By: Jonah Hoffmann
This blog series focuses on specific countries or regions of the Early Modern European world during the 17th century when scholars believe the peak period of witch hunting took place before fading out almost entirely during the latter portion of the century.
While perhaps the most famous seventeenth century witch trial, the Salem witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 came when the practice was all but dying out in Europe. Only the more remote areas of the continent still experienced the outburst of witch hunting that gripped the New England colonies from the 1660’s through the 1690’s. While the disfavor and disapproval of witch hunting began to rise while the New World experienced a panic, the Europeans who more universally frowned upon the actions of the colonies were only decades prior perfecting the means to find and execute supposed witches. The period between 1560 and 1630 is what scholars believe to be the peak of witch trials with fatalities estimated to be around 50,000 individuals who were burned at the stake.
Through this blog we seek to explore more of the seventeenth century world and take a closer look at the many regions of Europe that participated in the peak period of witch hunting. With careful examination, we hope to better understand the beliefs and culture surrounding magic and sorcery in these locations and how this fear of the diabolical brought so many innocent people to their death.
The Danish Witch Trials
At one point referred to as “the witch-hunting capital of Scandinavia,” the country of Denmark is a witness to some of early modern Europe’s most systematically orchestrated witch trials. In the latter portion of the 1500’s, Denmark became the first country in Northern Europe to officially sanction the trial, conviction, and execution of a witch. Legislation involving witches and other sorcerers remained scarce, however, until the 17th century when King Christian IV issued a new ordinance that opened the metaphorical floodgates and allowed fear of witchcraft to infiltrate both the social and political climate. This new act also passed at a time when the Protestant Reformation, as well as the Counter Reformation, functioned at full strength with both movements campaigning to eradicate local superstition and folk magic. Religious hostility against once important cultural aspects only further solidified the Danish public’s belief in, and fear of, potential sorcerers and dark magicians. Earlier legislation that would be considered progressive by comparison to laws in other countries during the same period, however, held strong against what could have easily become an even more intense, full-fledged panic. Despite the overall poor documentation regarding trials, the remaining legislative evidence, as well as the few surviving trial records, craft a narrative that showcases the unique history of Denmark’s witch-related history.
In order to best understand the social and political landscape of 17th century Denmark, a brief explanation of the prior century’s legislation is needed. The Copenhagen Articles of 1547 include a law that bars so-called “dishonest people,” such as convicted, sentenced, or accused witches, from testifying in court as part of evidence for a trial (Robert, 2019). Perhaps even more striking, within these articles is another law that protects those who are accused from torture until after a guilty verdict is found. These mandates deliberately acted as preventative measures against larger-scale witch trials and witch hunts akin to those occurring in other portions of Europe during the same time. The exemption from torture before conviction greatly lowered the chances of a coerced confession, and the inability for supposed witches or sorcerers to testify against others as evidence diminished the chances of more individuals being unjustly accused (Robert, 2019). Once public favor turned sharply toward the immediate extermination for all potential witches during the beginning of the 17th century, however, new laws were presented with theological emphasis and much harsher punishment that further complicated the legal landscape.
The framework for Denmark’s witch trials can be compared to that of a modern day civil suit in that the basis for a trial relied upon accusatorial, rather than inquisitorial, evidence (Robert, 2019). As such, a suspected witch could only be brought to trial if another individual accused them of harm and offered tangible evidence that a crime occurred. Judges were only able to try individuals with physical proof of witchcraft, or “maleficium,” and were not able to move forward with a conviction in cases where an accuser simply believed the accused was practicing sorcery. One such example of this is the case of Chresten Lauridtzen who in 1634 was brought to trial in the city of Viborg on charges of cursing a woman, claiming that she would become crippled, and otherwise practicing malevolent magic. Long suspected of being a witch, Lauridtzen was tried but had his case dismissed after the judges ruled that the woman he supposedly cursed showed no signs of bewitchment as she was in good health and bore two children (Kallestrup, 2015). While the church and king were greatly distressed with the spiritual threat of witchcraft, cases such as this speak to the secular court’s primary concern of settling the question of guilt and addressing witchcraft that may potentially threaten the economic and social well-being of the community. This is a vastly important factor to understanding the history of witchcraft in Denmark, as well as other countries. The court system did not wildly convict individuals for witchcraft each time an accusation came to their attention. They instead followed specific parameters under the law intended to fairly try individuals that, despite these legal precautions, would sometimes lead to conviction and execution.
