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 Thingvellir
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sources: Ólína Þorvarðardóttir, Dr.Phil.