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 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 North 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.
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.
Magnus 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 burned.
Stefan Grimsson 1678. 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.
Sources: Ólína Þorvarðardóttir, Dr.Phil.