Norwegian Town Honors Centuries-Old Victims of ‘Witch’ Killings

It may be too little too late, but there is tremendous symbolism and educational importance in recognizing, and atoning for, the baseless killing of dozens of innocent people. That is why the small town of Vardø, once known as ‘the witch capital of Norway’, has commemorated those loss with an intriguing and beautiful monument.

The Daily Beast provides a background to this atrocity, which was part of a continent-wide campaign that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Four hundred years ago, Vardø embarked on a crusade to rid itself of witchcraft. For more than a century—between 1593 and 1692—there were more than 140 witch trials in the small village.

At least 91 people, both men and women, were found guilty of sorcery and burned at the stake or tortured to death.

The number may not be as large as elsewhere in Europe, but in northern Norway’s sparsely populated landscape it touched a disproportionately large chunk of the population.

About a third of these trials were specifically targeting Norway’s indigenous Sami population who arose suspicion by practicing traditional healing rituals.

The killings came in spates—one in the 1620s and another in the early 1660s, when 20 of the 30 people were put on trial were killed.

The proceedings were meticulously recorded, giving modern historians insight into the accusations and reasonings that fueled the witch hunt.

As in most other instances of persecution against alleged witches, a combination of ignorance, fear, desperate circumstances, and sometimes even politics were contributing factors. Daily Beast provides more context to the case of Vardø:

Testimony from the time revealed that witchcraft was believed to be something one consumed—it came in the form of magically tainted milk, bread, or beer.

According to an article by historian Rune Blix Hagen at the Arctic University of Norway, the sudden spate of sorcery accusations came after a particularly brutal Christmas storm that killed 40 fishermen in the early 1600s.

It took three years for legislation that allowed mass prosecution on suspicion of witchcraft, but with that go-ahead, Vardø prosecuted with fervor.

When a woman arrived in the court and described how witches had tied knots and cast spells that caused the wrecks she was swiftly tossed to sea. When she floated, she was dubbed a witch and killed.

That year, in 1621, many more women followed in her ghostly wake after being accused and found guilty of sorcery. Many were burned at the stake, others were tortured to death.

The geographical remoteness may have had been related to the vengeance with which witches were persecuted in northern Norway.

According to historian Liv Helene Willumsen, speaking with Deutsche Welle, there was an theory “that evilness could be found in the north and that even the entrance to hell was in the north. There was an idea in Europe that in the north people might be more inclined to witchcraft and evilness than other places”.

I can scarcely imagine how horrifying life must have been at this time; to live in an environment so fearful and miserable that even a small, close-knit community can tear itself apart with cruel hysterics. Norway, and indeed much of Europe, have come a long way from those times.

In 2011, these victims were granted official recognition. The Steilneset Memorial was unveiled by Norway’s queen on the same spot thought to be the execution site of the 91 so-called witches.

It was built as a collaboration between two world famous artists: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.

Zumthor’s “Memory Hall” is starkly simple: a long cross-hatched frame containing a corridor filled with 91 lamps. Each one illuminates a window and a plaque that tells the story of the men and women killed with testimony from their trials.

Zumthor described their creative process to ArtInfo magazine: “[T]he result is really about two things—there is a line, which is mine, and a dot, which is hers… Louise’s installation is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions [of the victims].”

Next to the hallway is Bourgeois’ piece: a black glass box with a constantly burning chair in the middle. Above it, three mirrors reflect the fire. She gave her contribution a fittingly dramatic title: “The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved.”

Wikipedia provide a more detailed description of this cleverly designed memorial. It is clearly designed to do more than inform and commemorate; one cannot help but feel reflective and contemplative.

The Memorial comprises two separate buildings: a 410-foot-long wooden structure framing a fabric cocoon that contains Zumthor’s installation; and a square smoked glass room, its roof 39 feet on each side, that contains the work of Bourgeois. Zumthor’s structure is made from wooden frames, fabricated off-site and assembled to create sixty bays in a long line within which, suspended by cable-stays, is a coated fibreglass membrane that tapers at each end. Inside is a timber walkway, 328 feet long but just five feet wide, and along the narrow corridor are 91 randomly placed small windows representing those executed, each one accompanied by an explanatory text based on original sources. Through each window can be seen a single lightbulb, intended to evoke “the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses” of the region.

The building that houses Bourgeois’ installation stands in stark contrast to its companion. Its square structure is fabricated from weathering steel and 17 panes of tinted glass, forming walls that stop short of the ceiling and floor. Inside, Bourgeois has set a metal chair with flames projecting through its seat. This is reflected “in seven oval mirrors placed on metal columns in a ring around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned.” Writer Donna Wheeler, reflecting on Bourgeois’ sculpture with its fire burning within the solitary chair, observed: “The perpetual flame – that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection – here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image”

Here are some photos of the full memorial, courtesy of Gessato.com. The stark yet tranquil environment offers an appropriate backdrop.

It says a lot about the people of Norway that they would honor these 91 historically-inconsequential individuals, providing future generations with a reflective and informative memorial that details each victim’s humanity.

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