It all started, as it often does in stories about witches, with a black book; in my case, that big black book in a Norwegian shop contained the beautifully calligraphed transcripts of a fascinating and not widely known series of court cases. Seventeenth-century Europe was rife with witchcraft trials, but few have as many parallels to the Salem hysteria as those in the Finnmark, on the northeastern coast of Norway, which ended in 1692—the same year that the Salem trials began.
First of all, the Finnmark trials are also very well documented: all of the original court records are still in existence, and have recently been translated into English. Moreover, as in Salem, the Finnmark cases could involve people seen by the white magistrates as “others”. In Salem, it was Native Americans; in the Finnmark, it was the Sámi (historically known in English as Laplanders). Sámi shamans were reputed to be versed in the art of magic, providing good sailing winds with their ritual rune drums. Although in typical witch-hunt fashion, 90% of the accused in the Finnmark were women, all of them were white, whereas of the 24 accused men, 16 were Sámis, of whom 13 were burnt at the stake.
Like the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Finnmark was a frontier territory, sparsely populated, where life was hard and winters were long and dark. The Finnmark, however, remains a remote area, above the Arctic Circle. Its memorial to the victims of the witch trials—featuring a perpetually burning chair by sculptor Louise Bourgeois—on the spot where they were thrown into the Barents Sea for trial by water, is ominous and compelling… but for obvious logistical reasons not nearly as visited as Salem is today.
My presentation will revolve around the vivid and fascinating first-hand accounts of the accusers and the accused in the Finnmark trial transcripts. I will focus on what they tell us about the role of actual belief in witchcraft, whether it was the more “learned” ideas of the government officials who spread King James VI’s theories on demonology; the Sámi gand (spells) thrown on humans or livestock; or European folk ideas on herbology, the Devil’s pact, shape-shifting into animals or birds, and witches’ meetings.
In 2020, the testimony of the Finnmark’s accused can strike us as utterly fantastical, whether it was a 5-year-old child saying that a black man with horns on his knees turned her into a cat, or a young woman claiming that she transformed into a seal to cause the shipwreck of the vessel on which her faithless lover was sailing. Still, we can only ask ourselves what future historians will think of the sometimes deadly conspiracy theories and “fake news” of our own times.
Presented by Delories Dunn