The witch hunt in Europe started around the year 1480 and continued to the turn of the 17th century. The Icelanders were influenced by the Danes and the Germans during the period, but did not react until the persecutions were dwindling around the middle of the 17th century. It took on a different face here, as the witches and scorcerers were condemned for using magical characters and runes to cause harm.
The devil did not have much to do with Icelandic scorcery, and neither did black magic nor torture. Much fewer witches were burnt at the stake than scorcerers.
Around 1660, the witch hunt was dwindling in Europe. The year 1654 is considered the beginning of the Icelandic persecution with three people being burnt at the stake on cove Trekyllisvik in the Strandir District. The last burning took place on the alluvial plain Arngerdareyri on bay Isafjardardjup in the Northwest in 1683. Possibly the first man to be burnt was Jon Rognvaldsson in valley Svarfadardalur in North Iceland in 1625.
In addition to the twenty burnings, five are so vaguely documented, that historians are not unanimous about them. Four of them concern males, and only one a woman. The twenty confirmed burnings were divided between the Westfjords (8), the North (4), and the Southwest (8 in the Parliamentary Plains = Tingvellir).
Books of magic. Probably quite a few existed, but only seven are clearly documented. It is difficult to decide the background of the magic characters. Some may be traced to the mysticism of the Middle Ages and the renascence teachings, but others suggest pagan and runic culture. The witchcraft mentioned at trials in the 17th century, can in many instances be found in the books of magic still preserved in manuscript museums. The purpose of the magic characters reveals in many instances the worries, toil, and the labour of the public.
Herbs. Various herbs still play a role in popular belief and are considered to be helpful, especially healing. During earlier centuries the boundaries between scorcery, superstition and dogma on one side, and modern medicine and natural sciences on the other, were vague. Primitive remedies, interpretation of various natural phenomena, and belief in healing qualities of herbs and stones, were the main reasons for executions.
Magical and natural stones were used for many purposes. Belief in them is ancient. They are even mentioned in the oldest codes of the country, where it is strictly forbidden to use them or magnify their potential. In the Middle Ages, the boundaries between witchcraft, superstition, and dogma on one side, and medicine and modern natural science were unclear. Nowadays many herbs and stones are used for healing purposes.
Tales of witchcraft and scorcery can be found in many books on mythology and folklore.
Confirmed burnings in the 17th century in the Westfjords and Strandir:
Tordur Gudbrandsson 1654. Sickness and hard times struck the people on cove Trekyllisvik in 1652, especially the women, who started getting sick after the referrendum in 1651. Then the magistrate, Torleifur Kortsson, agreed to the demand of the mother and brothers of Gudrun Hrobjartsdottir, that she should leave the domestic service of farmer Tordur Gudbrandsson. She was taken dangerously ill, when her brothers came for her, but she recovered immediately after the departure. Again she fell ill after leaving the church there, but was again quite well upon arrival at farm Munadarnes. Tordur was accused for her sickness. He admitted that the devil had appeared to him as an archtic fox and that he had used exorcism to get his help. Tordur was burned at the stake at Kista on cove Trekyllisvik.
Egill Bjarnason 1654. When Tordur’s case was investigated, suspicion of more widespread use of witchcaraft in the area arose. Egill Bjarnason became the centre of attention and he was emprisoned. He confessed to scorcery and connections to the devil, who was contracted to him. He went his errands to cause harm and havoc, killed sheep at the farms Hlidarhus and Kjorvogur. Egill was sentenced to burn at the stake with Tordur at Kista.
Grimur Jonsson 1654. Just before Tordur was burned, he said that Grimur was the greatest scorcerer of Trekyllisvik. These words lead to an investigation, whch supported his reputation as a sorcerer. He confessed to using runic boards from Tordur as defence against attacks of foxes on his sheep herds. He promised to amend his ways, if he were released from his shackles. When he was not released, he confessed to all kinds of scorcery, and was burned at Kista as well.
Jon Jonsson senior 1656. A father and a son from farm Kirkjubol, both by the name Jon, were accused of scorcery, causing sickness and anguish to reverend Jon Magnusson at parsonage Eyri on the bay Skutulsfjordur. They confessed after several months’ emprisonment. Jon senior confessed to owning two books on witchcraft, having destroyed two milking cows, and assisted his son in causing the reverend harm. They were both sentenced and burned at farm Kirkjubol on bay Skutulsfjordur.
Jon Jonsson junior 1656 confessed to more scorcery than his father before they were burned. He told about unsuccessful healing attempts and having experienced the devil in his sleep. He confessed extraordinary efforts to gain the love of the reverend’s daughter.
Turidur Olafsdottir & Jon Helgason 1678. Documented sources about the burning of the woman, Turidur, and her son are vague. They most probably were accused by reverend Pall in valley Selardalur of his wife’s sickness. They arrived from district Skagafjordur in the summer of 1677 and were strangers in their new surroundings. According to chronicles, Jon, the son, told people, that they had travelled on foot and forded rivers without horses or ferries, which was a sign of his mother’s witchcraft. They were both burned at the stake in district Bardastrandarsysla.
Sveinn Arnason 1683. His accuser was dean Sigurdur Jonsson, who wrote about this case in his chronicles. He claimed that Sveinn had caused his wife’s illness. She was the daughter of Pall in valley Selardalur. His prosecutor was Magnus Jonsson. He was convicted on the spit of land called Nauteyri and burned in the forest Arngerdareyrarskogur. According to popular belief, he was to be transported to the Parliamentary Plains for his execution, but those who were responsible for him did not bother.
Sources: Ólína Þorvarðardóttir, Dr.Phil.
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