December 17, 2021

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 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:

https://guidetoiceland.is/

 

The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft website:

https://galdrasyning.is/en/

 

Sources

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

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