The Vardø Witch Trials

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The Vardø Witch Trials


Category: AmCham News

For those for whom God exists – there is also a devil.  Evil forces loomed in the 17th Century, and those who were attracted or tricked into the “dark side” and gave their bodies and souls to this dark side were called witches. Fear was rampant. A neighbor, a friend, a family member – anyone could be a witch, one that could make dark magic in the form of spells to harm through disease, bad luck and death.

Witches Everywhere
In central Europe the first hunt for witches began in the 15th century, spreading toEngland andScotland one hundred years later when these hunts reached a peak. It was only in the 17th century that the majority of executions took place inScandinavia – and Vardø was a center point in this process.

The Vardø witch trials were unique in a number of ways – not in the least the fact that such a large percent of the population were accused and executed compared to the rest ofNorway. During this period, the county of Finnmark, where Vardø is located, had a population of just 3000 souls – with 135 accused of witchcraft and 91 of those executed – an extremely high percentage.

Trial by Water
Another unique aspect of the Vardø witch trials was the fact that the process was so specifically described in official documentation of the period. The trials were part of the local governmental process – one that meant to protect innocent citizens from the supposed darkness and treachery of witchcraft. From this recorded information we know the background of all of those accused, the ensuing trials – and of course the final result.  

As with most other witch trials, it was often part of the process to include “trial by water” – the result being seen as “God’s will”. Those accused were bound hand and foot and thrown into the water. If the person floated, it was sign of their guilt. If they sank, they were innocent. During the Vardø witch trials, all those that were subjected to “trial by water” floated – thus guilty in the eyes of God.

Healing the Wounds
The accused were not limited to adults – young girls were also accused and tried, although none of these were found guilty. Fear ruled the period – and in order to find a quick resolution these trials were quick and efficient such that the power of Devil through these so-called witches could not seek revenge through spells cast upon the accusers and the population. It was a brutal and frightening time.

As time went on, society in Europeand beyond began to understand that witch-hunts, persecution and punishment were wrong. Laws were passed to protect, and the concept of black magic as an illegal practice in pact with the devil began to take its place in the history alongside the memories of those executed in those frightening times. Still, even now the debate rages as to whether alternative medicine such as homeopathy is “wellness or witchcraft”. Such homeopathic remedies are highly disputed in Europe, although such alterative medicine is being these are often used in increasing numbers of hospitals in Norway.

Honoring the Victims – The Steilneset Memorial
Then there are those who are taking steps to honor the memory of those unjustly accused, tried and punished. TheMunicipality ofVardø understood the importance of taking this step and as part of the establishment of the Millennium Site in 2000, Vardø  took the initiative to erect a memorial to commemorate the victims of the witch-hunts, a cooperative effort that included representatives ofVardøMunicipality,FinnmarkCounty,VarangerMuseum and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration.

The site, called the Steilneset Memorial, will be opened on June 23rd,2011 in a ceremony where Queen Sonja ofNorway will preside. The Memorial is located next to what is held to be the execution site of many of the  91 victims, where these victims’ lives and deaths will be communicated through art and architecture that brings to light in a dignified and profound way the realities of the witch-trials of Vardø in the 1600s.

International Art & Architecture
The art and architecture has been collaboration on the highest international level with the late artist Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010) stated an eloquent and universal message in the form of a chair that is reflected in seven encircling oval mirrors. Gas flames emerge from the seat of the chair, the imagery and symbolism of execution by fire stated in the strongest terms as one can visualize – even feel – the pain and fear of the victims.

Bourgeois’ artwork is placed in a separate glass and steel construction designed by the architect Peter Zumthor, a building that is125 meterin length erected on piles that has one illuminated window for each of the victims who were burnt at the stake in Finnmark. The lives of the victims are in focus, and their final destinies vividly shown through posters, leaflets and books. 

Varanger National Tourist Route
 The Steilneset Memorial is located along the Varanger National Tourist Route part of the project created by the Norwegian Public Road Authorities to be completed in full by the year 2020, will consist of 18 designated major tourist routes decorated with innovative and stimulating architecture integrated into pull-off picnic areas, scenic points, hotels, restaurants and other attractions. 

According to Per Ritzler, assistant project manager; “The vision of theNational Tourist Routeprogram is to make the already beautiful Norwegian nature  even more compelling by spectacular architecture. And  we have already seen a great international interest around the unique Steilneset Memorial and its location along theVaranger National Tourist Route”.

For more information, see the Norway Communicates article “Road Trips” or the official Norwegian Public Road Authority English website. 

Source: Norway Communicates

Published: June 19, 2024