Walking in itches' footsteps
VARDOE, Norway: Zigzagging down a steep moss-covered slope peppered with loose stones that could easily throw them off balance and fling them onto the jagged rocks below, the group makes its way to a large cave where witches once were thought to meet and dance with the devil.
"Just imagine trying to do this in the dark, when the rain has made these stones slippery. No wonder witches needed broomsticks," says one of the women in the group that has gathered in the small town of Vardoe, just over 2,000 kilometres from the North Pole, for northern Norway's first ever witch conference held from August 28 to 30.
Nearly 400 years after the worst of the Norwegian witch trials ripped through the area, approximately 100 people have made their way to this small town at the very northern tip of the country to walk in the witches' footsteps and see what it must have been like to be accused of witchcraft at a time when such accusations meant an almost certain fiery death.
The conference here has consciously taken a historic and academic approach to the subject of witchcraft, according to Riita Leinonen, who runs Hexeria, the historical experience travel agency that organized the event.
"We wanted to give people a feeling of what it was really like to be accused of being a witch. Not the plastic image," she said.
"We do not need to build something like Euro Disney to make this place interesting... In Vardoe we're living at the extreme limit of existence. The nature here is extreme and our history is extremely dramatic," she added, nodding out at the windblown, barren hills surrounded by an angry sea that even today make magic and mysticism seem close at hand.
Standing at the mouth of "heksehula," or the witch cave, with icy waves crashing over the rocks below, the approximately 30 people who have braved the steep and treacherous climb down gather around a fire to hear stories of the women suspected of meeting here with Lucifer in the mid-17th century.
A 12-year-old girl for instance confessed to having danced in the cave before being taken on a tour of Hell by Satan himself, and "many women in the surrounding communities lost their lives as a result" of being pointed out as having participated in the party, historian at the University of Tromsoe Rune Blix Hagen tells the group.
While witch trials raged across all of Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, the little town of Vardoe appears to have burned more than its share.
In all of Europe, about 50,000 people, nearly all women, are thought to have been executed as witches. In Vardoe meanwhile, which according to Norwegian historian Randi Roenning Balsvik had a population of between 200 and 300 people in the 17th century, nearly 30 suspected witches were killed.
"When we take the low population of Finnmark (Norway's northernmost county and home to Vardoe) into consideration, the persecution of accused witches is almost the worst in all of Europe," Hagen says.
Seated at the back of the cave, Mari Moen Erlandsen, of the indigenous Sami people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, lets out a full-throated mournful "joik," allowing the traditional Sami chanting-like tones to bounce off the cave walls and filter out into the late morning chill.
"There have always been terrible persecutions of us Sami ... Also as witches," says Erlandsen, who works for the Sami parliament in Karasjokk, south of Vardoe.
Approximately 20 per cent of the 138 people convicted of witchcraft in Finnmark county between 1598 and 1692 were Sami, according to Hagen.
"Among the Sami it was mostly men who were accused of witchcraft," he says, pointing out that the Sami notion of witchcraft, mainly embedded in its Shamanist rituals, was largely a male phenomenon.
Most of those killed for suspected witchcraft however were women, who were mercilessly thrown to the flames after a long, painful journey through alienation, torture, and confessions.
In Norway, most people accused of witchcraft were subjected to the "water test," where they were tossed into the freezing angry ocean to see if they could float, according to Riita Leinonen.
"This is what the water looked like," she says, pointing to the frothing sea slamming against the dock.
Because water was thought to be sacred, people believed it would reject evil, making any witch float, while the innocent were sure to sink.
"If she floated she was guilty and was burned over there," Leinonen says, gesturing to a nearby hill where the fires used to roar.
While the belief in witchcraft and magic may appear firmly lodged in the past, the willingness to participate in witch hunts has not ebbed with the passing centuries, according to social anthropologist Jan Broegger, who cites the case of one of the largest pedophile scandals in Norway's history.
When a nursery school employee in the early 1990s was accused of sexually abusing children in the small village of Bjung in central Norway, children started spinning fantastic tales of orgies including men dressed in costumes with black candles and the occasional sheep.
"In the end, half the village was arrested, including the village policeman who had led the initial investigation," all suspected of molesting and raping large numbers of children, Broegger says.
Every one of those accused was innocent.
"These kinds of witch trials ... this moral panic, still goes on today," he says.
(China Daily 09/04/2004 page10)
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