The evil north: Vardø’s witch trials

Photo: Guri Dahl / Flickr
Steilneset, opened in 2011, is a stunning tribute to the people killed in Finnmark’s witch trials.

Jill Beatty
Daughters of Norway

In medieval literature prior to Christianity, supernatural powers were an accepted fact. The practice of magic, changing shapes, flying, and spells to control the elements and conjure up the dead were used. Eventually the church rejected these powers, and forbid any belief in and use of “witchcraft.”

However, the belief and accusations are part of history, as we are familiar with the 17th- and 18th-century witch trials in Europe. Witches were found in northern Norway—in the remote region of Finnmark, there is a village along the coast named Vardø, known as the “Witch Capital of Norway.” Between 1593 and 1692 there were more than 140 witch trials in this small village. Ninety-one people were found guilty of sorcery and burned at the stake or tortured to death. This is a very large number of people for such a sparsely populated area. The trials were recorded, giving modern historians great insight into the witch hunt accusations and the trials.

But why was this remote area so targeted for witch hunts?

During the 1600s, local authorities had a great deal of power. Often men of Scotland, Denmark, and Germany set out to hunt witches. There was a theory that prevailed from Europe that “evilness could be found in the North,” a belief that the people of this area were more inclined to be evil than in other parts of the world. Finnmark was on the outskirts of Christianity, and Satan was believed to live in these northern areas.

The “evilness” was conveyed through the bitterly cold North winds. Many of us have experienced the relentless and chilling sounds of a snowstorm and how the winds howl with a terrible dread.

The Dutch would sail between Vardøs­hus and Russia to trade and warned their countrymen of the dangers of Satan. The haunts of demons and devils flew through the wicked winds. Witches could conjure up mighty whirlwinds, poor weather, fog, thunder, and lightning along the coast. It was a special nautical sorcery of Norwegian witches.

Norwegian women were home while the men were out fishing for extended periods of time. During this time they were suspected of committing adultery with demons.

And then there were the Sámi, who were also feared by those who thought they had a special connection with the Devil.

Many Europeans who traded and tried to find a Northeastern sea route experienced bad weather and ice packs; when they returned home, they told of the torment of the North.

Word spread that Norway had the most notorious witches. There were stories that the mountain Domen between the village of Vardø and Kiberg was the place that massive witch Sabbaths were held. This was also the entrance to hell. Several of the women who were accused told of a long black valley and a dark lake at the bottom of the valley. The water boiled here when Satan spewed fire out of an iron pipe. Men and women floated in the water and screeched like cats. Devils and demons were known to spread out across the world from this cave and work great harm all over Europe, causing harmful, brutal winds and illnesses.

The Vardø witch trial (heksejakten i Vardø) took place in Finnmark, Northern Norway, in 1621. It was the first witch trial of northern Norway and one of the biggest in Scandinavia.

Three years prior, on December 24, 1617, northern Norway suffered from a sudden violent storm. A great majority of the males were out to sea at the time and were surprised by the storm. It sank ten boats and drowned 40 men. It was believed that witches caused the storm.

Two women, Mari Jøgensdatter and Kirsti Sørensdatter were interrogated under torture, and they were the center of the trial.

Mari confessed that the witches were responsible for the great storm of 1617. She said they had tied a fishing rope three times, spat at it, and untied it, after which “the sea looked like ashes and people were killed.”

Another woman, Else, was arrested after she was seen in the company of black cats and dogs and was exposed to the ordeal of the water: if you floated when thrown out into the water, you were considered a witch.

Anne Larsdatter claimed in confession that the Devil tied the tongues of the witches so they could not cry or confess until they were exposed to the ordeal of the water. She too had flown to a witches’ Sabbath outside of Vardø, where she saw 40 others. She had partied so much she barely had time to get home to her bed before it was time to get up for Christmas morning.

Mari and many others were convicted and burned at the stake in January 1621. When Kirsti arrived home months later, she too was questioned. Anne, like many of the women who were interrogated, fingered Kirsti for their leader. Under torture Kristi confessed that she learned sorcery from an old woman. She was burned alive at the stake on April 28, 1621, a couple months after 10 other women had been burned for sorcery. She was the last victim of the great witch trial of 1621.

About 150 people were executed for sorcery between 1621 and 1663. Of these all the men were Sámi and most of the women were Norwegian.

On June 23, 2011, Norway’s Queen Sonja unveiled the Steilneset memorial to the victims of the witch trials in Vardø. The monument was made by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. The memorial was designed to draw visitors to an economically depressed yet exceptionally beautiful area of Norway. The memorial is also a part of the modern trend to apologize and atone for injustices of past and to grant the victims official recognition. The memorial is on the same site thought to be the execution site of the 91 so-called witches.

On a windswept promontory, its jagged shoreline splintered by the crashing waves, over a picket fence of the local cemetery, you see Zumthor’s creation in two distinct buildings. Memory Hall is a white textile cocoon suspended in a simple long crosshatched structure made of untreated pine. Hand-sewn sailcloth is pulled taut by steel cables, inspired by the drying fish racks used in the area.

The corridor is filled with 91 lamps. Each one illuminates a window and a plaque with testimony from the trials telling the story of the person killed.

When you enter on a wooden gangplank, through a steel door into blackness, it is like going into a dark tunnel. The walls move in the wind, shuddering with heavy gusts.

Next to this is a black spiral box built to house a chair with a burning flame in the middle. Above it are three mirrors that reflect the flames, representing the Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved. The mirrors distort the flames and make you feel like you are in the fire.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.