VARDØ, Norway — It was but weeks ago that US Senator Lindsey Graham responded with a sneer to a protestor requesting then Supreme Court Justice nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, take a polygraph test: “why don’t we dunk him in water and see if he floats?” The figure of the hunted witch has been evoked often in 2018, the year I finally realized a long-held dream to make an art-pilgrimage to the Arctic island of Vardø, the extreme northeastern point of Norway, to see the Steilneset Memorial to the victims of the Finnmark witchcraft trials.
Miles and years away from our historic moment, there was a practice used for determining the guilt of an accused witch called the “water ordeal.” With hands and feet tied, they would be thrown into the freezing Barents Sea to see whether they sank or floated. If they sank, they were innocent. Water was thought to repel evil, so the suspect’s rising to the surface and floating proved their guilt. In April, the month I visited, Donald Trump tweeted seven times about being the victim of a “witch hunt.” Earlier in the year Woody Allen hadn’t even bothered to feign ignorance of historical context when he said he feared the wave of sexual assault allegations that had swept the entertainment industry were creating “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere.” Coming from the mouths of aggrieved men, incensed that there may be consequences for actions, the words “witch hunt” has become a deliberate distortion of the historical reality of actual witch hunts. Something that became more obvious the more time I spent at the memorial.
A collaboration between the late artist Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010) and architect Peter Zumthor (1943 – ), the Steilneset Memorial (2011) commemorates the 91 people (77 women and girls, and 14 men) who were executed during the 17th-century trials, mostly by burning at the stake. More people in the Finnmark region — then home to only around 3,000 people or 0.8 percent of Norway’s population — were executed for witchcraft than anywhere else in Norway, which accounted for 19 percent of all Norwegian trials and 31 percent of all death sentences. The memorial sits on the very site, off the shore of the freezing Barents Sea, where it is believed the condemned were burned.
The memorial is made up of three components, art, architecture, and history. Zumthor’s 400-foot-long oak-floored pavilion — swathed in sailcloth and lit by light bulbs hanging in each of the 91 steel-framed windows — leads toward a steel and smoked-glass box. Inside, sits Bourgeois’s sculpture, “The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved.” It is unsparingly literal, a burning steel chair encircled above by large oval mirrors.
The memorial has dragged sleeping ghosts out of the high north terrain of rock, moss, and sea, and the drama of the landscape is integral to its experience. The hallway seems to sway as wind, whipped up off the rocky coast, swirls around the structure, making the lightbulbs swing and the steel wires — keeping the whole thing upright — creak. It’s raised on wooden legs that resemble the cod-drying racks that dot the landscape of Northern Norway. Inside the box, snow drifts pile up, blown in through the gaps between glass and ground. I find myself moving closer to Bourgeois’s burning chair to catch some warmth. But a chill digs into the marrow of my bones.
I hadn’t expected a work so explicitly representative. The experience of being inside it is one of intense presence. Next to each lightbulb are texts printed on silk, written by historian Liv Helene Willumsen, and based on original court records, they document fragments of each the accused’s lives, the charges brought against them, and their final sentence. It is the story of the Finnmark witchcraft trials writ large. It begins in 1601 with “a wealthy man” named Christen the Tailor who was accused of “practicing witchcraft together with the Sámi (the indigenous people of northern Europe) man Morten Olsen.” As I start to read, I am surprised the story begins with a wealthy man but quickly it takes the form of something more familiar, of the persecution of women and others on the margins of society.
The central paradox of modern witch hunts, writes Annalise Quinn in the New York Times, of the misuse of the term by the powerful, is that those who claim to be the victims … are often the ones most enthusiastic about carrying them out. The notion of President Trump, the most powerful person on earth, as a hunted witch is laughable, even before considering the irony of his stated support for waterboarding, a modern version of the water ordeal. Of course, the words “witch hunt” have long lost the weight of their original meaning. Quinn notes that by “the mid–1940s, people quoted in The New York Times had complained of witch hunts against bathing-suit wearers, horse-racing bookies, and a group of New England egg dealers accused of price fixing. Still, there’s something particularly maddening about hearing the self-pitying cries of powerful men ringing in your ears when considering the very pathetic circumstances of a real witchcraft trial. One woman, whose name is recorded only as Marette, Torsten’s wife, is described as “having left only a pair of blue pants and a sweater. Poor.” Another, remembered as Oluf Rasmussen’s wife “left nothing. Destitute.” These notes tell us what everyone, even disingenuous self-proclaimed victims of witch hunts already know, that witch hunts rarely target the powerful.
