View Full Version : Witchcraft and Persecutions in Iceland, 1400-1700

Friday, November 5th, 2004, 12:33 AM
Witchcraft and the Occult, 1400-1700

Iceland is famous among historians of witchcraft as a country with a very high male to female ratio among witchcraft suspects. In order to understand why this should be the case, it is necessary to consider the cultural context of magic in Iceland. An essay and a book chapter by the anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup are the essential introductions to this topic. What follows here does not attempt to duplicate her persuasive analysis.

Christianity came relatively late to Iceland, but to trace the magic and witchcraft beliefs of early modern Iceland back to the pagan world of the sagas seems a little farfetched, however attractive it may be to modern neo-pagans. We know little of the actual practices of pre-Christian Iceland, as opposed to what is in the literary texts, but what we do know seems very different from what was happening in the early modern period. What we find is not an appeal to the Norse gods, but rather a synthesis of shamanism, learned magic, and medieval Christianity. If there are elements surviving from pre-Christian Norse beliefs, it is hard to identify them.

If we examine the Icelandic witchcraft cases, in the context of widespread contemporary magical practices, it becomes evident that the situation in Iceland resembles that in Russia and some of the Baltic countries, before the impact of European demonology was fully felt. The stereotype of a secret doer of evil was a corrupt shaman or a literate man, such as a clergyman, who used the power of symbols or writing for evil purposes. It was not a woman who had made a pact with the Devil.

Magical practices in early modern Iceland

For centuries, both before and after the Reformation, the only schools in Iceland were at the two cathedrals, Hólar in the north and Skálholt in the south. At least four cases of witchcraft were associated with the latter in the second half of the 17th century. None were referred to the secular courts and the punishments were never harsh. Twice students were found in possession of magical books and were expelled, though some of them were later readmitted. One case concerned a priest who was accused by a student of having caused a sickness which he felt in the presence of a girl whom both of them were courting. The leniency shown to the students who were dabbling in magic is generally connected with the humanism and sensibility of the bishop, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, who was highly regarded as a scholar in Denmark. At Hólar, no records have been found of cases of magic in the 17th century, but there are numerous accounts of students experimenting with sorcery in the 18th century. From these examples, and from some of the cases below, it is clear that literacy was strongly associated with the quest for occult power, so that the Lutheran clergy might easily fall under suspicion.

Some of the magical practices illustrated below seem unlikely to have been employed by the clergy, but the manuscripts in which they are recorded may well have been written by clerics. Some practices in the manuscripts resemble the blackest necromancy, others are more like village charms. However, it is clear that they were woven into every aspect of the lives of Icelanders, exposed to the perils of the sea, of magic, and of their overlords.

Witchcraft cases in early modern Iceland

There are few surviving references to pre-Reformation accusations of sorcery among the Northern Scandinavians. The annals record that, in 1343, a Norwegian bishop had a nun burnt for blasphemy and communicating with the devil, and in 1407 a man was burnt in the Nordic community in Greenland for using sorcery to seduce a married woman.

Even in the sixteenth century, Icelandic cases are rare. In 1554, a priest in Eyjafjörđur was charged with raping his sister-in-law, a minor, with the aid of magical books found in his possession. He was outlawed from the region and sentenced to lose one arm and both ears, and to pay his father-in-law vast sums in compensation. The authorities later allowed him to keep his arm and ears, and he then became a parish priest in the Strandir region. [Canon law had long forbidden mutilated men from being priests.]

Between 1625 and 1683, twenty-one Icelanders were burnt alive for practicing magic. The Icelandic witch-craze was imported from Europe by members of a ruling class of semi-nobles who were mainly educated in Denmark and northern Germany. One extended family of landowners, primarily in the north-west of the country, supplied the majority of the sheriffs presiding over the court cases for witchcraft and a large portion of the clergy, among them priests who wrote treatises against magic, heavily influenced by European works such as the Malleus Maleficarum.

