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31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.

Necropants (photograph by Bernard McManus)

Seventeenth century Iceland was not the best time or place to be alive.

Faced with natural disasters, constant coastal pirate raids, and a crushing class system that left all but the richest citizens living in stone huts, the Icelandic peasants of the time led a hard life. As is often the case in such situations where hope was scarce, and education even more so, many of the people turned to witchcraft as a last resort to improve their wretched lives.

The practice was no more accepted in 17th century Iceland than it was in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, and a number of accused parties were burnt at the stake, although interestingly the majority of the victims of the Icelandic witch hunt were male as opposed to the overwhelmingly female victims in other parts of the world. The naturalistic magics of the time generally promised a pragmatic outcome — such as controlling unruly weather — although others had more esoteric effects — such as invisibility. However the defining characteristic of much Icelandic sorcery were the oddly specific and elaborate rituals which often called for some bodily tithe or gruesome sacrifice, such as the steps to summoning a “tilberi,” a monster that would help people steal goat milk.

The tilberi was summoned by stealing a rib from a corpse only recently interred, then wrapping the bone with grey wool (also stolen, preferably from the sheep of a widow). The macabre item was kept between a woman’s breasts, during which time she must spit out her communion bread or wafer for three Sundays and add it to the fetish, which would supposedly turn from dead to alive slowly until it was suckling the inside of her thigh and leaving a mark like a wart. 

Horrifying recreations of the birth cycle of a tilberi (photograph by Bernard McManus)

This sacrificial aspect is never more evident than in the case of the “nábrók,” directly translated as “necropants.” The vile leggings were the main component in a ritual that was said to bring the caster unlimited wealth, although the requirements of the spell were so outlandish that simple back-breaking labor may have been a simpler alternative.

For starters the sorcerer must make a pact with a friend that he can skin the friend’s body from the waist down after the friend dies of natural causes. Once the friend is dead, the greedy magician must then wait until the friend has been buried, dig up the body and then skin the lower half of the corpse without creating any holes or tears. Once the “necropants” have been created, the caster must don the purloined pantaloons against their bare skin. Now the ritual requires that the sorcerer steal a coin from a destitute widow and place it in the empty scrotum of the pants along with the magical Icelandic stave (symbol), Nábrókarstafur, written on a scrap of parchment. And that’s it! The pants soon become indistinguishable from the wearer’s body and so long as the original coin was not removed, the scrotum would continue to miraculously fill with coins for the rest of time.

     Icelandic Magic

Nábrókarstafur, the Icelandic stave for “necropants.” (via Wikimedia)

The only surviving pair of “necropants” in the world are now located in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, Iceland. The sickly translucent pair of empty legs are standing on a bed of dull coins, which assumedly sprang forth from the desiccated scrotum hanging above. Harry Potter eat your heart out (unless that is a component of some horrible Icelandic spell).    


Click here for more of our 31 Days of Halloween, where each day we’re celebrating the strange-but-true unsettling corners of the world.