Nowadays, when we think of witches we imagine Halloween cartoons with warts on the ends of their big noses or maybe we even have a friend who celebrates the Spring equinox instead of attending Easter mass. 400 years ago the country of Norway killed 91 people found guilty of witchcraft during a century-long purge. The victims were all burned or tortured to death. This week, Norway unveiled a new sculpture to mark the tragedy and to apologize to those who lost their lives. Here’s the word from The Daily Beast…
Right off the crashing waves of the Barents Sea is the remote town of Vardø, known as the “witch capital of Norway.”
Four hundred years ago, Vardø embarked on a crusade to rid itself of witchcraft. For more than a century—between 1593 and 1692—there were more than 140 witch trials in the small village.
At least 91 people, both men and women, were found guilty of sorcery and burned at the stake or tortured to death.
The number may not be as large as elsewhere in Europe, but in northern Norway’s sparsely populated landscape it touched a disproportionately large chunk of the population.
About a third of these trials were specifically targeting Norway’s indigenous Sami population who arose suspicion by practicing traditional healing rituals.
The killings came in spates—one in the 1620s and another in the early 1660s, when 20 of the 30 people were put on trial were killed.
The proceedings were meticulously recorded, giving modern historians insight into the accusations and reasonings that fueled the witch hunt.
“There was an idea in Europe that in the north people might be more inclined to witchcraft and evilness than other places.”
Testimony from the time revealed that witchcraft was believed to be something one consumed—it came in the form of magically tainted milk, bread, or beer.
According to an article by historian Rune Blix Hagen at the Arctic University of Norway, the sudden spate of sorcery accusations came after a particularly brutal Christmas storm that killed 40 fishermen in the early 1600s.
It took three years for legislation that allowed mass prosecution on suspicion of witchcraft, but with that go-ahead, Vardø prosecuted with fervor.
When a woman arrived in the court and described how witches had tied knots and cast spells that caused the wrecks she was swiftly tossed to sea. When she floated, she was dubbed a witch and killed.
That year, in 1621, many more women followed in her ghostly wake after being accused and found guilty of sorcery. Many were burned at the stake, others were tortured to death.
The geographical remoteness may have had been related to the vengeance with which witches were persecuted in northern Norway.
Of course, we no longer fear witchcraft because we all know there’s no such thing as magic, right? But, if these rites and rituals are strictly for show, why have they endured for centuries and continued to be handed down through the ages even at penalty of death?
Here’s a creepy, cool BBC documentary from 1979, looking into the “Power of the Witch…”