The learned European influence is not as obvious in the actual case material. Contemporary sources, mainly annals and court records, reveal that a third of the charges were for causing sickness in persons and livestock, and another third for possessing magical books or pages with galdrastafir, that is, magical signs or staves. Heresy and satanism are hardly mentioned at all. Another striking difference between the European and Icelandic witch-hunts is that only one woman was among those burnt at the stake. This latter feature is what needs most to be explained, and incorporated into a general theory of witch-hunting.

Around 130 cases of witchcraft or sorcery are found in court records, both from the high court at Ţingvellir and in fragments of county court records. Of approximately 170 persons accused, around 10% were women. The rest were males, mostly of the lower classes, although some sheriffs and clergymen were also accused. None of the latter suffered physical punishments. The total population of Iceland was only around fifty thousand.

Apart from the charges mentioned above, people were accused of waking the dead, using magic to heal, and about a tenth of cases mention blasphemy, though seldom as the only charge. A quarter of cases ended with a sentence of whipping which could involve from a half a dozen lashes to three consecutive whippings, all of them as heavy as a man could endure and still stay alive. A quarter of those accused were acquitted, at least 15% managed to escape the law, and the outcome of another 15% of cases is unknown. There is no evidence that physical torture was ever used in Iceland to secure confessions.

In 1617, the Danish authorities sent a royal order, defining punishments for witchcraft but it was probably never ratified by the general assembly at Ţingvellir. In the following years, references to sorcery become more numerous in the records, especially after the trials in the 1630s of Jón the Learned of Strandir. Jón had previously fled the Westfjords because of his criticism of the powerful sheriff, Ari in Ögur, who had ordered the killing of over 40 shipwrecked Basque whalers in 1615. Jón did not deny having practiced healing, as found in a book of charms and cures presented to the lawcourt - the table of contents is copied in the court records - but he staunchly denied practicing magic or sorcery. Jón was outlawed from the country, but after a hearing before the university court in Copenhagen and a second trial where the first verdict was confirmed, he was allowed to live out his days in the east of Iceland where he wrote a number of works, most of them for the bishop in Skálholt, Brynjólfur Sveinsson.

Even after the extension of King Christian IV of Denmark's 1617 decree, which expanded the definition of witchcraft to include "white magic", to cover Icelandic cases, it seems clear that the Icelanders continued to define witchcraft primarily in terms of maleficium, doing harm, and to apply traditional Icelandic legal procedures for handling cases of alleged witchcraft. This has been stressed in a recent study of the case of the Jon Jonssons, father and son, of Kirkjubol farm, accused by their parish priest Jon Magnusson.

The local clergyman in Skutulsfjörđur (the present town of Ísafjörđur in the Westfjords), Jón Magnússon, fell ill in 1654 and remained bedridden for weeks at a time, sweating and shaking and experiencing vivid hallucinations. He became convinced that two of his neighbours, a father and son, both named Jón Jónsson, had sent him the illness with the aid of magic. The local sheriffs reluctantly took up the case, but under considerable pressure from the Reverend Jón they tried the culprits and in 1656 both of them were burnt. The priest was awarded a large part of their property as compensation but a little later he had a relapse. He then accused a female member of the family, but this time the authorities declined the case. The Reverend Jón wrote a book, Píslarsaga to justify his claims. There he describes the illness and the strange hallucinations he suffered.

From 1654, when three men were executed in Trékyllisvík in Strandir, only one or two court cases are mentioned in the sources until the 1670s, when the witch-hunt seems to have been at its zenith. After the last execution in 1683, and especially after 1690, when a royal decree ordered that all capital offenses must be referred to the authorities in Copenhagen, the cases became fewer. In 1719 the assembly at Ţingvellir scolded a sheriff for wasting the court's time with an accusation for magic.

There has yet to be produced a fully convincing modern account of the events at Trékyllisvík, the northernmost community of Strandir, but the strange occurrances seem to have started in 1652 and continued throughout the 17th century. It is very tempting to see a local cultural tradition of what we might call hysteria at the root of the matter. The cases appear similar to European ones of bewitchment or possession. According to one annal:

"That autumn [1652] an evil spirit or a ghost caused disturbances in Trékyllisvík. Often during the same day and especially in the church, the spirit would suddenly go down people's throats causing belching and a feeling of overfill, but afterwards they felt nothing. Virgins were more prone to this sickness than others."

