Iceland - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Iceland had a comparatively brief witchcraze from 1625 until 1683, to some extent imported from Europe by a ruling class of semi-nobles largely educated in Denmark and Northern Germany.

Iceland was unusual because, unlike almost everywhere else during the witch-hunt era, the accused witches were predominately male. Of approximately 170 people accused of witchcraft, less than 10 percent were female. Twenty-one people are recorded burned as witches; only one was a woman. (Iceland’s population at that time was approximately 50,000.)

There is no evidence that physical torture was used in Iceland. One-quarter of those accused were acquitted. Approximately 15 percent of those accused evaded arrest, and records do not indicate what happened to approximately another 15 percent of those accused. Most of those convicted were punished by severe whipping.

In 1639 using runes was defined as witchcraft and the practice was banned. It was decreed that people found with runes in their possession would be condemned to death by burning. In 1681 Arni Pétursson was burned alive in the presence of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, for using runes to achieve success at backgammon.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was a crucial part of the witch-hunts. Although many now joke about the Inquisition, few truly understand its dynamics. The Inquisition was a formal court of inquiry first officially established by Pope Gregory IX in 1233 to deal with heresy in Toulouse, France. It takes its name from “Inquisitorial Procedure” and was based on old Roman legal procedures. Witch-hunting in turn was largely based on Inquisitorial procedure.

The Inquisition was a Holy Office, an arm of the Church. It was administered by Dominican friars who reported only to the Pope, no matter where they were, regardless of region, territory or country.

The Inquisition was created in response to perceived threats to the Church from Christians who protested or deviated from official Vatican practices. It was the responsibility of the Dominicans to identify and eliminate any trace of heresy before it could take root, spread and infect the faithful.

Pope Lucius III authorized the very first Inquisition in 1185 in response to the growth of independent, unorthodox versions of Christianity in Europe. In 1199, Pope Innocent III proclaimed that all property and assets of convicted heretics should be confiscated; they were often shared with local secular governments to encourage their cooperation. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX centralized and formalized the Inquisition. He placed the Dominicans in charge and decreed that no one might interfere with their work.

The Inquisition was based on an accusatorial procedure; it was dependent on denunciations. In other words, somebody had to initiate the process with an accusation that must then be proved or a confession of guilt obtained.

Confession was required from the accused and torture was used to extract it. Torture was perceived as necessary for completing the Inquisitorial process as it was believed no one would confess completely without it. Even those who voluntarily confessed were likely holding something back that they would not voluntarily reveal without torture.

It was permissible to imprison the accused indefinitely on a diet of bread and water both before and after interrogations, scheduled at the pleasure of Inquisitors. If the person never confessed despite torture (unusual, as torture was unlimited), the accused could be imprisoned for life. There was never a point where the accused was required to be released.

If the accused did confess, that confession had to be reaffirmed three days later. The person had to explicitly attest that they confessed of their free will and not because of torture or fear of torture, whether or not this was true.

If one confessed and denounced others, one could theoretically be “reconciled” with the Church. The person would be spared execution and assigned punishment instead, usually fasting, penance, public humiliation (stocks, pillory), and/or pilgrimage. One might be obligated to wear a special uniform for the rest of one’s life, usually a yellow felt cross sewn onto the back and chest of one’s clothing. In Portugal and Spain, these were customary punishments for confessed witches; very few were executed in Portugal and in Spain proper. (The Spanish Inquisition did, however, kill witches in the Basque regions.)

Unlike the old Accusatorial process that was the legal standard before the Inquisition, Inquisitorial proceedings were typically secret, as were the accusations. Previously, accusations were often public; the accuser had to face the accused.

The Inquisition was responsible for collecting information from the public that could lead to the discovery of crimes or identification of criminals. The Inquisition, at its simplest, was a mechanism for social control. Informers were welcomed and frequently paid or otherwise favored.

Under the Inquisition, the accused was seldom, if ever, allowed an attorney. Women, children, and slaves were permitted to testify for the prosecution but were forbidden to testify for the defense. Ecclesiastical courts were empowered to seize the personal property and assets of anyone found guilty of any charges brought by the Inquisition.

The Inquisition never killed or burned a witch. Following conviction, heretics and/or witches were handed over to the secular authorities for punishment. Any official refusing to administer the Inquisition’s decreed punishment was charged with heresy.

The Inquisition was finally restrained in the nineteenth century. The Inquisition survives today but since December 7, 1965 it has been known as the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”