Tag Archives: Agnes Magnusdóttir

Ghost Stories: On the Trail of Agnes

This post originally published in Stuck in Iceland.


We start by telling ghost stories sitting around the kitchen table at our guesthouse in þingeyrar, where we look out the kitchen window at a circle of tombstones. Now, we have sat at the kitchen table and looked out on that mini skyline of gravestones for ten years without questioning it too much. In fact, we have become rather ho hum about the sight, like Oh, there is the church, the laundry line, the gravestones. “Pass the skyr, please.”

gravesitewitnesses (3)

The gravesite of the witness

Icelanders have told us the guesthouse is haunted, presented it as a blasé fact, “Yes, many people are visited by ghosts here.” And many of us have seen (Alison), felt (Kat) and heard (me) the ghosts over the years. Nor is it an impediment to our stay here: every year we still greet our rooms in the guesthouse with giddy excitement, and exhale, “We’re he-eere.”

But this year we have new information. This year we have been told that all those headstones were moved there when our guesthouse was built, and they all belonged to the people who witnessed the beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir in 1830.

This gets us going. ”What does it mean that they were moved? Were they all underneath this house? And were just the headstones moved?”

See this year we know who Agnes is; we did our homework—at least we read the new novel Burial Rites before arriving in Iceland. So they are no longer nameless, generic ghosts that visit us; now they are ghosts with a purpose.

In all fairness to our host, Helga, she had told us the story of Agnes the summer before and had mentioned it over the years, too. But for some reason it fell on deaf ears until last fall when I picked up the book in a store and had a “hold on, I know this story” moment. I dashed off an email to my fellow travelers. “This book is about that story that Helga was talking about, that song at the concert in the church, that movie she mentioned.” We were hooked then, gripped by the life and death of Agnes Magnusdottir.

In the Footsteps of Agnes

Seeing that the story finally resonated with us, Helga scheduled a full day of sightseeing through Vatnsdalur, home to Agnes Magnusdottir. Thirty minutes south from us, she was born; thirty minutes west, she lived with Natan; twenty minutes inland, she stayed with a family before execution; and ten minutes from our guesthouse she was put to death.

The night before we set out, Helga brought over the 1995 Icelandic movie, Agnes, where actor, director, and our personal Samaritan, be-still-my-heart Baltasar Kormákur plays the lead role of Natan, Agnes’ lover, who she was convicted of murdering. When we saw him in the opening scene we sighed like thirteen-year-olds, “That’s him, that’s our Baltasar,” stressing the possessive. We ogled him in the steamy— literally in hot springs— love scene. But it was not a swooning type of role for long and we had a hard time separating Natan’s character from the Baltasar we had met last year, “Uh-oh, he’s doing her, and her, too? What a womanizer. A beast. How could he.”

When we set out the next day to follow in the footsteps of Agnes, these were the two competing interpretations that filled my head: the Natan and Agnes of the book, Burial Rites, and the Natan and Agnes of the 1995 Icelandic movie, Agnes. And there was a third interpretation hovering over the story that had not yet been made—the Hollywood version whereby nineteenth century Icelandic Agnes will be played by America’s reigning sweetheart, Jennifer Lawrence. I remembered Jennifer tripping on the way up to the podium to receive her Oscar; a detail in the book has Agnes tripping and falling down in her last steps to reach the chopping block. I expect Jennifer to nail that scene.

The Church at Tjörn

Church at Tjorn

Our first stop is at the church at Tjörn where Agnes’s head is buried, ur, reburied. We rush out  our cars, charged with a mission, “Where’s her head?” It’s as if we are on a Dan Brown mystery-history- literary tour and this is Rosslyn Chapel. Impatiently we scan the names of each tombstone. Finally we find the gravesite. The grass is thick and long with a sprinkling of dandelions. The marker has just their names, birth date and death date. There is nothing indicating their story, or the fact that it is just their heads buried there. And is it just their heads? The stone looks like new marble. And Agnes and Fridrik share the site, like a marriage bed.