When the two county sheriffs arrived it was soon revealed that the community suspected a certain Ţórđur Guđbrandsson. After repeated hearings, he admitted that he had met the devil in the form of a fox and had sent it to Trékyllisvík. During the proceedings, the sheriffs heard that two other men, Egill Bjarnason and Grímur Jónsson, were rumoured to be sorcerers. After some time in custody, they both admitted having practiced forbidden magic. All three were burnt in September 1656.

In spite of the executions, the belching and fainting fits in and around the church continued, and in 1670 two inhabitants of the community were whipped harshly, first at the general assembly at Ţingvellir and again in Trékyllisvík, though no charges against them could be proved and they denied all knowledge of magic. Reports continued of the same disturbances until the last decade of the 17th century when harsh weather and a famine became the community's pressing concerns.

The two cases of the 1650s, at Trékyllisvík and Ísafjörđur, were presided over by the same sheriff, Ţorleifur Kortsson, who lived in Hrútafjörđur in Strandir. He later became head sheriff (lögmađur) in the north and west and most of the cases of witchcraft that emerged during the following two decades were referred to him.

One of the persons who referred cases to Ţorleifur Kortsson was Páll Björnsson, a clergyman at Selárdalur in the southwest of the Westfjords. Páll had studied abroad and was generally thought to be among the foremost theologians in Iceland. He was also known for his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. An essay of his on Icelandic natural history was published in 1674, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and in French in the Journal des Savants in 1675. He was also the first man to measure the exact geographical position of Iceland's westernmost point. His most famous essay, however, was Character Bestić (1674), a tract against magic. It quotes the Malleus Maleficarum but bears little resemblance to the sorcery described in Icelandic sources.

In 1669, Páll's wife Helga fell ill and for a time their farm had to be evacuated because of evil spirits that made it uninhabitable. Finally, it was decided that Helga's illness had been caused by a farmhand who had wanted to marry one of her maids. Páll had him burnt with the help of his brother Eggert Björnsson, the county sheriff, along with a second man who they claimed had taught the farm hand sorcery. Helga, who seems to have been somewhat unstable, had relapses again and again, until 6 people had been burnt as a result of her illness and those of her children. The last man burnt in Iceland was condemned for causing a similar illness in a daughter of Páll and Helga. Among those who suffered in connection with the family in Selárdalur was the only woman burnt during the witch-craze in Iceland. Little is known of this case except that Ţuríđur Ólafsdóttir had recently moved to the area, and her dim-witted son, who was burnt with her, had boasted that his mother knew how to cross rivers and streams without their getting their feet wet. The case was one of several where the death sentence was confirmed by the general assembly after the culprits had been executed.

At a meeting with the local sheriff in Bjarnarfjörđur in central Strandir, a woman named Guđrún Magnúsdóttir described in 1660 a malady which she had suffered from for three years. She was afflicted with fits which made her shake all over and caused pains in her chest. She suspected three men of having caused the illness. The men were ordered to attend a further investigation, but no records survive which tell us the outcome of the case. Numerous cases of this kind are known from most parts of Iceland. Throughout this period, when an unexplained illness struck, Icelanders looked to unpopular neighbours, citing a harsh word uttered long before.

Sixteen years later, after another court hearing in the same place, a man named Jón Pálsson was whipped for possessing a nine page magical book with strange drawings and two invocations against foxes, an understandable concern of sheep farmers. Jón was whipped and the books burnt under his nose to discourage him from such practices. Jón escaped with his life mainly because his neighbours had a good opinion of him and could not believe that he would ever harm anybody with his magic. Maleficium was the central issue, rather than magic per se.

A list of those executed

Borderline cases of blasphemy, and cases where the outcome is not entirely certain, have been omitted.

Jón Rögnvaldsson - 1625: burnt in Eyjafjörđur, north Iceland, for raising a ghost and possessing papers with runic characters. Denied all accusations.

