Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Þordís Spakona, the Skagaströnd fortune teller

What on earth does Rock Hudson have to do with a fortune teller from a small town in northwest Iceland?  Well, "Back to God's Country" was the first movie shown in the then new (1959) community center in this town, a reclaimed Quonset hut that had been moved from another town.  Here's a picture of the rapt audience at that time.

The building was also used for parties, events, and stage productions but eventually fell into disuse.  In the last year or so, with a big effort from the town, it was reopened as the Skagaströnd Museum of Prophecies.  The exhibit centers around Þordís Spakona, or Þordís the fortune teller.  (The "Þ" is pronounced like the English "th.")  As noted here, Þordís was:

the first named inhabitant of Skagaströnd, who lived there in the late 10th century. The exhibition features all kinds of interesting information about prophecies and fortune telling. Visitors can have their fortunes told and their palms read on request. Children can examine Þórdís’s gold chest, where various interesting things are hidden.

How much is myth and how much is true about Þordís is left to your imagination.  As I heard Dagny, one of the founders of the museum explain it, though, I sensed that a lot was true.  (In case you are wondering, I am here en route to Holland to participate in TEDx in Maastricht on April 2.)   Þordís trekked from the other side of the peninsula and arrived at what is now Skagaströnd to escape a repressed lifestyle and to have the freedom to live as she wanted.  When she saw the mountain now know as Spákonufell (fortune teller's mountain), she said, "This is the place" and began farming and prophesizing.  (See frieze to the left.)  From there her story is intertwined in many ways with the Icelandic Sagas, a remarkable collection of folk tales, myths, and history.  A good amount of magic is involved, including spells and enchantments.

The museum is really well done.  Among other things, you see exhibits about the various forms of fortune telling, from palm reading to runes to coffee grounds to lamb entrails to sheep's vala (völuspá).  This is a bone from the sheep's knee that is used when you need to know the answer to a "yes" or "no" question.  You place it in the palm or upon the head of the person asking, and a rhyme is sung:

Answer me dear vala the questions I will ask.
I will bestow on you gold for your delight
and silver for your desires
if you tell the truth.
But throw you on fire
and drown you in the chamber pot
if you tell me lies.

At this point, the vala is dropped.  If it lands with the convex side up, the answer is "yes."  If it lands with the convex side down, the answer is "no."  If it lands on its side, you are left without an answer, either because it does not know or does not want to bother giving you an answer.

Þordís eventually met her demise after a dispute with a priest about sheep grazing.  After warning him several times, she used a rock to kill one of his sheep that was on her property.  He got revenge by causing her to be buried in an avalanche of rocks that fell down from her beloved mountain.  Since she was a fortune teller, she knew this would happen to her and prepared for her death by hiding her case of gold and jewels somewhere on the mountain.  By her proclamation, it can only be found by a non-baptized woman who is brought up drinking horse milk.  To date, that woman has not shown up to find the treasure.  But reportedly, Þordís lies calmly in wait, now as a physical part of the Spákonufell.

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