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
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
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
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
Tales of witchcraft and scorcery can be found in many books on
mythology and folklore.
burnings in Iceland in the 17th century in cronological order:
Abbreviations below: N
= North Iceland;
= Southwest Iceland;
Jon Rognvaldsson 1625. Farmer Sigurdur at Urdir in valley
Svarfadardalur suffered much from a ghost. Jon Eyfirdingur was
accused for its existence and sending it to Sigurdur to kill him
and/or cause him harm. It only managed to kill a few horses.
Magistrage Magnus Björnsson got the case. He interrogated Jon,
who denied the accusations flatly. His house was searched and a
few suspicious runic letters were found. This discovery was
considered sufficient to sentence him to the stake at Meleyrar in
valley Svarfadardalur. His case was never confirmed by the
official court of the Parliamentary. The next burning probably
occurred nine years later, but the sources are too vague.
V. 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
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
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.
SW. Torarinn Halldorsson 1667
lived at farm Birnustadir and practised medicine on people and animals
in county Ogursveit. He used a runic oak board in his efforts to
cure an young girl at farm Laugabol. She died and reverend
Sigurdur Jonsson at Ogur obtained the runic board. An inspection
at the spring parliament was inconclusive. A short time later,
the reverend died, and that was considered enough evidence against
Torarinn for both deaths. He fled, shaved his hair and beard,
but was recognised and seized in county Stadarsveit on the peninsula
Snaefellsnes, and sent back in shackles. He escaped again and
was sent back from district Rangarvellir. His trial was both
positive and negative for him. During the session of the spring
parliament in 1667, no-one volunteered an oath for him, and he was
sentenced and sent to the Parliamentary Plains, where the court
decided to burn him at the stake. He was probably the first to
be executed that way in the southwest part of the country.
Jon Leifsson 1669.
Mrs. Helga Halldorsdottir at farm Selardalur on the bay Arnarfjordur
fell ill at the turn of the year 1968 and felt great anguish caused by
evil spirits well into the next summer. The devilry continued in
the whole valley after she fell ill and everyone left for a while.
Mr. Jon Leifsson had wanted to marry one of the female servants of
farm Selardalur, but Mrs. Helga opposed the proposal. She blamed
Jon for her illness. Interrogations revealed his participation
in scorcery, and for a while the authorities were undecided about the
procedings. The magistrate Eggert solved the problem alone and
decided to burn him at the stake in the valley just before the
assembly of the common parliament. The court of the parliament
confirmed his decision afterwards.
Erlendur Eyjolfsson 1669.
Jon Leifsson alleged shortly before his execution, that Erlendur had
tought him witchcraft. Therefore dean Pall sent governor
Torleifur Kortsson a letter, accusing Jon for allt the misgivings of
his family in valley Selardalur, and also Erlendur for being an
accessory. This was sufficient evidence for the authorities, and
Erlendur was burned at the stake in county Vesturhop in district
Hunavatnssysla the same year. He confessed to scorcery and
teaching it as well.
Sigurdur Jonsso 1671
was born in county Ogurhreppur and was accused of the sickness of a
housewife on the bay Isafjardardjup. He confessed to scorcery,
using all kinds of herbs, feather pens, magic poetry, and runic oak
boards. He claimed to have defended himself against the devil
and ghosts by scorcery. He was seized on the island Vigur and
was burned at the stake in the Parliamentary Plains in the summer.
Pall Oddsson 1674
was born at farm Anastadakot on the peninsula Vatnsnes, where he lived
for decades before he was accused of scorcery. Reverend
Torvardur Olafsson at parsonage Breidabolstadur blamed him for his
wife's sickness, because of runic boards, which were discovered.
Pall could not make it to the parliament, where his case was debated.
