Vardø Memorial honors Witches of Finnmark

 Photo: John W. Barry This building memorializes the 91 women and men who were executed during the witchcraft trials.

Photo: John W. Barry
This building memorializes the 91 women and men who were executed during the witchcraft trials.

In the 1600’s, witch trials were not exclusive to Salem, Mass.

By Patricia Barry

Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

When one thinks of witchcraft trials, Finnmark is unlikely to come to mind. The witchcraft trials of the 1600’s were not limited to the well-known Salem (Massachusetts) trials, but were also widespread throughout Europe – including Finnmark. Today the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø commemorates those who were executed during that dark time in Finnmark’s history.

Vardø is the easternmost town of Norway (further east than St. Petersburg, Russia), remotely situated in eastern Finnmark on an island in the Barents Sea off the coast of the Varanger Peninsula. It was in Vardø and nearby Vadsø where most of those accused of witchcraft lived, more here than anywhere else in Norway.

The Steilneset Memorial, completed in 2011, is a collaboration between architect Peter Zumthor and artist Louise Bourgeois.   The location of the memorial eerily adds to one’s visit. Fittingly, it sits on a barren and exposed rise of land along the ocean, where the gusty wind can be heard and felt not only outside the memorial but also within.

Steilneset is composed of two structures. One is made of glass and steel. Its focus is a chair with flames emanating from it, suggesting the image of execution by fire and emphasized by surrounding mirrors.

The second structure is a narrow, 400-foot long, fabric-covered “cocoon” suspended from an exterior wood frame. This houses a dark hallway with 91 plaques for the 91 men and women who were executed from 1600 to 1692 for practicing witchcraft (135 were prosecuted). 91 small windows and bare light bulbs provide minimal illumination. It is in this hall that the individual stories of these 77 women and 14 men are humanized. The exhibit displays each person’s name, biographical information, accusations against them, confessions, and convictions.  To read their stories is sobering.

Accusations against these women and men and their confessions, obtained with or without torture, wove convoluted tales.  Solve Nilsdatter’s story (see below) is typical. Common themes seem incongruous and at times darkly humorous from today’s perspective, such as learning witchcraft through tainted milk or beer, like Solve; passing on witchcraft powers through an object such as a piece of bread and butter, like Kirsten the Maidservant; causing the death of a person or animal, like Guri Olufsdatter, accused of casting a spell on Emich Jørgensen, who drowned at sea.

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Some were subjected to the “water ordeal” in which the accused would be thrown into water with his or her hands and feet tied.  A person who floated would be considered guilty, while a person who sank and drowned would be considered innocent. Some were found guilty simply for refusing to confess.   Most sentences were death by fire at the stake.

The Steilneset Guidebook summarizes their stories.  “The texts serve as a reminder of how the injustice of an implacable judiciary affects a community. They also reflect the diversity, imagination, stamina and strength of the people involved.”

Steilneset is part of Norway’s National Tourist Routes (Nasjonale turistveger). “National Tourist Routes are beautiful drives with that little bit extra…each of the 18 routes has its own history and character.” (from http://www.nasjonaleturistveger.no).   Also on the Varanger National Tourist Route and near Steilneset is Vardøhus festning, built in the 1300’s and site of many witchcraft trials.  The northeast end of the Varanger National Tourist Route is the narrow road to Hamningberg, the most unique part of the Varanger tourist route. This must-see road passes through moonscape-like terrain and along pre-ice age beaches. At the end lies the abandoned fishing village of Hamningberg, a preserved pre-war village and one of the few places in Finnmark not burned during World War II.

Steilneset and the Vardø area could be your destination if you are looking for the road less traveled – and if you are looking for a memorial and a history that can be found only here. Steilneset highlights the dark days of the witchcraft trials in Finnmark, as no other place in Norway can do.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 6, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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