passed on for generations, making them simultaneously the least and most desirable kind of hand-me-downs in human history.
The easiest reaction to all this kind of silly folklore is probably to engage in a bit of lighthearted mockery of such primitive beliefs (I certainly did at first), but the museum does a particularly good job of putting it all into context.
Science had yet to really begin to replace long-held myths and folklore that at least helped people make some sense of a difficult, brutal life. Those who practiced or were persecuted for involvement in the occult also tended to come from the lower peasant classes -- there were some not-so-hidden socio-economic struggles, class warfare and straight-up feuds underlying many of the persecutions.
So, the question you're still wondering -- does any of it work? If you're willing to believe, I just might have a pair of pants you'll want to try on.