North Iceland is well known for its mystical history and special energy. Anyone who‘s visited the unusual rock formations of Dimmuborgir or the majestic Ásbyrgi canyon can testify to that. There‘s a reason why the Game of Thrones crew keeps returning year after year. But soon they won‘t be the only Hollywood stars making the most of the awesome nature of the north.
A movie based on the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent will start filming next year. The book is based on the story of one of Iceland‘s most notorious women, Agnes Magnúsdóttir and tells the story of her final days. The story of Agnes is well known in Iceland and there are several sites around the Vatnsnes area that still have remains connected to the story today.
Agnes was a 33-year-old housekeeper in Húnavatnssýsla, north Iceland in 1828. Even though she was considered to be both smart, hard-working and poetic (a trait Icelanders have always valued highly) she had no luck in finding a husband. Agnes thought her luck might have finally turned when she met the handsome and roughish Natan Ketilsson. Even though he was a notorious womanizer that had illegitimate children all over the country, the pair had a mutual attraction and Agnes agreed to move with him to his farm Illugastaðir in Vatnsnes as a housekeeper, but no doubt she was hoping for a change in station through marriage eventually.
However, poor Agnes soon encountered that bane of relationships with insecure men, a younger woman. When she arrived at Illugastaðir Natan showed little interest in her but a lot of interest in his 16-year-old maid, Sigríður. Things soon deteriorated in the home and Natan and Agnes fought constantly. Enter the young farmer’s soon from a nearby farm. Friðrik Sigurðsson was only 18 years old and he also had a crush on Sigríður. While it is not known exactly what transpired on the fateful night, the morning of March 14th, 1828 two men, Natan and his friend Pétur Jónsson, were dead and Illugastaðir burnt to the ground.
Agnes, Friðrik and Sigríður were all arrested and after being interrogated Friðrik confessed to killing the men and said that he and Agnes then stole their valuables and set the house on fire to try and cover up the murders. While the exact degree of the women’s involvement in the planning of the crime is still not known, the evidence was considered enough to sentence Agnes and Friðrik to death and Sigríður to a life in prison in Denmark.
Now, while capital punishment had been common in Iceland at one point, by the early 1800’s there hadn’t been a public execution performed since 1760. So this harsh sentence was thought unusual, and not everyone agreed with it. But Sheriff Björn Blöndal felt that people in the region had become too rowdy and the crime rate too high so he sought to make an example of Agnes and Friðrik. He even went as far as to order their heads be put on stakes as a warning to others thinking about breaking the law. In the weeks before their executions Agnes and Friðrik each stayed at a local farm, where they helped out with housework and were counselled by priests to try and repent and save their souls.
Everyone in the county was ordered to attend the execution and it’s estimated that around 150 people were there when the pair met their end by beheading. A special platform was built for the execution on Þríhólar hills and you can still see the remains of it today. As ordered by the sheriff, their heads were put on stakes facing the road where they could be seen and the bodies buried nearby. However, a couple of days later the heads mysteriously went missing.
Which brings us to the spookiest part of the story. Years later a woman in Reykjavík began to have visions of Agnes desperately pleading with her to find the heads and bury the whole bodies in consecrated ground. The vision was able to describe the place where the heads and bodies had been buried in such detail that the woman in Reykjavík was able to direct a couple of local farmers up north to the exact location where they were dug up and moved to a nearby cemetery.
But this doesn’t seem to have been enough for the restless Agnes. Both the actress playing her in the Icelandic film Agnes and Burial Rites author Hannah Kent has described feeling the presence of Agnes while working on their projects. It seems like she is desperate to have her story told. It’ll be interesting to see whether Hollywood megastar Jennifer Lawrence, who’s playing Agnes in the film version of Burial Rites, will be visited by the unfortunate ghost and whether the blockbuster will finally be enough to let Agnes rest in peace.
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