Headstone (heads) of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson

Headstone (heads) of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson

This surprises us because, in truth, Fridrik gets short shrift with us. We are so focused on Agnes and the doomed affair with Natan that we forget Fridrik, who was beheaded in Þrístapar just minutes before Agnes for the same crime. After the execution, their bodies were quickly disposed off, and their heads were put on pikes facing the road. I know, it sounds more like bloody old England than Iceland.

All of Us


But how their heads got to this churchyard in Tjörn is a curious story, a ghost story within a ghost story. Back in 1932 a woman in Reykjavik, a psychic type, was “summoned” by Agnes who expressed her desire to have her head and Fridrik’s buried in the churchyard at Tjörn. A picky, demanding ghost, this Agnes. She apparently told the psychic exactly where their heads were buried in Þrístapar, though they were buried secretly in the middle of the night. With the psychic’s direction, the heads were dug up, complete with wooden pikes embedded in skulls, and reburied in Tjörn.

We spend the rest of the time looking to see if Natan is buried here, too, figuring maybe that’s why Ghost Agnes chose to this as her final resting spot. But there is no headstone that reads Natan Ketilsson.

The Farm at Illugastaðir

The Farm at Illugastaðir

Natan’s View

The sky is overcast. The tide is out. Seaweed is thick in the tidal basin. It’s a wild, moody place on earth, and easy to imagine a mad love affair gone deadly wrong. A mound nearby where a new house stands is where Natan’s house once stood, where a destitute Agnes came to him hired as a housemaid and stayed as his lover. The remnants of his workshop where he made his medicine and potions are nothing but fallen planks, broken sticks of wood.

Eider Duck

Eider Duck

The land itself is now a nature preserve for eider ducks. There is a car park, a restroom, and a well maintained path where we pass the ducks protected in the grass by old tires. The path ends at a point where there is a bird lookout with a sign-in guest book. Looking west there is a spit of land where the seals are trying to sun themselves on the rocks. The sun shoots out in brief intermittent flashes of light. And beyond that, across the fjord, is land blue and white with snow-capped mountains, a sparkling winter land in great contrast to the green summer land we stand on. It hovers almost as a mesmerizing mirage. Helga points to that blue wintry coast, which looks for all the world like something out of a fairy tale, and tells us that is where her mother was born. She gives us the place name, but I can’t find it on a map.

Blue Wintry

Blue and Wintry

 Þrístapar: The Site of Execution

It’s easy to miss the sign on the side of the road and the three little hills. We have passed the sign every year on the road to þingeyrar and have never noticed it.



It is warm and rainy as we walk to the site of the executions. We don’t engage in our usual chatter. We walk solemnly, single file, as if in a funeral procession. The three hills are just small mounds, only about twelve feet high. I’m not thinking of Agnes and Fridrik as we walk to the site. I’m thinking of the neighboring farmers who were forced to witness the event, the ones who haunt our guesthouse.



Site of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson’s Execution

The site’s marker is weathered, pocked with lichen and moss. It looks a thousand years old. I can’t make out the letters. It’s not much to look at, but the views are vast in this part of Iceland. Look one way and there are the hills of dry dirt, a result of a landslide from the Ice Age. And inland from there is Kornsá, a deep valley, where Agnes lived with a family before her execution. Look the other way and the land opens up to the rolling green farmland that gives way to Lake Hóp. I can easily make out the black basalt of þingeyrakirkja, and our guesthouse.

The Things We Ask

At dinner that night, we pepper our Icelandic hosts with questions about the details of the execution. We, who come from a country that just bungled a supposedly fool-proof chemical execution in Texas, are fascinated with the idea that Icelanders rejected capital punishment almost 200 years ago.

But Helgi corrects us and explains that the Icelanders didn’t really have a say in the matter, they were then a colony under Denmark’s rule. A reprieve would have had to come from the King. And capital punishment wasn’t officially off the books for another hundred years.