Denmark’s strong central government led by King Christian IV operated somewhat uniquely in the early modern period in that the law established procedures for crimes riddled with ambiguity and, as previously noted, restricted the use of measures that could potentially contribute to a witch-hunting craze and false convictions. The pious king, however, sought to eliminate witchcraft by any means necessary from the very beginning of his reign in 1588 but faced hesitation from his counsel in Copenhagen with the consensus that integration of theology into secular law would cause a legal collapse. As public hostility toward witchcraft grew more prevalent due to pressure from the Lutheran Church, as well as the ongoing witch-hunts in other portions of continental Europe, the separation could only remain so long before the monarch integrated the dominant Lutheran ideology into the court systems. The Witchcraft Act of 1617, or the Trolddomsforordningen af 1617 in Danish, was issued on the 100-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and marked the official intersection of church belief and secular law; leading to the years from 1617-1625 to be referred to as The Great Witch Hunt (Robert, 2019). Though these new ordinances came with the intention of total removal of all witches and magic users, laws from previous centuries remained in place and acted as buffers against what could have become a full-scale panic potentially leading to social and political collapse.
The 1617 Act divides witchcraft by two discernable categories with varying degrees of punishment for each. Those found to have made a pact with the Devil, and thus freely having forfeit their Christian baptism for Satanic pleasures, were burned at the stake for their alleged crime. Other individuals practicing the so-called “secret arts,” primarily the “cunning men and wise women” engaging in the use of folk magic or folk healing, were issued a hefty fine and then exiled (Johansen, 1993). For the first time, theology defined witchcraft and gave the dominant Lutheran ideology a legal foothold to prosecute those considered to maintain un-Christian lives and practices. The King’s orders legally bound people to report threats within their community and turned a perceived moral obligation into a legislative tool to persecute undesirables. Failing to divulge information concerning witchcraft and magical practitioners not only became religious negligence, but also put a person at risk of facing their own trial and imprisonment.
Despite the religious aspects driving the implementation of The Witchcraft Act of 1617 and fear of Satanic infiltration, nearly half of the trials and accusations in Denmark held an economic element at their core. In total, of the recorded 1,519 trials in the country’s history, 735 of these stem from allegations surrounding crimes with a primarily economic impact either directly or indirectly (Tangherlini, 2000). As mentioned previously, though the church and King Christian IV feared the spiritual effects of witchcraft, “in the eyes of the courts and the local populace who brought the initial charges, witches were seen as an economic threat that needed to be eliminated” (Tangherlini, 2000). The case of Bodild Harchisdatter encapsulates the Danish criteria for conviction along with reiterating the notion of witches as instigators of economic complications. Harchisdatter’s troubles began when her own mother, Ingeborg, denounced her as a witch under torture following her own conviction for witchcraft. Although the allegations by Ingeborg were recanted before her execution, and the laws concerning so-called dishonest people protected her daughter, Bodild’s reputation had been soiled despite having no legal consequences. Several years later, in 1614, the same man who had accused her mother and testified against her now accused Bodild of witchcraft as well as harassment in the years since Ingeborg’s execution. A witness, Hans Sveirgfieger, alleged that Bodild had entered his home on one occasion and watched him brew beer in silence. Upon her departure, the yeast stopped processing; causing the barrel to fill with bubbles and ruin the brew. Although no verbal threats were made, Sveirgfieger was certain that there was no coincidence and Bodild was to blame for his misfortune (Kallestrup, 2015). Her unannounced entering of people’s homes is apparently not an unheard of complaint as shown by surviving court documents; undoubtedly adding to her already rocky reputation. Her social ruin following her mother’s accusations, her reputed rudeness and penchant for entering other people’s homes, and her perceived ability to destroy her neighbor’s livelihoods all coupled together unquestionably led to Bodild’s demise.
Almost asquickly as they rose, witch trials in Denmark began to swiftly decline in the period following The Great Witch Hunt. Only a single individual is recorded as being executed during the period from 1656 to 1686 with a small cluster of trials occurring in 1686 under the direction of one man: Jørgen Arenfeld (Johansen, 1993). Anne Sørensdatter was one of the individuals sentenced following her interrogation and arrest by Arenfeld but had her case brought to the Supreme Court of Denmark. She was banished and publicly whipped for making false statements, but survived her trial and encounter with this self-proclaimed witch hunter nonetheless. Following her case, the Supreme Court determined that Arenfeld be charged with abuse of power for implementing so-called “overzealous” means of discovering witches, such as the swimming and pricking methods, as well as arresting those outside of his jurisdiction (Johansen, 1993). He was subsequently banned from any further work within the judicial system; thus bringing an end to the final series of witch trials in Denmark during the 17th century.
