Devils and witches come from the North, far North, where the howling of the wind causes terror to human ears and the snowstorms freeze even the soul. The demons can fly through winds and storms, witches can summon thunders and lightning, impenetrable fog and sea storms, beyond the ends of the world as “the evil comes from North”.

This was, more or less, the thought that was widespread in Europe in the 16th and 17th century. According to this theory, people coming from the far North were more incline to evilness compared to the ones coming from bright and sunny lands. “Magic came with the Northern wind”.

Let alone how much wickedness it would have dwelled in the extreme East portion of Norway, in the county of Finmark, there where West and East join. The village of  Vardø earned the title of “Norway Witches’ Capital”.

View of Vardø

Above: picture via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

At the beginning of 1600 the few 3,000 people who were living the unwelcoming Northern coasts of a number of villages were for the half Norwegian and for the remaining part Sámi (the natives unkindly called Laplanders). They were all living off of fishing.

This represented a big issue as in the Scandinavian women of the villages were used to spending most of their time by themselves, prey to the temptations of Satan. Then there were the Sámi people, frowned up for their Pagan religion, with their Shamans able to cast spell and evoke the dead with the obsessive sound of their drums.

In those lands in the far North the central government did not arrive, therefore only the local authorities were in charge of the situation, even in terms of justice. In 1617 though, the King of Denmark and Norway Christian 4th approved a law against witchcraft, which arrived to Finmark too with a delay of 3 years. Along with the law German and Scottish officers came too, and especially the latter ones  were known to be the most implacable witch hunters in Europe.

In fact a witch hunt began, so fierce that not even the one taking place in Salem will equal this one. Just in Vardø, in the very first trial of the 1621, 77 women (almost all Norwegian) and 14 men (all Sámi) ended up at the stake. Rune Blix Hagen, from Tromsø University, explained that, based on documented sources: “from the 1593 to the 1692 around 140 witch trials happened in Vardøhus (today Finnmark, the Northernmost county of Norway next to the border with Russia). Around 100 witches, mainly women, were burnt to the stake and 27 of the witch trials in Finnmark affected the Norwegian native Sámi population.

Background

It was Christmas Eve in 1617. Along the coasts of  Finmark a scary storm raged, the sea seemed to raise up to the sky and then fall back all the way down to hell. There was no way out for the fishermen in the middle of the storm, happened out of the blue like a snap of fingers. Of the 23 ships out there in the fjord of Varanger, only 5 managed to come back in Vardø. 40 men died in the sea storm, disaster which left the village almost out of inhabitants.

The trial

In January 1621 the witch trial in Vardø began. Poor Mari Jørgensdatter admitted under torture her fault: during the just passed Christmas Eve she accepted to serve Satan, along with her neighbour Kirsti Sørensdatter. Together the two women flew to a sabbath on a mount nearby the city of Bergen, 1600 km distant (1000 miles). There they met many witches from Vardø and other close villages, later on interrogated and tortured themselves. Amongst them there was Else Knutsdatter, who underwent the torture of water. She explained how all the witches altogether had joined their power and called the storm of the 1617: after having performed 3 knots to a rope, spitting on it and undid the knots “the sea rose like ashes and people were killed”.

Clouds on the fjord of Varanger

Above: picture by Ricksulman via Wikipedia – licence CC BY -SA 3.0

Besides this miracle there is also the appendix about the balls and intercourse with the devil, the transformation of people into black dogs and cats, sea monsters and birds. There is especially the confession of the women who had demonic sex with the devils during the forced absence of the husbands, busy with the fishing.

This trial as well as the others following until 1663, show a “tendency to the annihilation of the female population” in those typically masculine fishermen villages  (R.B. Hagen-Dip.History and religious studies- Tromsø University).

That deeply rooted prejudice on magic carried by the Northern wind induced a savage imposition of the Orthodox Lutheran mindset. The risk there was represented by the Sámi people, feared by both those who believed to have powers, as well as the Scandinavian women who were spending too much time by themselves.

In that hidden corner of world the door to the underworld shows up: according to the tale of a baby girl of 12 years old, accused of witchcraft, from the Domen mount between the villages of Vardø and Kiberg, there is the access to hell. It was described as a black valley with a lake with dark waters which would boil when Satan was fire breathing through an iron horn, making all the people immersed in the fluid scream. The little baby girl named several women who, during the last dramatic trial of the 1663, were tortured and killed due to her testimony.

After a bit of time it was discovered that the girl, daughter and niece of two witches sent to the stake, had been convinced by the doctor’s wife to recite all those accusations and raving tales.

Steilneset Memorial

Above: picture by Stylegar via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

From the 2011 a monument in memory of all those people persecuted and killed in 1621 in Vardø stands on the promontory caressed by the wind. The Steilneset Memorial, made out of 2 separate installations.

The Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has created a long wooden structure which contains a long white sail, stretched with steel cables. Along the tight hallway there are 91 windows, one for each victim, and as many lamps which illuminate the plaques where the names and stories of the dead have been engraved.

Above: picture by guri dahl via Flikr – licence CC BY 2.0

The other one is a room with dark glass walls contains the art piece of the French-Canadian artist Louise Bourgeois, called “the Damned, the Possessed, the Beloved”

Above: picture by Bjarne Riesto via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 2.0

It is an installation with an evocative strength with an extraordinary power: from under a metal chair, a perpetual flame appears, reflected “in seven oval mirrors placed  on metal columns in a ring around the burning chair. Just like the judges surrounding the condemned ones” (S.Stephens).

That fire, far from being a mere sign of commemoration, “here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image”(Donna Wheeler, Witching hour in Norway: the Steilneset Memorial).

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