His absence was to his disadvantage. Governor Torleifur Kortsson
continued the case and kept Pall emprisoned in the hands of magistrate
Gudbrandur Arngrimsson at his farm As in valley Vatnsdalur. The
magistrate is said to have influenced the quick procedings against
Pall, because of his affair with the magistrate's wife. More
accusations against Pall appeared, and the case was referred to the
parliamentary court, where Pall had the opporunity to defend himself
with the oath of twelve persons. Five of them changed their
minds about the oath, but Pall never confessed. One man swore to
having seen him write runes on an oak board. He was sentenced to
burn at the stake at the Parliamentary Plains.
Bodvar Torsteinsson 1674
was commonly known as a scorcerer. He was born on the peninsula
Snaefellsnes and was burned on the same day as Pall Oddson. He
twaddled about his scorcery in a fishing station at Gufuskalar.
He was asked if he had caused the failed catch of Dean Bjorn
Snaebjornsson's boat, and he confessed. Dean Bjorn pressed
charges. Bodvar withdrew his confession in vain and was burned
at the stake in the Parliamentary Plains.
Bjarnason 1675. The
witch hunt was relentless in valley Selardalur in spite of the burning
of two people. The housewife fell ill again and two of her sons
as well. Now the family blamed Magnus Bjarnason on the bay
Arnarfjordur. One magic letter was discovered and governor
Torleifur Kortsson claimed a confession. He had Magnus
transported to Tingeyrar in district Hunavatnssysla, where he was
Lassi Didriksson 1675
was, at the age of seventy, blamed for the sickness of reverend Pall's
wife and sons in valley Selardalur. The illness of Egill
Helgason, one of magistrate Eggert's men, was added. The
magistrate was the reverend's brother. Lassi denied vehemently
being a scorcerer. Governor Torleifur Kortsson found no proof
and referred the case to the Parliament Court. There Lassi was
sentenced to burn at the stake. Heavy rain made the burning
extremely difficult and put out the fire thrice. Magistrate
Eggert broke a leg on his way back home, which was construed by many
as proof of Lassi's innocence.
Bjarni Bjarnason 1677.
His roots were in valley Breiddalur on bay Onundarfjordur. Bjani
Jonsson's wife at farm Hafurshestur on bay Onundarfjordur deemed him
responsible for her seven years illness. After Bjarni was
charged, the wife got sicker and died before he was sentenced.
He admitted to owning magic letters and no-one was willing to swear an
oath in his favour. His prosecutor was the governor, Torleifur
Kortsson, who got the verdict guilty. Bjarni was burned at the
stake on July 4th.
Torbjorn Sveinsson 1677.
His ancestry was traced to district Myrarsysla. He carried three
booklets on scorcery and other items on his person. He admitted
to experimenting with scorcery, i.e. to calm his herd of sheep.
Nothing is documented about him harming others. He had been
branded and whipped for theft. He and Bjarni were burned
together in the Parliamentary Plains.
His ancestors also lived in the Borgarfjordur area. He was
blamed for distroying eight cows and admitted to all kinds of
delinquencies after he had been sentenced, but he never confessed to
scorcery. The connection of his case to reverend Arni Jonsson's
case were a part of the reason. The reverend managed to leave
the country before a convocation had been gathered to handle his case.
Torbjorn was burned at the stake in district Hunavatnssysla
immediately after the sentence.
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
Ari Palsson 1681.
Torkatla Snaebjornsdottir, the sister of Bjorn at parsonage
Stadarstadur, who played his role in the burning of Bodvar
Torsteinsson a few years earlier, was the instigator of Ari's case.
She accused him on the grounds of a runic board, which he left behind
at her home. This evidence was devastating, because many people
believed, that he was guilty of making many people ill. After
the sentence, he confessed to scorcery. Arni Magnusson and Pall
Vidalin sent a report to the government in Copenhagen on the justice
system in Iceland, and mentioned this case as an example of a judicial
murder. Ari was burned at the stake in the Parliamentary Plains.
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.
burnings in Iceland in the 17th century
Westfjords <> North