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How Norwegians hunted witches and wizards

Poor women with weak social ties were more often accused of witchcraft. And the punishment for this was brutal.

Children dressed as witches on Halloween
Halloween gives us a fun experience of witches and wizards. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was more grim. Photo: Colourbox

On Halloween, it’s all about trick-or-treating, candy, and ghost stories. But most importantly: deciding what costume to wear. And witches and wizards are popular choices.

But the typical witch was not one who wielded a magic wand, brewed potions, and flew around on a broomstick in the wee hours of the night.

“In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was typically poor, often older women who were accused of witchcraft. Many were immigrants, often with weak social ties, and had lived for years with a reputation for sorcery,” says Associate Professor Terje Sødal at the University of Agder (UiA).

Sødal has conducted research on criminal and legal history, including witch trials, for many years.

FACTS ABOUT HALLOWEEN

Halloween, known as All Saints’ Eve in Norwegian, is a celebration on 31 October. Children dress up in spooky costumes like witches, skeletons, ghosts, or monsters. They go in groups from door to door in the neighbourhood, ring the doorbell and shouting ‘trick or treat.’ Those who don’t open or refuse to give ‘treats’ such as candies or fruits are threatened with ‘tricks’ and mischief. It is a culture inspired by the USA. Source: Store norske leksikon

Burned at the stake 

If something terrible happened in the village, such as a shipwreck or people dying, the villagers would often suspect these women of being behind it.

Magic related to the weather was often mentioned in court cases from Agder and all the way up to Finnmark during this time.

“The majority of those found guilty were executed with what was termed ‘fire and flame.’ Some were beheaded, and others were banished from the country. In one single case in Agder, a man was fined for sorcery,” he says.

In Agder, almost all executed were women, as high as 95 per cent. In Norway overall, the number is around 85 per cent, while in the rest of Europe, it’s from 75 to 80 per cent.

The reason for the high proportion of women was that they were often associated with so-called malevolent sorcery. According to books on witchcraft, it was believed that women were more susceptible to the influence of the devil than men.

Witch hunts in the past often targeted women with low social status, according to UiA’s Associate Professor Terje Sødal. Photo: Private 

Devil pacts and witchcraft

Sødal cites an example from 1670 in Kristiansand: Dorte Fudevig and Maren Peder Leifsens were suspected of being behind two local shipwrecks in which six men perished.

Rumours began to circulate. Could the shipwrecks be the result of witchcraft? The spotlight fell on two women who already had a reputation for witchcraft.

“After a short time in custody, Dorte confessed that she had been involved in sinking the two ships. She named others in the Kristiansand area who were also involved in witchcraft. According to Dorte, they had flown out over sea together and sunk the boats,” he says.

In court, stories were told about devil pacts, aerial flights, and the inflicting of disease and death through witchcraft.

In total, four women were burned at the stake, while one was sentenced to exile. This became the last witch burning in Agder.

Hope for salvation 

It was not only the local community that viewed witchcraft as a grave threat. Superstition was widespread in all strata of society, including the state apparatus, which considered it an evil that had to be fought by all means.

Priests had a central role in cases where someone faced a death sentence:

They were to ensure that the convict’s soul found its way to heaven. There was hope for salvation for all sinners, but they had to speak truthfully about the crime, repent their evil deeds, and accept the punishment.

Pop culture

Today, it is unthinkable that we would accuse the lonely old lady next door of flying on a broomstick over the sea and sinking ships.

Sorcery and witchcraft have gone from being perceived as a threat to Norwegian society to pure entertainment and a part of today’s popular culture. Most people have heard of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter or the 1993 film Hocus Pocus, right?

Sødal credits modern rationality and a change in our legal system for this.

Nevertheless, belief in witchcraft still exists in several cultures, religions, and regions. Even in our day and age, witch persecutions continue in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

“More people have been killed in witch trials around the world in the last 50-60 years than were killed during the entire period of historical witch trials,” he says.