Sorcery in Strandir

The area of Strandir is not mentioned often in historical documents before the 17th century. It is still one of the remotest parts of Iceland and the northern part must have been even more remote in former centuries. It is therefore possible that some remnants of the old Viking religion survived in some form long after they had disappeared in areas in closer contacts with the seats of power. These were the two cathedrals, at Skálholt in the south and Hólar in the north, and the home of the Danish authorities at Bessastađir, today the official residence of the President of Iceland. Jón the Learned, who was brought up in the north of Strandir during the last decades of the 16th century, is one of the few men to defend the Catholic faith in the 17th century. It is also interesting that of the fishing fleets that visited Iceland at the time, the Catholic Basques were the ones to set up whaling stations in Strandir.

At the beginning of the 17th century the records of the high court at Ţingvellir complain regularly that those obliged to attend from Strandir, among them the local sheriffs, do not show up, and in the contemporary annals events in Strandir are rarely mentioned. This changes after 1654 when the three men were burnt there for sorcery.

Sorcery in Trékyllisvík

Nobody has put forward a convincing theory of what happened in Trékyllisvík, the northernmost community of Strandir, but the strange occurrances seem to have started in 1652 and continued on throughout the 17th century. In the words of 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."

Where the executions took place in TrékyllisvíkWhen 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 rumored 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 pushed any other concerns out of people's minds.

Sorcery in Bjarnarfjörđur

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 evidently prone to 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 the era when an unexplained illness struck, people turned their eyes to unpopular neighbours and the proof was often 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 grimoire with strange drawings and two invocations against foxes (a real menace for sheep farmers). Jón was whipped and the grimoires simultaneously burnt under his nose to frighten him from ever dabbling in the occult again. 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.

Bjarnarfjörđur where both these cropped up was the home of Svanur the sorcerer mentioned in Njáls Saga and in the eighteenth century it was the home of two magicians mentioned in Icelandic folk tales.

Sorcery in Steingrímsfjörđur

Klemus Bjarnason lived somewhere in the area around Steingrímsfjörđur in Strandir. He was evidently not a popular man and was rumoured to have some knowledge of sorcery from an early age. He got into trouble when a neighbour accused him of stealing a piece of driftwood and he was later charged with sorcery because he threatened his accusers.

He was sentenced to get 12 peers to swear his innocence, a common verdict at the time. None of his neighbours would swear under oath that he had ever had any knowledge of sorcery or magic. When his case was taken up at the high court at Ţingvellir he had admitted to the sheriff who kept him in custody that he knew incantations to ward off harm from foxes. This confession was judged to be reason enough to burn him alive. However, the atmosphere in Denmark had changed and when the case was referred to the supreme court in Copenhagen the sentence was changed into one of exile from the country. He died of a fever a few months later in a Copenhagen prison.

The Early Court Cases

In 1554 a priest in Eyjafjörđur was charged with raping his sister-in-law, a minor, with the aid of grimoires 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.

Jón was accused of having raised a ghost.The first person burnt at the stake for practicing sorcery was a farmhand in Eyjafjörđur named Jón Rögnvaldsson. He was accused of having raised a ghost and sent it to do mischief on a neighbouring farm. Jón denied all charges but when some pages with runic characters and signs were found among his possessions the local sheriff promptly had him burnt. The most likely explanation for this sudden execution is that the sheriff, a young man who had fairly recently gotten the job after studying abroad, decided to act swiftly and impress his superiors. Evidently he succeeded in this because a few years later the Danish authorities demanded that he take over the position of lögmađur (one of two head sheriffs in the country) without the customary election. Twenty nine years passed until the next fires were kindled.

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 mentions of sorcery become more numerous in the records, especially after the trials in the seventeen-thirties of Jón the Learned of Strandir, one of the most remarkable men of the 17th century. 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 the Learned memory corner at the Exhibition Jón did not deny having practiced healing such as found in a book of charms and cures presented to the lawcourt (the table of contents is copied in the court records) but 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.