Demonstrated through surviving legislation and trial records is the strength of Denmark’s legal statutes and secular court system against what could have resulted in widespread destruction and systematic collapse. Although pressure to eradicate witchcraft and magic from both the Lutheran Church and King Christian IV came to a metaphorical head through the passing of The Witchcraft Act of 1617, prior statutes maintained a practical, accusatorial system through which to try an alleged sorcerer. Denmark’s legal system, while not flawless, worked to protect accused individuals from conviction in cases with insufficient physical evidence, unfair testimony, and coerced confessions. Many innocent people still fell victim to witchcraft paranoia despite these preventative measures and their deaths do not go unnoticed or are intended to be diminished. Ultimately, as shown through surviving legislative evidence and trial records, the devastation of 17th century Denmark’s witch trials is more limited numerically by comparison to other nations as a direct result of the court system’s modernized approach to witchcraft and crimes of ambiguity.
Johansen, J. (1993). “Denmark: The Sociology of Accusations.” In Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2778849
Kallestrup, L. (2015). Agents of Witchcraft in Early Modern Italy and Denmark. Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=LpIMCgAAQBAJ&pg=PT55&lpg=PT55&dq=chresten+lauridtzen+witch&source=bl&ots=swbrd_NS_Z&sig=ACfU3U3S52MTQkQ2QxQCe8LJGNBbsNt7iA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwil8o-K-MX2AhWJpnIEHdN3BSMQ6AF6BAgCEAM#v=onepage&q&f=false
Robert, C. (2019). Förgörning to Trolldom: A History of Danish Witchcraft and Magic. Union College. Retrieved from: https://digitalworks.union.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3383&context=theses
Tangherlini, T. (2000). “How Do You Know She’s A Witch?”: Witches, Cunning Folk, and Competition in Denmark. Western States Folklore Society. Retrieved from:
The Icelandic Witch Trials
In the 9th century the island of Iceland became a haven for adventurers, outcasts, and others seeking opportunities and freedom from the Viking kingdoms ruling Norway and England. The harsh, biting climate coupled with the mountainous and volcanic landscape made life difficult for the new inhabitants, but these fiercely independent and hardy individuals endured. Villages were strewn far apart across the island with members of the small communities working together in all aspects of society in order to survive. In a land of both beauty and brutality, belief in the supernatural and magic prevailed. The picturesque backdrop held the likes of trolls, elves, and other mischievous creatures that worked with the sometimes dangerously unpredictable elements to destroy crops, take loved ones, or demolish houses. In an effort to combat perceived preternatural forces, Icelanders cast spells, runes, and charms in order to exert some level of control over their turbulent world.
Iceland’s original inhabitants brought with them the beliefs and practices of Old Norse Paganism that over time would begin to transform and resemble a piece of more uniquely Icelandic culture. The magic rituals, or “seiður,” are discussed in detail throughout the Icelandic Sagas and describe a shamanic ceremony where sorcerers embark on a cross-dimensional journey to gain secret knowledge and accumulate great power directly from the gods themselves (Tian, 2020). Black and white magic were both commonly utilized in pre-Christian society with lines between sorcery and religion blurring and intersecting as prayers for good fortune came just as easily as casting a spell for protection. Not dissimilar from other parts of society, magic was also loosely divided into two, gendered spheres; the “vísendakona,” or the women of science, and the “seið-mann,” or the men of magic ritual (Tian, 2020). In stark contrast, however, to the thousands of accused and executed women in parts of mainland Europe, or the predominantly female witch trials in parts of Colonial New England, witchcraft was almost exclusively a male-centric field.
The answer as to why men dominated the Icelandic world of magic, and thus overwhelmingly fell victim to the island’s later witch trials, resides in the type of magic primarily used by the practitioners. Although spells and charms were common, the casting of runes for insight into situations and exploring potential outcomes was the most regularly practiced and established form of magic (Lea, 2016). Runes have likely been in use by the Germanic and Nordic people as a means of divination and oracle reading long before their first documented appearance in the 3rd century CE. What made this form of sorcery unique was the requirement that the individual casting the runes be able to read and write. Few men and even fewer women had the privilege of literary proficiency which made the island’s preeminent form of magic the business of an educated male.
