“One Christmas Eve, while Mari Jørgensdatter was lying in bed, the Devil came visiting. Having awakened Mari, he insisted that she go to Kirsti. Mari did as the Devil requested. The Evil One asked Mari if she would serve him, while the two of them headed off on the road to Kirsti’s abode, saying that she would be richly rewarded. Mari consented to this. As a sign of their agreement, the Devil left his mark by biting between the two longest fingers of her left hand. The Evil One called himself Saclumb. Together he and Mari proceeded until they finally arrived at the one called Kirsti. Kirsti told Mari that she was to leave for Lyderhorn, in the vicinity of Bergen, but in order that Mari might arrive there as quickly as possible, Kirsti cast a spell on Mari, turning Mari into a raven.
The story of Kirsti Sørensdatter and Mari Jørgensdatter begins in this way, as presented in old legal documents from Finnmark. Both of these women originated from Kiberg which, at the beginning of the 17th-century, was among the largest fishing villages in Finnmark. The legal proceedings against Mari occurred at Vardøhus Fortress, in January 1621, while Kirsti’s case was tried at the same site in the end of April. These women belong to a lot of more than one hundred people who, as a result of the witch processes in 17th-century Finnmark, were crushed by officials in power. Numerous witches, as we soon shall see, would confess in court to satanic rites which were conducted during Christmastide.”
This excerpt from Rune Blix Hagen’s “Christmas Witchcraft in 17th-century Finnmark” encapsulates our topic today: remembering witchcraft at the Steilneset Memorial. Designed by artist Louise Bourgeois and architect Peter Zumthor, the memorial opened in 2011. It is two separate buildings. First, there is a 410-foot-long wooden structure framing a fabric cocoon that contains Zumthor’s installation. Using wooden frames, he created sixty bays in a long line which are suspended by cable-stays and coated in fiberglass membranes. Inside is a timber walkway, 328 feet long by five feet wide, with 91 randomly placed small windows that each contain a single lightbulb in memorial of those executed for witchcraft. Second, there is a square smoked glass room, standing 39 feet tall, with Bourgois’s installation entitled The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved. Using weathering steel and 17 panes of tinted glass, the walls stop just short of the ceiling and floor, leaving gaps. A metal chair with flames projecting through the seat is reflected in seven oval mirrors placed around it. As Bourgois stated, “The perpetual flame…that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection…here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image.”
But perhaps this installation is better explained by a Norweigan American visitor, who said, “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.”
So why is Steilenset here, and what does it have to do with girls?
The memorial commemorates a time in Vardo’s history when witches were not only persecuted–they were considered to be capable of witchcraft even very young. It was a period of numerous trials, including several on children, noting a new ideology in beliefs about witchcraft that saw its traditional victims–children–become advocates of the Devil. The year was 1621–the same year the Pilgrims sailed for America–and by its end, ninety-one people would die.
Vardo in 1621 was a foreboding place. Though the Medieval period, when supernatural powers were accepted as fact and the practice of magic was believed to influence everything, was long gone, belief in witchcraft survived. The church banned it. Science attempted to disprove it. Yet still the belief persisted, and it led to what might be called an epidemic of witchcraft trials–and executions–from 1570 to 1680. Scholars estimate that during this 110-year period, as many as 60,000 people were put to death on suspicion of witchcraft, with Sweden and Spain known for their high numbers of child witches.
In the remote village of Vardo, this epidemic would rename the city as “the Witch Capital of Norway.” In just 99 years, between 1593 and 1692, there were more than 140 witch trials in the village. Some were isolated, focused on a single individual, while others were panics–consisting of successive trials over a short period of time. These panics were where children were most likely to be accused, with the doctrine of demonology stating that anyone could be a witch. The three greatest panics were during 1620 to 21, 1652 to 53, and 1662 to 63. Notice how each panic spans two years? That’s because they were most common during the winter months.
