In one of my favorite fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen, a little boy playing at his local park is lured onto the sled of the Snow Queen and is taken away to the “far north.” His friend Gerda never forgets him and bravely strikes out alone and tracks him down, carried on the back of a reindeer, to “Finland” where she is protected from the “ugly ice monsters” by angels formed from her own breath that froze in the air as she prayed.
As we approach the solstice and winter stretches ahead in cold, dark and snowy splendor, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on monsters and witches who dwell like snow queens in the far north and to probe the chilly, dark recesses of our own history and our own hearts.
In the 16th Century, when Western Europe was on the rise as a global power, Scandinavia, as well as Iceland, Greenland and the islands at the fringe such as Orkney, Faroe, Shetland, Fair Isle, etc., was considered distant, strange and beyond the borders of the known world. It was a place of hellish cold and strange light—endless winter darkness and summer sun that never set.
In fact, European scholars of the 16th and 17th century wrote authoritatively about how strange and evil it was in the far north: witches flew through the air and the oceans roiled with sea monsters. One reason for this was that it took a long time for Christianity to gain a solid foothold in Scandinavia. It was the last bastion of magic in the civilized world.
The battle among Catholics and Protestants was heating up all over Europe but in Scandinavia there was still the matter of the pagans. Indigenous beliefs and practices died hard among the 99 percent in Scandinavia. There was everything from the Viking beliefs in Odin and Thor to the Sámi noaidis, shamans, who communicated with spirits through the use of drums and chanting.
Indeed, in the long and complex process of converting Scandinavians to Christianity, the Sámi of the far north were the last holdouts. They persisted in practicing their traditional beliefs and remained largely unconverted until the 18th century. At one time the Sámi were called the Finn people. In fairy tales, like Andersen’s where little Gerda had to track her friend to Finland where the evil and magical Snow Queen had her palace, Finland is an imaginary place inspired by the Sámi who were viewed with fascination and feared as practitioners of magic and witchcraft.
A Catholic priest, exiled to Poland from Sweden, named Olaus (1490–1557) proved to be one of the most influential authors of stories about the monsters and witches of the north. In his 1555 European blockbuster Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) he reported that there were more witches (häxor) in Scandinavia than any other place on earth. His beautifully detailed and colorful sea map, Carta Marina, was valued as the the most comprehensive map of the Scandinavian regions, an invaluable aid to navigating currents and land masses as well as a helpful guide to the various sea monsters to watch out for.
Please enjoy the interactive map magnus carta marina here.
Today it is hard to believe that people believed in sea monsters and witches. On the other hand, maybe not. Human nature persists in believing outrageous things about people and places that are perceived as different. When beliefs and fears about those differences get out of control, terrible things can happen.
The witch trials of Europe surely rate as one of the worst things imaginable. They were a complex phenomenon but one mostly seen now as related to the rise of Christianity, the Reformation and a panic perhaps about the loss of the old ways and the old social order. These ideas and fears about witches did indeed go viral (the power of publishing!) and spread throughout Europe resulting in tens of thousands of executions from the 15th to 18th century.
This hysteric fear of witches spread to Scandinavia resulting in heart-breaking and horrific events such as the 1674 Torsåker witch trials in northern Sweden where 71 people were beheaded and burned in a single day. More often than not, witches, when routed, turned out to be women. Sixty-five of the 71 accused in Torsåker were women.
In the Norwegian village of Vardø, in Finnmark (so called because of the local Sámi population), the northernmost county of Norway. One hundred and thirty-five witchcraft cases were taken to court between 1600 and 1692. Ninety-one of them received the death penalty. Seventy-seven of them were Norwegian women and girls and some were Sámi men. They were accused of all kinds of things: drinking beer, dancing with Satan to fiddle music, shape shifting into cats, foxes and flying birds, bewitching people, causing death and unleashing terrible storms at sea. The accused were tortured into bizarre confessions and made to undergo the ordeal of water.
“The procedure consisted of throwing the accused person into the sea with his or her hands and feet tied. Water, which was considered a sacred element, was thought to repel evil, so the suspect’s rising to the surface and floating was an indication of guilt. Sinking was a sign of innocence. The water ordeal was not defined as torture by the judicial authorities.”
During midsummer three years ago (2011), and three hundred years after their execution in Vardø, the victims of the witch trials were remembered with a ceremony presided over by the Queen of Norway. It was also the inauguration of the Steilneset Memorial, an impressive sculptural piece co-created by artists Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois.
In the context of their own time, I imagine, people rejoiced over the destruction of evil. The violence of beheadings, burnings and such was seen as righteous. These are old stories, almost as unbelievable as fairy tales. And yet we still live in a world of divisiveness, fear and violence. What will future generations make of the world of good and evil we live in today and, more importantly, how we handle it?
In the tale of the Snow Queen, Gerda finds her long lost friend living in an ice palace, his heart so frozen solid he does not recognize her. This causes Gerda to weep and her tears fall upon Kaj’s heart, melting it. It is a painful moment because Kaj sheds tears as well. This washes a speck of bad magic from his eye, one that had twisted his view of things. He is finally able to recognize a true friend.