Vardø's dark history of witch hunts

A monument for the people killed for witchcraft crimes opened last year in Vardø. Photo: Heather Yundt

In the 1600s, the fishing village of Vardø was believed to be close to hell. It was here that 91 men and women were convicted of witchcraft and executed.


Her joints were pulled apart by a wooden rack. Her breasts were burned with sulphur. She was tied to the wall with iron rings around her neck, feet, and arms.

Accused of witchcraft, she refused to confess.

“You can torture my body, but not my soul,” historian Liv Helene Willumsen says, recounting the woman’s famous words.

Ingeborg, as she is known today, was one of 20 people killed for witchcraft crimes 350 years ago during the third witchcraft “panic” in the fishing community of Vardø, northern Norway.


In the 1600s, the belief swept Europe that a hidden army of devil accomplices was hiding in the villages and had to be rooted out and killed.

“There was this understanding that there were two powers fighting for the supremacy of souls,” Willemsun says. “And there’s the evil one against God.”

In Finnmark, the trials and executions were particularly severe. The remote northern corner of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom was considered the end of the world and closer to the entrance of hell, Willumsen says.

At the time, there were just 3,000 people living in the region. Still, 135 people were accused of the criminal offense of witchcraft and 91 of them were killed, representing one third of all Norwegian witchcraft death sentences.

The accused were tortured until they confessed to having cast spells that sunk ships, raised storms, or drove the fish away. They often confessed to having participated in group witchcraft, naming other community members.

“You got at once a number of names on the table, and these persons were quickly called in for interrogation,” Willumsen says.

Women, in particular, were targeted, as were Sami men, who were believed at the time to be well-versed in magic.

Many people suspected of witchcraft in Finnmark were thrown into the sea with their hands and feet tied to determine their guilt. If they floated, they were guilty. If they sank, they were innocent.  Every one of them floated.

Those convicted of witchcraft were burnt at the stake.

Moving on

Gradually, a more rational ideology become popular and the witch hunts faded out, Willumsen says. The records of the court proceedings are preserved in the State Archives in Tromsø.

A memorial dedicated to the men and women killed for witchcraft crimes opened last year on the shore of the Barents Sea. In the centre of a translucent, black, glass structure, a natural gas flame burns on a wooden chair. Mirrors are angled down from the high ceilings, reflecting the light of the flame. The victims’ stories are remembered on the walls of a dim, narrow building.  

The art installation was a collaborative effort between artist Louise Bourgeois and architect Peter Zumthor.