Silk banners, bearing these records, reinforce our knowledge about how witch trials were used to assert control over the powerless. Multiple women are accused of using witchcraft to harm figures who hold social or economic power over them. Brigitte Edisdatter was condemned for using witchcraft to wreck a boat because “the mate and boatswain sold their wares at stiff prices.” Barbara Oldsdatter tried to cast a spell on a boat “because she had not been fully paid for lodgings and washing for the crew.” Historian Rune Blix Hagen writes that “we can easily see the witch-trials as an expression of the demonization of female insurrection.” Women are condemned for using “their malicious magic to afflict unchallenged spheres of male power.” Like Graham angling for the President’s favor by decrying the ‘witch hunt’ against his Supreme Court nominee, positions of power need to be defined and reinforced.
I return to the memorial several times during my four-day stay on Vardø. Each time I walk through it, the small windows lining the hallway feel critical to my ability to breathe, they let a little light into the encompassing darkness. Each time I reach the hall’s midway point, it feels as though it might be too overwhelming to continue, to take this all in, the hatred of the accused, the spitefulness of the accusers, the denouncing of one another. The narrative would often erupt with linked cases: One person is denounced by an acquaintance, who is then themselves denounced and brought before the court. And so on. The stories conjure up an atmosphere of suffocating paranoia. Toward the end of the hall, one banner tells of a woman named as Sámi Elli who cries as she was “manhandled and sent by boat to Vardø” and was chided for it by her co-accused, Magdelene Jacobsdatter, who says: “You think this is bad, but we will suffer far worse.”
Vardø isn’t an easy place to get to, I flew two hours from Oslo to Kirkenes and took a four-hour ferry journey to the island. It is difficult to imagine that the mania that engulfed central Europe could reach someplace so remote. But that, it seems, is the point. There is a long tradition of placing hell in the far north — pre-Christian Norse legends say that “the road to Hell lies downwards and northwards” — and of portraying the people of the north as sorcerers. The notion was a favorite motif of writers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, from the “lapland sorcerers” of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (1594) to the “lapland witches” of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Sámi men, in particular, writes Willumsen, are “reputed throughout Europe to be well-versed in the art of magic,” known for their ritual use of the rune drum. Fearing them as a powerful and visible part of the Sámi religion, Christian missionaries destroyed many drums. The case against Anders Poulsen, a 100-year-old Sámi man, is built on his using a drum. When brought before the court, he “confesses” to having learned to use the drum “in order to help people when they were in trouble, and to do good deeds.” Poulsen, the final victim of the Finnmark trials, was murdered while in custody in February 1692 with an axe. The context helps account for why, when it comes to the male victims of the Finnmark witchcraft trials, Sámi men outnumber Norwegian men, making up 68 percent of the victims. (the opposite is true of the women).
Although completed seven years ago, the Steilneset Memorial is important now. While powerful men claim themselves victims of witch hunts, twisting the meaning of the term, and displaying deliberate ignorance of social hierarchies, we see the motif of the witch resonating in contemporary art. First shown at the 57th Venice Biennale and opening at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery this month, Jesse Jones’ Tremble Tremble (2017) positions the figure of a witch as a feminist archetype. In a work she calls a “bewitching of the judicial system,” her witch disrupts history, reading lines from the testimonies of three of the last women to be executed as witches in England — Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susannah Edwards — and from the Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval text written in 1487, and used to identify and prosecute witches. She reads the lines backwards. Stories of the condemned, the long silenced, are finally heard.
Jones’s title comes from the 1970s Italian wages for housework slogan Tremate, tremate, le streghe son tornate! (“Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!”) and emerges out of a rising social movement in Ireland that played a historic role this year in the repeal of the Eighth Amendment (which grants equal rights to women and fetuses). Tremble, it says. The ground is shifting. We are on the verge of a radical change. This, not the aggrieved cry of a powerful man, is a repositioning of the witch we will hear of more.