Finnmark, site of visions of the northern lights and land of the midnight sun, is a county in far northeastern Norway. In addition to ethnic Norwegians, the area is home to the country’s indigenous Sami, a more accurate name for those we often refer to as Lapps or Laplanders. In this region of craggy mountains sits a memorial to the dozens of individuals who were killed after they were convicted of being witches.
Most of us have heard of the Salem witches, inhabitants of Salem, Massachusetts executed for their supposed involvement with the dark arts. In 1692, 14 women and 6 men were accused of being witches there. Their convictions were examples of the failure of due process and the triumph of superstition and malicious intent. Stacy Schiff, author of a well-regarded biography of Cleopatra, has just come out with a new book on that period, The Witches: Salem, 1692. The Witch Trials Memorial was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in August 1992 as part of the Salem Witch Trials TerCentenary. The Memorial consists of 20 granite benches inscribed with the name of the accused and the means and date of execution.
Thousands of miles from Salem, the trials of the witches of Finnmark took place during the period of 1600-1692. Just over ninety people died as a result of the trials, this in a town of fewer than 4000. Most were subject to torture prior to their convictions. The few men convicted and executed were Sami, their traditional religious practices bringing suspicion upon them. The women were also accused of using witchcraft for both harm and healing. Researcher Torbjørn Alm makes the case that consumption of ergot, a fungus that often grows in rye flour, found in milk, bread, and beer might have resulted in behaviors associated in the common lore as being witchcraft. Ergot poisoning can cause many physical symptoms that also include vision problems, confusion, spasms, convulsions, and unconsciousness.
A friend of mine recently traveled to Finnmark and visited what she describes as a very moving place, a memorial to those burned, hanged, tortured to death, and drowned . (Suspected witches were often subject to the “float” test—if someone floats, he or she has to be a witch, ala Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie.)
Details of the charges against these tried and convicted hang along the corridor of the memorial (see photo) providing a moving recognition of the injustice of this period. A light burns for each person burned or drowned for the crime of being deemed a witch, and an eternal flame lights an adjoining structure.
These memorials—in Finnmark and Salem—remind us of the human costs of a community’s fear and suspicion. In this time of hallowing—making holy or sacred, consecrating and venerating—it’s important to remember that in our history there are darker stories than modern horror tales may tell.