Then we throw out a barrage of questions about Agnes and Natan. “Did she kill him like in the book out of mercy, or was it like in the movie, when she pulled him from the burning wreckage? And did Agnes have a child or not? And why were Agnes and Fridrik buried in the same plot? Was it assumed they had an affair? And where is Natan’s body buried? Yeah, where is Natan’s body?”

We throw so many questions out at them that we’re talking over each other and the Icelanders have to sit back and take a breath.

What more can they tell us?

No one could have anticipated – either in 1830 or 2014 – this sympathy for Agnes, the novel, the Hollywood movie coming out, and eight American women (and who knows how many more) obsessed with a love-murder-tale that took place so long ago.

They just didn’t see this coming, folks. They did not see this coming. Imagine what Agnes would have thought.



Burial Rites

Review of Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent

(This review is cross-posted in The Literary Cafe, a blog for book enthusiasts.)

I first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir on my last trip to Iceland in June. Our host, Helga, arranged a concert for us in the church where two flutists played a dozen songs. Some of the songs were recognizably American, like Home on the Range and Paul Simon’s El Condor Paso, but the others were Icelandic, both modern and folk. The last song was introduced to us as a piece of local history. Just south of Helga’s farm is Vatnsdalur, where in the year 1830 a servant woman, Agnes, was executed for being an accomplice to the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson (her landlord/lover) and Petur Jonsson (a disreputable sort). The song told her story, and it has now been told again in Burial Rites, a first novel by the young Australian writer Hannah Kent.

The story of Agnes is well-known with Icelanders who, given their saga DNA, pass on stories from generation to generation. There are many non-fiction books, all in Icelandic, about the trial and execution. In 1995 an Icelandic-made movie, Agnes, stirred up controversy about the almost 200-year- old crime, because there were some old timers alive who knew the story through their grandparents, or who were descendents of the victims, accused, or accusers. So while the crime took place in 1830, it was and is still talked about, thought about, and lodged in the national psyche.

Agnes’s guilt was questionable and uncorroborated. The harsh sentence was meted out by the District Commissioner of the area who wanted to make an example of Agnes. He portrayed her as a she-devil, witch, spider, a desperate spinster—turning it into a morality play to keep people in line. To drive home the point, all the farmers in the surrounding area were made to watch the execution. Her head was stuck on a stake, as was the head of Fridrik, the other person accused, and their bodies were buried without Christian ceremony. It must have been horrific, and a collective remorse must have risen afterward, because it was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland for any crime.

Entering into this territory—national, historical, legal, collective memory—is Hannah Kent, who as an exchange student in Iceland in 2003 heard the story of Agnes and couldn’t get it out of her head. Kent poured over all the primary sources of the era, the birth and church records, spoke to Icelanders who were familiar with local lore and imaginatively conjured up the inner drama. She calls it interpretive history. I call it channeling the spirit world.

Kent received an advance of more than $1 million (a jaw-dropping amount for literary fiction), with the book being translated into twenty languages. Hollywood has optioned the movie rights and it’s rumored that Jennifer Lawrence (Yes!) will play Agnes. It is odd to think that this local Icelandic story, nearly two centuries old about “a landless work maid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty,” and known only to the inhabitants of the island or visitors to the Hunavatn district, has gone global. I can’t help wondering what the real Agnes would have thought about this.

The book opens when Agnes arrives at a farm nearby where she will later be executed. She is scuffed and bloody from iron shackles, from men bruising her at will. She is full of lice, flies, and fleas, and smells of stale urine. Sweat and dried blood has oiled her blue dress brown. She is hungry, thirsty, forlorn and condemned to death for murder after a brief trial. She gives new meaning, or maybe old biblical meaning, to the term, wretchedness. Think your hair might smell a bit funky this winter because you haven’t washed it in three days? Meet Agnes. After not bathing for six months, her hair “feels like greasy rope.”