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. This marks the end of the "burning-times" in Iceland.

The Witch-hunts in Iceland

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 to a large extent educated in Denmark and northern Germany. One extended family of landowners, primarily in the northwest 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 mallificorum.

The European influence is not as obvious when the charges in witchcraft cases are reviewed. Contemporary sources, mainly annals and court records, tell us that a third of the charges were for causing sickness in persons and livestock, and another third for possessing grimoires or pages with galdrastafir, i.e. 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.

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 the approximately 170 persons accused around 10% were women, the rest were males, mostly of the lower classes though some sheriffs and clergymen were also accused. None of the latter suffered physical punishments. It must be remembered in this context that the total population of Iceland at the time was only around fifty thousand.

Apart from the charges mentioned above, people were accused of waking up the dead, using magic to heal, and about a tenth of cases mention blasphemy though seldom as the only accusation.
A quarter of cases ended with a sentence of whipping which could mean anything 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 aquitted, at least 15% managed to escape the law, and we do not know the outcome of another 15% of cases. There is no evidence that physical torture was ever used in Iceland to secure confessions.

The Famous Cases

The Pastor and his Neighbours

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 reverend Jón wrote a book (Píslarsaga) to justify his claims. There he describes the illness and the strange hallucinations he suffered. The work has considerable literary merits but must be treated cautiously as a historical document.

Ţorleifur Kortsson

Ţorleifur Kortsson signature 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 as such most of the cases of witchcraft that surfaced during the next two decades were referred to him. Since the 19th century Ţorleifur has been blamed for almost singlehandedly having caused "the burning-times" in Iceland. However, neither his contemporaries nor the court-records confirm this view.

Sickness in Selárdalur

Páll Björnsson 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 scholars of divinity in Iceland. He was also known for his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. An essay of his on Icelandic nature was printed in 1654 in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and in French in Journal de 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 manifesto against magic. It quotes Malleus mallificorum 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 mde it inhabitable. Finally it was decided that Helga's illness had been caused by a farm hand 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 undoubtedly was psychologically unstable, seems to have had a relapse again and again until 6 persons had been burnt because of her illness and that of their sons. 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. Not much 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 withour 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.

Magic at the Cathedral Schools

Skálholt in the 17th century

For centuries the only schools in Iceland were at the two cathedral seats, at 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 of these was referred to the secular courts and the punishments were never harsh. Twice students were found in possession of grimoires and were expelled though some of them were later readmitted. One case concerns a priest who was accused by a student of having caused a sickness he felt in the presence of a girl who 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 and a disciple of Erasmus of Rotterdam. At the other school, at Hólar, no records are found of cases of magic in the 17th century, but there are numerous accounts of students' experimenting with sorcery in the 18th century. Among them are many of the historical persons whom later folk tales describe as cunning sorcerers.

The Executed

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 occurances 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 grimoires 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 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 marked 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
Admitted 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 words 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 an illness which the daughter of Páll and Helga in Selárdalur suffered from.

It is unclear whether the following should be included on a list of those executed for witchcraft:

Unnamed woman - 1580
A vague reference in a Danish book refers to a woman burnt for having used tilberi (a peculiar female magic to steal milk from sheep and cows). In 1635 a woman was acquitted after rumours had circulated that she kept a tilberi.

Guđrún Ţorsteinsdóttir - 1605
Burnt for having killed a baby by throwing it into a boiling cauldron. No contemporary source directly mentions witchcraft in connection with this case.

Sveinn skotti Axlar-Bjarnarson - 1646
The son of Iceland's worst mass murderer. After repeated convictions for theft, rape, and sorcery, he was whipped and it was declared that he had forfeited his life if found guilty again. He was hanged for attempted rape.

Jón Jónsson (Ríđumađur) - 1650
Condemned for incest but after he was beheaded he was found to have magical amulets with staves in his shoes. His body was then burnt.

Halldór Finnbogason - 1685
Burnt at Ţingvellir for blasphemy. Recited "Our Father who art in Hell" at all his trials.