During the panics, the accused were held at Vardohus Castle and executed at Steilneset. Nearly all of the witches were accused of “casting spells on ships, chasing the fish from land, casting a spell on the District Governor’s hand and foot, and trying to set fire to the castle.” These are interesting crimes, as each would have had dire effects on Vardo’s people. By bewitching ships or fish, witches influenced the town’s economy and caused suffering; by targeting the District Governor or castle, they attempted to remove town authority and safety. These were major concerns for the people of Vardo–and, unfortunately, were believed to be more influenced by the supernatural than any other factor.
So why were there so many panics, and so many deaths? Three reasons dominate.
The first is the doctrine of demonology. Begun around the 1620s by a Scottish governor, demonology spread throughout Europe. Its influence in Vardo is best seen in the story of a learned couple from the south of Norway, Ambrosius Rhodius and Anne Friedrichsdatter Rhodius, who were imprisoned at Vardohus in 1662. Ambrosius was an astrologer and physician (the two believing to be complementary sciences), but he was considered politically dangerous because he predicted the result of an ongoing war (we’re guessing it wasn’t favorable). Anne was known for being outspoken, and got into a disagreement with the governor.
Now, Ambrosius and Anne being imprisoned isn’t necessarily abnormal–what is intriguing, however, is that their imprisonment led to the trial and execution of young girls. The couple was known to have a lot of contact with children imprisoned during the 1662 panic. Being in prison together, the children and the couple were known to communicate. One name we have is that of Maren Olsdatter, who stayed in the same house as Ambrosius and Anne. Documentation exists that states Anne influenced the children, using a key to the witches hole where the children were kept in order to teach them demonological ideas or make them confess.
Another reason for the panics was that local authorities had a lot of power, and they used beliefs in witchcraft to stay in power or punish those who challenged them. Since 1617, demonological ideas had been codified into law and were legally allowed to be used in court. The law stated that “real” witches were those who gave themselves to the Devil or had dealings with him. Just two years later, in 1619, Scotsman John Cunningham came to Finnmark as Governor. Cunningham believed in demological ideas and became an active member in witchcraft interrogations, often arguing and seeking proof that witchcraft was aimed against him. It sounds absurd, but it’s true — authorities were afraid of losing power, to the point they would persecute anyone who even remotely thought about challenging them. Though nearly 50 years later, Anne Rhodius’s arrest after arguing with the governor is one example of how local authorities abused witchcraft laws in order to keep power.
A final factor in the panics was the immense hold that people had in folk beliefs. One belief was that there was “evil in the North” — that the farther north one lived, the more evil one would encounter. Vardo, being in the northern parts, was one such place. People thought that those in Vardo were more inclined to be witches, almost like it was natural for them. Part of this was tied to Vardo’s climate – a very stormy and cold region with high winds. Some even though the winds were wicked, and intimately tied beliefs about witches to weather magic. They believed witches could conjur storms, fog, thunder, lightning, and rain, using these to help or hinder fishermen or other locals. What is key to remember here is that the 1600s is the beginning of the Enlightenment — there still wasn’t a lot of scientific knowledge about the natural world available to everyday people. And even those that were aware of scientific knowledge and forces were still heavily influenced by the religious and folk beliefs that surrounded them. It’s hard to escape what a community has believed for centuries, even in the face of direct scientific evidence.
It wasn’t just the weather that was subject to such beliefs. The landscape of Vardo itself – with forbidding forests, mountains, and hot springs – was magical. “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.”
Such beliefs are widespread in the literature of the time. Whether travelogues, cartography, histories, ethnographic accounts, or even diplomatic correspondence, portrayals of witches from Vardo and the surrounding regions — what we call Lappland — were prolific. Mentions of Lappland witches can be found in the works of Daniel Defoe, Henry More, John Milton and Jonathan Swift.
Beyond these beliefs, historical events were at work that spurred the panics on. In 1617, Norway suffered a particularly violent storm on Christmas Eve. What should have been a happy time was marred by tragedy — of the 23 boats out to sea when the storm hit, a total of 10 boats and 40 men never returned. At the time, Vardo and neighboring Kiberg only had 150 residents each — so to lose 40 of the 300, all of whom were men or young boys, was a significant blow to the region. The villagers wanted a reason for the storm and the deaths. Two women, Mari Jøgensdatter and Kirsti Sørensdatter, were tried as witches responsible for the weather. Mari confessed, and other witches were tried. Mari was convicted and burned at the stake in January of 1621, marking the first death in the Vardo Witch Hunt of 1621. Within six months, 11 more women were convicted and burned.