The telling of this tale goes back and forth in time and narrative style, from the farmhouse inhabitants who reluctantly house her (there are no prisons to lock her in), to Agnes in the first person, to Tóti, the young, novice priest confessor she tells her story to. (Quick, call Eddie Redmayne’s agent for this part.) The young reverend is a highly sensitive man who initially tries but fails to keep his professional demeanor and distance. On his way to his first meeting with her, “Unexpectedly, a small thrill flickered through his body. She was only a workmaid, but she was a murderess.” Well, he doesn’t get out much. He lives with his Pabbi, a grim, old school minister, on a desolate farm farther north. Week after week Tóti treks through Iceland’s northern territory in harsh weather to see Agnes. Yes, it’s under the guise of providing spiritual counseling, but we know he is positively smitten by her. At a crucial point, Tóti becomes ill, leaving him bed ridden, dreaming of her, delirious and feverish. This left me wondering: are we supposed to think his illness was self-induced, a neurasthenic in love? Or did Kent find source material of a flu epidemic in the county’s annals?

Since the end of a historical novel is known, the hook has to be in the revelation of the characters. Kent does an excellent job of slowly unveiling the story. She paces it so well that I found myself turning the pages carefully (because it is vivid, lyrical writing and I didn’t want to skim over a single sentence), but also quickly (I had to know what happened and why). Through Agnes’s two listeners, the priest and the farmer’s wife, we learn of the events that led to the day of murder. So what really happened?

Natan happened. He hovers over the book as lover, landlord, ghost, and as victim, madman, cad. He is not much to look at, but he is like no other man Agnes has ever met. He is a progressive guy, an establishment fighter, well-educated, an atheist, a herbalist healer. He takes interest in her intellect, soul, and body. He invites her to live with him. He breaks “the very yolk of my soul,” thinks Agnes, and “he would give me springtime.” This long-awaited-for love comes at age 33 for Agnes, so okay, it deserves high prose. For the first time, she realizes there is something more than the drudgery of poverty and work. Natan’s love gives her “an end to the stifling ordinariness of existence.” And woo-wee, the sex is great, even if it does always take place in the cowshed.

But there is a dark side to Natan (there always is). He has fits of bad temper and cruelty, not to mention a few other women on the side. One of them is The Poet-Rosa (yes, the rival comes with a talent moniker—so not fair). She is a well-known writer of the day who, though married, openly had an affair with Natan and bore a couple of his children. And then there is Sigga, the housekeeper on Natan’s farm, who is young, pretty, fickle and dimwitted. Even though Sigga is drawn to and wants to marry Fridrik, a notorious local thief, Natan takes her whenever he wants, and in one scene, cruelly and flagrantly in front of Agnes in the claustrophobic breath-on-breath living quarters of the badstofa. Agnes stifles her anger in the dark. I was left gurgling with fury toward Natan. Visions of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago growling out that musical number, “He Had It Coming,” danced in my head.

Agnes is not the first woman to have fallen for a bad man and, after mistreatment, acted out furiously. The jails are full of them today. She is not the first person whose story gets twisted and taken out of context: “Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own.” That is both old and new. While it may have been a prickly, sanctimonious District Commissioner in northern Iceland in 1829 who accused, vilified, and stereotyped her, today we have the media’s “outrage industry” where snippets of comment are taken out of context, judged quickly, harshly, and go viral before we get the whole story (and then shrugged off, “never mind”).

In the end, we have no idea why or if Agnes killed Natan directly or indirectly. But through Kent’s retelling of the known and the unknown, the real and imagined, we get to know the approximate woman. And she deserves to be known and heard simply because she was once full of life, wholly in love, and crushed by ill fortune. By the close of the book, I was railing: “Free Agnes!” or at least give her the commuted sentence that they gave Sigga.

This is what historical fiction does for the reader: it takes us out of our own time and brings us intimately into the past— and thus we see ourselves on a continuum with all humanity. Yes, it was her life lived in that particular time in that specific place on earth, but we can find common ground and modern parallels no matter how different and distant that other life was. A good historical novel also leaves us with these self-reflective questions: What are our life events? What is our time on earth about? Who do we love?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos taken by author at Vatnsnes, and at Glaumbær Farm, a turf musuem in Skagafjordur.