Several centuries passed with Icelanders remaining independent and free to continue practicing magic unperturbed; even after the 13th century when the Kingdom of Norway gained control of the island. Geographical isolation meant that conversion to Christianity came much later and, even following Christian influence, paganism and magic continued to be practiced with little interference. More drastic change did not come until the 17th century when, after over one hundred years of inherited ownership by the Kingdom of Denmark, the religious and magical divide became firm. King James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England, was likely influenced by the beliefs of his Danish wife, Queen Anne, whose home country is often referred to as the witch-hunting capital of Scandinavia (Hoare, 2018). The king himself also spent much time in Denmark and was reportedly very intrigued by the country’s means of responding to perceived diabolical threats. After publishing Daemonologie, his philosophical dissertation on the methods used by demons to torment humanity and reasons for persecuting witches in Christian society, King James grew more obsessed with stamping out the devil’s minions in all of his holdings.
Witch trials, like Christinaity, came much later to Iceland than the rest of Europe with the period from 1604 to 1720 referred to as the Icelandic Brennuöld: The Age of Fire. During this time over 200 people were charged with witchcraft crimes, 120 formal trials took place, and 22 people were executed (Tian, 2020). Crimes of the accused ranged from casting spells to cause storms and sickness, connecting with the devil, being in possession of dangerous magical artifacts, and raising the dead to harm the living. The majority of countries in Europe utilized the method of burning at the stake for executing condemned witches, but Iceland was not able to sustain such a practice. Trees were scarce and thus a valuable commodity; too valuable to be used for burning enemies of God and country. Therefore, exile was commonly issued as punishment seeing as though living a solitary life was practically a death sentence in and of itself. If one was sentenced to be burned, however, the individual would be placed on a pile of their own belongings used for kindling and then burned along with all of their material possessions.
Jón Rögnvaldsson of a Svarfaðardalur village became the first person to be executed for witchcraft in 1625 after he was accused of summoning the dead to kill several horses and cause a young boy to become ill. Magnus Björnsson, local bailiff, had been educated in Copenhagen, Denmark and was very familiar with witch hunts and the means by which to flush out a witch. Rumors of a suspicious string of animal deaths and a young boy’s illness led him to believe a dangerous sorcerer walked among them. When Björnsson questioned the boy about his sudden sickness, he claimed Rögnvaldsson had cursed him. During his trial, the defendant claimed his magic was harmless and that the runes found written on scraps of parchment in his home were for nothing more than protection. Interestingly, his brother also testified that though he possessed the runic letters, Rögnvaldsson was no threat because he could not read or write well enough to make use of the magical letters (Klimczak, 2017). Despite the claims of innocence by himself and his brother, Rögnvaldsson was deemed guilty and sentenced to be burned for practicing magic that centuries prior was an acceptable, privileged part of Icelandic culture.
Danish law prohibiting witchcraft in Iceland was officially proclaimed in 1630, five years after the first trial and execution, and the years following saw the burning death of 21 more individuals; only one of them a woman. While this number is not insignificant, in comparison to the Salem Witch Trials where 19 people were hanged and one man pressed to death, all over the course of several months, nearly the same number of individuals were killed in Iceland over a much longer period of time. A potential reason for this is, despite Danish rule mandating the persecution of witches and other magic practitioners, those in power who were expected to enforce such laws were likely familiar with, and even potential users of, the magic they were tasked with finding and expelling (Hoare, 2018). Icelanders were likely aware that the magic they practiced was much different than that of the supposed devil worshipping old hags that seemed to dominate witchcraft conversations in other parts of Europe and the New England colonies. On the other hand, these same individuals may have been quick to identify misfortune as being magically derived and look for any runic writing that, benign or not, may point to a potential cause for a certain problem.
The most well documented and infamous witch trial to take place, the Kirkjuból Witch Trial, encapsulates the uniquely Icelandic formula that loosely structured the majority of the island’s witch trials. The trial took place in 1656 and involved pastor Jón Magnússon who had been in poor health for several years. He claimed that his health issues, as well as the so-called diabolical forces that plagued his home, were caused by two members of his congregation; a father and son both named Jón Jónsson. Upon questioning, the elder Jón admitted to owning a book of magic which he used to help him cause harm to the pastor. The younger Jón also confessed to using magical signs and farting runes (Fretrúnir) against the pastor, as well as another girl in the village (Lister, 2019). The use of Fretrúnir was intended to embarrass the cursed individual and humiliate them in front of others along with causing them abdominal pain. The pastor’s poor health, the confessions of the accused, and the subsequent confiscation of runic writing was more than enough cause for conviction. The Jónssons were both burned for their sorcery with Magnússon being awarded the remainder of all of their material holdings.
Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the Kirkjuból Witch Trial, and the portion where the incident deviates from even the atypical Icelandic witch trials, came after the original conflict and trial ended. Despite the execution of his alleged tormentors, Magnússon claimed that his illness and the disturbances in his home failed to cease (Harvey, 2004). He quickly alleged that the continued abuse must be orchestrated by Þuríður Jónsdóttir; the sister/daughter of Jón and Jón Jónssons. There is no surviving record as to if the Magnússon and Jónsson families were in conflict at any point before the trial, but the continued allegations against the family are questionable as to the authenticity of Magnússon’s beliefs about his current troubles. The case was brought to the town of Þingvellir where the trial ended with dismissal and Jónsdóttir being let free (Harvey, 2004). She subsequently sued her accuser for wrongful imprisonment and persecution and was awarded all of the pastor’s belongings as compensation; including the items taken from her father and brother.
Although the witch trials remain a dark portion of Icelandic history that threatened to purge any non-Christian magical belief, today the country is home to a very active pagan religious group that continues to practice the ancient Icelandic seiður and subscribe to the mythology of Ásatrú (Tian, 2020). The sorcery that led to the arrest and death of so many individuals is now protected in various museums throughout Iceland with the contents of these magical texts being accessible both physically and digitally. Original documents and magical artifacts that are fundamental to the culture and history of Iceland are proudly displayed in the “Galdrasýning á Ströndum:” the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery. To this day, as one of the world’s most literate countries, Iceland continues to protect its history while sharing its stories as a reminder of the long-held belief that words are the source of power.
Further Information on Icelandic Magic and Witch Trials
Those interested in learning more about Icelandic witchcraft and witch trials can find a plethora of information online through the Guide to Iceland website, the largest collaboration of Icelandic tour operators and travel experts, as well as the Galdrasýning á Ströndum website and their selection of in-house published books. The museum is constantly researching and publishing new information on the history and culture of the country and features aspects of Icelandic magical heritage not accessible elsewhere. For those looking to visit the museum in person, or research their collection online, be aware that some artifacts and displays may be a bit unsettling. The most famous in the collection being the Nábrók, or necropants, which literally translate to “corpse britches” and are a pair of pants made from the flayed skin of a dead individual said to produce endless wealth to the living person wearing them. While potentially shocking to some, the preservation of the necropants and other uniquely Icelandic aspects of sorcery are the business of the museum and preserve the magical culture of Iceland since people first inhabited the land of ice and fire hundreds of centuries ago.
The Guide to Iceland website:
The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft website:
Harvey, C. (2004). Iceland: Land of Nature, the Sagas, and Mystical Power Places. New Living Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.newliving.com/issues/may_2004/articles/mystical%20iceland.html
Hoare, J. (2018). Iceland’s Witch Trials Took the Lives of 21 Men and Only 1 Woman-Here’s Why. The Vintage News. Retrieved from: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/12/29/iceland-sorcery/
Klimczak, N. (2017). Icelandic Magic, Witchcraft, and Sorcery and the Tragic Case of Jón Rögnvaldsson. Ancient Origins. Retrieved from: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/icelandic-magic-witchcraft-and-sorcery-and-tragic-case-j-n-r-gnvaldsson-021227
Lea, C. (2019). Witches in 17th Century Iceland: ‘They Were Almost Exclusively Men.’ Penguin Random House. Retrieved from: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/feb/witchcraft-in-17th-century-iceland-caroline-lea.html
Lister, K. (2019). The Long and Underappreciated History of Male Witches-And the Countries Where More Men Were Prosecuted for Witchcraft. iNews. Retrieved from: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/the-long-and-underappreciated-history-of-male-witches-and-the-countries-where-more-people-accused-of-witchcraft-were-men-354563
Tian, X. (2020). Witchcraft and Sorcery in Iceland. Guide to Iceland. Retrieved from: https://guidetoiceland.is/history-culture/witchcraft-in-iceland