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Icelandic Magic, Witchcraft, and Sorcery and the Tragic Case of Jón Rögnvaldsson

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Traditions relating to the dark and fascinating practices of witchcraft in Iceland are as old as the first human settlements on the island. Countless people paid for these practices with their lives, but many sorcerers and witches did not cease their commitment to the magic arts.

The Icelandic word to describe witchcraft is "Seiður". The men practicing magic were called "seið-menn", while women were known as "vísendakona". The concept of the most fundamental seiður was related to the ancient Norse gods like Odin and Freya. Icelandic magic was originally based on Norse beliefs, but with time it started to evolve into a unique and mysterious magic system of its own.

The Norse god Odin on his horse Sleipnir.

The Norse god Odin on his horse Sleipnir. ( Public Domain )

The First Man Burned as a Witch

Although there are many well-known names of people who practiced magic, most of them were never punished by Christians. Due to the slow process of Christianization in Iceland, it was impossible to apply the rules characteristic of other northern countries of Europe, like Denmark or Norway, which adopted the Christian faith, and attempts to remove old beliefs from their lands, more rapidly.

The story of women punished due to witchcraft is much longer, but that is a topic for a separate article. Unlike other parts of Europe, most of those persecuted for magic in Iceland were men, as there was a strong tradition of male magic. The first man to be executed for practicing magic, Jón Rögnvaldsson, lived during the end of the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries.

Armenian manuscript of 1053. Work of Johannes in Iceland.

Armenian manuscript of 1053. Work of Johannes in Iceland. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Jón Rögnvaldsson became a symbol of those executed for sorcery and those who were the salt in the eye of the Christian priests. While the followers of Christ did their best to bury the ancient practices, people did not want to stop praying to their deities, carrying out the old rituals, and calling all the spirits of the world to make their needs fulfilled. One of those that refused to stop was Jón Rögnvaldsson, whose practices had been well known in Iceland.

His story was lost throughout time and only small pieces of his life have survived up to the present age. It began in the 1600s when the bailiff Magnus Björnsson travelled from Copenhagen to Iceland, bringing with him a book about witch persecutions in 1487. Decades later, the terrible account Björnsson had read about became a reality in Iceland as the same events caused by a close-minded society appeared. Björnsson was influenced by the book, so when he heard about a boy’s mysterious disease and the death of several horses, he believed the events were caused by witches that needed to be exposed. People encouraged by the holy monks began to gossip that it was caused by black magic. For unknown reasons, the boy suggested that the one who cursed him was Jon Rögnvaldsson. The evidence presented during the trials were pieces of paper with Icelandic runes written by Jon. His brother, who was trying to help, declared that Jon practiced the rune magic called Galdrar (or Galdr), which involved spells and incantations, but not for evil purposes. This was enough to decide that Jon was a danger to society. Despite being a victim of malicious accusations, he was burned at the stake in 1625 with a flame of injustice.

Pagan priestesses that specialized in chanting galdrs.

Pagan priestesses that specialized in chanting galdrs. ( Public Domain )

Misconceptions

The Christianization of Iceland took place around 999 AD and the new religion wasn't accepted easily. The Icelandic people wanted to follow their old beliefs so the process of adaptation was long and painful. 

The imagination of followers of Christianity made them believe that the pagans and practitioners of witchcraft were followers of the devil and that their sexual acts brought them closer to their dark master. The monks who tried to influence society with the teachings of Jesus sought to fight them with the same tools that had previously been used in other parts of the Europe. According to Christopher Morris from University College London:

''Diabolism and sexuality were then able to stay disassociated during the heights of the hunt in Iceland. Considering this along with the masculine magical traditions so intricately woven throughout Icelandic cultural history, it is not then surprising that more men than women were accused of witchcraft and the culture was immune to Europe's attitude of magic and misogyny. Iceland was unfortunately not immune to the hunt in general and some scholars look at Iceland's witch-hunt as a threat to the Icelandic culture of the time thanks to the long arm of Danish law and religious fervor. Anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup wrote that because galdr was so easily appropriated by the authorities as witchcraft, Icelanders lost their control over tradition and were in danger of accusations coming at anyone at any time as “the powers of definition slipped out of the Icelander's hands.” This might be true as seen from the Icelander's early modern point of view but from a historical perspective the details tell a different story. In a European context, Icelanders were able to prevent submission to a southern European notion of witchcraft. A cultural imperturbability assured Icelanders remained rooted in their own traditions and peculiarities despite the best efforts of Danish appointed sheriffs. Perhaps it was less a willingly stubborn hold on tradition and more a tale of isolation defusing the ripple effect of a European panic, but either way Icelanders remained Icelanders and the “powers of definition” stayed within their grasp. Galdr remained magic and magic remained masculine.''

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