The Witch-hunts in Iceland

Between 1625 and 1683 twenty one Icelanders were burnt alive for practicing magic. The Icelandic witch-craze was imported from Europe by members of a ruling class of semi-nobles who were to a large extent educated in Denmark and northern Germany. One extended family of landowners, primarily in the northwest of the country, supplied the majority of the sheriffs presiding over the court cases for witchcraft and a large portion of the clergy, among them priests who wrote treatises against magic, heavily influenced by European works such as the Malleus mallificorum.

The European influence is not as obvious when the charges in witchcraft cases are reviewed. Contemporary sources, mainly annals and court records, tell us that a third of the charges were for causing sickness in persons and livestock, and another third for possessing grimoires or pages with galdrastafir, i.e. magical signs or staves. Heresy and satanism are hardly mentioned at all. Another striking difference between the European and Icelandic witch-hunts is that only one woman was among those burnt at the stake.

Around 130 cases of witchcraft or sorcery are found in court records both from the high court at Þingvellir and in fragments of county court records. Of the approximately 170 persons accused around 10% were women, the rest were males, mostly of the lower classes though some sheriffs and clergymen were also accused. None of the latter suffered physical punishments. It must be remembered in this context that the total population of Iceland at the time was only around fifty thousand.

Apart from the charges mentioned above, people were accused of waking up the dead, using magic to heal, and about a tenth of cases mention blasphemy though seldom as the only accusation.
A quarter of cases ended with a sentence of whipping which could mean anything from a half a dozen lashes to three consecutive whippings, all of them as heavy as a man could endure and still stay alive. A quarter of those accused were aquitted, at least 15% managed to escape the law, and we do not know the outcome of another 15% of cases. There is no evidence that physical torture was ever used in Iceland to secure confessions.