Over the next 40 years, the trials continued and over 150 people were murdered for sorcery. Yet the first accusations of witchcraft aimed at young girls did not occur until 1662. That Christmas, two daughters of an executed witch – named Ingeborg and Karen Iversdatter – were brought in for questioning. Also brought in was Maren Olsdatter, their cousin. During the investigation, the children told so many stories that the local priest had a hard time making them say the catechism. According to a January 6, 1663 inquiry, Ingeborg celebrated Christmas Eve of 1662 in Kiberg. She had broken out of Vardohus Castle with Solvi Nilsdatter, an accused witch, by turning herself into a cat and carwling under the main gate. The Devil picked them up and brought them to Kiberg, where they partied with Maren Olsdatter and Sigri, the wife of Kiberg’s sexton. At dawn, the Devil returned her to the castle.
In another inquiry, both Ingeborg and Karen admitted to having learned witchcraft from their mother, who had been executed. Just twenty days later, on January 26, Maren took the stand and made her confession, claiming to have visited hell, where she had been given a tour by Satan. During the tour, she saw a “great water” down in a black valley, which began to boil when Satan blew fire through a horn of iron. In the water, people cried like cats. Maren would later give the names of five other women who had been witches, and confess that she, too, had learned witchcraft from her mother and her aunt, both of whom had been executed.
The girls were sent to Vardohus Castle to await a verdict, where they came into contact with Anne Rhodius — the outspoken women who’d disagreed with the governor.
What is interesting about these stories is how fantastical, and yet familiar, they are. Girls learning from their mothers – especially in an age where herbal medicine was common – is nothing new. Traditions had to be passed among the female line, and this could have included folk beliefs and medical remedies that others mistook for witchcraft. Additionally, the tall tales told by the girls were likely fueled by folk beliefs and common knowledge of demology. Maren later, at a court of appeal, stated that Anne Rhodius had misled her to lie against other people by denouncing them for witchcraft. The girls were highly susceptible to influence, and Anne Rhodius’s opinions and learned mind likely ingrained demonological beliefs in them. Additionally, all three girls had seen their mothers executed for witchcraft. Is it a stretch to think that the households they had left would constantly remind them of how witchcraft was believed to run in bloodlines? It is not a huge leap to think that these girls, traumatized by losing their mothers and ingrained with dark folk beliefs, were able to believe in witchcraft, Satan, and their own abilities.
Interestingly, on 25 June 1663, the last accused witches, Magdalene from Andersby, Ragnhild Endresdatter and Gertrude Siversdatter, along with her daughter Kirsten Sørensdatter, were brought from the witches-hole. They claimed that Maren and the other children had come up with their confessions under the influence of the exiled Anne Rhodius, who had also visited them in jail and threatened them with torture to make them confess. Magdalene, Gertrude and Ragnhild were freed. All the children were acquitted in June 1663.
So was it all fake?
Perhaps. Or perhaps it was the 1662 panic was the work of one woman–Anne Rhodius. Though her husband was later pardoned, Anne lived in exile in the Vardo fortress until her death in 1672. Her deeds had contributed to the last of the great witch trials in Northern Norway. Though more people were accused in the following decades, only two of those cases led to death sentences. The witch trials of Vardo were over.
But legacies live on. Though all of the young girls accused of witchcraft were acquitted, they had all lost their mothers and, in some cases, sisters and aunts, to witchcraft executions. Those that had fathers living were sent home, while the rest–orphaned by a century of tragedy–were taken care of and fostered by other mothers living in Vardo, brought up in new families who tried to move on from the horrors of those dark, cold winters.
Steilenset remains to remind us to never forget the causes of their misfortune–or the consequences of fear and persecution.