I know I’m not alone in the fact that the book Burial Rites and Agnes’s story captivated and moved me. I know this because at least two people recommended the book to me because they were so moved.
And when I planned my return travels to Iceland, I made sure a pilgrimage was factored in.
June 22nd 2017, we drove from Akureyi that day after staying two nights in the area, and following vague directions on how to locate some of the places I wanted to honour: The workshop where the murders that Agnes’s was accused of being involved with took place, Agnes’s execution place and her final burial place. The directions I followed led us to a church, which I initially thought was the church at Tjorn in which the grounds Agnes is buried. As I frantically searched the grounds, my friend wandered off to get an unofficial tour of the church after being invited by a local man who had keys to the church. As I was starting to realise that we were at the wrong church, my friend was talking to the man about Agnes after he started telling her about the story upon finding out she was Australian. Turns out he knew exactly where we needed to go and gave us some pretty clear directions to follow.
I kinda felt like Agnes had our backs and wanted us to find her.
Our first stop was Þrístapar, her execution spot which was no more than 800 meters away once we got back onto the main road. An un assuming sign sits parallel to the road and you’d easily miss it driving past. The site is on/near farming ground but a fenced off path leads to these 3 mounds I had heard described so often before. I walk towards them, and a chill starts to run through my body as I realise exactly where I am.
I am here.
The place that haunted me.
The place that made me want to leap into the book and save her.
But I couldn’t, and she died alone and scared.
But I’m here now, albeit almost 200 years later.
“I’m here Agnes” I said under my breath.
All the details from the book came flooding back to me as I ascended to the top of the hills. I wanted to cry but instead I just felt weird. A small plaque, tarnished by the elements and time stood on top of one of the hills. Most of words I didn’t recognise as my Icelandic is still quite basic, but I knew what it said. It explained rather unceremoniously that the last execution took place here on 12th January 1930. It didn’t even mention her name. I felt angry at that for her. I looked around, searching for some flowers, anything, that I could place here to show my respect. All I could see were dandelions, each one covered in half a dozen ants or so.
I observed the surroundings and the location. It was nothing special: bit of farmland with some similar hills to the ones I was standing on. But what I noticed was the mountains. They surrounded the place and I smiled because I thought, it anything, she may have found comfort in their beauty. They looked different now, of course and I hoped that it wasn’t so bleak and covered in too much snow to shield the beauty. I hoped that the beauty in mother nature held her until the final moment.
Next stop was the churn at Tjörn, where Agnes and Fridrik are now buried.
Apparently after they were executed (by beheading), their heads were put on stakes and displayed, most likely as a deterrent to others. Their bodies were disposed of (likely burnt) and their heads buried nearby the execution spot. Then, in 1932, a psychic claimed that she was contacted by Agnes and that Agnes implored her to find her and Fridrik’s buried heads and bury them at the church grounds at Tjörn. Sounds a bit whacky, but the psychic apparently led them to the exact spot and they were able to uncover what they believed to be their heads, and relocate them to the churchyard in Tjörn. This is now their final resting place.
We drove on gravel and dirt roads for what felt like ages, using on a paper map with markings on it. The was rain coming in and out, making the drive even harder, but no less spectacular. The Vatsnes Peninsula was a lot more vast and isolated than what we expected. There was some farmland and farmhouses scattered around, and we mused about how isolated it must have felt in the 17th century with no cars and no modern technology. I started to understand the wretched conditions described so explicitly in the book, especially in winter.
I recognised the church as we approached it, and this time there was a sign with Tjörn on it. I had also seen a picture of the grave and that it was shared with Fridrik so I knew what I was looking for. My first thought was that it was such an unassuming place: a tiny church and a tiny grave yard on the edge of a remote peninsula in the middle of farmland. I forgot that, although the book was vastly popular and Agnes’s story know well known, this is where she lived and died and it was what it was.
I found the grave easily enough. And yes there they were, buried together in what had been described in another blog as seeming like there were sharing a grave like a marriage bed. Which seems strange as they we far from lovers (apparently). The grave is fairly modern, the plaque shiny and easy to read and Fridrik’s name is first at the top. Its one of those graves that is like a box with no lid, with walls around the outside. I found some dandelions (these ones relatively ant free) and placed them there to show my respect. I sat on the edge of the grave and I spoke to her again: I told her that I was sorry. Sorry that she lived her short life misunderstood and underestimated. I was sorry that because she was intelligent that it may have sealed her fate because people judged her, that because she was strong and powerful that people thought she had to be oppressed. I told her sorry that she may have felt so alone in life and in her circumstances and that I will hang on to who she was for as long as I lived. I told her that I would continue advocating for women to be seen for who they really are and to no longer be oppressed, and that I would continue to fight for myself.
I hope she heard me somehow.
Last stop was the farm at Illugastaðir. The place where the murders took place. This was a little less tangible as the farm no longer stood and all was left were ruins. There is a information board near the car park explaining that this is the location where the murders took place, but no real direction or explanation of exactly where. Its not a huge place, its full of seaweed and ducks and now the people visiting are just here because its now a good vantage place to spot seals.
I fell in love with Iceland, and believe every part of it is beautiful. But I could imagine how living there, especially in winter, would be a wretched thing. And I felt sad for Agnes. That she ended up here, and what happened happened.
I walked away a little crestfallen and that I had failed because I couldn’t find the exact site or the ruins. But it was the right place and I reasoned with myself that there was nothing left to see anyway. That I had found the execution spot, the grave and that I had made it here in the same location where it all went down. These were the three places I wanted to see and I did it.
With special mention to my patient, and expert map reader travel companion, Bree, I complete my pilgrimage.
It felt very surreal that I was there in all those places that I had read about and that were so far away from home.
I felt honoured that I was able to go there, and have this special experience.
I hoped Agnes knew somehow that she was honoured.
Whoever she was.