Today there are only about 500 witches practicing witchcraft. In Danish
legend tradition, the witch is perhaps the best known example of a
supernatural threat in human form residing within the boundaries of the
The witch, as she is presented in tradition, appears as a terrifying and at
times vindictive menace, intent on wreaking economic and physical havoc on
otherwise seemingly safe rural communities.
Danish folklorist Evald Tang Kristensen (1934 and 1980, and in everything
from broadsides to newspaper articles during the preceding, intervening and,
to a lesser extent, subsequent years, horrific crimes ranging from assault to
sabotage, poisoning to larceny, kidnapping to murder are attributed to witches.
The profound threat to a community ascribed to witches in legend tradition--
and folk belief in general--derives in large part from their status as
community insiders. One can never be entirely sure that a next-door neighbor,
a friend or even one's own spouse is not a witch.
Because of the clear proclivity of witches to undermine the economic integrity
of a community and their wanton disregard for the physical well-being of
community members, knowing who was a witch and who was not--a knowledge
directly related to the contemporaneous storytelling tradition--was, at least
up through the nineteenth century, a matter of great importance.
The general conceptions both of the witch and of witchcraft were not
constant from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Furthermore,
narrators' motivations to affix the term "witch" to certain individuals or
classes of individuals seem to have changed considerably. While one might
expect that kloge folk (cunning folk) who, because of their abilities to cure
illness and remove curses, would have been frequently accused of witchcraft,
this does not appear to be the case, at least not until the nineteenth century.
By that time, calling someone a "witch" had vastly different consequences than
in the seventeenth century. It seems likely that this later use of the term
"witch" in connection with cunning folk was connected to the market for
healers--while using the label no longer had the potential to result in
execution, it did have the power to hurt the practice of a local cunning man or
The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were arguably the heyday of
the witch in Denmark. Scandinavian witch trials from this period, as well as
stories about witches and their persecution, have become in recent years
topics of considerable interest both Scandinavian historians.
Their studies have considered in great detail the contours of witchcraft, the
minutia of the witchcraft trials, the brutal execution of witches (generally by
burning), and the narrative tradition concerning witches and witch belief both
during and after the well-known witch-hunt frenzy that gripped most of
Scandinavia and other parts of Europe during this period.
As Johansen has shown, the persecution of witches in Denmark was based
primarily on the individual's reputation as a witch (or more accurately as a
troldkvinde or troldmand), a reputation which developed out of the
contemporaneous storytelling tradition.
Although the secular authorities demanded proof of malicious intent
(maleficium) to continue to trial, this proof almost always took the form of
witness accounts--hearsay evidence as it were. There were, of course, strict
rules of evidence that excluded certain types of witness accounts.
Thus, it was not possible to witness "i egen sag" [for one's own case] and
testimony based on "rumors" was not accepted. This second category of
testimony was one that clearly was difficult to enforce, as almost all
testimony took the form of narratives that were based on folk belief.
Therefore, this witness testimony was closely related to the
contemporaneous legend tradition and, as such, rumor. Despite the fact that
nearly all of the cases that were brought to trial referred to a specific event,
such as the death of a cow or the illness of a child, the similarity of the
stories that were presented concerning these specific events-- stories that
subsequently formed the core of witchcraft accusations throughout Denmark--
suggest that these accusations were part of a well-developed narrative
Consequently, stories that constituted an accusation of witchcraft were
readily available to any person willing to attach through narration an allegation
of maleficium to a local community figure. Occasionally, these accusations
would be directed at local cunning folk, although not nearly as often as the
Lutheran Church would perhaps have liked.
In post Reformation Denmark, church authorities placed considerable
emphasis on bringing to the general population a clear sense of pure Lutheran
belief. As part of this process, they attempted to eliminate aspects of folk
belief that contradicted church doctrine.
Among the beliefs that they attempted to combat was the wide-spread belief
in the ability of cunning folk to cure disease, find lost things, identify thieves
and witches, and remove curses, all through the use of magic.
The cunning folk were rightfully seen by the church as a threat to their power
base, partly because they cured people using methods that were in direct
competition with the church's established rituals, partly because the church
worried that the cunning folk's rituals could include remnants of Catholic
rituals--and thus undermine the efforts of the church to erase the last
vestiges of Catholic practice from the religious landscape--and partly because
the cunning folk represented a popular spiritual power that was not subject to
the control of church authorities.
Furthermore, in the eyes of the church, the cunning folk undermined the
important awareness of sin among the general population since they essentially
told their customers that their illness or misfortune was a result of trolddom
and not a punishment from God for sin. To combat the perceived threat to the
church posed by the cunning folk, ecclesiastic authorities promoted the view
that the cunning folk were heretics, arguing that their cunning arts were
derived from a relationship with the Devil.
During the seventeenth century, stories of witchcraft-- and the people that
they were about-- eventually came to the attention not only of religious
authorities but also of governmental authorities. Usually this occurred through
an official accusation of witchcraft brought by a community member against
someone who had developed a reputation as a witch.
The repeated telling of stories that labeled someone a witch, with the
concomitant accusations of maleficium would, however, frequently result in
punitive action. As such, the telling of stories was a politically charged
endeavor that could bring with it clear results: if stories of a known
community figure's dealings as a witch gained enough currency in local
tradition, the person would be arrested, brought to trial and quite possibly
executed. Building primarily on questions of personal injury, these disputes
arose exclusively among people who knew each other beforehand.
Community members must have been well aware of the power of storytelling,
and while accounts of witchcraft often were an expression of fear, they were
also likely deployed in a tactical manner out of vindictiveness.
If a personal dispute escalated, the final play could be stories of witchcraft.
Vindictiveness certainly seems to have played a role in seventeenth century
witchcraft accusations, as attested both by records of various defendants'
challenges to the selection of jurors for the initial trial as well as records of
defendants' expressions of concern over the potential bias of selected jurors.
While the law against giving witness "i egen sag" was clearly designed to
minimize the risk that vindictiveness lay at the root of an accusation, a clever
antagonist could have an acquaintance do his or her bidding by acting as an
"impartial" witness, and thereby sidestep this legal technicality.
If the accused were sufficiently disenfranchised or otherwise unable to
counter the negative narrative assault-- which seems to have obtained for
those whose cases actually ended up in court-- chances were that the
accusations would result in legal action. Depending on one's perspective, the
best or worst outcome of this prosecution would have been the execution of
Their nineteenth century counterparts, in contrast, seem to have been less
successful in keeping their names free of the label witch, perhaps because, in
the absence of severe punishment, people were more inclined to make such
accusations. What certainly obtains in both of these historical periods is the
important role that narrative tradition plays in the ascription of this label to
an individual. Already in the seventeenth century, the answer to the question,
"How do you know she's a witch?" is not, "She turned me into a newt," or some
other example of physically verifiable maleficium, but rather, "Because I say
Gardner, G. B. Witchcraft Today. 2004.
Gaskill, M. Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. 2010.Burns, W.E. Witch
Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia.2003.
Gaskill, M. Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. 2010.
Pavlac, B. A. Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment
from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. 2009.
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