Ţórđur Guđbrandsson - 1654: burnt in Trékyllisvík, Strandir, for causing strange occurences in the community. After imprisonment he confessed that he had met the Devil in the guise of a fox and sent it to Trékyllisvík.

Egill Bjarnason - 1654: burnt in Trékyllisvík, Strandir, after confessing that he had killed a sheep with magic and made a contract with the devil.

Grímur Jónsson - 1654: burnt in Trékyllisvík, Strandir, after confessing that he knew magic runes and had killed a sheep with a magic character.

Jón Jónsson sen. - 1656: burnt in Ísafjörđur, admitted in custody that he owned magical books and that he had used them against the Rev. Jón Magnússon.

Jón Jónsson jun. - 1656: burnt in Ísafjörđur. Admitted having used magical signs and, among other things, having used farting-runes (Fretrúnir) against a girl and having caused the sickness of the Rev. Jón Magnússon.

Ţórarinn Halldórsson - 1667: from Ísafjarđarsýsla, the Westfjords. Burnt at the general assembly at Ţingvellir. Admitted that he had carved helms of awe (Ćgishjálmur) on oak and practiced healing with the aid of magical signs.

Jón Leifsson - 1669: burnt in Barđastrandarsýsla in the Westfjords for having caused the illness of Helga, wife of the Rev. Páll Björnsson in Selárdalur. Admitted that he had tried to gain some knowledge of the occult.

Erlendur Eyjólfsson - 1669: burnt in Húnavatnssýsla county in north Iceland for having taught Jón Leifsson magic. Admitted that he had handed Jón a stave named Ausukross.

Sigurđur Jónsson - 1671: burnt in Ţingvellir after a trial in Ísafjarđarsýsla county. Admitted, among other things, that he had fought a ghost and frightened it off with the help of herbs and his own semen.

Páll Oddsson - 1674: from Húnavatnssýsla county, burnt at Ţingvellir. Denied all knowledge of magic but was convicted because of rumours against him.

Böđvar Ţorsteinsson - 1674: burnt at Ţingvellir after having admitted that he had prevented a ship in Snćfellsnes from fishing.

Magnús Bjarnason - 1675: admitted that he had caused the sickness of Helga, Páll Björnsson's wife, in Selárdalur, Westfjords.

Lassi Diđriksson - 1675: condemned in connection with the sickness of Helga in Selárdalur, denied all charges and was generally thought innocent. Burnt at Ţingvellir.

Bjarni Bjarnason - 1677: supposed to have caused a woman's illness in the Westfjords. Denied all charges but was burnt at Ţingvellir.

Ţorbjörn Sveinsson - 1677: a branded thief who was found in possession of magical signs. Admitted that he had used sorcery to try to find out who had stolen from him and to make sheep easier to handle. From Mýrasýsla county in the West, burnt at Ţingvellir.

Stefán Grímsson - 1678: confessed freely after a death sentence was passed, though none of the things he was accused of. Burnt in Húnavatnssýsla county.

Jón Helgason - 1678: burnt in Barđastrandarsýsla county in the Westfjords for having caused the sickness of Helga in Selárdalur.

Ţuríđur Ólafsdóttir - 1678: mother of Jón Helgason, burnt for the same offence, on the accusation of the Rev. Páll Björnsson.

Ari Pálsson - 1681: from Barđastrandarsýsla, where he was rumoured to have practiced magic, burnt at Ţingvellir after failing to get his peers to swear his innocence. After conviction, he admitted to knowing how to find out if a woman was a virgin.

Sveinn Árnason - 1683: burnt in Arngerđareyri in the Westfjords for having caused the illness of the daughter of Páll and Helga in Selárdalur.

Monday, September 12th, 2005, 06:33 PM
Thanks for sharing!

Monday, September 12th, 2005, 07:38 PM
wow reminds of the one we had in Salem

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005, 03:21 AM
wow reminds of the one we had in Salem

A group of us are going to Salem in May of next year, have you been?