Norway’s witch trials: the woman killed for a fatal storm

Exactly 400 years ago, a violent storm proved deadly to a woman who did not even witness it. This was the outcome of one of the biggest witch trials in Scandinavian history, in the Norwegian fishing community of Vardø.

A sudden storm in December 1617 sank many boats and drowned 40 men. Previously, a famous trial had been held of people accused of raising a storm to sink King James I’s ship, and there was a growing belief that witches could cause storms.

Else Knutsdatter was arrested, having been seen with devils “in the shapes of black cats and dogs”. Under torture, Knutsdatter confessed her coven had raised the storm by tying a fishing rope three times and spitting on it, then untying the rope to unleash the winds. This was a traditional magic practice that Knutsdatter either knew of or was supplied with by her interrogators.

Knutsdatter and others identified a foreigner married to a wealthy merchant, Kirsti Sørensdatter, as the head of the coven. Sørensdatter also confessed under torture and was burned to death on 27 April 1621.

Ninety-one people, almost all women, were executed as a result of the witch trials. A memorial to the victims was opened in Vardø in 2011, with artworks by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor.

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